The generation that took Bess Myerson’s Miss America coronation as their own, now wonders, when was it, exactly, that 1945 turned out to be more than 50 years ago? How old, then, are those who remember? Someone will say, “Bess Myerson. How do I know you? We met someplace. I know you from someplace. She’d say, “Well, I was on television … ”“Yes!
If beauty is God’s way of bragging, the passage of time is the devil’s reply. On the eve of her 74th birthday, there is still much light to the day but shadows are longer; beneath a still beautiful face and slender form are memories of childhood polio, ovarian cancer, a stroke.
And her beauty, exceeding her judgment, attracted too many men, including two husbands who “married me for what I had done, what I’d been, then tried to undermine it.
Now, thanks to one boyfriend, “not only do I have celebrity, but I have notoriety, which is sometimes more seductive.
It wasn’t seductive at the time, 10 years ago, during an 11-week bribery and obstruction of justice trial, with our Miss America in the cross-hairs of prosecutor Rudolph Giuliani. Essentially, Bess had hired the daughter of a judge to work in her government office, the daughter of the same judge that was officiating in a divorce case in which Bess was “the other woman.”
The “Bess Mess” headlines loiter in memory longer than the memory of her acquittal. She was facing 32 years. Now she’ll spend her free years away from politics, away from showbiz, just working for Jewish causes and noble charities. This past Tuesday, she presented the Anti-Defamation League’s Bess Myerson Campus Journalism Awards, a project she endowed with $100,000 to give financial awards to student writers and campus publications demonstrating excellence in writing on intergroup relations. She sent $100,000 to the Jewish Guild for the Blind; $100,000 to fight breast and ovarian cancer; $200,000 to Hebrew University; $1.1 million to the Museum of Jewish Heritage, the new Holocaust museum in Lower Manhattan.
Returning from the museum, one late afternoon, she takes off her shoes and settles into a sofa, petting her white Maltese dog with the Yiddish name Zeesa, and tells the stories worth retelling.
She was once a poor girl from the Bronx, a counselor at summer camp, back in 1945, when she heard that for the first time, the Miss America pageant was presenting a $5,000 scholarship to its winner. She had to borrow a bathing suit for the swimsuit competition. She was nervous, the other girls were so blond, so curvy. She won the talent competition by playing Gershwin on the flute and then Grieg on the piano.
After the final rehearsal, pageant officials — including Jack Kelly, Grace Kelly’s father — called Bess over and told her she’d do well by changing her name. They told her about all the Jews in Hollywood who changed their name. She told them off gently.
In the lobby there was another confrontation: A Holocaust survivor, with the startling blue tattoo, pleading that after the Nazi caricatures of Jews as beady-eyed rodents, “You have to show we are beautiful. If America picks a Jewish girl, I’ll know I’ve come to a safe country.
Bess won, and for the next 40 years kept on winning, on quiz shows and news shows, serving on four presidential commissions, and 10 years as a city commissioner, serving the national Democrats, serving 28 boards of Jewish and civic organizations; then, on trial, discovered “I never did anything my whole life except what was said in that courtroom.
Old friends, like Mayor Ed Koch whose first campaign she saved by holding his hand to offset smears about his sexuality, testified against her.
I was so shattered … shocked at this trial. It pushed me to the edge in certain ways. I thought, what is this? There must have been something I did that was good.
She went to see the Lubavitcher rebbe, Menachem Mendel Schneerson.The rebbe called her “Malka,” a Hebrew name meaning queen, perhaps to infuse her with a spiritual regality to supersede the pageant’s majesty, perhaps to bestow a new name to change her mazel.He blessed her and suggested she might be comforted by lighting the Friday night candles. The rebbe sent her to a woman who gave her candlesticks and a tutorial.
It made a difference,” says Bess. “After lighting candles, you don’t work, you don’t read the papers, you don’t watch television, you don’t get on the phone with lawyers. Now I light candles, as does my daughter and granddaughter.After the trial, “The rebbe told me, ‘Malka, that’s good. Now you will go back to what you were doing. You will help your people, and work for your people, you will have nachas from your people.’ “A Chabad calendar hangs in her kitchen. Around the apartment, alongside snapshots of Frank Sinatra, Salvador Dali and the panel of “I’ve Got A Secret,” are photos of David Ben-Gurion and her father’s old music box that plays Hatikvah.When complimented on her stylish furnishings, she says, “This is nice?” She looks around and agrees: “It is nice. I’ll show you something.” She proudly points to one wall with pictures of Israel by Gail Rubin, the photographer who was killed by terrorists near the Tel Aviv shore. Bess leaves her apartment for another duplex that she owns in the same building, and shows antiquities from Israel and mosaics from ancient synagogue floors. A brown baby grand glows in the sunlight. Her fingers dance over the keys, her bare feet keeping rhythm.
In her heady political days, Bess joked that she was “Queen of the Jews.” The jokes come slower now, but in her own way she’s a Malka, not naive but innocent, in love with her people and loved in return.