Bess Myerson, the first and thus far only Jewish winner of the Miss America Pageant, died at age 90 on Dec. 14 at her home in Santa Monica, C.A. According to the New York Times, her death, which was not publicly announced, was confirmed on Monday by public records.
Myerson was born in the Bronx on July 16, 1924 to Bella and Louis Myerson; her father was a house painter and a carpenter. She grew up in the Sholem Aleichem Cooperative Houses, where she began piano lessons at age 9, the talent that would eventually earn her the crown.
She accepted her coronation as Miss America in September of 1945, just days after Japan’s surrender ended World War II. In the immediate wake of the Holocaust, her win gave American Jews hope of finding acceptance in the United States.
“In the Jewish community, she was the most famous pretty girl since Queen Esther,” Susan Dworkin wrote in “Miss America, 1945: Bess Myerson’s Own Story,” published in 1987.
Despite high hopes, Myerson was met with anti Semitism shortly after her victory. Sponsors did not want a Jewish Miss America to endorse their product, and several clubs and hotels cancelled her appearance on the tour following the competition. The tour was cut short; she returned to New York to begin a six-month tour for the Anti-Defamation League of B’nai B’rith. In a speech titled “You Can’t Be Beautiful and Hate,” she lectured audiences on fighting prejudice.
She played many political roles over the course of her career, including campaigning for Edward I. Koch, former mayor of New York City, in 1977 and running for senate in 1980. She served in the White House under Lyndon B. Johnson, Gerald R. Ford and Jimmy Carter.
Towards the end of her life, she stepped out of the limelight to focus on charity work. She pledged $1.1 million to the building of the Museum of Jewish Heritage: A Living Memorial to the Holocaust, in Battery Park City.