For American Jews of a certain age, the name Bess Myerson is still a source of pride. Myerson was the first – and still the only – Jewish Miss America, winning the famed pageant in 1945, just months after the news of the full tragedy of the Holocaust had been reported and American Jews were still in shock over the horror.
This month marks 75 years since Myerson was crowned and a new documentary, The One and Only Jewish Miss America, by David Arond, has recently been released to celebrate that anniversary.
It had its premiere at the Museum of Jewish Heritage in New York City and featured a panel with the director, Myerson’s daughter Barra Grant, Anti-Defamation League emeritus director and Myerson’s friend Abraham Foxman, and director of the Center for the Study of Hate and Extremism Brian Levin.
The documentary is a celebration of Myerson and all the joy that her win brought to the American Jewish community, as well as a reminder of the antisemitism she fought against. It does not cover her post-Miss America years, when she worked in politics, was instrumental in helping Ed Koch become mayor of New York, and was eventually involved in a scandal dubbed “the Bess Mess” by the New York press, in which she faced federal fraud and conspiracy charges for allegedly bribing a judge who was working on a case against her married boyfriend, sewer contractor Andy Capasso. Although Myerson was acquitted, she spent several years fighting these charges in the ‘80s.
Instead, the documentary spotlights her early life and probes the politics of the pageant and how she overcame antisemitism to win.
It shows how Myerson grew up in the Bronx with parents who immigrated to America from Russia. Her hardworking father was devoted to her, while her mother was distant, demanding and struggled with mental-health issues after the death of Myerson’s brother.
Myerson excelled in school and at music, both of which were accepted routes for bright children to overcome poverty and become solidly middle class in those days. Entering a beauty pageant was not expected for a Jewish young woman, no matter how lovely she looked. Myerson actually did not enter the contest on her own but was entered by an amateur photographer for whom she had modeled. Her sister, Sylvia, was more enthusiastic about Miss America and she offered to be Myerson’s chaperone, which was preferable to having her difficult mother accompany her.
Although she was a contestant with great musical skill, few felt it would be possible for a Jew to win. The documentary details how her supporters among the pageant’s organizers made sure her talent and beauty were fully appreciated and made it virtually impossible for her to lose the pageant, since she kept winning each individual competition.
In an interview, Myerson recalls the pressure she felt as a contestant when Jews, including Holocaust survivors, encouraged her to show the world that Jews can be beautiful and said they were counting on her.
Her win was a moment of triumph for American Jews, but her struggles weren’t over. Several sponsors pulled out rather than allow a Jew to represent them. As Myerson toured the country as Miss America, many hotels refused to allow her to stay because she was Jewish. Upset by the discrimination, she switched gears and began to give talks for the Anti-Defamation League on the subject, “You Can’t Hate and Be Beautiful.”
It’s a story about a bygone era in which beauty pageants were an arena in which talented young women could find opportunity, but it also resonates today, with the resurgence of antisemitism around the world in recent years.
The film is sold on DVD through its website, jewishmissamerica.com and the website will also list any showings of the film.