Esther to Bess: We are Crowned by Fate
To understand the significance of that seemingly singular act, to see how far it extended beyond the life story of a 21-year-old college student from the Bronx, it helps to pull the camera back, way back, to what the world was like on September 8, 1945.
Like that Jewish beauty Queen Esther, Bess was crowned at a dramatic time in Jewish history. It had been only four months since Hitler’s suicide and the German surrender. The American media was filled with the details of Nazi atrocities, notably the systematic murder of Europe’s Jews.
Enter Myerson. Towering above most of her competitors at nearly six feet, she possessed a regal and powerful beauty, with sculpted “Jewish features” that were close enough to American standards to put the judges at ease.
But, like that beauty-pageant-winning Esther before her, it was not her loveliness that Myerson permitted to define her, but something more enduring. “Character is destiny,” she said. “And the one thing that is important to me above all is my character, my reputation.”
It was a strength that would serve her and her people well during her reign as Miss America and in the 67 years since. No one could have been more surprised than Myerson herself that the end of the war had not brought an end to anti-Semitism, even in a country whose sons had died to stop Hitler.
She’d grown up in the Sholem Aleichem Cooperative in the Bronx, home to hundreds of Jewish working-class immigrant families like her own. “I had never encountered anti-Semitism,” she told a reporter years later. “To me, the whole world was Jewish.”
It was only after her older sister Sylvia sent Bess’s photo to the Miss America pageant offices that the Hunter College student’s education began in earnest. When a pageant official advised her to change her name to the less-Jewish-sounding Beth Merrick, Myerson refused. “It was the most important decision I ever made," she said years later. “It told me who I was, that I was first and foremost a Jew.”
Despite the anonymous phone calls the judges received warning them not to vote for the Jewish contestant, Myerson’s dark-haired beauty and musical talent won them over. Those calls were not to be Myerson’s last encounter with anti-Semitism. She is probably the only Miss America to be refused entry to a country club (like so many, this one had a “No-Jews-Allowed” policy). What’s more, directly following the pageant, three of the five corporate sponsors pulled out. Those companies simply didn't want a Jew representing them, she says. “I didn't do what other [Miss Americas] did. I didn't pose with Ford cars or in Catalina bathing suits.”
Instead, she spent her year playing the flute at veterans' hospitals and, in an act that displeased pageant officials, spoke out around the country against anti-Semitism and racism for the Anti-Discrimination League (ADL), an organization which, years later, she would serve as a national commissioner.
It was during the late 1960s that Myerson emerged as champion of another underdog, America’s beleagered consumer.
Appointed commissioner of New York City's Department of Consumer Affairs in 1969, Myerson took the job (which could have been a bureaucratic phone-in) to heart, emerging as one of the American consumer’s fiercest defenders. She pushed the most potent consumer protection legislation in the country through the state legislature, launched a consumer hotline and Consumer Action Team that conducted daily raids on businesses and, in the face of push-back from food manufacturers, insisted on the unit pricing and freshness dating which, four decades later, remain industry standards. While chairing Ed Koch’s 1977 mayoral campaign, she wrote The Complete Consumer as another means of helping Americans protect themselves from being ripped-off.
Now 88, Myerson has always been comfortable with the fact that she will never be the fictional Beth Merrick, but a Jewish kid from the Bronx. In addition to her years fighting anti-Semitism and bigotry for the ADL, the seemingly tireless former beauty queen has raised big money and bigger consciousness for both Israel Bonds and the United Jewish Appeal. She was also a founder of The Museum of Jewish Heritage in New York, home to the Bess Myerson Film and Video Collection.
In addition, as a longtime survivor of the usually fatal ovarian cancer, Myerson has passionately supported cancer research here and in Israel and served as a support-group volunteer. “It's those who choose life who survive,” she once remarked. “That's what the Torah tells us. We Jews are supposed to choose life.”