Bess Myerson crowned first Jewish Miss America
September 8, 1945
Just months after the shocking revelations of the Holocaust's devastation of European Jewry, Bess Myerson was crowned the first (and still only) Jewish Miss America on September 8, 1945.
Her victory was seen by many as a symbolic statement of America's post-war rejection of the crimes and prejudices that ravaged Europe as well as a representation of the vitality of the American Jewish community. Raised in a Jewish cooperative in the Bronx, Myerson was unfamiliar with the anti-Semitism that confronted her throughout the pageant. Myerson refused to adopt the suggested less-ethnic pseudonym, Beth Merrick. "It was the most important decision I ever made," she recalled. "It told me who I was, that I was first and foremost a Jew."
Myerson received a scholarship award accompanying her title, but she did not receive automatic acceptance. Three of five sponsoring companies withdrew their support from her post-pageant tour, and there was little demand for Myerson on the speaker circuit frequented by past winners. When an invitation to speak at a country club was revoked because of her religion, Myerson began to distance herself from the usual pageant scene, and instead began lecturing at schools and other venues about discrimination and the consequences of prejudice, under the sponsorship of the Anti-Defamation League (ADL).
This work initiated a long partnership with the ADL as a speaker and later as a national commissioner. Myerson also created a successful television career and became involved in both local and national politics. She was appointed commissioner of New York City's Department of Consumer Affairs in 1969 and used that position to develop what was at that time the most far-reaching consumer protection legislation in the country. This work prompted Myerson to write The Complete Consumer (1979); she also coauthored The I Love New York Diet with Bill Adler in 1982. Myerson served as New York City's commissioner of cultural affairs from 1983 to 1987.
To learn more about Bess Meyerson, visit Jewish Women: A Comprehensive Historical Encyclopedia.