In 1945, six days after Japan surrendered to the Allied forces in World War 2, the 21-year-old Miss New York City (born in the Bronx) Bess Myerson became Miss America. She was the first and only Jewish person to be crowned in the national pageant, and several sponsors removed their support as a result. The organizers, in panic, had pressured her to change her name to something less Jewish-sounding, but she refused.
“You have to understand. I cannot change my name, ” she told the pageant director. “I live in a building with 250 Jewish families. If I should win, I want everybody to know that I’m the daughter of Louie and Bella Myerson.”
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Bess Myerson was born in The Bronx—Louis and Bella Myerson were both Russian-Jewish immigrants. The family lived in the Shalom Aleichem Co-op. Myerson began studying piano when she was nine and later attended New York’s High School of Music and Art. She graduated with honors from Hunter College in 1945 with a degree in music.
After her Miss America victory, Myerson began a career as a game show hostess and panelist, and in the 1960s entered political life. She served as consumer affairs commissioner in the administration of NY Mayor John Lindsay, she successfully pushed consumer protection reforms like unit pricing and open dating of perishable foods.
A decade later, Myerson was a strong supporter for Ed Koch in his 1977 election bid for mayor. In 1980 she lost the Democratic senate nomination to Congresswoman Liz Holtzman, who was later defeated by Republican Alphonse D’Amato. She was appointed Koch’s cultural affairs commissioner, but later had to resign over accusations of bribery and misuse of her office. She was acquitted of all charges in a 1988 trial, but never came back to public life.
Myerson died Dec. 14 at her home in Santa Monica. Her death was not announced publicly.