July 16, 1924, is the birthdate of Bess Myerson, the beauty queen with brains – the first Jewish Miss America, who went on to a successful career in entertainment and public service, but also had her share of tawdry scandal. She has been the kind of woman the tabloids love to love – and hate.
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Myerson was born in the Bronx, New York, the second of three daughters of Louis and Bella Myerson, both of them Russian-Jewish immigrants who had met in the United States. She grew up in the Sholem Aleichem housing cooperative, whose 250 families were working-class Jews.
Myerson attended New York’s High School of Music and Arts, where she played both flute and piano, followed by Hunter College, from which she graduated in 1945 as a music major.
Legend has it that she entered the competition that led to the Miss America pageant after a friend jokingly suggested that the $5,000 prize awarded to the winner could pay for the Steinway piano she dreamed of owning.
In fact, Myerson used the money she earned from being the first (and to date, only) Jew and the first New Yorker to win the contest, in September 1945, to pay for graduate studies at Juilliard School of Music and Columbia University. Her victory elicited anti-Semitic backlash, including the withdrawal of three of the annual beauty pageant’s five sponsors from the arrangement by which the queen would represent the company during her year-long reign.
I've got a secret
Still, Myerson’s victory became a springboard to years of commercial endorsements, and also to regular appearances in the 1950s and ‘60s on such television game shows as “The Big Payoff” and “I’ve Got a Secret.” She went on to become a consumer advocate, serving New York Mayor John Lindsay in 1969-73 as a successful commissioner of consumer affairs.
When Congressman Ed Koch ran for mayor in 1977, Myerson chaired his campaign and also served as his regular public companion, eliciting frequent speculation that she was providing cover for the unmarried politician, whom many suspected of being gay. (Koch, who died last year, never responded to questions about his sexual orientation, and neither he nor Myerson ever claimed to be romantically involved.) In 1983, Koch appointed her his commissioner of cultural affairs.
Myerson herself had run for office in 1980, competing in a four-way race for the Democratic nomination for U.S. senator. She came in a close second to Rep. Elizabeth Holtzman, who went on to lose the general election to Alphonse D’Amato.
Myerson was married and divorced three times – twice to the same man, attorney Arnold Grant – and she had a daughter with her first husband, Allan Wayne. During the 1980s, she had an ongoing affair with Carl Capasso, a successful New York sewer contractor. In 1987-88, she and Capasso stood trial on charges they had schemed to bribe the New York judge, Hortense Gabel, who had overseen Capasso’s divorce agreement with his wife, into lowering his monthly payments to her. The “bribe” was not monetary, but rather a job in Myerson’s cultural affairs department for Judge Gabel’s emotionally disturbed daughter. At the end of a spectacular trial, all the defendants were acquitted. Also in 1988, Myerson was caught shoplifting in Allentown, Pennsylvania, during a visit to Capasso, who was serving prison time there on a separate tax-fraud conviction.
Following those episodes, Myerson largely withdrew from public life, although she did do fundraising for Israel Bonds over many years. In February 2013, when Ed Koch died, the New York Daily News reported that Myerson, then 88, was living in Santa Monica, California, and suffering from dementia.