Bess Myerson, Only Jewish Miss America and a Prominent Political Figure, Dies at 90

Myerson won the pageant in 1945 - and became a target of anti-Semitism. She fought prejudice, built a career in television, and became an adviser to two New York mayors and three presidents.

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Miss America, Bess Myerson, poses at the annual Beauty Pageant held at Atlantic City, N.J. Myerson, the first Jewish Miss America who parlayed her stunning 1945 victory into national celebrity.Credit: AP

Bess Myerson, the first  and only Jewish Miss America and a prominent political figure died December 14 at age 90 in California.

Myerson, who fought off anti-Semitism after making history in winning the pageant title in 1945, later became a a prominent New York City and national political appointee and ultimately a tragic figure who was caught up in political and personal scandals, 

The Jewish community considered her success - just a few days after Japan surrendered and World War II ended – an affirmation that it had been accepted in America, the New York Times wrote in its obituary.

During the pageant, Myerson refused to participate under a pseudonym that sounded less Jewish, her Wikipedia entry says, citing the Jewish Women's Archive.

But anti-Semitism prevailed, the Times reported, as companies declined to have a Jew endorse their products, country clubs and hotels refused to admit her and appearances were canceled.

The Times reports that she then went on a six-month tour for the Anti-Defamation League, speaking out against prejudice.

Bess Myerson was born July 16, 1924, the second of three daughters of Louis and Bella Myerson. Her father was a painter and carpenter.

She majored in music at Hunter College and played piano at Carnegie Hall as a guest soloist with the New York Philharmonic. The Times reports that she started a master's program in music at Columbia University but dropped out to go into television.

Myerson appeared for eight years on a game show called "The Big Payoff" and nine years on "I've Got a Secret."

She went into politics, heading New York City's consumer-affairs and cultural-affairs departments. She was a consultant to the consumer-products giant Bristol-Myers and to Citibank, the Times reported.

Myerson served as an adviser to three U.S. presidents: Lyndon Johnson, Gerald Ford and Jimmy Carter. She lost in a primary when she tried to run as a Democrat for U.S. Senate from New York.

She was married three times, twice to the same man. The marriages were stormy - her first husband beat her, the Times reports – and ended in divorce.

Her crash as a public figure began during that 1980 Senate campaign, when she became romantically involved with a married contractor who raised funds for her campaign. That relationship led to allegations involving bribery of a judge who was overseeing the contractor's divorce proceedings.

Myerson was charged by the office of then U.S. Attorney Rudolph Giuliani with a number of crimes.

Ultimately, she was acquitted by a jury of all charges, but she then retired from public life and devoted herself to charitable efforts, including funding for the Museum of Jewish Heritage in Lower Manhattan.