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Online panel will discuss "The One and Only Jewish Miss America" on September 8.

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“Beauty with brains, that’s Miss America of 1945!” Bess Myerson was the first Jewish winner | Photo: Retrogasm

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On September 8, 1945, just months after Germany’s surrender and the liberation of Nazi death camps ending the Holocaust, and six days after the surrender of Japan ended World War II, an unexpected winner was crowned Miss America. The daughter of a New York housepainter, Bess Myerson strolled down the runway of the Warner Theatre in Atlantic City, NJ. Adorned with the victor’s crown, she was tall, talented, beautiful – and Jewish.

In spite of threatening calls to pageant judges from antisemites, Bess outscored the other 42 competitors and returned to her family’s tiny apartment in the Shalom Aleichem housing project in the Bronx with a totally different future before her. 

A wonderful documentary, The One and Only Jewish Miss America“, will screen at New York’s Museum of Jewish Heritage on September 8, telling the story of her unique journey with an online panel discussion.

Born in the Bronx on July 16, 1924, the second of three daughters of Louis and Bella Myerson, Bess grew to be a 5’10” beauty, beginning piano lessons at age 9. She majored in music at Hunter College and charged fifty cents a lesson for children, to help pay for her own lessons. According to legend, her sister Sylvia entered her photograph in the Miss New York City contest in 1945, leading her on the path to Atlantic City where for the first time the Miss America pageant was awarding a college scholarship to the winner. 

A concert pianist, Myerson tied for first in the talent contest, playing Gershwin’s “Summertime” on the flute and excerpts from Grieg’s Concerto on the piano. She won first place in the swimsuit competition in an outfit made by her sister, although her daughter Barra Grant once noted “There was nothing about Jewish culture that was supportive of going to Atlantic City to compete in a bathing suit.” She also wowed the judges in personal interviews with her articulate and personable nature. As the only college graduate in the pageant, she represented a new more modern image of American women, announced in victory as “Beauty with brains, that’s Miss America of 1945!” 

“In the Jewish community, she was the most famous pretty girl since Queen Esther,” Susan Dworkin wrote in “Miss America, 1945: Bess Myerson’s Own Story,” a book published in 1987.

But her newfound celebrity forced ugly antisemitism to come out into the open. Rather than receive her with honour, country clubs and hotels barred her during the traditional winner’s tour. She left touring and embarked on a six-month lecture tour for the Anti-Defamation League of B’nai B’rith, speaking out in 15 cities against prejudice with a speech titled “You Can’t Be Beautiful and Hate.” She also raised money for the new State of Israel.

Myerson began studying for a master’s degree in music at Columbia University but dropped out when she began working in television, appearing on a game show called “The Big Payoff,” modeling mink coats and announcing prizes, and became a panelist on “I’ve Got A Secret”. Her second marriage, to a lawyer well-connected to the Democratic Party, opened doors and she launched a political career with her appointment in 1969 as consumer affairs chief under NYC Mayor John Lindsay.  

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She championed consumer-protection laws against deceptive trade practices, and called out restaurants selling hamburgers that were less than 100 percent beef, called them “shamburgers”. She also issued the first city regulation in the US that required retailers to post unit prices to make comparison shopping easier. Under her tenure, millions of dollars were recovered for defrauded consumers. After surviving a brain aneurysm, she was chosen by Mayor Ed Koch in 1983 to be commissioner of the NYC Department of Cultural Affairs.

Myerson was called to serve under three Presidents, from both parties; Lyndon B. Johnson (D) named her to a White House conference on crime and violence, Gerald R. Ford (R) to a board dealing with workplace issues, and Jimmy Carter (D) to commissions on mental health and world hunger. She died on Dec. 14, 2014 at her home in Santa Monica, California at age 90.

A rare video interview of Myerson in her role as a consumer advocate discussing the regulation of saccharine, can be found here:  https://texashistory.unt.edu/ark:/67531/metadc1161259/m1/

An hour long radio interview with Studs Terkel from 1974 can be listened to here: https://studsterkel.wfmt.com/programs/bess-myerson-discusses-her-career

Bess Myerson in a publicity photo combing the hair of her daughter Barra at age 11

The Museum of Jewish Heritage in New York is premiering “The One and Only Jewish Miss America” on September 8, 2020, 75 years after Bess Myerson’s historic win – and 99 years to the day after the pageant was founded as a bathing beauty contest.

Filmmaker David Arond will conduct an online panel discussion with those featured in the film: Her daughter Barra Grant, an accomplished actor and screenwriter, Abraham Foxman, a friend of Bess’s and director emeritus of the Anti-Defamation League, and Brian Levin, director of the Center for the Study of Hate and Extremism and criminal justice professor, California State University, San Bernardino.

“The documentary follows Bess’s life from childhood, when she thought she was ugly and gangly,” says Arond, “through her entry into the Miss New York City pageant, which her older sister arranged without her knowledge.” The story continues after the Miss America pageant, when sponsors withdrew their support of a Jewish winner. She never received the promised $5,000 scholarship (which she hoped to use at the Julliard School for a master’s degree in music) or the promised new car from Ford Motor Co. But her immediate response – to publicly stand up for herself and all victims of discrimination – is an enduring legacy. “Bess Myerson symbolizes the spirit of standing up to prejudice of all kinds,” Arond adds. “Her tour of tolerance led to her work in media, politics and social justice.”

The 51-minute documentary has won more than two dozen best documentary feature awards and will be screened at film festivals around the world. To watch the trailer and learn more, click on www.jewishmissamerica.com. To view the film and register for the online September 8 panel discussion, visit the Museum of Jewish Heritage at www.mjhnyc.org

Documentary Premiere and Online Panel Discussion
September 8, 2020, 7:00 p.m., EDT
Museum of Jewish Heritage, New York City: www.mjhnyc.org
Trailer: www.jewishmissamerica.com


With files from PRNewswire

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Thank you for choosing TheJ.Ca as your source for Canadian Jewish News.

We do news differently!

Our positioning as a Zionist News Media platform sets us apart from the rest. While other Canadian Jewish media are advocating increasingly biased progressive political and social agendas, TheJ.Ca is providing more and more readers with a welcome alternative and an ideological home.

We revealed the incursion of anti-Israel progressive elements such as IfNotNow into our communities. We have exposed the distorted hateful agenda of the “progressive” left political radicals who brought Linda Sarsour to our cities, and we were first to report on many disturbing incidents of Nazi-based hate towards Jews across Canada.

But we can’t do it alone. We need your HELP!

Our ability to thrive and grow in 2020 and beyond depends on the generosity of committed readers and supporters like you.

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