Myerson, Bess

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MYERSON, BESS (1924– ), Miss America and philanthropist. Born to Louis and Bella Myerson in the Bronx, New York City, Myerson grew up in the Sholom Aleichem Cooperative. She attended the High School of Music and Art and graduated from Hunter College in 1945. In 1945, the 5-foot-10 Myerson won the Miss New York City pageant after her sister Sylvia entered her in the contest, and on a lark she entered the Miss America contest with the hope of winning a $5,000 scholarship to continue with her music studies and buy a piano. A pageant official suggested she change her name to the less Jewish-sounding Beth Merrick, but she refused. After her win, Myerson encountered blatant antisemitism among sponsors and during her tour of the United States over the next year. Inspired by the bigotry she encountered, she spoke out on behalf of the Anti-Defamation League. Myerson went on to study music at Juilliard School and Columbia University, and appeared as a guest soloist for the New York Philharmonic in 1946. In October 1946, she married Allan Wayne. The couple had a daughter together, but divorced in 1957. Myerson became a hostess and game show panelist on a variety of television programs from 1947 to 1968. In 1962, she married Arnold Grant, who adopted her daughter. Mayor John Lindsay appointed Myerson as New York City's commissioner of consumer affairs in 1969. During her four-year term, she helped pass the city's Consumer Protection Act and hosted the consumer affairs television show, What Every Woman Wants to Know. She went on two publish two books, The Complete Consumer Book and the I Love New York Diet. Myerson enjoyed presidential appointments to a variety of commissions in the 1970s, but the decade also brought another divorce and a fight with ovarian cancer. In 1980, she lost a Democratic Senate bid and suffered a stroke. From 1983 to 1987 she served as New York's commissioner of cultural affairs, but her reputation was tarnished by bribery and conspiracy charges. Myerson was acquitted, but not before pleading guilty to separate shoplifting charges in South Williamsport, Pa. In 1987, she released her autobiography, Miss America, 1945: Bess Myerson's Own Story. A founder of the Museum of Jewish Heritage in New York, she continued to champion social causes and Israel.

[Adam Wills (2nd ed.)]