Myerson, Bess (1924—)

views updated

Myerson, Bess (1924—)

American television personality and political appointee who was Miss America in 1945. Born in New York City in 1924; second of three daughters of Louis Myerson (a house painter) and Bella Myerson; attended P.S. 24, in the Bronx; graduated from the High School of Music and Art; Hunter College, B.A., 1945; married Allan Wayne (a businessman), in October 1946 (divorced 1957); married Arnold Grant (an entertainment lawyer), in 1962 (divorced and remarried, divorced again in 1970); children: (first marriage) one daughter, Barra Grant .

"I'm like a phoenix," Bess Myerson has said. "I rise from the ashes." Indeed, Myerson's life has been a roller-coaster of highs and lows since 1945, when she made history as the first Jewish Miss America, then endured a series of anti-Semitic incidents that tainted her reign. It seems that for each of her successes, including a lucrative television career and several high-ranking political appointments, Myerson has suffered a corresponding setback. While her professional life soared, she endured two painful divorces, was arrested for shoplifting, had ovarian cancer and a stroke, and was involved in a number of ill-fated relationships. In 1983, her love affair with a married sewer contractor 21 years her junior led to her arraignment on charges of bribery, conspiracy and obstruction of justice. A subsequent trial, which ended in her acquittal, laid bare to the public all the foibles of her past life, some of which revealed her to be a troubled and insecure woman. While others might have been destroyed by such an ordeal, Myerson drew strength from her religion, and has since pulled her life together and become active in Jewish causes.

The middle of the three daughters of Russian immigrants, Bess Myerson grew up in the Sholom Aleichem apartments in the Bronx, an enclave of working-class Jews. A talented pianist even as a child, she had dreams of someday becoming a conductor. She graduated from the High School of Music and Art and received a bachelor's degree from Hunter College, earning her tuition by giving piano lessons. Myerson entered the Miss America contest as a lark, thinking that the $5,000 prize would help in the purchase of a new piano and maybe get her started in graduate school. It turned out to be an eyeopening experience for the stately brunette, and her initial brush with anti-Semitism. The first hint of what lay ahead was the suggestion by an official of the New York state pageant that she change her name to Betty Merrick. She refused, claiming that if she won her friends would not know it was her. "It was the most important decision I ever made," she later recalled. "It told me who I was, that I was first and foremost a Jew." As the contest progressed, rumors began circulating among the backers that if she won, it would be the end of the pageant. Several judges also received warnings. After she had captured the title, many of the sponsors in fact did pull out because they did not want a Jew representing their company. Myerson said later that when she chose to use her position to tour the country under the aegis of the Anti-Defamation League, talking to schoolchildren and community groups, pageant officials accused her "of making communist speeches sponsored by Jewish manufacturers." By the time her year as Miss America was over, Myerson was happy to be done with it.

In October 1946, not long after the end of her reign, Myerson married Allan Wayne, a young army captain she had met the previous May. In retrospect, the marriage was hasty, but it filled a void. "It's so strange," she said in Miss America, 1945, a biography by Susan Dworkin , "You struggle for a room of your own, and you finally get it, and then you discover that you don't want to be alone in it. You cannot stop looking for love." The couple moved in with Wayne's parents, and he went to work for his father's toy company. A year later, they had a daughter, Barbara Carol (called Barra), after which Myerson became a stay-at-home housewife and mother. Soon realizing, however, that she needed a fuller life, she began to make occasional television appearances. Her career took off in 1951, when she won a spot as hostess on the game show "The Big Payoff." She was a regular panelist on the popular game show "I've Got a Secret" from 1958 to 1967, and also made guest appearances and commercials. In the meantime, her marriage to Wayne, rumored to be abusive, unraveled, and the couple divorced in 1957. Five years later, she married Arnold Grant, a successful entertainment lawyer

In 1969, Myerson was appointed Commissioner of Consumer Affairs of New York City by Mayor John Lindsay. In this post, she orchestrated

one of the most progressive (and aggressive) consumer protection programs the city had ever known. Appearing on television several times a week, she exposed parking garages that damaged cars, butchers who sold bogus cuts of meat, and computer schools that operated with no computers. She even took on the Better Business Bureau for ignoring complaints from her agency. While New Yorkers embraced her as one of their favorite public officials, some of her staff found her arrogant and overbearing. "She overran her budget, then tried to blame others," said one worker. "But she was a star, so she got away with all of it." In 1971, Myerson's second marriage ended in an ugly two-year court battle fueled by Grant's possession of some of Myerson's love letters to other men and her diaries which supposedly detailed additional marital infidelities.

Soon after resigning as Commissioner of Consumer Affairs in 1973, Myerson was diagnosed with ovarian cancer, which at the time she did not talk about, even to her parents. "Cancer then was like AIDS [in the early years]. Nobody knew anything." she said. After surgery and a long siege of chemotherapy, she went back to work as a business consultant and consumer affairs activist. Two documentary television series she hosted during this period, "A Woman Is" and "In the Public Interest," were nominated for Emmy Awards. In 1977, she took an active role in the mayoral campaign of Edward Koch, and was credited with contributing substantially to his win. When political polls revealed her to be one of the most popular political figures in New York state, she decided to make her own run for the U.S. Senate. In the midst of the exhausting and ultimately futile campaign to win the Democratic nomination, Myerson began her ill-fated affair with Andy Capasso, the self-made millionaire (and friend of reputed mob boss Matty Ianniello) whom she had met through a mutual friend. "Other people she went out with may have been better looking, better educated and so forth," said a friend at the time. "But they have not treated her as kindly as he does." Although Myerson had doubts about Capasso from the beginning, he was a lifeline after her defeat in the primary. "I knew he was doing things I didn't want to know about," she confided to a friend. "But this is love, and what I do for love." Capasso helped Myerson pull her finances together following her defeat at the polls and even stuck by her through the mild stroke she suffered in 1980. (Doctors later attributed the stroke to Myerson's 40-pound weight gain during her Senate campaign.) All the while, Nancy Capasso , Andy's wife, was under the impression that her husband's relationship with Myerson was strictly business.

In 1983, when Myerson was appointed by her political friend Ed Koch as Commissioner of Cultural Affairs, her relationship with Capasso was pretty much general knowledge. Eventually, Nancy Capasso learned of the affair and confronted her husband. Enraged, Andy, who had been drinking heavily, brutally beat his wife, leaving abrasions and bruises which she later had photographed as evidence. In the lengthy and unpleasant divorce proceedings that followed, the 70-year-old presiding judge, Hortense Gabel , awarded Nancy the then not inconsiderable sum of $1,850 a month in child support and temporary maintenance, infuriating both Capasso and Myerson. It is at this juncture that Myerson apparently made a fatal error in judgment, deciding to use her political position to manipulate the judge into lowering the award. Myerson hired the judge's 34-year-old emotionally disturbed daughter Sukhreet Gabel as her personal assistant, putting her on the city payroll. Sukhreet, unaware of the connection between her mother and the Capasso divorce case, went to work for Myerson on August 29, the very day that her mother heard an appeal from Capasso requesting a reduction in the maintenance and child support for his wife. Two weeks later, the payments were reduced by more than half. When a New York newspaper noted the coincidence of the hiring with the outcome of the appeal, Myerson attempted a cover-up, distancing herself from Sukhreet and later asking her to resign. Sukhreet subsequently found another job with the New York City Commission on Human Rights.

Unbelievably, the "Bess Mess," as it came to be known, was kept under wraps for three years, until March 1986, when it was unearthed by then U.S. Attorney Rudolph Guiliani, who had been investigating corruption in the Koch administration. In June 1986, the New York Daily News broke the story of an investigation into Capasso, who had received millions of dollars of construction contracts from the city over a five-year period. The article also outlined the Capasso divorce and Myerson's alleged role in it. A federal grand jury then subpoenaed all records from the Department of Cultural Affairs, and the story slowly began to emerge. When Myerson was called before the grand jury, she refused to testify, citing the Fifth Amendment. In January 1987, however, Capasso pleaded guilty to tax evasion charges and was fined and sent to jail, after which Myerson resigned her position. Her friend and mentor Mayor Koch was dumbfounded. "I'm aghast at what she did," he said. Other friends of Myerson's were equally shocked. "She's always been a straight shooter," said Linda Janklow , a pal from childhood. "God knows how she got mixed up in all of this."

Myerson, Gabel, and Capasso were tried together in a separate trial which began in October 1988 and lasted 11 weeks. The star witness for the prosecution, Sukhreet Gabel, proved shaky and unconvincing, and in the end the three were acquitted. Shana Alexander , who was fascinated by the case and wrote the book When She Was Bad, centering on the intertwining stories of Nancy Capasso, Hortense Gable, Sukhreet Gabel, and Myerson, believes that the case was ill-suited to the courtroom. "The law deals best with facts," she said, "and the Bess Mess was essentially a tangle of emotions."

Since the trial, Myerson has kept a fairly low profile, putting her celebrity to use only to benefit religious causes. "Nothing I've done in the past is as nourishing to me as my Jewishness," she said in 1995. "I never left it, but now I can do it full time. It is as if my life has evolved to where I always wanted it to be."


Alexander, Shana. "Bonus Book: A Queen of Hurts," in People Weekly. March 12, 1990.

Dworkin, Susan. Miss America, 1945: Bess Myerson's Own Story. NY: Newmarket Press, 1987.

Green, Michelle. "On the Cover: Downfall of An American Idol," in People Weekly. June 29, 1987, p. 44.

Soloff, Emily D. "Bess Myerson reflects on fame, Miss America, and Judaism," in Jewish Bulletin of Northern California. October 6, 1995.

Barbara Morgan , Melrose, Massachusetts