Trailblazing Miss America turned New York politician Bess Myerson is at the center of the new solo play Miss America’s Ugly Daughter, written by and starring her daughter, Barra Grant. The play offers a darkly humorous look at this Mommie Dearest tale of growing up in the shadow of a beautiful, famous mother. Performances continue off-Broadway at The Marjorie S. Deane Little Theater through March 1.
Bess was a major cultural figure of the time, though, understandably, many may not know her today. Below, we take a crash course in Bess Myerson, America’s first and only Jewish Miss America.
Bess was born in The Bronx in 1924, the daughter of Jewish immigrants from Russia. She graduated Hunter College with a degree in music in 1945. That same year, her older sister and an amateur photographer friend submitted her photograph to the Miss America pageant without her knowledge. Bess won the title of Miss New York City. Before heading into the big Miss America pageant, Bess was encouraged to change her last name to something less obviously Jewish, but she refused.
Despite Bess entering the national pageant as a favorite to win, judges received anonymous phone calls urging them not to vote for the Jewish contestant. Bess won out though and was crowned Miss America 1945.
Even after winning the title, Bess was barred from speaking engagements and three of the five Miss America sponsors withdrew their support because of her Jewish heritage. The anti-Semitic responses caused her to return home before the official end of her reign.
Next, Bess would team up with the Anti-Defamation League to speak out against the discrimination she faced. She toured her speech “You Can’t Be Beautiful and Hate” around the country.
In the television boom of the late 1950s, Bess started doing TV commercials and soon became a regular fixture on the game shows of the day, such as I’ve Got a Secret. At the time, she also co-hosted on The Today Show and the Miss America TV broadcast.
In 1969, she stepped away from her TV commitments after becoming appointed the first Commissioner of the New York City Department of Consumer Affairs. During her four years as Commissioner, Bess became a pioneer in consumer protection law.
Bess’ political career continued to grow. She served on presidential commissions for three US presidents, advising on violence, mental health, workplace issues, and hunger. She chaired the campaign for Ed Koch as mayor of NYC. She ran for US Senate (and lost). In 1983, Bess was appointed Commissioner of Cultural Affairs in New York, but it all unraveled by 1987 when she was embroiled in political scandal—known then as “Bess Mess”—which forced her to resign from the Koch administration.
So now you know a bit more about Bess Myerson and her contributions to history and politics. Let this newfound knowledge make seeing Miss America’s Ugly Daughter all the richer.