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July 16: Miss America, 1945

July 15, 2015

Bess Myerson Miss America 1945Bess Myerson, who in 1945 became the first and only Jewish Miss America (which prompted three of the five corporate sponsors of the pageant to withdraw from using her as their representative), was born in the Sholem Aleichem Cooperative Homes in the Bronx on this date in 1924. Myerson, 5′10″ tall, was a musical talent and won the talent portion of the contest playing Gershwin on both flute and piano. (A year or so later, she would play Carnegie Hall as a guest soloist with the New York Philharmonic.) Her victory brought American Jews a comforting affirmation of their “Americanness” immediately following World War II and the Holocaust — but “their pride was soon tempered,” wrote the New York Times upon her death at 90, “by her encounters with anti-Semitism.... Certain country clubs and hotels barred her as she toured the country after the pageant. Appearances were canceled.... Cutting the tour short, she returned to New York, where she agreed to embark on a six-month lecture tour for the Anti-Defamation League of B’nai B’rith, speaking out against prejudice.” Myerson became a television personality as a regular panelist for nine years on I’ve Got a Secret, the long-running game show. In the late 1960s, New York Mayor John Lindsay appointed her to be the city’s first commissioner of consumer affairs, and she “seized on the job... succeeding in gaining passage of some of the nation’s toughest consumer-protection laws.”

“In 1980, asked if she would compete for the Miss America title if she had her life to live over again, she replied: ‘Being the same girl from the Bronx that I was then? Having a great desire to be a concert pianist and not having the money to buy a big black Steinway piano? I sure would.’” —New York Times