Bess Myerson won the 1945 Miss America contest because she was the most beautiful, most talented and at 5'10", the tallest entrant. She won the talent competition by playing Grieg on the piano and Gershwin on the flute. She went on to become an adored television personality and then had a successful career in politics. She worked for two New York City mayors, John Lindsey and Ed Koch, and held positions under three presidents, Lyndon Johnson, Gerald Ford and Jimmy Carter. She even ran for the United States Senate, but was defeated in the primary.
However, this beautiful, brilliant and talented woman made terrible decisions in her personal life that eventually drove her from the limelight into scandal and obscurity.
She was born in the Bronx, NY to parents who came to the United States to avoid starving to death in Russia. Her father was a house painter. She started taking piano lessons at age nine and was graduated from New York's High School of Music and Art in 1941 and Hunter College in 1945. She worked in college by giving piano lessons for fifty cents an hour. After she won the Miss America contest in 1945, she used her winnings to pay for graduate studies at Juilliard and Columbia University. She gave recitals, appeared at Carnegie Hall and played with the New York Philharmonic.
Television Personality and Politician
In 1950 at age 26, she became a regular on the television game show "The Big Payoff" and "The Name's the Same". From 1958 to 1967 she was a panelist on the popular show "I've Got a Secret," hosted by Steve Allen. She also substituted for Dave Garroway on the Today Show and hosted the television broadcast of the Miss America pageant for 14 years.
In I969, at age 45, Mayor John Lindsey appointed her to be the first Commissioner of the New York City Department of Consumer Affairs, where she recovered millions of dollars for defrauded consumers. In the 1960s and 70s, she served on several presidential commissions on violence, mental health, and hunger. In 1971 at age 47, she pushed through probably the toughest consumer-protection act in the country: clearer dating labels for perishable foods and unit prices on foods to allow buyers to compare the same foods. In 1978, she was the chairperson of Ed Koch's 1978 campaign to become the mayor of New York City. She took him from being an unknown Greenwich Village congressman to becoming the 12-year mayor of New York City. She accompanied him at many public functions and they were often seen holding hands, serving to dispel rumors of Koch's homosexuality at a time when that would have ended his political career.
Myerson also served on presidential commissions for three U.S. presidents: on crime and violence for Lyndon B. Johnson, workplace issues for Gerald R. Ford, and mental health and world hunger for Jimmy Carter. In 1980 she ran for the Democratic nomination for the U.S. senate, but lost in the primary election.
She married Allan Wayne in 1946 and they had a daughter, Barbara. Wayne suffered nightmares from his war experiences while serving in the U.S. Navy in the Pacific. He was an alcoholic who failed in business and was abusive. She claimed that she had to pay him to gain custody of their child.
In 1962, she married Arnold Grant. The day after their wedding her first husband died, and Grant adopted her daughter, who changed her name to Barra Grant. The marriage was stormy and he claimed that he discovered love letters and diaries detailing her relationships with other men. Myerson denied his allegations, but they divorced, remarried and then divorced again in the 1970s. He suffered from severe depression and died in 1980.
When she ran for the Senate in 1980, she was romantically involved with a financial investor but according to a New York City police report, she was accused of making numerous anonymous telephone calls and sending abusive letters to the man, the woman he married and their friends and relatives.
The "Bess Mess"
In 1983 Myerson made tabloid headlines for months. She had become involved with Andy Capasso, a wealthy, married sewer contractor who had large contracts with the City of New York and rumored mob connections. He was born the same year that Myerson captured the Miss America crown, which made him 21 years her junior. She may have had other lovers who were smarter, better looking and shared more common interests, but none treated her as well. When she suffered a stroke, he visited her in the hospital every day. When Capasso's wife found out about their affair, Capasso threw her over a table and kicked her. Capasso's wife evicted him from their apartment and rejected his offer of a $2 million divorce settlement. The judge then awarded the wife $1,850 a week in child support.
As Director of Cultural Affairs for the City of New York, Myerson hired the daughter of the presiding judge of Capasso's divorce to a $19,000 a year job, On the day that the judge's daughter started to work as Myerson's special assistant, the judge held a court hearing about reducing Capasso's child support payments. She reduced the payments from $1,850 a week to $680 a week. Myerson sent a New York city driver to deliver flowers to the judge. Several newspaper reporters noticed this coincidence so Myerson asked the judge's daughter to quit her job.
When the judge was investigated for bribery, Myerson invoked the Fifth Amendment and refused to testify. She was forced to resign in disgrace from her $83,000-a-year job with New York City. Myerson, Capasso and the judge were all indicted for conspiracy, mail fraud, obstruction of justice, and using interstate facilities to violate state bribery laws. After a trial that lasted four months, the three defendants were acquitted, probably because the judge's daughter who was the star witness appeared to be unreliable.
Capasso was also investigated for how he was awarded a $53.6 million construction contract from New York City. He was convicted of evading $774,600 in taxes and went to prison for two years. On a trip to visit Capasso while he was in prison, Myerson was arrested for shoplifting $44 worth of cosmetics in South Williamsport, Pennsylvania. She had also been arrested for shoplifting in London and Philadelphia.
In the 1970s, Myerson survived ovarian cancer after receiving chemotherapy and radiation treatments. In 1981, at age 57, she suffered a stroke caused by a ruptured brain aneurysm. Her speech was impaired for several months but she recovered with no disability.
After the "Bess Mess", Myerson withdrew completely from the public eye and lived her last decades in seclusion, first in Florida and then in California. In her later years she was reported to be suffering from dementia. She died in Santa Monica, California, at the age of 90 on December 14, 2014. Her death was not publicly announced and was confirmed by the Los Angeles County Coroner's Office in January 2015. No cause of death was given.
Messages from Bess Myerson's Life
Many people who achieve public recognition by working hard all the time have something to prove. They are often driven by insecurity that is not so obvious.
Myerson was beautiful, talented, intelligent, tall, slim and a very desirable woman. However, she came from poverty and probably never forgot to count every penny.
She made horrible personal decisions that harmed her over and over again. She was very successful at everything she did, but her poor choices in personal relationships made her miserable and she suffered from these bad decisions most of her life.
July 16, 1924- December 14, 2014