One day in 1945 an eager volunteer for the Anti-Defamation League brought a beautiful young woman to meet Arnold Forster, the organization’s legendary general counsel.
“She’s going to work with you. She can make speeches.”
“Who is she?” Forster asked.
“Don’t you know? She was just crowned Miss America!”
Bess Myerson said that she started out making personal appearances, leading parades, entertaining at hospitals, and performing in movie theaters. But as the first Jewish Miss America she was denied the lucrative earnings from product endorsements. Her post-victory tour crumbled as corporate sponsors fled, country clubs barred dogs and Jews; and hotels cancelled her appearances. For the first time in her life the Bronx-born beauty experienced blatant prejudice against Jews and witnessed vicious discrimination against blacks.<p>
At an army hospital where she played the flute for injured soldiers, a woman reproached her: “My son is dying because he went to war to save you Jews.”
Ten years later, at a gathering at ADL headquarters, Forster said, Bess is the prototype of the kind of Jew who makes us proud to be Jewish and proud to be American. Miss America, confronting rampant anti-Semitism, experiencing hatred and shock, seeing and hearing things she never knew, she decided to do something about it. She came to the ADL.
And that’s when she decided to join forces with them.
“For two years,” Forster said, “Bess traveled around the country making 20 speeches a week. After she spoke at a high school in New Jersey, a Christian teacher was so impressed that after she died — never married — we received $100,000 from her estate.”
Bess said, “I told them about stopping the hate talk at the dinner table, about civil rights, human rights, equal voting privileges and fair employment practices.”
Her motto was “You can’t be beautiful and hate.”
Bess was generous, too. She gave Forster a check with six figures, saying, “I think I earned the right to give it to you. I think I’ve become the kind of American and the kind of Jew who makes the rest of the Jews proud and I’ve got to pay for that.”
In 1980 Bess failed to get the Democratic nomination for U.S. Senate. Her mother was bewildered. “How come you lost?”
“Mom, I didn’t lose,” Bess assured her. “I just got fewer votes.”
Bess related the story in 1981 at an Israel Bonds women’s luncheon at the Pierre. She shared the stage with Eli Wallach, towering over him at 5 feet 10.
Wallach said when he had to kiss Audrey Hepburn in a movie “she thoughtfully took her shoes off. And here Bess took her shoes off to speak. It enhances my stature.”
In 1991, Bess found herself at a human rights conference, the first of its kind to be held in Moscow. Before she left New York she told me she will also accompany Myrna Sheinbaum of the National Conference of Soviet Jewry to Babi Yar, near Kiev. “We’ll say kaddish for 2,000 Jews,” she said.
After that she intended to visit the nuclear disaster that was Chernobyl. “Then I’ll go to Israel and see how the Chernobyl children are being treated for cancer, blindness and liver diseases at Kfar Chabad. I’m going on my own, paying my own expenses.”
Bess Myerson died on Dec. 14 at home in Santa Monica, California. She was 90 and suffered from dementia.