ANGELES — Bess Myerson, the former beauty queen, television personality and New York politician who spent four decades in the public eye before her glamorous image was tainted by scandal, has died. She was 90.
The first Jewish Miss America, Myerson died Dec. 14 at her home in Santa Monica. The Los Angeles County coroner’s office confirmed her death, which was not publicly announced.
Myerson was an aspiring pianist in 1945 when she became a symbol of ethnic pride for Jews emerging from the brutal realities of World War II. She went on to a career as a game show hostess and panelist before entering political life in the 1960s.
As consumer affairs commissioner in the administration of New York Mayor John V. Lindsay, she successfully crusaded for such reforms as unit pricing and open dating of perishable foods, early victories in the consumer protection movement of the 1970s.
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Alternately regal and folksy, she became one of the most powerful women in New York politics, credited as a driving force behind the electoral success of Mayor Edward I. Koch in 1977.
Later, she was forced to resign as Koch’s cultural affairs commissioner when she was accused of bribery and conspiracy to influence the divorce case of a multimillionaire sewer contractor who was her boyfriend. She was acquitted of all charges after a four-month trial in 1988, but she never returned to public life.
Myerson “aspired to be more than just a beauty queen, and she succeeded like no other before or since,” New York journalist Jennifer Preston wrote in “Queen Bess,” a 1990 biography.
A complex woman, she rebuffed efforts to peg her as an early feminist.
“When someone says to me, ‘You’re a forerunner of the women’s movement,’ I say that is bull —,” Myerson said in 1982. “I worked my butt off. I had to survive.”
Born in New York on July 16, 1924, she was one of three children of Louis and Bella Myerson, both Russian Jewish immigrants.
Her mother pushed her to study music, believing that Myerson would be able to support herself later by giving lessons. She attended New York’s High School of Music and Art and majored in music at Hunter College.
She would spend much of her life trying to win her mother’s approval, often telling people later that Bella Myerson rarely found anything nice to say about her, even when she made her Carnegie Hall debut at 22.
She was also sensitive about her height: Myerson was 5 feet 10 by the time she was 12. One of her unhappiest childhood memories was being forced to play the role of Olive Oyl, the gangly character from the Popeye cartoon, in a school play.
In 1945 her sister Sylvia conspired with a photographer friend to enter Myerson in the Miss New York City competition. The winner would go on to compete in the Miss America pageant, which for the first time was offering a $5,000 scholarship to the winner. Myerson competed in a borrowed swimsuit and played a three-minute arrangement of Grieg on the piano and Gershwin on the flute. Although she felt like “the wrong person in the wrong place,” she won.
Before she headed off to Atlantic City, the director of the Miss America pageant advised Myerson to change her name to make it more “attractive” for a career in show business. She meant a less Jewish-sounding name, but Myerson refused.
She would later recount being stopped by an elderly Jewish woman in Atlantic City who asked Myerson if she was Jewish. When she said yes, the woman hugged her and told her to win “for all of us.” Myerson realized then that she was “not merely a girl seeking a scholarship but a symbol of Jewish yearnings for good news.”
In the pageant program for 1945 all the contestants were wearing bathing suits except for Myerson, who wore her collegiate cap and gown. A headline from the time called her “A Very Serious Type.”
On Sept. 8, 1945, she became the first Miss America of the postwar era. But what she hoped would be a glorious year instead was disillusioning.
She performed on the vaudeville circuit for several weeks, but stopped when she realized that audiences wanted to see her in a bathing suit more than hear her play the piano. While touring the country, she encountered “No Jews” signs outside hotels in Florida and walked out of a country club in the Northeast after overhearing her host say that Jews, even one who wore a crown, could not be admitted. “I felt so rejected,” she later recalled. “Here I was, chosen to represent American womanhood, and then America treated me like this. It was shattering.”
As the winter of 1945 approached, she was running out of things to do. So when the Anti-Defamation League approached her about going on the lecture circuit, she leaped at the opportunity. “You Can’t Be Beautiful and Hate” was the title of her speech.
The tolerance campaign turned out to be the high point of her year as Miss America. It also led to a new career.
A television producer offered her a job on a game show called “The Big Payoff.” From 1951 to 1959 she was “the Lady in Mink” — the Vanna White of her era — who introduced the guests and announced the prizes.
She also subbed for Dave Garroway as host of NBC’s “Today” show, announced the commercials on the “Jackie Gleason Show” and was a panelist for nine years on “I’ve Got a Secret.” She emceed the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade and the Rose Parade for many years.
She married Allan Wayne, manager of a family toy business, in 1946. Their daughter, Barbara (who would later change her name to Barra), was born in 1947. Myerson and Wayne divorced about 10 years later.
In 1962 Myerson married entertainment lawyer Arnold Grant. They married and divorced twice, splitting for the final time in 1970.
Myerson hosted the Miss America pageant for 14 years, until 1968, when she was replaced by a younger woman.
She was feeling depressed about her removal from the show when Lindsay’s office called about a job in his administration. A few weeks later he named Myerson his new commissioner of consumer affairs.
“Ms. Myerson brought visibility to the job,” said Philip Schrag, a professor of law at Georgetown University who was the city’s consumer advocator and litigator at the time. “She was an extraordinarily effective public servant … and a brilliant and astute executive.”
Telling the press that her main qualification was watching her mother bargain with shopkeepers, she plunged enthusiastically into the work, hiring an energetic legal staff and using the media to help her educate consumers. She showed up at diners with camera crews in tow to investigate whether they were using 100 percent beef or selling “shamburgers.” She criticized “fresh” labels on frozen fish, unlicensed auto repair shops and baby rattles filled with shrapnel.
Her biggest victory was the Consumer Protection Act of 1969, passed by the City Council during her first year in office. It outlawed deceptive practices and gave the city the power to penalize dishonest merchants and seek mass restitution. It was considered the toughest consumer law in the country.
She also advocated “unit pricing,” which allowed consumers to comparison shop according to the price of an item per ounce, pound or foot. New York’s unit pricing law inspired similar measures in cities around the country.
Exhausted from long workdays, she resigned in 1973. Political power-brokers such as then-Gov. Nelson Rockefeller urged Myerson to run for mayor, but she decided to focus on her financial security and accepted a lucrative job as a consumer consultant to Citibank. She later assumed a similar post at Bristol Myers.
In 1974 she was diagnosed with ovarian cancer. She recovered but kept her illness secret while gradually re-entering the political circuit.
In 1977 she campaigned for Koch, then a little-known member of Congress. By constantly appearing at his side during campaign events she helped counter rumors that Koch was gay. They were such a hit together that reporters speculated in print about their wedding date.
After Koch’s mayoral win, Myerson began to explore a race for the Democratic nomination for the U.S. Senate in 1980. Downplaying the role that first brought her the national spotlight — her official campaign biography made only a brief mention of her having previously won a “national talent contest” — Myerson tried to portray herself as a woman of the people, invoking her working-class roots, but the strategy failed.
Myerson was defeated by Brooklyn Rep. Elizabeth Holtzman, who ultimately lost the general election to Republican Alfonse D’Amato.
In 1981 she suffered a mild stroke but recovered fully. The next year, she published the “I Love New York Diet,” which became a best-seller.
In 1983 she asked Koch to name her cultural affairs commissioner, a position that oversaw funding for the city’s famous museums and other cultural institutions. Promising to raise more money for the arts from business, she doubled the budget for cultural affairs to $123 million over the four years of her tenure.
Soon after rejoining municipal government, gossip columnists began linking her with sewer contractor Andy Capasso. Married with children, he was two decades her junior, born the year Myerson was crowned Miss America. They took vacations together and she was driven to appointments in Capasso’s company limousine.
Capasso was in divorce proceedings when Myerson hired as her assistant Sukhreet Gabel, the daughter of state Supreme Court Judge Hortense Gabel, who was handling the Capasso divorce case. Within a month of her daughter’s hiring, Judge Gabel slashed Capasso’s alimony payments, from $1,850 to $680 a week.
The U.S. attorney in New York at the time was Rudolph Giuliani, who was leading prosecutors in a series of government corruption cases. During an investigation of possible tax evasion by Capasso, the government subpoenaed Myerson to appear before a grand jury. She declined to testify, citing her Fifth Amendment right against incriminating herself.
When Koch, who had vowed cooperation with the corruption investigations, heard of his appointee’s refusal to testify, he ordered a private investigation. Myerson went on a 90-day unpaid leave and resigned soon after.
In 1987 she was indicted on charges that she conspired with Capasso and Judge Gabel to cut support payments to Capasso’s estranged wife. Myerson also was accused of obstruction of justice for allegedly trying to influence Sukhreet Gabel’s testimony.
She told New York magazine writer Patricia Morrisroe that hiring Gabel had been “an unfortunate decision.” But she also said she was convinced that she was being persecuted because “I’m a woman. I’m a Miss America. … I’m Queen of the Jews. … I’m the perfect route to the downfall of this (Koch) administration.”
The jury deliberated for four days before acquitting her.
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Myerson’s troubles did not end there. In 1988, she was arrested on shoplifting charges for taking $44 of cosmetics and other merchandise from a store in Williamsport, Pa. Wealthy from her years working for large corporations, she was worth an estimated $16 million at the time of her arrest. She pleaded guilty and paid $148 in fines and court costs.
In later years she occasionally gave lectures and pursued charity work, mainly to support Jewish causes and to raise support for women with cancer, but otherwise avoided the limelight.
“Everybody asks me, ‘So what are you doing now?’ ” she said some years ago in an interview for Ladies Home Journal. “Why must I be doing something? All my life I’ve been doing. For now, I’m busy being — being quiet, being grateful. Finally, finally, it’s time for me. Not the public Bess Myerson. The private me.”
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Myerson’s survivors include her daughter, Barra Gran
Bess Myerson, who basked in the public eye for decades — as the first (and, so far, only) Jewish Miss America in 1945, as a television personality, as a force in public affairs and finally, under a harsher light, as a player in a shattering municipal scandal — died on Dec. 14 at her home in Santa Monica, California, her death occurring in the relative obscurity in which she had lived her last years. She was 90 .
Her death, which had not been publicly announced, was confirmed Monday by public records.
Myerson was one of a select group of American figures to parlay pop culture celebrity into positions of influence in the public square. She led two New York City agencies, Consumer and Cultural Affairs; advised three presidents; championed social causes; and supported powerful political careers. She also sought one for herself, entering a much-watched primary race for the U.S. Senate. For a long time she seemed rarely out of the news.
The headlines began the night she walked down the runway at the Warner Theater in Atlantic City, a musically talented daughter of a house painter from the Bronx wearing the most coveted crown in the land — an honor she would come to rue as narrowly defining her.
Her coronation, on Sept. 8, 1945, just days after Japan’s surrender had ended World War II, came at a time when a beauty queen could still capture the nation’s attention and even emerge a heroine — because she was Jewish.
To many Jews, blamed for the war in some quarters, newly traumatized by images of the liberated Nazi death camps and often confronted by anti-Semitism in the society at large, the title seemed an affirmation of some sort of acceptance in America.
“In the Jewish community, she was the most famous pretty girl since Queen Esther,” Susan Dworkin wrote in “Miss America, 1945: Bess Myerson’s Own Story,” published in 1987.
Producers in television’s early days saw her as an obvious choice for a TV career, and they presented her at first as a pitchwoman, a kind of glorified model — statuesque at 5 feet 10 inches with luxurious brown hair — hawking the sponsor’s products. But her intelligence, self-discipline and wit soon landed her a regular spot on the long-running hit game show “I’ve Got a Secret.”
Years later, her citywide popularity (she had competed in the Miss America pageant as Miss New York City) was one reason Mayor John V. Lindsay named her as the city’s first commissioner of consumer affairs. She seized on the job, succeeding in gaining passage of some of the nation’s toughest consumer-protection laws.
In 1977, she campaigned for Rep. Edward I. Koch in his successful race for mayor, her picture often appearing on his posters. Walking hand in hand with him, she did nothing to dismiss speculation that marriage might be in their future while helping to dispel insinuations that Koch, a bachelor, was gay.
“Koch wouldn’t have won without Bess,” the media consultant David Garth, who worked for both of them at different times, told New York magazine. (Garth died the day after Myerson.)
Her accomplishments camouflaged a tumultuous private life. There were two stormy marriages that ended in divorce, a number of romantic liaisons that ended badly, reports of erratic behavior, and arrests for shoplifting.
It all ended in a public implosion, a conflict-of-interest scandal involving a married sewage contractor who did business with the city and his bitter public divorce. It led to bribery allegations, indictments and sullied reputations all around, and it left Myerson less likely to be admired than to be pitied.
Only Jewish Contestant
Bess Myerson was born in the Bronx on July 16, 1924, the second of three daughters of Louis and Bella Myerson. Besides painting houses, her father was a handyman and carpenter. Myerson would later describe herself as a substitute for a brother, Joseph, who had died of diphtheria at age 3, leaving her mother embittered.
Bess grew up in the Sholem Aleichem Cooperative Houses in the northwest Bronx, surrounded by artists, poets and novelists. She began piano lessons at age 9 and was accepted as a music major in the second class of the High School of Music and Art, in 1937.
She went on to major in music at Hunter College and graduated with honors in 1945, dreaming of earning a graduate degree in music at Juilliard or Columbia and of buying a Steinway piano, while despairing of money to pay for any of it. She gave piano lessons at 50 cents an hour just to cover the cost of her own lessons.
By Myerson’s account it was her sister Sylvia who, without her knowledge, entered her photograph in the 1945 Miss New York City contest. In any event Myerson won it, and it was on to Atlantic City, where for the first time the Miss America pageant was offering the winner a college scholarship — a lure for Myerson.
Myerson, the only Jewish contestant, represented more than New York City, her daughter, Barbara Carol Grant Reilly, said.
“The Jews said, ‘She’s got to win in order to show that we’re not just nameless victims,’” Reilly told New York magazine in 1987. “It became more than a beauty contest. The Jews in New Jersey called one another, and they all came to Atlantic City that night.” Reilly co-wrote a television film about her mother’s reign as Miss America.
Myerson won the bathing suit preliminary contest wearing a white number stretched by her sister to fit her frame. She also won the talent event, playing Gershwin’s “Summertime” on the flute and excerpts from Grieg’s Concerto on the piano.
As the crown was set on her head, the announcer shouted, “Beauty with brains, that’s Miss America of 1945!”
Reilly said: “When my mother walked down the runway, the Jews in the audience broke into a cheer. My mother looked out at them and saw them hug each other, and said to herself, ‘This victory is theirs.’”
But their pride was soon tempered by her encounters with anti-Semitism. Few sponsors, it turned out, wanted a Jewish Miss America to endorse their products. Certain country clubs and hotels barred her as she toured the country after the pageant. Appearances were canceled.
“I felt so rejected,” Myerson once said. “Here I was, chosen to represent American womanhood, and then America treated me like this.”
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 with a speech titled “You Can’t Be Beautiful and Hate.”
From TV to Government
Her celebrity got her to Carnegie Hall, where she played Rachmaninoff’s Second Piano Concerto as a guest soloist with the New York Philharmonic. She also tried vaudeville in its waning days, gamely playing “Malaguena” and the “Ritual Fire Dance” for audiences who wanted only to see her in a bathing suit.
In 1946, she married Allan Wayne, a Navy captain whose family was in the toy business. Barbara, her only child, was born the next year. Myerson began studying for a master’s degree in music at Columbia University but dropped out when she began working in television.
For eight years, she appeared on a game show called “The Big Payoff,” modeling mink coats and announcing prizes. Meanwhile her marriage deteriorated.
Her husband was plagued by nightmares, fueled by his combat experiences in the Pacific. He became an alcoholic, his business failed and he began beating her. The couple separated in 1956, reconciled for a time, then parted. Myerson said she was forced to surrender a good part of her savings in return for a divorce and custody of her child.
She soon began her nine-year run on “I’ve Got a Secret.” At the same time, she was raising money for Jewish charities. It was at a dinner for the Anti-Defamation League that she met Arnold M. Grant, an entertainment lawyer with connections to the Democratic Party. He was known for hosting dazzling parties for celebrity friends in his nine-room triplex on Sutton Place. They married in 1962. The next day, Wayne, her first husband, died, and Grant adopted her daughter.
Theirs, too, was a tempestuous marriage: They separated, then reconciled; parted again when Grant got a Mexican divorce, then remarried in 1968 — only to divorce again, with finality, in 1971. Grant had a mental breakdown and died in 1980.
Myerson’s tenure as consumer affairs chief under Lindsay lasted five years, beginning in 1969. Some Lindsay critics initially called her appointment “window dressing.” But she became highly visible in the job, issuing the first city regulation in the nation requiring retailers to post unit prices on a wide variety of products to make comparison shopping easier.
She pushed through consumer-protection laws against deceptive trade practices, chastised restaurants selling hamburgers that were less than 100 percent beef — she called them “shamburgers”— and criticized manufacturers for putting too many peanuts in jars labeled “mixed nuts.”
She recovered millions of dollars for defrauded consumers, published a book about consumer fraud and wrote a column for Redbook magazine. She also, for the first time, considered a run for the Senate, until learning she had ovarian cancer. A year and a half of chemotherapy and radiation treatments ensued.
‘Too Glamorous’ for Senate
Myerson served three presidents. Lyndon B. Johnson named her to a White House conference on crime and violence, Gerald R. Ford to a board dealing with workplace issues, and Jimmy Carter to commissions on mental health and world hunger.
She was also a consumer consultant to Bristol-Myers and Citibank and made frequent appearances on radio and television, hosting Miss America contests and the Tournament of Roses and the Thanksgiving Day parades. In the early 1970s she hosted a nationally syndicated weekday television news and information program called “What Every Woman Wants to Know.”
After Koch became mayor, Myerson was a frequent guest at Gracie Mansion and campaigned for Daniel Patrick Moynihan for the Senate and Hugh L. Carey for governor of New York, both Democrats and both of whom won. In 1980, she entered the Democratic Senate primary in a field that included Lindsay and Rep. Elizabeth Holtzman.
Although Myerson wore dark business suits and little makeup to play down her Miss America image, “voters saw her as being too glamorous,” said Garth, who ran her campaign. In one debate she was asked whether, as a former Miss America, she expected voters to take her candidacy seriously.
“I have 35 years of public service,” she replied.
She lost to Holtzman, who was then defeated in the general election by Alfonse M. D’Amato, a Long Island official who had upset the incumbent senator, Jacob K. Javits, in the Republican primary.
The next year, Myerson was in the hospital with a brain aneurysm.
Fully recovered by 1983, she was chosen by Koch to be commissioner of the Department of Cultural Affairs.
The ‘Bess Mess’
Myerson’s downfall was set in motion during her 1980 campaign, when she met Carl A. Capasso, who was known as Andy, a wealthy, married sewer contractor 21 years her junior. He had volunteered to help her raise funds and clear her debts. By the time she was named cultural commissioner, they were having an affair.
That spring, Capasso’s wife, Nancy, took him to Family Court and made public the affair, saying he had beaten her when she confronted him about it. The news coverage of their divorce proceedings blemished Myerson’s reputation.
The “Bess Mess,” as the tabloids called it, grew messier when it was found that the presiding justice in the divorce trial, Hortense W. Gabel of state Supreme Court, and her daughter, Sukhreet Gabel, had begun seeing Myerson socially. Sukhreet Gabel had had difficulty finding work despite her many academic credentials and had undergone shock therapy for clinical depression.
Hortense Gabel soon ruled in favor of Carl Capasso in reducing Nancy Capasso’s weekly support payments — from $1,500 to $500, according to trial testimony — and Sukhreet Gabel was made an assistant to Myerson in the Department of Cultural Affairs. Prosecutors began looking into whether the judge had been bribed.
In a separate matter, in 1987, Carl Capasso pleaded guilty to federal income tax evasion and went to prison for two years. Meanwhile, Rudolph W. Giuliani, the U.S. attorney in Manhattan at the time, was investigating a $53.6 million sewage contract that Capasso had obtained in 1983, not long after Myerson became cultural affairs commissioner. His companies received $150 million in city contracts from 1978 to 1987.
Myerson was called before a grand jury and, without advising city officials in advance, invoked the Fifth Amendment. Koch ordered an investigation, which assailed her for “serious misconduct.” She was forced to resign in April 1987.
Giuliani’s office soon indicted Myerson, Hortense Gabel (who had been forced off the bench) and Capasso in connection with the divorce case. Myerson was accused of conspiracy, mail fraud, obstruction of justice and using interstate facilities to violate state bribery laws.
The central issue was whether Gabel had received a bribe from Myerson in the form of a job for the judge’s daughter. The hiring, the prosecutors said, was an inducement to lower Capasso’s weekly support payments. The chief witness against the defendants, including her mother, was Sukhreet Gabel, who detailed how Myerson had hired her after they met at Hortense Gabel’s home.
The trial, in 1988, was a font of vivid stories of family strife and political intrigue. But when it was over, the jury acquitted all three defendants of all charges. The jurors said they had difficulty believing Sukhreet Gabel.
Hortense Gabel died in 1990. Capasso was returned to prison and released in 1989, his relationship with Myerson having ended. He died of pancreatic cancer in 2001 at 55.
The Capasso revelations opened the door to further scrutiny of Myerson’s personal life. It was revealed that while she was running for the Senate, she was romantically involved with a financial investor. A New York City police report said she had displayed obsessive behavior, making numerous anonymous telephone calls and sending abusive letters to the man, the woman he married and their friends and relatives. There were shoplifting charges in Pennsylvania and London.
To Be Taken Seriously
After her acquittal in the bribery case she retired to a quiet private life, remaining mostly out of public view and devoting herself to charities. In one instance she pledged $1.1 million to the building of the Museum of Jewish Heritage: A Living Memorial to the Holocaust, in Battery Park City.
Information about her survivors was not immediately available.
Myerson had expressed ambivalence about her life as she was living it. In her 1990 book, “Queen Bess: An Unauthorized Biography of Bess Myerson,” journalist Jennifer Preston, who covered the trial for Newsday and later worked for The New York Times, recounted a moment during the “Bess Mess” when Myerson turned to a wealthy Jewish man at a dinner party and said, “I should have married someone like you at 24 and moved to Scarsdale.”
Myerson spoke of her fight to be taken seriously as an intelligent, educated woman and bristled at being stamped indelibly as “a former Miss America.” In 1995, she pointedly stayed away from the pageant’s 75th anniversary celebration in Atlantic City.
“People asked me, ‘Are you going to the pageant?’” Myerson told The Times. “And I said: ‘Are you kidding?’ It’s totally irrelevant.”
Yet 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.”
But would she let her daughter do it, she asked herself rhetorically. “No!” she said. “I’ve got the money to buy her a piano.”