Bess Myerson died on December 14, 2014 in Santa Monica, California. For most Americans under the age of forty Bess Myerson isn’t a household name. Even for me, that is when I was old enough to be introduced to her, she was just someone who was on the celebrity panel of the television show I’ve Got a Secret. On the panel with her were Gary Moore, Bill Cullen, Betsy Palmer and Henry Morgan. When I was in my teens I finally came to learn that Bess Myerson’s greatest fame was having been named Miss. America in 1945. She was America’s first and still only Jewish Miss. America.
A Jewish Miss. America? And in 1945? On September 2, 1945 Japan surrendered and the Second World War ended. Six days later in Atlantic City, New Jersey Bess Myerson was elected Miss. America by a panel of Army Air Force Veterans. As the only Jewish contestant Miss. Myerson was encouraged by the pageant directors to change her name to “Bess Meredith” or “Beth Merrick” but she refused. After winning her title and as a result of her religious identification Miss. Myerson received few commercial endorsements and she later recalled that “I couldn’t even stay in certain hotels…there would be signs that read no coloreds, no Jews and no dogs. I felt so rejected. Here I was chosen to represent American womanhood and then America treated me like this.” Eventually she cut short her Miss. America tour and instead traveled with the Anti-Defamation League. She spoke out against discrimination in a talk she entitled, “You Can’t Be Beautiful and Hate.”
Two days ago in Miami just prior to the Miss. Universe Pageant Miss. Israel took a “selfie” which included Miss. Slovenia, Miss. Japan and Miss. Lebanon. Miss. Israel’s selfie photo went viral in social media. When Lebanese officials learned of Miss. Lebanon’s (Saly Griege) appearance in Miss. Israel’s (Doron Matalon) photo they were outraged. Some demanded Miss. Lebanon remove herself from the pageant; others made veiled threats against her. Her response was to claim that she was the innocent victim of a “photo bomb.”
I would suggest that the words and legacy of Bess Myerson still ring true today: “You can’t be beautiful and hate.”