Bess Myerson, a New York favorite daughter who basked in the public eye for decades — as Miss America in 1945, as a television personality, as a force in public affairs and finally as a player in a shattering municipal scandal — died on Dec. 14 at her home in Santa Monica, Calif. She was 90.
Her death, which occurred in the relative obscurity in which she lived her last years, had not been publicly announced but was confirmed on Monday by public records.
Ms. 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 United States 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 — in Ms. Myerson’s case as the first (and, so far, only) Jewish Miss America.
To many Jews, often blamed for the war by anti-Semites, newly traumatized by images of the liberated Nazi death camps and often confronted by that anti-Semitism in their everyday lives, 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 luxuriant 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 Representative 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 Mr. 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. (Mr. Garth died the day after Ms. 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 Ms. 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. Ms. 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 Ms. 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 Ms. 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 Ms. Myerson.
Ms. Myerson, the only Jewish contestant, represented more than New York City, her daughter, the actress and screenwriter Barra Grant, said.
“The Jews said, ‘She’s got to win in order to show that we’re not just nameless victims,’ ” Ms. Grant 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.” Ms. Grant co-wrote a television film about her mother’s reign as Miss America.
Ms. 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!”
Ms. Grant 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,” Ms. 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. (She later changed her name to Barra.) Ms. 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. Ms. 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, Mr. Wayne, her first husband, died, and Mr. Grant adopted her daughter.
Theirs, too, was a tempestuous marriage: They separated, then reconciled; parted again when Mr. Grant got a divorce in Mexico, then remarried in 1968 — only to divorce again, with finality, in 1971. Mr. Grant had a mental breakdown and died in 1980.
Ms. Myerson’s tenure as consumer affairs chief under Mayor 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. In 1975, after leaving the post, she joined Jacqueline Onassis and other well-known New Yorkers in a successful effort to prevent Grand Central Terminal from falling victim to the wrecking ball. 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
Ms. 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 Mr. Koch became mayor, Ms. 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 Mr. Lindsay and Representative Elizabeth Holtzman.
Although Ms. Myerson wore dark business suits and little makeup to play down her Miss America image, “voters saw her as being too glamorous,” said Mr. 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 Ms. 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, Ms. Myerson was in the hospital again, this time with a brain aneurysm.
Fully recovered by 1983, she was chosen by Mayor Koch to be commissioner of the Department of Cultural Affairs.
The ‘Bess Mess’
Ms. 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, Mr. 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 Ms. 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 Ms. Myerson socially. Sukhreet Gabel had had difficulty finding work despite her many academic credentials and had undergone shock therapy for clinical depression.
Justice Gabel soon ruled in favor of Mr. Capasso in reducing Ms. Capasso’s weekly support payments — from $1,500 to $500, according to trial testimony — and Sukhreet Gabel was made an assistant to Ms. Myerson in the Department of Cultural Affairs. Prosecutors began looking into whether the judge had been bribed.
In a separate matter, in 1987, Mr. Capasso pleaded guilty to federal income tax evasion and went to prison for two years. Meanwhile, Rudolph W. Giuliani, the United States attorney in Manhattan at the time, was investigating a $53.6 million sewage contract that Mr. Capasso had obtained in 1983, not long after Ms. Myerson became cultural affairs commissioner. His companies received $150 million in city contracts from 1978 to 1987.
Ms. Myerson was called before a grand jury and, without advising city officials in advance, invoked the Fifth Amendment. Mayor Koch ordered an investigation, which assailed her for “serious misconduct.” She was forced to resign in April 1987.
Mr. Giuliani’s office soon indicted Ms. Myerson, Justice Gabel (who had been forced off the bench) and Mr. Capasso in connection with the divorce case. Ms. Myerson was accused of conspiracy, mail fraud, obstruction of justice and using interstate facilities to violate state bribery laws.
The central issue was whether Justice Gabel had received a bribe from Ms. Myerson in the form of a job for the judge’s daughter. The hiring, the prosecutors said, was an inducement to lower Mr. Capasso’s weekly support payments. The chief witness against the defendants, including her mother, was Sukhreet Gabel, who detailed how Ms. Myerson had hired her after they met at Justice 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 Ms. Gabel.
Justice Gabel died in 1990. Mr. Capasso was returned to prison and released in 1989, his relationship with Ms. Myerson having ended. He died of pancreatic cancer in 2001 at 55.
The Capasso revelations opened the door to further scrutiny of Ms. 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.
A Fight 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.
She is survived by her daughter. Complete information on her survivors was not available.
Ms. Myerson had expressed ambivalence about her life as she was living it. In her 1990 book, “Queen Bess: An Unauthorized Biography of Bess Myerson,” the 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 Ms. 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.”
Ms. 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?’ ” Ms. 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.”