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Bess Myerson Is One Tough Customer

“…The phone is an extension of Bess’s hand. It was my first contact with her. The conversation was ominous. And one-sided…”


From the November 14, 1977 issue of New York Magazine.

It is Columbus Day, and the limousine carrying mayoral candidate Congressman Ed Koch to the front of the Italian-American parade is stuck. The driver keeps turning down the wrong streets in an attempt to find the proper entrance only to be turned back by officious cops who could care less if the car contained Christopher Columbus himself. Finally, just like in a bad movie, the driver backs up and hits the front bumper of another car.

“Just get out and give him the proper information; I don’t want an incident,” says an aggravated Koch. All entrances to Fifth Avenue seem forever blocked, and Koch sees his parade appearance being canceled due to the lack of an adequate road map. After five minutes the car starts up again. Everyone in the car offers a different opinion on how to make it to the head of the parade. All suggestions are wrong.

Suddenly, a tightly controlled melodious voice rises from the backseat above the din. An imperious voice. It is a “take charge” voice that speaks in well-defined capital letters.

The Voice says, “Ed, Get Out. I’ll Take Care of It. Just Make Like the Mouse That Roared.” A tall, elegant brunet steps out of the car. She’s attired in a classic Jerry Silverman blazer, skirt, and turtleneck sweater, low-heeled black boots, and green sunglasses. She is nearly six feet tall; she looks men in the eye and towers above women. The congressman puts his arm around her so that it appears that he is guiding her, but it is the other way around. Like Marge and Gower Champion, they glide up to a policemen. She gets directions and propels him back to the car. She dispatches orders, mutters “bureaucracy” under her breath, and has him at the start of the parade in 90 seconds flat.

As strains of John Philip Sousa start up, she takes her rightful place beside him in the lead, smiling that God’s-gift smile. The music starts: Together they raise their feet high and begin to march. The crowd cheers more loudly and commences to clap. She glances from side to side and realizes the cheers are not for him—they are for her. After all, she has been marching all her life. It is a march that has led her out of the Sholem Aleichem apartments in the Bronx into the homes of the wealthiest and more powerful people in the world. And she has become one of them.

The marching started for Bess Myerson the day she was born, in a lower-middle-class development near Sedgwick Avenue in the Bronx. Her parents, Louis and Bella Myerson, came over from Russia when they were adolescents, and met and married here. They had three daughters: Sylvia; Bess, the beauty in the middle; and Helen.

From the time she was seven, Bess took piano lessons from a Miss LaFollete. She attended the High School of Music and Art, where classmates remember her as “beautiful and serious,” two words that are often used to describe her.

There was one thing Bess wanted desperately: a black Steinway grand piano. Someone suggested jokingly she enter the 1945 Miss America contest for the $5,000 prize. And win she did.

An adoring public found her an unusual Miss America. She turned down Broadway offers and modeling jobs. She toured vaudeville for about three minutes before ascertaining that nobody was really interested in her concertos. They were more interested in the bathing suit in which she appeared in the finale. She started losing weight and stopped filling out the bathing suit, so she went home early. She was the first Jewish Miss America, the first New York Miss America, and the first Miss America to go home before the fun began. She took her money and entered Julliard and Columbia for graduate studies in music. In 1946, she played Rachmaninoff’s Piano Concerto no. 2 with the New York Philharmonic.

That year, when she was 22, Bess married returning war veteran Allan Wayne. She had known him only six months. IN 1947, she bore him a daughter, Barra. The marriage lasted eleven years.

Bess’s television career really started in 1951, when she became that Lady in Mink on The Big Payoff for CBS. From 1958 until 1967 she was a panelist on I’ve Got a Secret. These are scores of other forgettable shows. And she was a frequent commentator on the Miss America Pageant from 1854 through 1968.

The telephone is an extension of Bess’s hand. It was my contact with her. The conversation was ominous. It was also totally one-sided.

“Hello, this is Bess Myerson,” the low, resonant, morning voice said. “You’re certainly a tenacious reporter. You’ve left messages everywhere I work and with every friend. I’m sorry but I don’t do interviews, I’m much too busy; and now, with the campaign, I have little time at all for myself.”


Related:

  • Archive: “Features
  • From the Nov 14, 1977 issue of New York
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