Bess Myerson Is One Tough Customer

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.”

“But, Miss Myerson…”

“I’m sorry, that is all I have to say. Now please stop calling people and do understand that I have a meeting I must go to. Good-bye.”

After I had pledged that I wanted to do a fair portrait of Bess the Woman, she agreed to let me attend one parade with her. I was to walk on the other side of Councilman Henry Stern and ask any questions I might have during the march. Later, when I mentioned that I couldn’t do the piece without cooperation from her and that perhaps she would rather someone else do it, she said yes, that was a marvelous idea, and, “maybe Shana could do it.”

After repeated exposure, she allowed me some access—always with a third person present. In her unguarded moments she turned out to be charming, warm, and even funny at times. But she was always careful, and she had an uncanny mind for detail. If there was anything she thought might be misunderstood, she did not hesitate to call. The Voice in the morning got up around eight and did private things until eleven. When it spoke then, it was going slower than the afternoon or evening voice.

“Hello, Susan? Where were you last night? I was trying to reach you. You know there are certain people who are not going to return your calls about me. Like Mike O’Neill of the Daily News. He said he would never return a call from New York Magazine. He said I was going to get crucified. What is your perspective?”

“Hello, Susan? It’s Bess. I’m in Milwaukee. I called one of your boyfriends’ numbers and you weren’t there. Where were you? Oh, well, I must say he is very polite. I’m glad you’re attractive, because I have had such trouble with fat, ugly reporters. They hate me. You said to my niece that you thought I was politically astute and conniving. You know she will tell me everything you said. I’m not conniving—that has a pejorative context. I’m not sitting in back rooms making deals. That’s not my style. I relate to people, I understand the issues. I have integrity—when I believe in someone, I will work for them totally like I am for Ed…

“You also told her about an instance where I stared someone down on a podium—you said you found it in the clips. I was at a dinner? And someone took my seat when I was speaking? Then told me to sit on his lap? Then I stared him down until he moved? No, I don’t remember it. Are you sure it was me? Don’t make me into something I’m not in this article.”

“Hello, Susan? Bess. I just want to give you some names that should call. Don’t call anyone without talking to me. They won’t talk to you. Now call Richard Gelb at Bristol-Myers; William Spencer at Citibank; Henry Stern, he was on my staff in the Consumer Affairs Department; Herb Rickman, I work with him now. What are you going to them? … All right.”

She is in her spacious East Side apartment today. It overlooks the Frick and is furnished with understated elegance. There are the de rigeur pre-Columbian art objects, the executive couch, the modern prints, the S-shaped contemporary chrome chairs. And there in the entryway is her black Steinway.

Bess is wearing all her hats today, juggling the hours of the day to fulfill her many commitments. Her main incarnation now is as cochairman of the Ed Koch for Mayor campaign. She is also a well-paid, respected consumer consultant to Bristol-Myers and Citibank. She writes a twice-a-week column for the Daily News and has a consumer radio program on NBC. She speaks constantly for charities, for Israel, and for other causes in which she believes.

She is wearing a red Ultrasuede dress with her ever present low-heeled shoes. She has lost none of the physical beauty or the charisma that won her that first crown. She talks with her hands; she touches people; she smiles a wife bright smile. She is maternal with those she loves, straightening ties, jackets, fixing a friend’s hair behind her ears. She never looks in the mirror but runs her hands through her brown curly hair constantly. It springs back to place. What does she do to make it spring back like that? “Nothing,” she laughs. “I’m just a beauty.”

She is eating her usual Spartan lunch: Finn Crisp, tomatoes, and cheese. She complains about her voracious appetite all day long but never eats enough to gain a pound.

She is eating, phoning, ordering, talking, and cleaning. Again and again, she goes to the sink of this fastidious kitchen and sponges things off. “I never like other people to clean for me. I don’t want them to invade my own privacy.”

“The refrigerator is stocked with traditional Jewish food all put away in proper airtight containers. There is sauerkraut, coleslaw, pickles, dairy products; no pastry, no junk food. If coffee is required, Bess makes instant.

The phone, with several different lines, hang on the wall. When Bess is not at home, the caller hears a taped message which doesn’t identify her but asks in the deep resonant voice that is distinctly hers that you leave a message. The campaign headquarters number is tacked up to the wall. The phone is always ringing.

“Hello?” she says in her questioning way.

“Oh, hello, Barra.” The tone relaxes; the caller is her daughter, Barra Grant.

“No, darling, you’re absolutely right. I wouldn’t think of intruding; you wait till the Post has finished. I know you’re working hard. You call me when you want me, anytime. Good-bye, dear.”

“That was Barra, she’s in town to film Slow Dancing in the Big City, her screenplay. We have a very honest relationship; we don’t intrude on each other’s space, we respect each other. She was staying with me for a while and I couldn’t believe the way she worked. She can sit down at a typewrite for type for eighteen hours straight, paper and coffee cups all over the place like in a movie. I can’t do that, I have to do a little bit at a time.”

She is finished cleaning now. She takes out a pocket mirror and outlines her lips in red, then presses them together once. She turns to campaign worker Pam Chanin.

“I’m leaving for Milwaukee tonight, Pam—for two days for Bristol-Myers. I’ll leave you a number where I can be reached. But first I want to campaign a little at subway stops, and I’ll be back Friday morning. You know, I’ve been thinking about that Women for Koch breakfast next week at the Americana. I think we should all just say a few words about Ed, then let him announce his platform for women himself so it has the full impact. I don’t want to take away from the strength of it,” she says, launching into a twenty-minute discussion of Koch’s stand on women’s rights.

Asked to discuss anything more personal than voting records, she freezes. She turns a half profile and says “Look, I’m a very private person. My private life? My divorce? I was telling Pam yesterday that you’ve never sorry for anything you do—it’s all part of your life’s experiences. I don’t look upon my divorces as mistakes. Those marriages were right for the Bess that made that decision at that time.”

Her childhood? It was demanding.

“Mama never told me, ‘Bess, you did good.’ She wanted the best for us and she was an incredible administrator. She ran those three kids, that house, the whole bit. But if I looked fine, she’d find something wrong—the color, the hem…I used to tell her, ‘Mama, don’t worry when you’re not with me, because you’re with me.’

“I guess I am my mother to a certain extent. We all are. But that is another part of me, one of my Besses, and I accepted it and learn from it. … I guess my parents are proud of me, I don’t know.”

When Bess won the Miss America contest, Earl Wilson interviewed her mother, who said, “She’s a pretty girl, a nice girl, and she doesn’t run around. That’s why we’re proud of her.”

Bess is speaking at the Women for Koch breakfast at the Americana Hotel. When she takes the podium, a hush falls over the room. She pauses dramatically, then says, “Will the waiters please leave the room? I’m allergic to noise.” She lauds the organizers of the breakfast and then introduces the guest of honor, Midge Costanza, assistant to President Jimmy Carter. Costanza takes the podium and the difference in style between the two women is acute.

“I’m responsible for Bess’s success in politics,” Costanza says. “I first met her in 1968 in Monroe County when she was campaigning for Humphrey. I took one look at her and said, ‘Bess, clean yourself up, take a shower, get your hair done.’” Bess’s expression is pleasant but tense.

Then Costanza says, “I figure Ed Koch needs me, a real woman. He’s been with her too long.” Bess’s laugh is a little less pleasant. One might call it a controlled grin. Costanza goes into a long shtik speech on the Panama Canal and equal rights, getting laughs along the way. Bess frowns; after all, Costanza is here to speak for Koch.

After Costanza’s speech, Bess grabs the tiny Costanza around the neck. The cameras go wild as both grin.

She is traveling in a campaign limousine now. Clad in a skirt and sweater, she looks like she has never heard the word frenzy, even though she has been on the campaign trail almost straight for several months.

“Listen, I don’t resent the Miss America contest,” she said, sitting properly, legs crossed, in the back seat. “Look, I was from the Bronx. There were parts of the television career I enjoyed, but occasionally I felt used for my supposed glamour. I couldn’t be the funniest panelist, so I had to play it straight. You know what I did? I did my homework. When I commented on the Rose Bowl Parade, I knew every float by heart. People in New York might say, What difference does it make? But it made a difference to the people in California. They worked hard on those floats. I knew them so well, even if the Teleprompter broke down, I would remember. You can’t rely on Teleprompters.

“But all these activities are really a prologue to my life today,” Bess says. “You know there’s a quote from the Talmud I like: It says we shouldn’t weep for the old man who, have lived a useful life, a moral life, dies, but for the baby who is born and doesn’t know what awaits him. I think character is destiny, and the one thing that is important to me above all is my character, my reputation.”

She is campaigning with Koch in Brighton Beach. She moves in crowds of people with chais around their necks and among those with crosses. They all kiss her and snap Polaroid pictures. There is one black family on the beach. It seems everyone is avoiding them out of confusion. Bess crosses a pier and bends down and picks up the black baby, telling the mother how beautiful he is. They love her.

She has had a usual campaign day. She has given three speeches, one of them in Brooklyn, where she had a celery tonic. She has worked two hours for Citibank, talking about a new consumer booklet she is writing for them. She has just returned from a trip to Milwaukee for Bristol-Myers.

Occasionally, tough, she does allow herself an afternoon off. One of her closest associates, Herb Rickman, now a campaign coordinator for Koch, says she is a child-woman.

“She has a sense of the little girl about her many times. We went into A la Vieille Russie the other day. She was just in jeans and a scarf. We looked at all the bracelets and necklaces and pretended we were in Breakfast at Tiffany’s. She loved the whimsy of it. Sometimes when people act adoring to her, her public, she looks so surprised, as if, ‘Why should this be for me?’ That’s the Bessie side.”

It is now evening, and she is to have dinner with Ed Koch and Dave Fath, master media strategist, at the Café des Artistes. She is early but doesn’t want to wait in the bar, because “I guess I’m traditional, but it makes me nervous.” We go upstairs to do the interview in Garth’s apartment.

She curls up on a couch, looking guarded. She always looks guarded when she cannot discuss either Koch or consumerism, the two subjects she is completely comfortable with. I ask her about her marriage to wealthy entertainment lawyer Arnold Grant. The marriage lasted from 1962 to 1970, when they divorced. (They had divorced once before, for a year. “I guess the only thing I do impetuously is get married,” she had noted earlier.)

“Look, let me explain about my marriage to Arnold. He was a fantastic, brilliant man, okay? He represented some of the most famous clients in the country, and he got them what they wanted. He was tough. But he was very difficult.

“The bars on the windows of our home on Sutton Place began to look like a prison to me; I was so trapped by the all the responsibilities of wealth that I had no chance to be me. There was no time to grow.

“I’ll tell you a story: One night we had some political people over. It was a terribly stimulating dinner party. After it was over, I said, ‘Arnold, I learned so much tonight, it was wonderful.’ And he said, ‘Yes, but Bess, sit down. I want to discuss something with you. These shrimp forks are too small.’ I know I had to leave then, and I left with just all my clothes in the end.”

What about the rumors that it was a particularly ugly divorce?

She laughs. “I’ve heard that the correspondent was black, white, yellow, man, woman. People who don’t have anything better to do float rumors.”

“I started getting interested in politics when I was married to Arnold, but it was a Pygmalion relationship. In 1969, John Lindsay asked me to be commissioner of consumer affairs. I wasn’t his first choice; others had turned it down, saying it would be too difficult. I told him, ‘John, give me 48 hours to think about it,’ and then I took it. I thought it would be a fantastic chance to put myself on the line and see if I could deliver.

“I remember, too, Arnold and I went away for two weeks before I started. I read everything I could on the consumer issues, and he explained all the legalities to me.

“My Department of Consumer Affairs really fought for the consumer. We passed a consumer-protection act that really protected; we passed unit pricing; we raided supermarkets. With the help of an outstanding staff, we accomplished a great deal. And I campaigned for Hubert Humphrey for president in 1968, and for Senator Henry Jackson in his 1976 presidential bid, and for Senator Patrick Moynihan’s race in 1976. I’m a registered Democrat and I would say a moderate centrist, if we use labels. But, above all, I’m issue oriented. …” (When asked why she didn’t support Bella Abzug, she said: “I don’t like Bella. I dislike Bella. She was a fine congresswomen; she would have made an incompetent senator. I don’t want her representing me.”)

The issue of her own political aspirations brings a stony look. “I came very close to running for mayor in 1973. Nelson Rockefeller invited me up to his estate when the poll showed I could get the Democratic nomination. I thought, ‘Sure, I’ll go up and talk to him.’ I wanted to see the estate anyway. I took a friend, my attorney, Max Kampelman, with me for a steadying hand, but I decided not to run.

“The thing I have felt most strongly is my desire to be as private as possible—to have an opportunity to have as normal an environment as possible so that the public life does not devour me. I hate being in columns; it is not me. My process of work is a process of growth and changes as a human being. The role of politician might just be too demanding.

“I want Ed to be mayor. I first met him in 1969, when I was commissioner. He was an unusually responsive congressman, and we agreed on the basic issues. Then we became friends.

“Ed is a fantastic man who will make a fine mayor if he is elected. He isn’t a duplicitous man; he’s auf den tisch, as we say in Yiddish, on the table, on the level. His idea of a good time is to go to subway stops and say, ‘Hi, I’m Ed Koch. How’m doing?’ He really cares about New York City.”

And her role?

“I’ll expect that is Ed is elected mayor, he will bring me in on special projects. I’m interested in encouraging industry and tourism here. I would help in any way I could. I don’t think I’d take another city job. I had one. You don’t go back to old careers; for instance, going back to television would be like going back to old husbands: no growth.”

Garth and Koch have called twice to find out if she wants to go eat. She says no, she is talking. Finally, they finish their meal and come up.

It is late. Koch wants to take her home. She says she wants to walk. He convinces her to let him take her in a cab. They talk about the polls. Koch says, “Bess you know what I’m going to do for you if this all works out? Someday, I’ll invite you to my wedding.” They laugh.

“You know, I don’t need to get married again,” she says later. “I’ve been married. The only thing I’d marry for is good conversation.

Ed and Bess. Bess and Ed. Ed and Bess hold hands on Rosh Hashanah in temple. Ed and Bess hold hands at a subway stop. Ed and Bess walk arm in arm campaigning. Ed and Bess pose for pictures together. Ed and Bess may run City Hall.

Is it a romance? The official line from both is that “we don’t want to discuss our personal lives.” But most of their friends and associates agree that it is just a very deep friendship and that there is little chance of Bess Myerson’s becoming Bess Myerson Koch.

“Look, I share that part of Ed’s life that is politics, and most of his life is politics….

“Of course, I will help him in any way I can. But I am outraged by the charge in the campaign that I was Ed’s cover-up—there just to dispel rumors that Ed was gay. Ed is not gay. I abhor a campaign of that sort; which makes me furious. Why, Ed said I was ‘a very good adviser.’”

Him? Use me? Nobody uses me. I use me.”

Bess Myerson Is One Tough Customer