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Wednesday, July 15, 2020

The Curse of Beauty: America’s First Jewish Pageant Winner

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Less than a week after the end of World War II, 21-year-old Bess Myerson, the daughter of poor Jewish immigrants living in the Bronx, won the Miss America pageant in Atlantic City. She was the first Jewish contestant to win since the pageant’s inception in 1921 (and to date, the only one). 

For many Jews at the time, her victory felt hugely symbolic and personal. On the heels of the Nazis’ murderous regime — which was fueled in part by vicious anti-Semitic rhetoric — a Jewish woman had been declared the feminine ideal in the United States.

After Myerson’s victory, many of the contest’s sponsors declined to have a Jewish winner model their products. Certain hotels on the tour were restricted. Myerson quit the national tour, and at the urging of the Anti-Defamation League, began giving talks in high schools around the nation called “You Can’t Be Beautiful and Hate.” She went on to be a political and social leader in New York City and in the greater Jewish community. She married, had a daughter, divorced and married again.

In her 60s, she had a fall from grace that was nearly as visible as her rise. She fell in love with a Mafioso and was caught trying to influence the court to rule in his favor during his divorce proceedings.

Myerson died in 2014 at the age of 90, and this month, her daughter, Barra Grant, brings to the Edye Stage in Santa Monica, “Miss America’s Ugly Daughter.” Working with director Eve Brandstein and producer Suzi Dietz, Grant, 69, has written a humorous take on Myerson’s life — and on her own maturation. Monica Piper (of “Not the Jewish” fame) plays the voice of Myerson. 

The Journal spoke with Grant and Brandstein at the Edye during rehearsals.

Jewish Journal: How did a Jewish woman come to win the Miss America contest in 1945?
Barra Grant: It was a time of everyone looking like Betty Grable — short, very buxom and blond. My mother was 5 (feet) 10, skinny like a rail, with crazy raven hair. She was staggeringly beautiful, but not the stereotype. Her own mother always said, “Miss Louisiana was prettier.”

It was also a time of virulent anti-Semitism. No one wanted her to win. The judges were warned that if they voted for her, they wouldn’t be asked back, but she had a huge following among Jews and the veterans who’d been shipped to Atlantic City. Those huge hotels had been transformed into hospitals for amputees from the war, and they were all over the boardwalk. During the week or so leading up to the contest, the organizers asked if any of the girls would like to come and entertain the men. Only my mom and one other girl agreed to go. She played her flute for the boys and they loved it. During the contest, the audience was filed with vets and with Jews who had called other Jews who knew other Jews, etc. Huge applause would arise whenever my mom came out. The judges had to vote for her.

She was also the only winner at the time who won the talent contest. The other girls twirled the baton or yodeled. My mother played a piece of the Grieg piano concerto and then Gershwin’s “Summertime” on the flute.

JJ: Why did she enter the contest?
BG: She’d just graduated college and she wanted a piano. Her sister Sylvia said, “Bessie, you’ll enter this contest and you’ll win enough money to get a piano.” Her mother was very against girls in bathing suits, so they kept it a secret until she won Miss New York City.

JJ: What inspired you to write this play now?
BG: I was working as an actor and screenwriter and I’d started writing stories that I’d tell around town. I realized they were all about my mother. People would say, “You have to do something with this!” But I had to wait until she passed to tell the truth.

“If you burst out at 21 and are called ‘the most beautiful girl in the world,’ it’s part of your life forever. But it’s a curse to be that beautiful.” — Barra Grant

 

JJ: What part of her life, and yours, does this play cover?
BG: The concept is that she’s now 70. She’s had the scandal. No one is talking to her, so she calls me at 2 in the morning. But she’s not listening to me. She’s lined up a lot of pill bottles and threatens to take them. That’s what keeps her daughter on the phone. But it’s funny. It’s humor coming from character and emotions. I think the best humor comes from pain, and there’s a lot of pain between me and my mother.

Eve Brandstein: There are also dialogues that are conversations taking place within Barra’s mind. You hear flashbacks of childhood and adolescence and throughout her life. The play shows the triumph of a young woman coming out of this situation and crafting a life that’s magnificent, on her own.

JJ: How important was the beauty pageant to your mother?
BG: If you burst out at 21 and are called “the most beautiful girl in the world,” it’s part of your life forever. But it’s a curse to be that beautiful. “Beautiful” is about other people looking at you and you seeing the look in their eyes, as opposed to being focused on how you look at yourself and feeling some kind of pride because you understood something today that you didn’t understand yesterday. That doesn’t require a mirror or 50 people turning their heads as soon as you walk in. It’s hard to depend on that, particularly as you get older. Culturally, it’s very tough to get old and appreciate anything. It’s a real curse if you’re beautiful.

JJ: How Important is the fall from grace?
BG: The fall is a big thing because she was a tragic figure. She had it all. She made a mistake and paid for it the rest of her life.

JJ: What role did Judaism play in your mother’s life?
BG: My mom felt her Judaism very strongly and was extremely connected to Israel. I can say things about her that might not be complimentary, but that was her true nature. She wanted to save her people. That was her crusade.

JJ: Does this feel like the show you were always “meant” to do?
BG: This is the apex of my life. I have a very dark sense of humor and I love using it. This is the first time I’ve been able to imbue an hour and 20 minutes with that kind of humor.


“Miss America’s Ugly Daughter” runs July 14-Aug. 12 at the Edye Stage at the Santa Monica College Performing Arts Center, 1310 11th St., Santa Monica. 8 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays; 3 p.m. Sundays. Also, 8 p.m. Thursday, July 19. missamericasuglydaugther.com  

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