Why Was Bess Myerson the First and Last Jewish Miss America?

No Jewish woman has been crowned Miss America since Bess Myerson won in 1945. Is it anti-Semitism, or are less insidious cultural forces at work?

AP Photo

When I was little I was given Elinor Slater’s Great Jewish Women, an encyclopedia of influential and praiseworthy Jewish women, for Chanukah (twice). Amidst the pages featuring intellectual, political, and business titans, such as Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Golda Meir, Lillian Hellman, Barbara Boxer, and Helena Rubinstein, the appearance of Bess Myerson, a Miss America winner struck me as odd, perhaps antiquated.

But Myerson more than earned her place on that list. She died on Monday at the age of 90, and her standing as the first Jewish Miss America and, perhaps more significantly, the only Jewish Miss America, provides more than a nostalgic pause.

Her Miss America win transcended mere superficial beauty standards. It marked a groundbreaking moment in how the country viewed Jews, especially Jewish women. Her passing and the realization that a Jewish Miss America hasn’t been crowned since her reign raises questions about why there has been such a dearth since 1945.

It is not really possible for any American Jew of my generation, or possibly even my parents’, to fully comprehend the significance of Myerson’s win in 1945. With World War II coming to an end, the visibility of Jewish soldiers combined with the soon-to-be realized horrors of the Holocaust was about to do a lot reduce anti-Semitism in America.

But the 1930s and 1940s were still hostile times. Charles “Father” Coughlin, a raving anti-Semite, was one of the most popular radio hosts in the country. Most top colleges had a quota system highly restricting Jewish applicants, to say nothing of America’s formal immigration restrictions. So committed was the U.S. to keeping out Jews that it famously turned away the St. Louis, a ship carrying Eastern European Jewish refugees fleeing Hitler’s reign, in 1939 to follow the quotas set by the 1924 Immigration Act.

What perhaps affected people more on a day-to-day basis were the pervasive anti-Semitic stereotypes that Jews were cheap, weak, big-nosed, swarthy, and ugly little creatures.

Then came Bess Myerson, a daughter of Russian-Jewish immigrants who was raised in the Sholem Aleichem Houses in the Bronx. It’s hard to say whether there was something distinctly “Jewish” about her look. She had the stereotyped dark hair and features, but they were not the stigmatized frizzy Jewish girls’ hair. She was delicate. She was tall and slim. She was undoubtedly arrestingly attractive.

Between the physical appeal and her musical talent (she played George Gershwin’s “Summertime” on the flute), she won over Miss American judges. In fact, she nabbed the coveted crown even though pageant organizers begged her to change her name to the less obviously Jewish ‘Beth Merrick.’ Three out of the five major pageant sponsors pulled out during her reign, so she joined forces with the Anti-Defamation League in a campaign called “You Can’t Be Beautiful and Hate.”

Myerson strikingly bashed every negative stereotype of a Jewish woman by being named the all-American model of femininity—and yet she was unabashedly Jewish. She was also one of the more popular Miss Americas, going on to having a successful career as a spokeswoman and a contestant on 1950s game shows before turning to politics (and scandals). Her post-crown fame, though, only further begs the question: Why has there not been another Jewish Miss America since 1945?

There isn’t a single or straightforward way to answer this question. For starters, it may be as simple as statistics. As of 2013, Jews make up 1.8 to 2.2 percent of the adult U.S. population. As a pure numbers game, there probably wouldn’t be a Jewish Miss America more than once every 50 years. The seven-decade stretch could be a statistical fluke.

Then, there’s the Miss America pageant itself, which hasn’t had the most diverse array of winners. The first African-American contestant didn’t appear until 1970, and there wasn’t a black Miss America until 1984 with Vanessa Williams’ (in)famous win.

Including Williams, there have been eight African-American Miss Americas in the past 30 years, along with the first Asian-American winner in 2001 and the second Asian-American and first Indian-American winner in 2014. Slowly, it seems, Miss America is coming around and embracing ethnic and racial diversity (in terms of bodily diversity, you still have to be pretty conventionally thin and hot). So, why no Jewess in the mix of more recent and diverse Miss Americas?

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I’d be hesitant to jump on the elephant in the room, anti-Semitism, which is far too extreme and black-and-white of an explanation. At the same time, it would be remiss not to examine the negative physical stereotypes of Jews, and especially Jewish women, and wonder if that hasn’t played a role.

Hair color and skin tone may have been somewhat flexible for Miss America, but having a big, hooked, distinctly stereotypical Jewish nose certainly didn’t fit into the ideal of female beauty, especially in the 1940s. While Italian and Greek women also often struggled with this mainstream standard of attractiveness, bad noses was something very much associated with Jews—and something Jewish women in particular struggled to accept. In fact, Rita Rubin described rhinoplasty in Tablet as a “special rite of passage” for Jewish women—who could afford it—for decades.

Although she was unwavering in her commitment to identifying as a Jew, Myerson still had a look that was still relatable to mainstream America in the 1940s. Also, she was tall and thin, too, further adding to the ways she met the physical beauty conventions. “I have to think her body type played a role,” said Rachel Greenblatt, a Lecturer in Jewish Studies at Harvard University.

Still, Greenblatt is disinclined to thinks that beauty standards are the prime explanation for why there hasn’t been a Jewish Miss American since Myerson. In fact, the reasons have probably changed over time. “There’s a difference between why there wasn’t one in 1955 versus why there wasn’t one in the 1980s,” said Greenblatt.

Greenblatt added it could have been a PR disaster in the 1950s if Miss America, for example, was barred from a hotel (a fairly standard anti-Semitic regulation during that decade) while on tour for the pageant. It’s unclear if Miss America organizers were thrilled that Myerson herself took anti-Semitism head-on and became an ADL advocate.

However, those same anti-Semitic-related concerns clearly wouldn’t govern why there wasn’t a Miss America decades later, especially since plenty of Jewish women are considered sex symbols, like Mila Kunis, Natalie Portman, and Rashida Jones. Many Jewish women have been accepted as conventional, mainstream hot.

The movement towards the kind of racial and cultural diversity Miss America is moving towards may be a better explanation for why there hasn’t been a Jewish woman crowned recently. Diversity comes into people’s consciousness, as a business concern, in the 2000s, and Jews aren’t ‘diversity’ by then. They are [considered] just white,” said Greenblatt. “To show diversity, you need something more ‘exotic.’”

There may be another, blunter explanation for the lack of Jewish Miss Americas, namely women of the tribe may simply not be competing as much.

This hypothesis is anecdote-based, as I cannot tell from name alone which Miss America contestants on record were Jewish to test this theory. However, a fairly common facet of American-Jewish culture is being reared with an emphasis on education, studies, and professionalism. Even the hot Jewish women I mentioned above did something a bit more “intellectual” than pageantry: acting.

The Jewish woman who has come closest to winning Miss America most recently, Loren Galler Rabinowitz, said she “absolutely agrees” that competing in the pageant doesn’t fit with the traditional Jewish-American emphasis on education and intellectual pursuits.

Rabinowitz, who was Miss Massachusetts and competed in Miss America in 2011, says her own family and community were surprised when she decided to compete (a decision, which, like Myerson’s, was fueled by a desire to fund her education).

“I’m not so sure that’s changed since Bess Myerson. If you read the reactions, she was billed as ‘Beauty and Brains.’ The idea you could be smart and involved in pageants was novel then, and it’s novel now,” said Rabinowitz. “Just like the stigma Jews have faced, so have pageants with the idea that it’s just about being a pretty face.”

Myerson herself appears to have bought into that stigma, offering mixed to negative views on the Miss America pageant. When asked if she would enter Miss America all over again in 1980, she stressed that she entered the competition to save money to pursue her music studies.

“Having a great desire to be a concert pianist and not having the money to buy a big black Steinway piano? I sure would,” she said. In 1995, Myerson made a point not to attend the 75th anniversary of the Miss America pageant.

She was emphatic when asked if she’d let her own daughter compete: “No! I’ve got the money to buy her a piano.” Like most Jewish mothers, Myerson thought her daughter could do better.