TIME remembrance

Bess Myerson’s Original Victory

Miss America winner Bess Myerson
Alfred Eisenstaedt—The LIFE Picture Collection/Getty Images Miss America winner Bess Myerson

The 1945 Miss America winner has died at 90. She was one of the few in the competition's history to outlast the fame given by her crown

TIME once wrote of Bess Myerson that “few people have paraded before the public in quite as many guises.” Myerson — who, it was recently announced, died in December at age 90 — made headlines for a breathtaking number of reasons.

In the 1950s it was for TV appearances and a custody battle. In the 1970s, as New York City’s Commissioner of Consumer Affairs, when she campaigned against non-pure hamburger meat, advocated for honesty from retailers and supported Ed Koch’s run for mayor. In 1980 it was when she lost her run for Senate; in 1987 when she resigned her position as she faced charges of conspiracy, mail fraud, bribery and obstruction of justice (and, the next year, for shoplifting a few bottles of nail polish). In 1989, it was for being cleared of the conspiracy and bribery charges.

But it all started with Miss America. Myerson, who won the crown in 1945, was the first Jewish Miss America, and one of the few in the competition’s history to hold onto the spotlight for the rest of her life.

Here’s how TIME first reported on the news:

Atlantic City, once a mecca for giggling cuties in Mack Sennett bathing suits, abandoned itself for five days last week to a ponderous appraisal of the female mind. The occasion: the annual Miss America contest. The prize: a $5,000 college scholarship offered on a take-it-or-leave-it basis. The winner: Miss New York City, a Hunter College graduate named Bess Myerson, who excels at the flute and pianoforte.

The proceedings were conducted in an atmosphere reminiscent of a Southern female academy, vintage 1845. Super-chaperones shooed off men, warned each of the 40 contestants not to drink, smoke or chew gum. Stiffly genteel throughout, the chaperones simply ignored a man with field glasses who peered from a nearby sundeck into the solarium of the Senator Hotel when the girls assembled there (fully clothed). At one point the young ladies were inducted into a “sorority” called Mu Alpha Sigma, which was invented by the contest directors solely for Miss America entrants. Its motto: Modesty, Ambition, Success.

On the last two counts at least, Myerson proved worthy of belonging — and that was clear from the beginning. “It was obvious,” TIME wrote, “that the winner had deserved her victory.”

See the full story, here in the TIME Vault: Brains, Brains, Brains

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