Bessie

Written by Linda Kass
Review by G. J. Berger

This fictionalized history closely follows Bess Myerson’s life from age twelve in 1936 through her Miss America victory in 1945, followed a year later by a grand performance at Carnegie Hall. She is tall, thin, and reclusive in her youth, and top grades at school and superb playing of the piano become her only comforts. The daughter of poor and demanding Russian Jewish immigrants cramped into a small apartment in the Bronx, she must share a bedroom with two sisters until they leave for marriage.

Disdain of independent young women and hatred of Jews creep in everywhere. Bess refuses urgent advice to change her last name in beauty contests and thereby mask that she is Jewish. She carries her religion and its people proudly as not only the first Jewish Miss America but as national spokesperson for the Anti-Defamation League. She deeply feels the agonies of WWII, visits war-wounded young soldiers, and includes them in some of her appearances. She notices and is disturbed that there are no beauty contestants of color. Yet at times, she believes only her stunning face and figure matter in the world.

Kass draws on many biographical and historical sources to create this enthralling portrait of a courageous history-maker. Every scene brings to life the people around her, whether family members and schoolmates, pageant judges and other contestants, or leering sponsors. The crowded and hot Atlantic City venues, a summer camp in Vermont, and other settings are well done. Bess’s joy in and deep connection to music and playing her instruments come through. An epilogue summarizes Bess’s later television appearances, political positions, and multiple marriages. Readers who appreciate this work on her early years will want a similarly rich treatment of her later years. Recommended.