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Bess Myerson, first Jewish Miss America, TV star and NYC's first consumer affairs commissioner, dies at 90

Miss America, Bess Myerson, of New York City,

Miss America, Bess Myerson, of New York City, on a float during the victory parade in Atlantic City, N.J., on Sept. 2, 1945. Credit: The Associated Press

Bess Myerson, who rose from working-class Bronx roots to become the first Jewish woman to be crowned Miss America and went on to become a television star and a prominent figure in New York City politics, died last month at her home in California at age 90.

Her death on Dec. 14 in Santa Monica was confirmed by local officials Monday, The Associated Press reported. No cause was given.

Myerson, the daughter of Jewish-Russian immigrants, graduated with honors from Hunter College in 1945 and captured the Miss American title that fall in Atlantic City. She did not reap the product endorsements and deals offered to earlier title winners so she cut short her Miss America appearances and went on an anti-bigotry tour sponsored by the Anti-Defamation League, the NAACP and the Urban League.

A few years later she became a host on the television show "The Big Payoff," followed by a decadelong stint as a panelist on the hugely popular "I've Got a Secret."

She became the first commissioner of the new New York City Department of Consumer Affairs under Mayor John. V. Lindsay in 1969. She established a reputation as a crusader, and helped Lindsay get elected to a second term.

"She is well-known as the first Jewish Miss America, but it was her work as the city's first consumer commissioner that had a lasting impact," said Jennifer Preston, a former Newsday reporter and author of the 1990 Myerson biography, "Queen Bess."

"She was a fierce protector of consumers," Preston said Monday. "She is responsible for unit pricing in supermarkets. She was the one who insisted that baked products have dates on them. She fought for consumers in Harlem when they were getting scammed by furniture outlets."

Myerson used her reputation and glamour in the 1977 mayor's race to help a little-known congressman, Edward I. Koch, become mayor. "She was able to take her celebrity and credibility and political capital with New York City voters and bestow it on Ed Koch," Preston said.

She ran unsuccessfully in the Democratic primary for the U.S. Senate in 1980 and Koch named her cultural affairs commissioner in 1983.

Her spectacular successes early in life came with equally spectacular failures later in life. She resigned the cultural affairs post in 1987 after being indicted by a federal grand jury on bribery charges after she gave a job to the daughter of a judge who presided over a divorce involving a Myerson boyfriend, Carl Capasso.

A jury acquitted her, the judge, Hortense Gabel, and the judge's daughter, Sukhreet, in 1988, the same year Myerson pleaded guilty to shoplifting charges in Pennsylvania and paid a $100 fine. Myerson all but disappeared from public life after the court cases.

The bribery investigation, by U.S. Attorney Rudy Giuliani at the time, became known as "The Bess Mess," and was among the high-profile cases that laid the groundwork for Giuliani's election as mayor years later.

In her private life, Myerson married businessman Allan Wayne in 1946. They had a daughter, Barbara, before getting divorced. She married lawyer Arnold Grant in 1962. They were divorced in 1971.

She remains the only Jewish woman to hold the Miss America title.

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