January 7, 2015

Bess Myerson, R.I.P.

How do the lyrics to the song go? "Lovely to look at,/Delightful to know"? That, even more than "Here She Is," is what comes to mind for me, because Bess Myerson was indeed lovely to look at - even more so than she was the day she became Miss America.

I first heard of Bess Myerson primarily through her involvement in politics.  She had been commissioner of consumer affairs in New York City and later a candidate for the U.S. Senate.  She had been a companion of Ed Koch during his successful campaign for mayor of New York, and served in his administration, and was an adviser to three U.S. presidents.  She became involved in a huge scandal, dubbed the "Bess Mess," that involved adultery, financial collusion, and ultimately a trial involving charges that included corruption and bribery, in which she was ultimately acquitted.  And, of course, she had once been Miss America.

I knew all this, but then one night I saw my first rerun of the classic I've Got a Secret on GSN.

And I said to myself: ah, so that's Bess Myerson.

She was a striking presence - two inches shy of six feet tall, elegant, sophisticated, and beautiful.  Her presence lit up a show that already featured the comfortable friendliness of host Garry Moore, the warm humor of Bill Cullen, the acerbic wit of Henry Morgan, and the goofy charm of Betsy Palmer. Even in such august company, she fairly shimmered in her sleek dresses and fashionable hairdo.  Looking at her, you could easily believe she'd been Miss America who'd also played the piano at Carnegie Hall, hosted parades and pageants on television, risen through the ranks in both entertainment and politics - hell, you'd have believed anything anyone wanted to tell you.  She had class, as did so many TV personalities of the time, and so few today.

Bess Myerson's story was another of those that was uniquely American.  As Miss America she experienced hostility that is hard to comprehend today, simply because she happened to be Jewish. She missed out on many of the endorsement opportunities that other winners had had, from sponsors leery of having a Jewess as commercial spokeswoman. She turned that to her advantage, speaking out throughout the country against prejudice and discrimination, and over the years became a familiar face in print ads as well as on television.  And, as I said, ever lovelier.

After I became hooked on the old Secret reruns, I'd thought to write to her and let her know how much I'd admired her on the program, how I'd been taken by her presence and what she represented.  As is so often the case with me, I never did that, although at least in this case I'd tried, searched the web for an address that I might use to contact her.  Maybe I didn't try hard enough, or maybe it just wasn't there, I don't know.  I  read in some of the obituaries that she'd suffered from dementia in her last  years, and that sad news eased my regrets, at least a little, in that she probably wouldn't have been able to respond anyway.  Nonetheless, as I've said before, don't be afraid to contact those people who've made an impact on you over the years, because they may be more accessible than you think.

Our lives are composed of many things, events and circumstances that conspire to make us who we are, for better or worse.  Athletes often say that it's necessary to experience both the ups and the downs to be able to have fully lived the sporting life, and I would suppose that applies to all of us. Bess Myerson certainly lived both sides of a lifetime packed with events, both accomplished and messy, that few of us can even imagine happening to us.  That makes for a complete life, the good and the bad both, a life that was fully experienced by her, and appreciated by many of us.  Regardless of the pitfalls that may have accompanied that life, there is much to be said of it which was good - and so if you get a chance, on television or YouTube, to watch one of those I've Got a Secret reruns, or any of the other shows on which she appeared, odds are you'll sit back when it's over and say to yourself: ah, so that's Bess Myerson.

***

A brief note: as part of the experiment I mentioned on Monday, I'll be shifting the "Around the Dial" feature to Friday during the weeks that include four posts.  The TV Guide piece will continue to appear on Saturday, with the accompanying program listing on Monday, the essay on Wednesday, and Around the Dial on Friday.  We'll see how it goes, but let me know if you have any thoughts.

5 comments:

  1. "She had class, as did so many TV personalities of the time, and so few today." That pretty much says it all. GSN's Sunday Night in Black and White bloc was must-see viewing - and I was always struck by the wit and sophistication of the panel shows of the era, while more recent game shows were defined by screaming contestants and outrageous behavior. It seems now like an almost ancient chapter in our broadcasting history - but happily Betsy Palmer is still with us.

    ReplyDelete
  2. hang on... You get re-runs of classic game shows? Never happens in Australia although one show from the '70s, Blankety Blanks (Australia's version of The Match Game) has selected episodes on DVD. But how great would it be to see actual classic game shows on TV?! I suspect much of ours barely exist in archives anymore, especially anything pre-colo(u)r.

    ReplyDelete
  3. "Black and White Sunday Night' was a joy to watch on GSN and it's too bad they can't be bothered with that anymore. Now, it's all such insipid and lame game show creations or cheap looking revivals of some of the more mediocre game shows that once existed.

    For years, I knew the name of Bess Myerson and knew she had won a beauty contest, but that was it. Then I happened upon the first episode of "IGAS" that she appeared on. I thought she was beautiful and polite and charming and bubbly. Out of curiosity I began to dig up more about her on Wikipedia, etc... to see whatever became of her later in her life and that's when I learned about the slow, entangled slide into the "Bess Mess". The NYT ran a very good obituary a few days back which delved quite well into what all happened, the people involved and her years after that. I came away feeling that she was a sad and lonely person for the most part after the "Bess Mess" was over and her acquittal complete. She pretty much made a determined effort to never get anywhere close to any spotlights ever again.

    ReplyDelete
  4. The classic "big three" Goodson-Todman panel-formatted game shows ("What's My Line?", "To Tell The Truth" and "I've Got A Secret") were long-term successes because of the casting of their panels.

    All three panels (Bennett Cerf, Arlene Francis, and before her death, Dorothy Kilgallen on "Line"; Tom Poston, Orson Bean, Peggy Cass and Kitty Carlisle on "Truth"; and Bill Cullen, Betsy Palmer, Henry Morgan and Bess Myerson on "Secret") had great chemistry among their members.

    That chemistry was very entertaining, and kept viewers coming back week-after-week (or in the case of "Truth", day-after-day since during the 1960's it was on five days a week in the afternoon as well as in prime-time once a week) for more.

    ReplyDelete
  5. Heckuva tribute to Bess Myerson, Mitchell.
    I grew up in they NYC suburbs, she was ubiquitous.
    The game shows, co-hosting parades, advertising, a talk show here and there, radio and a column for consumers called "Listen, Bess" in the New York Daily News.
    She had such appeal.

    ReplyDelete

And now for something completely different.