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.
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.