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Poor, Smart, Jewish and Beautiful : MISS AMERICA, 1945 Bess Myerson's Own Story by Susan Dworkin (Newmarket Press: $18.95; 272 pp. with photos)

December 06, 1987|S. J. Diamond | Diamond is a Times staff writer with a regular column on business for the consumer.

Ever since she won, Bess Myerson has been "the former Miss America." The title was not only the "high point" of her life, in her words, but an achievement of lasting public interest. She was, as always noted, the only Jewish girl ever to win, and she was gorgeous, laying forever to rest the base rumor that Jewish girls have bad knees. What's more, she made something of her life: as one admirer says, "How many Miss Americas did you ever hear of five years later?"

One comes to "Miss America 1945," by Susan Dworkin, more for the person than for the era, and more because of what Myerson became--TV star ("The Big Payoff," "I've Got a Secret"), New York City's commissioner of consumer affairs and later cultural affairs. Now there's the scandal that has ended her political career and tarnished Mayor Koch's--the charge of bribing a judge to reduce the divorce settlement of her lover, a sewer contractor and convicted tax-evader.

From the first sentence ("It was the spring of 1945"), Dworkin tries to make the book's subject not just Myerson's title but "the extraordinary complexity of the moment in history in which she won it," portraying Myerson as "one of our best witnesses" to the era. Unfortunately, war's end as seen through her eyes is a limited vision. For all the effort to make her more, she was a minor player of unblinding insights whose activities illuminated only a small corner of the stage.

Subtitled "Bess Myerson's Own Story," the book is so much in Myerson's voice that it's only one step from an "as told to" account. It offers just one year's action--how she won in spite of being poor, Jewish and smart, and then how she reigned.

Daughter of Russian Jewish immigrants in the Bronx, a pianist, a flutist, a Hunter College student and a good girl, Myerson was hardly a typical beauty contest entrant. Indeed, she really wanted "to go on for a graduate degree in music at Juilliard or Columbia and study conducting. Unfortunately, I didn't have the means." Beauty contests, her sister's idea, were just a way to the means: the Miss America title offered a $5,000 scholarship.

The book details the "backstage drama" of why the judges chose "the closest thing to a bona fide intellectual ever to cross a stage in a bathing suit," wanting "a well-educated, professional Miss America" to raise the pageant's tone. It also depicts the trials of a reign that was tawdry and meaningless until Myerson started making speeches against bigotry and prejudice under the auspices of the Anti-Defamation League.

But the drama and the trials are flat. She seems not that different, not that poor, not that intellectual, and not that tried. She had an "irascible and argumentative" mother, and "longed for pretty clothes." She met some anti-Semitism--she was urged to change her name, a Southern country club wouldn't receive her--but not enough to make her a virtual icon of Judaism, sharing "her victory with five million American Jews who had just lost six million of their coreligionists in Europe."

Not that she wasn't decent, with some heart, some humility, some fiber. She was touched by the good wishes of fellow Jews, and generous in her admiration of the wounded soldiers who shared Atlantic City's boardwalks. And she valued the "credibility and respect" she earned by speaking out against intolerance at schools and community groups.

As for the portrait of an era, there's a lot on the pageant, some interesting bits on the Sholom Aleichem apartments in the Bronx, and New York's High School of Music and Art. There are pages on Thomas M. England General Hospital, a temporary hospital for amputees made from two Atlantic City hotels: Myerson, with other contestants, visited the wounded and "took it all very personally." There are also periodic insertions of material about bigotry in America, including the surge of anti-Semitism that ironically accompanied America's commitment to World War II.

But taking it all personally is not enough. These are insertions--superficial contacts, a backdrop, and the anti-Semitic "slaps" Myerson felt in "her own small travels," the sympathy for wounded soldiers, make her neither a pivotal figure nor a substantial witness to an era.

No matter. We're interested because of today's Myerson, although in a book that ends in 1946, there are only hints of that. She says she learned toughness, salesmanship and ambition from the whole experience. Certainly she learned to market herself, as the book proves, with its reminder of past sweetness and light to weigh against her current image.

Dworkin does her best to give Myerson greater significance, and the book some import, concluding, "she had touched politics, social action." It was just an awfully light tap.

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