The Story Behind Bessie
After completing my World War II novel-in-stories, A Ritchie Boy, I came across an article regarding Bess Myerson, a talented Jewish beauty who became Miss America in 1945. While well aware of that distinction, what astonished me was the timing of her triumph, given the degree of antisemitism in this country during the 1930s and ’40s. Myerson’s victory took place six days after the official end of the Second World War, just weeks after the United States dropped bombs on Japan. I was familiar with the general outlines of her later life, especially her prominence in New York City politics in the 1980s when I lived in the city. But my curiosity led me to read several biographies about Myerson. After what I learned, I decided to fictionally focus on her formative years—the moral and psychological growth of this consequential woman. Following a brief prologue set in 1945 Atlantic City, my narrative begins when the preteen Bessie reaches her adult height of nearly six feet in 1936. I take the reader through a decade to the end of her yearlong reign as Miss America.
Bessie is a work of fiction. I chose to inhabit the emotional essence of Bess Myerson as she grew into a young woman, bring new insight to historical events, and remain faithful to the facts of her life. Some of the characters I’ve included in this novel, besides Bess Myerson herself, are actual people, while others are imagined. However, the history within these pages is true. I have remained as close as I could to the actual events that made up Bess Myerson’s early life. Sometimes I quote her actual words if I found them quoted elsewhere, or I create dialogue based on conversations reported indirectly. Elsewhere, I have imagined what might have or could have been said and created certain scenarios that might have taken place based on the true events in her life and the time in which they happened. The backdrop of isolationism, antisemitism, racism, and sexism were the context of Bess Myerson’s world in the 1930s and ’40s. My novel reflects that reality.
One example of mixing fact with fiction appears late in the novel when Bess meets with Miss Sepia America, Dolores Fairfax. While Bess Myerson indeed appeared on a panel with Dolores in Philadelphia in early 1946, I never found the details of that encounter. This was the perfect chance to imagine what could have happened. And I did, creating a significant scene where Bess calls out the bigotry within the Miss America pageant. I naturally had to follow that with an imagined confrontation Bess has with pageant director, Lenora Slaughter.
I am indebted to several sources for the facts, the chronology, and circumstantial details surrounding Bess Myerson’s childhood and her rise to become Miss America.
In reconstructing Bess’s life, most helpful was the 1987 biography by Susan Dworkin, Miss America, 1945: Bess Myerson and The Year That Changed Our Lives. I read two other biographies, both released in 1990, that included Myerson’s early years but focused more on later controversies of her adult life: Queen Bess: An Unauthorized Biography of Bess Myerson by Jennifer Preston and When She Was Bad: The Story of Bess, Hortense, Sukhreet & Nancy by Shana Alexander.
Enormously helpful for my understanding of New York City during the war years and other details of history was Victory City: A History of New York and New Yorkers During World War II (2019) by John Strausbaugh. Margot Mifflin’s 2020 book, Looking for Miss America: A Pageant’s 100-Year Quest to Define Womanhood, provided insight into the historic elements of this beauty contest. I was thrilled to discover an entire book about the genesis of the High School of Music and Art, written by its first principal, Benjamin Steigman, Accent on Talent: New York’s High School of Music and Art (1964). Similarly, I found a book to help me capture Bess’s college years: Hunter College by Joan M. Williams (2000). Corroborating much of my research was Lillian Ross’s wonderful October 15, 1949 article in The New Yorker, “Here She Comes, Miss America, 1949,” along with many other articles written through the decades up until Myerson’s death in 2014. I am most appreciative of the Anti-Defamation League for providing me with archival material, including ADL bulletins from 1946 and its 1946 annual report, which was great background about Bess Myerson’s role as the voice for ADL’s Brotherhood Campaign.
When I am writing about real people Bess had a relationship with, I have used their names, such as her relatives, her piano teacher Dorothea LaFollette, some of her friends like Murray Panitz, Margie Wallis, and Lenny Miller, as well as those tied to the Miss America Pageant, from emcee Bob Russell to Lenora Slaughter to the contestants who are named. I have fictionalized scenes and interactions among these real and imagined characters.
On occasion, I had to alter certain dates and I’ll try to clarify my reasons here. First, the Bronx Press-Review, a local borough-wide newspaper covering local news, politics, and community events, wasn’t established until 1940 but I have Louis Myerson reading it in 1936 because I wanted to establish the Bronx setting.
At the High School of Music and Art, the first class of students was admitted on February 1, 1936 (125 art students and 125 music students). One might presume subsequent admissions fell that way. Bessie actually was admitted to the school in early 1937 and graduated in January rather than June of 1941, as I have written. I departed from that time to align with what is more typical of today, having her end her elementary school year in early June and begin high school in early September. I also took liberties with some of the facts about M&A. For example, string orchestra is typically introduced in the second year, not the first. Thus, senior orchestra might be assigned at the end of the second year, not the first, with students joining in the junior year rather than a year earlier.
Since I couldn’t confirm that Bess struck up a friendship with illustrator/later co-founder of Mad Magazine, Harvey Kurtzman, although he attended M&A when she did, I didn’t use Harvey’s real name but modeled Harvey Katz after Harvey Kurtzman. In my manuscript, William Eisen was inspired by another student who attended M&A: Wolfie William Eisenberg, who later became known as Will Elder and went on to become a well-known American illustrator and comic book artist and helped Harvey Kurtzman launch Mad Magazine.
For confused sports readers of Chapter Seven: In 1941, New York hosted both baseball and football teams called the Giants. The baseball Giants competed in Major League Baseball (MLB) as a member club of the National League (NL). Founded in 1883 as the New York Gothams, and renamed three years later as the New York Giants, the team eventually moved to San Francisco in 1958. The football Giants are part of the National Football League. They were founded in 1925 and legally named “New York Football Giants” to distinguish themselves from the baseball team of the same name. They were one of the first teams in the NFL, which formed in 1920. For further confusion, the Brooklyn Dodgers were an American football team that played in the NFL from 1930 to 1943, and in 1944 as the Brooklyn Tigers.
In Chapter Eleven, I introduce a Seventh Avenue fashion designer who I call Samuel Knapp. His real name is Samuel Kass, but I thought it would be confusing to use it, given his last name is the same as mine. Most often, I used the real name of people if the situation I dramatize happened, and this one did.
Finally, when I found actual letters or speeches, like the letters Lenora Slaughter sent to all Miss America contestants or speeches Bess gave as part of ADL’s Brotherhood campaign, I used their exact wording, although I slightly edited some of Bessie’s speeches during the ADL campaign. For example, “Aren’t we ‘America the Beautiful’?” was not in her original text.
Just days after the close of World War II, the insecure, scholarly, and musically gifted daughter of Russian Jewish immigrants from the Bronx rises to a place where she represents an ideal against all odds. She grows up in an antisemitic America, a country filled with all kinds of bigotry, all too similar to our country today. Yet, Bessie reaches beyond her insular beginnings, as an underdog who triumphs. My hope is that Bess Myerson’s rise to become Miss America reminds you that talent, hard work, and fair play can be rewarded, that everyone has a shot. Most importantly, I hope you see a young girl thirsting to go beyond her beauty and talent, to find purpose and to make a difference in her world. As a young woman, Bess Myerson used her gifts to take action and help others as a voice for the ADL’s Brotherhood Campaign to fight hate. Through its blending of fact and fiction, and through the context of this unique moment in American history, Bessie might inspire us all to use our voices to fight hate.
Listen to Bess Myerson play Edvard Grieg’s Piano Concerto in A Minor on the Ed Sullivan Show.