Q & A
Why call it Bessie?
I wanted to differentiate the young Bess Myerson from the famous person she became in the 1950s and beyond, all of which began with her crowning as Miss America in 1945. It also seemed appropriate to portray her as Bessie during that coming-of-age period. I found a few references to this pet name in a biography, one saying that her father enjoyed “sharing a laugh with his favorite daughter, Bessie."
What inspired you to write about Bess Myerson?
After completing my recently published WWII novel-in-stories, A Ritchie Boy, I came across an article regarding Bess Myerson, a Jew, who became Miss America in 1945. What astonished me was the timing—the cultural context and contradiction under which she became Miss America. This crowning took place six days after the official end of World War II, just weeks after the U.S. dropped bombs on Japan. Curiosity led me to read several biographies about Myerson’s life and, after what I learned, I decided to fictionally focus on her formative years—the moral and psychological growth of this consequential woman. My writing interest has consistently focused on the “coming of age” of my protagonists as they persevere through early challenges, their futures remaining open. After a brief Prologue taking place in 1945 Atlantic City, my narrative begins when the pre-teen Bessie reaches her adult height of nearly six feet in 1936. I take the reader through a decade to the end of her year-long reign as Miss America.
Credit: Associated Press
In reading about Myerson’s early life, I related to aspects of her upbringing. Most importantly, she was a first generation American as I am. The family lost a toddler before Bess was born, an incident that had a deleterious effect on Bella Myerson. My experience losing a toddler more than thirty years ago drew me to explore how that impacted both the mother, and the daughter who came after. Bess grew up with a love of music, as I did. Her upbringing stressed scholarship over physical beauty, as had mine. When Bessie arrived at her adult height of five feet, ten inches as a pre-teen, she felt ugly, self-conscious. I felt self-conscious in my childhood, although for different reasons—I had immigrant parents with accents, quite an anomaly in the Midwest where I grew up.
I was intrigued by the fact that Bess Myerson rises to become Miss America in 1945, despite an antisemitic America, a sexist America, a racist America. She rises to a place where she represents an ideal against all odds—she was the wrong girl with the right stuff. Her transformation is inspiring: she was an underdog who triumphs over adversity, a girl who is mocked for her height who then becomes the epitome of beauty, a quality in which she places little value having been conditioned to only consider scholarship as success. Where she lands, at age 22, is also inspiring: Bessie becomes the one in control, the one who succeeds, despite harassment and rejection, for her talent and brains, and then for her voice against racism and hate.
What most surprised you about Bessie’s life?
That she was so poor, that she had such a difficult mother, that she was so talented as a musician, that she was so insecure. Bess Myerson’s early lack of confidence and self-criticism, much of it due to her mother, seem to haunt her at vulnerable periods in her later life. And what is very clear is that she gains her confidence, temporary as it may be, not through the Miss America experience but through her ADL efforts.
Talk about the research you did. Did you do any on-site research?
I closely read several biographies to get a sense of Bess Myerson’s early life. There wasn’t anything coming directly from Bess as a younger person, but she reflected on that time. Her direct quotes in articles and biographies allowed me to piece together a sense of how she may have thought and talked during her growing years. But one needs to understand, beyond this reality—because Bess Myerson was a real person—there is another reality at play. And that’s the fact that I am writing a novel. As such, it is this tension between the truth of Myerson’s life and the gaps open to interpretation—my interpretation and my truth of how I saw the character of the young Bess Myerson.
I found a book about the High School of Music & Art, about Hunter College, and a history of New York and New Yorkers during the time of World War II, all of which helped me get a sense of this historical context as I imagined Bess attending high school and college and living in a city during a world war. I found a book and an extensive article focused on the Miss America pageant. I had access to archival material from the Anti-Defamation League that helped me write the sections about her Brotherhood Campaign tour. I read several similar types of biographical fiction that gave me a sense of how fact and fiction blend together into story. I considered those great coming-of-age novels that I read over the years as I considered the voice and maturity of my protagonist.
I spent summers in Atlantic City in the late 1950s and early1960s as a child visiting grandparents. I lived in New York in the 1980s, I’ve seen many of the sites that Bessie experiences—the Upper West Side, Times Square, Rockefeller Center, Carnegie Hall.
Were there any surprises that helped in your writing of Bessie? Challenges?
I had the ah-ha moment in discovering that Harvey Kurtzman, the graphic artist who went on to found MAD Magazine, was in Bess’s class at M&A. He felt like a perfect platonic friend for her, a non-musician at M&A as she was blossoming into the beauty she would become. I changed his name to Harvey Katz since I completely fictionalized this friendship.
It was also a funny surprise to learn that the fashion designer who reached out to her was Samuel Kass. I changed his last name to Knapp so readers wouldn’t get stuck on wondering if he was related to me.
There could be confusion when I talk about the sports teams in Chapter Seven because in 1941, New York hosted both baseball and football teams called the Giants.
Why did you use present tense in a historical novel?
I believe present tense makes the story happen in the moment and it can make the character more real. It has been done by authors much more skilled and well-known than I am in historical novels. Anthony Doerr used present tense in All The Light We Cannot See, for example.
What was different about writing this book compared to writing Tasa’s Song and A Ritchie Boy?
Importantly, Bess Myerson is not a family member, since Tasa’s Song was inspired by the early life of my mother, and A Ritchie Boy by my father. But there are several similarities—all are coming-of-age stories, all cover a decade of their years leading into adulthood, all cover the dawn of World War II and the destructive decade to follow. I had to use a mix of known information and fill in all three stories by imagining conversations, relationships, reactions, and such. Both Tasa’s Song and Bessie begin in medias res, are told chronologically, and in a close third person of the protagonist. My present tense use in Bessie differs from both previous novels. In addition, A Ritchie Boy is presented as linked stories, each told by different point of view characters.
Why write biographical novels?
A depth of characterization can be gleaned from a fictional portrait of a real person when a writer inhabits that character’s thoughts and feelings. It is a fuller, more humane examination of character than a conventional biography because it can bring fresh and engaging and nuanced insights. Books that come to mind include The Last Station: A Novel of Tolstoy’s Final Year by Jay Parini and The Magician by Colm Toibin, about the German writer Thomas Mann. I love reading biographical novels, and I loved getting to know a real dramatic character like Bess Myerson, by inhabiting her in the writing of a fictional portrait.