10 January 2015
I’ve just learned of the death of Bess Myerson. In fact, members of the media didn’t know about it until a couple of days ago, even though she passed on the 14th of December.
This is the first time I—or, for that matter, most other people—have heard anything at all about her in at least two decades. I would venture that most young people—including my students—have never heard of her.
I met her once, briefly, at a ceremony in which Poets In Public Service, in which I worked, received an award for arts in service to the community. Ms. Myerson was the Commissioner of the Department of Cultural Affairs and the founder and president of PIPS, Myra Klahr, apparently knew her—well enough, anyway, to introduce me.
Myerson was in her 60s and looked even better in person than she did in the photos I saw, which is saying a lot. Tall and elegant, she was often described as “regal” in her bearing. I could see why, though I think “imperious”—one word I would use to describe to use Klahr—would have fit equally well. Ms. Myerson was pleasant enough to me, but I had no illusion that, even if I’d had more contact with her, I would ever know her any better than I did at that moment.
Of course, getting to know Ms. Myerson wasn’t the reason why I was at that ceremony. Actually, there was no particular reason for me to be there except for the fact that I was one of the poets who worked for PIPS. Oh, and I think it was the second or third time I wore the one suit I owned at the time.
I don’t actually recall the ceremony or much else about my brief encounter with Bess Myerson. But I recall what I recall because of what would follow just a few weeks later. Those events would, in essence, end Myerson’s public life.
Those events can be said to be a result of her involvement with Edward Koch, the mayor at the time of the ceremony. Yes, she was his DCA Commissioner. But it seemed, at times, that they had their pinkies hooked around each other. He half-jokingly referred to her as his “designated date” when she worked on his campaign. You had to be comatose not to see that she was his “beard”: Whether or not he was actually gay, he had to suppress the rumors that he was in order to get elected, and re-elected.
She was perfect for the role: From the day in 1945 she became the first Jewish woman—and the first New Yorker—to be crowned Miss America, she was loved by about as many people as anybody was in the Big Apple. Plus, the careers as a concert pianist and as a radio and television personality that followed her pageant win lent glamour to the campaign and mayoralty of Koch who, before his election in 1977, was little-known outside Greenwich Village.
What did she get in return? Well, she got to continue the career in public service that began in 1969, when newly-reelected Mayor John Lindsay made her the first Commissioner of the Department of Consumer Affairs, an agency he’d just founded. To her credit, she initiated some of the laws on unit pricing, product safety and deceptive retail practices that people all over the US—and in much of the world—now take for granted. However, four years later, Abe Beame won Lindsay’s office and she never became a part of his administration. Koch re-ignited her career in public service, which she tried to use a springboard into electoral politics. The result was her one and only campaign—a Democratic primary loss to Elizabeth Holtzman, who in turn would narrowly lose a bitterly-fought election for a Senatorial seat won by Alfonse D'Amato.
Even with that loss, Myerson remained in the spotlight, thanks to being the chair of the DCA and her residual popularity, particularly among the pre-Baby Boom generation. But, as she often complained, no matter what she did, she was always identified first and foremost as Miss America. Of course, few others who’ve won the crown have managed to trade it for as many other—and as gaudy—hats as she wore. But, as she said, given the gender politics of her time, she probably would not have accomplished the other things she did had she not won the title, her intelligence and other qualities notwithstanding.
And, it could be said that her title—or, at least, the beauty that won it—led to her undoing: It led her to make compromises, to make deals, that simply wouldn’t have even been available to other women. Moreover, for all that she cultivated the image of the sophisticated, urbane, independent New York woman, her rise was buoyed by powerful men, just they led to her fall.
About the latter: She got involved in an affair with Carl A. “Andy” Capasso, a married man more than two decades her junior. Even by the murky standards of the Koch administration, Capasso’s ethics were as putrid as what his company built as a contractor for the city: sewers. He divorced his wife and, some say, influenced Myerson to do what led to her downfall: She hired Sukhreet Gabel, the daughter of the judge who reduced Capasso’s alimony payments from $1500 to $500 a week.
Capasso went to prison and the judge stepped down. Bess Myerson didn’t suffer such fates, but she was disgraced and seemed to become unhinged. Not long afterward, she was arrested for shoplifting in Pennsylvania. She claimed that she “forgot” to pay for the items found in her bag when she “absentmindedly” walked out of the store.
To be fair, she may well have had a mental lapse, as she wasn’t known as the most stable person in the world. And she died from complications of Alzheimer’s Disease, more than a quarter-century after the shoplifting incident—and the last most people, including me, had heard of her.