Bess Myerson may not have been the only Jewish girl to ever become Miss America but even if not, she’s certainly the most famous. Her early life, both before and leading up to the famous pageant, is now the subject of the historical novel, Bessie (She Writes Press, $17.95). Author Linda Kass talks to fiction editor Yona Zeldis McDonough about why Myerson is a truly heroine for our times.
YZM: Why write a novel about Bess Myerson and why do it now—what about this moment made it right for a reappraisal?
LK: In February of 2020, I came across a newspaper article with the date of Bess Myerson’s win as Miss America and I was taken aback. I’ve known about Bess Myerson most of my adult life. She was an iconic figure and in the public eye, probably the most famous of the long list of women crowned Miss America due to the many things she did since winning the title. She became known in the early years of television, featured on popular talk and game shows (I knew of her as a panelist on the weekly prime-time show I’ve Got a Secret), then she became one of the most powerful women in New York City politics, even unsuccessfully running for U.S. Senate. I was especially aware of her work as commissioner of Cultural Affairs, a position she held under Mayor Ed Koch in the ‘80s when I lived in New York City. And she continued to be an outspoken voice of support for the Anti-Defamation League against hate.
This is all to say that I knew Bess Myerson had been named Miss America a long time ago, and that it was quite a celebration for the Jewish community to have one of their own representing our country. But the date of her crowning didn’t have a place in my memory. It was only when I saw it in clear print—September 8, 1945—that I registered how unlikely her win had to have been.
My first two novels were set during World War II, so I was aware that the date I encountered by chance was six days after the official end of World War II, just weeks after bombs hit Japan, during months when the horror of the Holocaust was seeping into news stories. It was a cultural point in time when antisemitism, racism, and sexism were swirling in the ether, some of it very public and some behind the scenes but even more potent—all of the things we are seeing today, making the topic extremely relevant. The significance of naming a Jewish woman like Bess Myerson to this visible title at that time inspired me to learn more about the events leading to this moment.
YZM: You chose to focus on her early life and deal with the later life only in an epilogue; what was the reason for that?
I read several biographies and articles about Bess Myerson before I decided to fictionally focus on her early life. As a New York resident in the 1980s, I was aware of her work as an activist for cultural, consumer, and Jewish causes. Her success in early television game shows, in New York politics, and even her personal life gone awry, had been written about quite a bit, the latter the stuff of tabloids. All of this didn’t address my question, which was: How did a poor, musically talented young Jewish woman from the Bronx rise to become a beauty queen and one of the most famous women in America at the close of WWII? I found that Myerson’s upbringing was at direct odds with the beauty queen image the world has of her today—she was a piano prodigy, grew up poor, the daughter of Russian immigrants, lived in one of the first cooperative apartments in the Bronx, Sholem Aleichem, filled with Eastern European immigrants including her extended family. Music was coveted in her world, but not beauty pageants. I wanted to understand what motivated her to enter the pageant and take this unlikely path. My fictional writing interest has consistently focused on the formative years of my protagonists as they persevere through early challenges, their futures remaining open. I have always been fascinated by the moral and psychological growth of my protagonists. Bess Myerson became such a significant woman and was a worthy subject.
YZM: Do you feel Myerson’s later troubles outweighed the good that she did?
LK: I do not. The good that she did is public record. Character and reputation were very important to Bess Myerson and some of her personal choices threatened to compromise her hard-earned renown. But, if you look at any of our public figures, including presidents, it is a mixed bag. Did Lyndon Johnson’s decisions about Vietnam negate the Civil Rights Act, the Voting Rights Act, Medicare, and Medicaid?
YZM: How did the Jewish community feel about her? Was she an icon and/or role model?
LK: I can’t speak for the Jewish community, only for myself as a member, who views Myerson‘s later-in-life personal entanglements with some disappointment, as we do when a person of integrity and grace acts counter to what we expect of them. But it does not diminish my affection for Bess Myerson as a role model for speaking out against hate and for all the good that she accomplished throughout her life.
YZM: What portion of this novel hewed close to the facts and what was fictionalized? How did you decide which was which?
LK: The challenge in historical fiction is always making the telling fresh; discovering the particular kernels of facts and history that allow imagination and invention to take over while remaining true to the time, the place, and to the character herself. In a fictional portrait of the early life of a famous woman like Bess Myerson, I tried to inhabit her emotional essence as she grew into a young woman, while remaining faithful to the facts of her life and to the history of the time. I adhered to the significant touchpoints of Bess Myerson’s life—that she grew up in the Bronx at Sholem Aleichem; the particulars about each of her parents, Louis and Bella, and her sisters, Helen and Sylvia; the importance of music in her family’s and community’s life; the significant relationship Bess had with her piano teacher Dorothea LaFollette; her experience attending La Guardia’s High School of Music and Art and, during the war years, Hunter College; the whole pageant experience; how she discovered and worked with the ADL. Some of the characters I’ve included in this novel are inspired by actual people but used fictionally, while others are imagined. Sometimes I briefly quote her actual words if I found them quoted in published works, or I created dialogue based on conversations reported indirectly. Elsewhere, I imagined what might have, or could have, been said in scenarios based on the true events of her life. The key point is that a fictional work inhabits a character and provides a human being on the page, something that a straight biography cannot fully deliver for the reader.