Local Obituaries

Former Miss America and TV personality Bess Myerson dies at 90

Bess Myserson speaks as part of a public program on hatred and terror at the Jewish Museum of Florida in Miami Beach in 2001.
Bess Myserson speaks as part of a public program on hatred and terror at the Jewish Museum of Florida in Miami Beach in 2001. Miami Herald File / 2001

Bess Myerson, a New York favorite daughter who basked in the public eye for decades — as Miss America 1945, as a television personality, as a force in public affairs and finally, under a harsher light, as a player in a shattering municipal scandal — died on Dec. 14 at her home in Santa Monica, California, her death occurring in the relative obscurity in which she had lived her last years. She was 90 .

Her death, which had not been publicly announced, was confirmed Monday by public records.

Myerson was one of a select group of American figures to parlay pop culture celebrity into positions of influence in the public square. She led two New York City agencies, Consumer and Cultural Affairs; advised three presidents; championed social causes; and supported powerful political careers. She also sought one for herself, entering a much-watched primary race for the U.S. Senate. For a long time she seemed rarely out of the news.

Myerson was born in the Bronx on July 16, 1924, the second of three daughters of Louis and Bella Myerson. She majored in music at Hunter College and graduated with honors in 1945, dreaming of earning a graduate degree in music at Juilliard or Columbia and of buying a Steinway piano, while despairing of money to pay for any of it.

By Myerson’s account it was her sister Sylvia who, without her knowledge, entered her photograph in the 1945 Miss New York City contest. Myerson won, and it was on to Atlantic City, where for the first time the Miss America pageant was offering the winner a college scholarship.

Myerson, the only Jewish contestant, represented more than New York City, her daughter, Barbara Carol Grant Reilly, said.

“The Jews said, ‘She’s got to win in order to show that we’re not just nameless victims,’” Reilly told New York magazine in 1987. “It became more than a beauty contest. The Jews in New Jersey called one another, and they all came to Atlantic City that night.”

But few sponsors wanted a Jewish Miss America to endorse their products. Certain country clubs and hotels barred her as she toured the country after the pageant. Appearances were canceled.

“I felt so rejected,” Myerson once said. “Here I was, chosen to represent American womanhood, and then America treated me like this.”

In 1977, she campaigned for Rep. Edward I. Koch in his successful race for mayor. In 1980, she entered the Democratic Senate primary.

Although Myerson wore dark business suits and little makeup to play down her Miss America image, “voters saw her as being too glamorous,” said media consultant David Garth, who ran her campaign.

She lost to Rep. Elizabeth Holtzman, who was then defeated in the general election by Alfonse M. D'Amato.

The next year, Myerson was in the hospital with a brain aneurysm.

Fully recovered by 1983, she was chosen by Koch to be commissioner of the Department of Cultural Affairs.

Myerson’s downfall was set in motion during her 1980 campaign, when she met Carl A. Capasso, a wealthy, married sewer contractor 21 years her junior. He had volunteered to help her raise funds and clear her debts. By the time she was named cultural commissioner, they were having an affair.

That spring, Capasso’s wife, Nancy, took him to Family Court and made public the affair. The “Bess Mess,” as the tabloids called it, grew messier when it was found that the presiding justice in the divorce trial, Hortense W. Gabel of state Supreme Court, and her daughter, Sukhreet Gabel, had begun seeing Myerson socially.

Hortense Gabel soon ruled in favor of Carl Capasso in reducing Nancy Capasso’s weekly support payments - from $1,500 to $500, according to trial testimony - and Sukhreet Gabel was made an assistant to Myerson in the Department of Cultural Affairs. Prosecutors began looking into whether the judge had been bribed.

In a separate matter, in 1987, Carl Capasso pleaded guilty to federal income tax evasion and went to prison for two years. Meanwhile, Rudolph W. Giuliani, the U.S. attorney in Manhattan at the time, was investigating a $53.6 million sewage contract that Capasso had obtained in 1983, not long after Myerson became cultural affairs commissioner.

Myerson was called before a grand jury and, without advising city officials in advance, invoked the Fifth Amendment. Koch ordered an investigation, which assailed her for “serious misconduct.” She was forced to resign in April 1987.

Giuliani’s office soon indicted Myerson, Hortense Gabel (who had been forced off the bench) and Capasso in connection with the divorce case. Myerson was accused of conspiracy, mail fraud, obstruction of justice and using interstate facilities to violate state bribery laws. The jury acquitted all three defendants of all charges.

Myerson retired to a quiet private life, remaining mostly out of public view and devoting herself to charities.

Information about her survivors was not immediately available.

Myerson had expressed ambivalence about her life as she was living it. In her 1990 book, “Queen Bess: An Unauthorized Biography of Bess Myerson,” journalist Jennifer Preston, who covered the trial for Newsday and later worked for The New York Times, recounted a moment during the “Bess Mess” when Myerson turned to a wealthy Jewish man at a dinner party and said, “I should have married someone like you at 24 and moved to Scarsdale.”