The Lilith Blog 1 of 2

January 14, 2015 by

Miss America, My Feminist Friend and Mentor

Bess_Myerson_1957Bess Myerson, crowned Miss America in 1945, was the first and only Jewish Miss America. And she became my heroine and close friend despite our 20-year age difference.

I knew her when she was no longer in the limelight. Because both of us were cancer survivors and advocates, a mutual friend introduced us, in the mid-90s. While Bess never went into detail about her fall from stardom, she understood her celebrity, and once said, “I am more infamous these days than I am famous, but, if I can bring attention to the causes I care about, then, that’s OK.”

She did just that as a philanthropist, fundraiser and volunteer. My causes became hers, and I will be forever grateful.

After I was diagnosed with breast cancer in 1991, I became active with SHARE, a self-help group for women with breast cancer in NYC, as a facilitator, advocate and board member. This work required compassion, an indomitable spirit and a financial commitment. I had the empathy, along with a wobbly sense of self. But despite the fact that I was a fundraiser who respected the impact a gift of money could have, I usually stopped short of being a donor, thinking that being a volunteer was good enough.

Bess stretched those skills for me, letting me know that they needed to be used and practiced, like fingering the keys on a piano. By example, she showed me the way.

Bess, a longtime ovarian cancer survivor, joined me on SHARE’s board. Her $100,000 gift, the largest in SHARE’s history, was used to establish an on-going ovarian cancer program. Likewise, she lent her name and participated in our annual Walk-A-Thon. I can see her now: her formidable 5’10” frame and long, long legs, her hair pulled back in a ponytail, being just one of the “gals” in Central Park among hundreds of walkers, outpacing the rest of us.

I worked for many years at the Jewish Guild for the Blind in New York City as a fundraiser, and I brought Bess on one of her first of many visits. A group of young, visually impaired children sang for her. She shed some tears and asked the music teacher, “Is there anything you need?” Bess, trained as a classical pianist, who won her 1945 Miss America title for her talent as well as for her beauty, had, after the pageant, performed at Carnegie Hall. When she learned that an upright piano would be helpful at the Guild, within a week a new black Steinway was delivered. Once, she brought her granddaughter Samantha for a visit and talked to her about the importance of giving and giving back. Unexpectedly––and unplanned––she pledged and followed through with a $100,000 gift to the Guild’s Early Intervention Program.

A gifted speaker who researched and wrote her own speeches, Bess often spoke at women’s luncheons, which I regularly attended. An unambiguous feminist, she used her beauty, brains and the money she earned (reported in the 1980s to be $16 million), to mostly Jewish and Israeli causes. She, more than anyone I knew, understood the power and independence that money wrought.

At these events, she often paid tribute to the honoree as “woman of valor” (Prov. 31:10:31):

A woman of valor makes the world change. 
Her strength is the content that guides through the days. 
Defined by her actions that bring light to all dreams; 
valor is something that’s defined by her deeds.

She was the consummate woman of valor.

And, did I also say that she was a lot fun? We often took road trips together. Once, when she was in Palm Beach to give a speech and visit her sister, Helen, my partner and I were with my parents in Boca Raton. On a whim, we drove to Disneyworld in Orlando. A first-time visit for the three of us, we became Disney-like characters ourselves, the Three Musketeers, in multi-themed fantasies, living in Polynesian and Wilderness accommodations, eating Dallas barbecue and gourmet French cuisine. For two days, we walked acres and acres, and went from Epcot to Magic Kingdom. We were like insatiable kids, eating ourselves silly and laughing all the way.

Another time Barbara, my partner, was staying at Kripalu, a stripped-down, no-frills yoga and health center, while Bess was at Canyon Ranch, a deluxe spa right up the street in Lenox, MA. My job was to pick the two of them up. It was a hot day, and as we passed a creek, Bess and Barbara shouted, “Stop the car!” They climbed down a hill to put their feet in the water. We never knew which one pulled the other in, but both landed in the creek, laughing and splashing.

At my 50th birthday, she came with her little Maltese dog and several jackets for me to try on, asking me to choose one on the spot. Out of the 50 some guests, it was as if she and I were the only ones in the room.

Six years later, she was one of four holding a cut-off broomstick pole with my father’s tallis spread out as our chuppah, at our commitment ceremony in our cedar log home in the Catskills. Imagine, two poles were held by my sister, Leslie, and our friend, Susan, both 5’2.” Barbara’s brother, so moonstruck by Bess, could barely hold his end up. It’s a truly a lopsided picture that we will treasure.

She used to tell a wonderful story about her first visit with Golda Meir, who was an iconic role model. Golda’s husband’s last name was Meyerson, and perhaps she and Bess were related by marriage; did the “e” really make a difference they asked one another.

Dear sweet Bess. We will miss you.