Tuesday, June 2, 2015

Bessie Dearest: My Miss America was a Royal Pain

National media report Jan. 2015 that Bess Meyerson is dead at 90.

It was reported last autumn that Bess had dementia and had been moved to Santa Monica.
      (8/12/11) In the 1950s, I remember reading that every little girl hopes to grow up and become Miss America. Even at the age of eight, I thought this was preposterous. There were lots of things I’d rather be!
    But an odd realization entered my mind when I was in my mid-forties: I will never have children, and I‘ll never be Miss America. Without realizing it, I guess I’d assumed I could do either one if I ever decided I really wanted to. Oh well!
    At least I had the consolation of having worked with a beloved former Miss America. It’s too bad that she was such a "let them eat cake" sort of queen.

New Yorkers were in love with Bess.
   The New York City Department of Consumer Affairs was the brainchild of the dashing young Mayor John V. Lindsay, and in 1970 he appointed the glamorous and vastly loved Miss America 1945, Bess Myerson, as commissioner. 

    She had remained in the spotlight during the ‘50s and ‘60s by radiantly hosting TV shows (I can still remember her sweeping down a grand staircase in a full-length mink coat each week to open “The Big Payoff”). From 1958 until 1967 she was a panelist on the hit program “I’ve Got a Secret.”
Bess had a secret, all right. In fact, she had quite a few.
    I read that most Miss Americas made a lot of money doing advertisements for the pageant’s sponsors, such as Ford Motor Co. and Catalina swimsuits, but Bess was rejected because she was Jewish, and American corporations weren't "ready" to have a Jewish spokesperson (although Ajax, that “abrasive” cleanser, hired her, which in retrospect seems fitting).
    She had grown up in such a tightly knit Jewish enclave, she once told a reporter, that she had never experienced anti-Semitism until she entered the pageant and was advised to change her name, which she refused to do.
    During my childhood, my family and I had followed her TV career from our home in Salt Lake City. She was so pretty, poised and well-spoken -- we admired her very much.
A fitting spokesperson for an abrasive cleanser.
    Just out of college in 1971, I was hired to work for Bess as a consumer specialist and fraud investigator. After I found an apartment and spent a couple of days walking the streets of Manhattan, totally falling in love with everything, especially the people, I started my job in the Canal Street area, near the mayor’s residence, the notorious Tombs prison and the imposing federal courthouse.
    Everyone I came across -- from waiters, cab drivers and proud bodega proprietors to the glitterati and literati I would soon come to know -- was dying to learn what Bess was “really like.” It struck me from the start that even the way in which people said her name reflected a quite poignant affection, as if she were either The Queen or a beloved family member.
Here's what happens when you invite her to remove her coat.
    In my experience, I’m sorry to say, she was arrogant, manipulative and ruthless.
     (I feel the need to inform readers who are unfamiliar with my previous posts that I am half Jewish. I am not anti-Semitic. If my father hadn't been a full-blooded Jew, I probably would not feel comfortable writing this article -- which might be silly, but that's how I am.)
    Despite Bess’s failings, I made a decision early on not to disillusion the people who adored her so much. They wanted to love her, and I understood that. She was their heroine, and I wasn‘t about to tarnish the love and pride they had invested in her. So when they asked me about her, I told them, “She is as warm and beautiful as she was on her TV shows.”
    Poor people, and the blue-collar workers -- who humbly and with such good nature kept the city up and running -- seemed particularly in her thrall, many of them getting misty-eyed as they interrogated me about “our Bess,”  the girl who rose from nothing -- the daughter of poor Russian-Jewish immigrants -- to become a superstar. She was the embodiment of the American Dream, the melodic-voiced glamour girl who had vaulted from the Sholem Aleichem apartments in the Bronx to the realm of the rich and famous.
The apartment complex where Bess grew up went into foreclosure in May 2011.
    They believed she was their ardent champion, that she had never forgotten her humble roots or abandoned those she left behind.
    As far as I could determine, this couldn’t have been farther from the truth. Bess didn’t give a damn about the “little people” or anyone else. She was a mere figurehead at the department most of the time, but none of us who worked there cared, because having her at the helm got great media coverage for the issues and outrages we were addressing.
     All we had to do was write, “Bess Myerson angrily denounced….” on our press releases, and we could rest assured that our stories would appear at the top of the newspapers’ pages, complete with one of their stock photos of her angrily denouncing or indignantly decrying one thing or another (occasionally they couldn‘t resist using one of her old Miss America pictures -- especially the swimsuit ones -- even though they had no relevance to the story. No, the department hadn’t gotten any swimsuit complaints! Or tiara complaints!)
    It seemed that she was always off on a “working vacation” in Puerto Rico or some other getaway with beaches and palm trees. In fairness, she did lobby hard for New York City's Consumer Protection Act, which made false advertising illegal, and for state and federal legislation. Despite objections by the food industry, she introduced unit pricing and freshness dating, which became standard across the country. She also beefed up enforcement of weights and measures regulations.
Bess was really more interested in her own weight and measurements.
    In general, she kept us staffers at bay, preferring to deal with Deputy Commissioner Henry Stern or Consumer Advocate Philip G. Schrag. Phil, who was my immediate superior, became a hero of mine for his dedication, brilliance and devotion to social justice.
    If she had gotten to know the “underlings,” she would have found them to be a wonderful group of smart and dedicated young adults. I was very proud of my colleagues. But she apparently didn’t want to get near the trenches, or those who worked in them, any more than necessary.
Did she ever invite us to her $2.1 million apartment for drinks? No!
    During the few one-on-one interactions I had with Bess, she inevitably grabbed me at some point -- as she did with others, I assume -- in a way that was extremely presumptuous and controlling. It wasn’t affection or camaraderie -- it was a rather rough display of ownership.
    She CLENCHED people and demanded their undivided attention. It was claustrophobic, and somewhat demeaning, to be manhandled in this fashion. There was a “Mommie Dearest” feel to her aggression.
Bess exuded a palpable "Mommie Dearest" vibe. Sorry, Mommie!
    Despite that occasional unpleasantness, I thoroughly enjoyed my work, which had included wearing a wire and infiltrating a Syrian mafia company that was using outlandishly deceptive, high-pressure tactics to exploit young, working class mothers.
    Because of my longstanding interest in nutrition, I was assigned to organize the department’s two-day public hearing on health foods, with a particular emphasis on the definition and virtues of organic products.
    I did lots of research and compiled a diverse lineup of experts to present their perspectives.
The terms "health food" and "organic" were just entering the mainstream.
    (One of them, the owner of the nation’s first health food “supermarket” -- who I’d read about in a magazine before I moved to the city -- declared upon meeting me that he instantly sensed we had been married in a previous life. I told him that was the most outlandish pickup line I’d ever heard. Even so, he seemed sincere and intelligent -- and handsome -- and we dated for several months. He now runs the global Theosophical movement with great energy and devotion).
Odin R. Townley, a health-food visionary, testified eloquently.
    A week before the health-food hearings, Bess convened a meeting to discuss the agenda. I gave her a folder of talking points and basic background information to help her familiarize herself with the issues, and I had also drafted an opening statement for her.
    At one point during the meeting, I was explaining the complexity of the “organic” issue (which remains a problem to this day), and out of the blue, as if she hadn’t heard a word I said, Bess interjected, “I use corn oil under my eyes at bedtime.”
Which is better, corn oil or Vaseline? We agreed to disagree.
    As I paused for a moment to figure out how to respond to this entirely irrelevant bit of information, Deputy Commissioner Henry Stern irritably said, “Sylvia, the commissioner is speaking to you.”
    So I replied, “At bedtime, I use Vaseline.”
    Then I returned to the agenda.
    (Henry -- who served as Bess's Rasputin -- was another strange bird. He was very eccentric, claiming to know the design details and construction date of every building in Manhattan, which apparently was true. He collected Campbell’s soup, I was told, and his kitchen cabinets were completely filled with the unopened cans. He was unkempt, and he seemed to have a bitter or alienated disposition, kind of Steppenwolfy. He had surrounded himself with a little retinue of pretty boys, which got the rumors flying. But he eventually got married and went on to have an extraordinary career in public service, both as an elected City Council member and, for many years, as commissioner of parks. I assume he left a great legacy of good works.)
Henry's changed since 1971 -- for the better.

    On the day of the hearings, the turnout was excellent: health-food store proprietors, lots of media -- with their popping flashbulbs -- industry people, academics from the fields of nutrition, chemistry and agriculture, and quite a few interested citizens. I had persuaded representatives of three federal agencies -- the FDA, FTC and USDA -- to appear. Several well-known authors and advocates would soon testify (and clash quite vigorously).
    Much to my surprise, I was ordered to sit up on the dais, next to Bess. I didn’t realize at the time that her plan was to stick around as long as the cameras were there, and then leave, delegating to me the job of conducting the hearings, which I guess she thought would be kind of a bore. 
    (After my initial shock had dissipated a bit, I was excited to take the reins, although I couldn‘t believe they were permitting a 22-year-old to conduct hearings that would help determine the thrust of some important and trailblazing regulations. I was ultimately very proud of how much ground we covered and how well-prepared I was. One thing I’d always excelled at was doing my homework.)
I got to be Porgy after Bess lost interest and left the stage.
    After Bess read her opening statement, reporters began asking her questions. She had apparently assumed that we would begin calling witnesses immediately after her statement, and it seemed that she hadn’t bothered to skim through the notes I had provided to her.  She was not at all prepared to respond.
    One of the most vivid memories I have of the time I spent as Bess’s employee was the desperation she displayed when the questions began. She reached under the table, dug her fingernails into my thigh, and muttered harshly, “Tell me what to say.”
    Another “Mommie Dearest” moment.
    It was both gratifying and chilling to have this woman -- who floated about in a cloud of condescension -- demanding that I rescue her.
I had never wielded a gavel before. The power was intoxicating!
     I did the best I could, but really, things proceeded much more expeditiously when she got the hell out of there and went shoe shopping, or whatever she did when she disappeared from the office.
    An attractive New York Times reporter, Grace Lichtenstein, whose straight blonde hair reminded me of Mary Travers -- of Peter, Paul and Mary -- cornered me during a break and said, "I can't believe you put this whole thing together by yourself."
    I had to admit to her that it helps to have Bess's name to throw around. People come running.
    A few months later, as Bess and I were walking out of her office after a meeting about exploitative vocational schools -- which I had made my specialty -- she gripped my upper arm tightly and said, in a bizarrely furtive, authoritarian, tightly controlled tone: “Before you go, I want you to give my secretary the name of the lipstick you’re wearing, and where you bought it.”
    It was Plum Julep, by Mary Quant. I bought two tubes for her at lunch that day -- taking the subway all the way up to Bloomingdale’s --  as well as a little container of matching blush, and left them gift-wrapped on her desk with a note that said, “I’m sure they will look much better on you than they do on me!”
At least Bess liked my lipstick. That was better than nothing.
    She never acknowledged my gesture.
    I hadn’t realized up to then that I longed for her to like me. Part of it, I’m sure, is that she was beautiful, famous and The Boss. Part of it was that the six-foot-tall “Glamazon” treated most of her staff dismissively, and I wanted to be “special.”
   But I believe a big part of it was that Bess looked strikingly like my mother (although my mom really was prettier) (ask anyone!). I was very young, and I missed my mother. I would have liked a little pat from Bess once in awhile (no fingernails, please), or an occasional warm chat, or a note regarding my work -- which I did with such energy and enterprise -- saying, “Well done, Sylvia!”
    Fat chance. 
    Ironically, she confided to a reporter for New York Magazine, in a 1977 interview, that “Mama never told me, ‘Bess, you did good’ -- and that hurt.”
Bess didn't seem to comprehend that her reign had ended 30 years ago.
    She told that same reporter, who characterized her as “stony,“ that she has had “such trouble with fat, ugly reporters. They hate me….and I heard that you said I am conniving. I am not conniving.”
    You are too, Bess, and you know it. You are the Miss America of Connivers!
    When Bess is asked to discuss anything more personal than voting records, “she freezes,” according to the reporter, and “She always looks guarded when the subject isn’t  either Koch or consumerism.” (Bess was a major factor in the election of Ed Koch as New York City mayor, and he named her Commissioner of Cultural Affairs.)
Bess was regarded as First Lady of NYC during Koch's mayoral tenure.
    The more I saw of Bess’s behavior -- and the more stories I heard about her disturbing way of dealing with people -- the more I came to believe that she was (to use the clinical terms) highly neurotic and sociopathic, and that she might even have some sort of narcissistic personality disorder. Behind that cool beauty lurked something kind of scary.
    (Disclaimer: I could easily have been diagnosed with similar dysfunctions myself, so I‘m not claiming any superiority in the mental-health department) (although I was nice to people!).
    I found Bess to be unseemingly aggressive and ambitious, desperate, petty, paranoid, conspiratorial and vengeful. She seemed sort of like an exquisite incarnation of Richard Nixon, someone hell bent on achieving a vindictive triumph (to use psychoanalyst Karen Horney's term), except that hers would be orgasmic, and I don't think his were.
     Bess’s scandalous and truly perverse life after her “public service” career unceremoniously ended lends credence to my “diagnosis.”
The media couldn't find many words to rhyme with 'Bess,' but one worked quite well.
    A New York City Police Department report prepared in 1980 said that Bess “had displayed obsessive behavior, making many anonymous telephone calls and sending dozens of abusive letters to people in a series of tangled personal relationships.”
     In 1987, the then 64-year-old self-proclaimed "Queen of the Jews," was charged with bribery and conspiracy and faced up to 30 years in prison. She was accused of using her influence to get her younger lover, Carl "Andy" Capasso, a $53.6 million sewer contract and then hiring Sukhreet Gabel, the daughter of Judge Hortense Gabel, as a sort of bribe, to induce the judge to lower Capasso’s alimony and child-support payments. She was eventually acquitted.
Bess with her lover, Carl "Andy" Capasso, a sewer contractor.
     According to journalist Shana Alexander, who wrote a book -- "When She Was Bad" -- about Bess, “Myerson blamed her troubles on ‘a conspiracy of vindictive homosexuals; they're out to get me….They're jealous because I'm the two things they can never be: a woman and a Miss America.’"
    The following year, just as she was about to face trial on federal fraud and conspiracy charges, Bess was arrested in a small Pennsylvania town for shoplifting $44.07 in merchandise.
I feel no schadenfreude toward Bess -- just sadness.
    In her purse and a shopping bag, the store guards found six bottles of nail polish, five pairs of earrings, a pair of shoes and several packages of flashlight batteries for which she had not paid (wow -- $44 went a long way in those days!). She was in the area to visit Capasso, who was serving four years in prison for evading income taxes on work he did for New York City.
She usually smiled for the cameras, but not when she was facing 30 years in prison.
     The New York Daily News reported at that time that Bess had been arrested for shoplifting in London in 1970, just months before I came to work for her, and that she had paid a $100 fine.
    The media have repeatedly characterized her as a classic kleptomaniac since then.
    I was once told that she sent a beautifully wrapped gift box -- which contained a large quantity of human feces -- to a boyfriend’s estranged wife.
    It was hard to believe that anyone would do this, but it also was not that hard to believe that Bess would.
    Journalist Shana Alexander lent credence to the rumor when she wrote in her book that “Bess’s habit was to leave bags of poop on the doorstep of her former boyfriends.” She apparently had quite a few, in addition to her three marriages to two men.
    A New York Times editorial intoned that “she used public employees to pursue private errands” and “committed acts that reflect poor judgment and worse.”
It all came tragically tumbling down for the imperious queen.
    “The Beauty was a Beast,” the New York Daily News echoed.
    Her fall from grace was positively Shakespearean. 
    Bess lives in Florida now, where she is known as a tireless supporter of  Jewish causes.
    "This way I feel I am putting my celebrity to use," she said. "Nothing I've done in the past is as nourishing to me as my Jewishness. I never left it, but now I can do it full time. It is as if my life has evolved to where I always wanted it to be."
    The Anti-Defamation League is her first love, she said, followed by Israel and Israel Bonds.
   In spite of everything, I feel sorry for Bess. Anyone who behaved as she did for all those years must be very lonely and must be in a lot of pain. All that paranoia, the rage, the revenge plots, the fear of losing it. (I can relate.) I wonder if she knows she is ill. I wonder if she has ever sought psychiatric care. 
    I would love to know her and to understand what made her tick (as well as what made her tock) -- although if she still treats reporters the way she did in the ‘80s and ‘90s, I wouldn‘t bother. 
    She turned 86 last month. I hope she’s finally found some peace.