Art Medals for the first Jewish Miss America Bess Myerson

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By Mel Wacks, Director of the Jewish-American Hall of Fame

July 16, 2015 – Bess Myerson, the first and only Jewish Miss America, a TV personality in the 1950s and ’60s and later a consumer advocate who changed how food was labeled, died at age 90 on December 14 at her home in Santa Monica, California. Myerson was inducted into the Jewish-American Hall of Fame in 2001 and just 150 bronze, 65 pure silver and 13 10kt gold 2-inch art medals were struck in her honor.

Bess Myerson Jewish-American Hall of Fame 2-inch bronze art medal, designed by Alex Shagin.

All of the medals sold out except for about a dozen bronze which are still available for $75 each by Paypal to

Bess encountered anti-Semitism during the Miss America Pageant, when an official tried to convince her to change her name to one that was less ethnic, suggesting Betty Merrick. Bess refused. The dark haired statuesque (she was the tallest contestant at 5′ 10″) beauty was the first recipient of a scholarship, but none of the pageant’s sponsors, including Catalina Swimsuits, chose to use the Jewish beauty from the Bronx as a spokesperson. During her year as Miss America, Ms. Myerson made many personal appearances. One of these was scheduled at an antebellum country club, but just before the event she was told that there had been a terrible mistake, the country club was restricted, and no Jewish person could possibly be welcomed there.

Bess Myerson, determined to fight racial bigotry, traveled around the country speaking in behalf of the Anti-Defamation League of B’nai B’rith, in cooperation with the NAACP and the Urban League.

Bess Myerson in 1957.

Many Americans remember Ms. Myerson as Mistress of Ceremonies for “The Big Payof” (1951-9) and as a panelist on “I’ve Got A Secret” (1958-67). From 1969-73 as Commissioner of Consumer Affairs of New York City, Myerson was architect of the most far-reaching consumer protection legislation in the country at that time, and was featured on the cover of Life Magazine (July 16, 1971) as “A Consumer’s Best Friend … Bess Myerson on the prowl for stores that cheat us.”
From 1983-7 she served under Mayor Ed Koch as Commissioner of Cultural Affairs, where Bess substantially broadened financial support for New York City’s art community.

Ms. Myerson is a Founder of The Museum of Jewish Heritage in New York, where she established the Bess Myerson Film and Video Collection with a grant of over a million dollars. She has also made six-figure contributions to The Guild for the Blind, Hebrew University (for Cancer Research), and SHARE (to launch an Ovarian Cancer Program). Her concern over the rising racial and religious tensions on college campuses led Bess to endow the Bess Myerson Campus Journalism Awards given annually by the Anti-Defamation League.

Bess Myerson’s presidential appointments include Lyndon Johnson’s White House Conference on Violence and Crime, Gerald Ford’s Commission on the National Center for Productivity and Quality of Working Life, and Jimmy Carter’s Commissions on Mental Health and on World Hunger. And she has served on the boards of the International Rescue Committee, the Consumers Union, Another Mother for Peace, etc. Hunter College, where she graduated with a music degree in the same year that she was crowned Miss America, later presented Ms. Myerson with an honorary doctorate, as did Long Island University and Seton Hall.

You may visit the website of the Jewish-American Hall of Fame here.

And you can read more about Bess Myerson’s life on CNN.