MEMOIR: When "Miss America" made my day
The society page of my local newspaper recently reported that Bess Myerson, who was named "Miss America" in September 1945, was the featured speaker at a fund-raising luncheon for a local charity. The report brought back to mind the memory of how her selection as "Miss America" that year affected my personal life.
While Bess was becoming a national celebrity in Atlantic City, N.J. as the first Jewish "Miss America," I was in the Army stationed in India. I shared a barracks with about 20 other soldiers. Virtually all of them came from small towns, and few of them had ever known a Jew before meeting me.
There was one other Jewish guy in our outfit, but I was the only one in my barracks. During our service together over the previous year and a half, I had been fully accepted socially. Although I felt comfortable as "one of the boys," however, I also felt that I was regarded as a somewhat exotic personality because I was unchurched and came from some place called the Bronx.
About all my barracks-mates seemed to know about the Bronx was that it was the home of both a famous zoo and the New York Yankees baseball team. Their knowledge was expanded when it was revealed to the world that the new "Miss America" also hailed from the Bronx. The news accounts played up the fact that Ms. Myerson was the daughter of an immigrant Jewish house painter and his wife.
Shortly after Bess Myerson's selection, my mother mailed me a photograph of the new "Miss America," clipped from PM, a now-defunct, daily New York City tabloid newspaper. The photo ran over two full pages in the paper and pictured the statuesque Ms. Myerson with a gorgeous smile on her face and a bathing suit on her magnificent figure.
I immediatgely hung the photo on the wall behind my bed. Most of my barracks-mates had pictures of Hollywood movie stars hanging behind their bunks. A handful posted photographs of girl friends back home. But none of them projected the sexy aura of the new "Miss America."
My bunk--and especially the photo hanging on the wall behind it--quickly became the focal point in the barracks where my buddies gathered to gaze with rapture at the Jewish girl from the Bronx who had become "Miss America."
As guys who came from small towns in which everyone seemed to know everyone else, I had the feeling that they assumed that I knew Bess Myerson personally. Of course, I had never made that claim. The Bronx, after all, had many hundreds of thousands of residents, although I wasn't sure that my buddies knew that. Nevertheless, I maintained a nonchalant air when questioned about the quality and nature of Jewish girls from the Bronx.
The fact that both Bess Myerson, the stunning new "Miss America," and I were both Jews from the Bronx seemed to have earned me almost as much respect as if I had been awarded a medal for bravery in combat.