NEW YORK (Dec. 27)
When a Manhattan jury last week cleared Bess Myerson of conspiracy and fraud charges, it helped restore her tarnished image as a symbol of accomplishment and a source of ethnic pride to a generation of immigrant Americans.
The former Miss America was found not guilty last Thursday on six counts of conspiracy, fraud, bribery and obstruction of justice.
The central point of the prosecutors’ case was that 64-year-old Myerson had conspired with her lover, Carl Capasso, and former state Supreme Court Justice Hortense Gabel in a scheme to reduce Capasso’s divorce payments in a case being heard by Gabel.
But the six men and six women found the evidence to be circumstantial and cleared the three defendants on all counts, in a case that came to be known in the New York tabloids as the “Bess Mess” trial.
“I’m grateful for the American judicial system and I thank the jury for exonerating me,” said Myerson, speaking on the steps of the court after the verdict was read.
Born and raised in the Bronx, Myerson rose to national prominence in 1945 when she became the first and last Jew to win the Miss America contest. Soon after, she began lecturing across America for the Anti-Defamation League of B’nai B’rith on the subject of anti-Semitism.
SYMBOL OF TRIUMPH
But life for the rich, beautiful and successful Myerson was not all glamor: A year after winning her Miss America crown, she was married for the first time to a man who turned out to be an abusive alcoholic.
She eventually divorced him and brought up their child alone, was remarried and divorced again. She also successfully fought a bout with cancer.
Myerson was named commissioner of consumer affairs during the administration of New York Mayor John Lindsay, and was commissioner of cultural affairs under Mayor Ed Koch from 1983 to 1987.
But it was her winning the Miss America crown at the end of World War II that gave immigrant Jews a unique symbol of identification.
“She meant several things,” author Kate Simon told the Jewish Telegraphic Agency. “At her peak, she meant triumph. She was a source of pride. She also meant a bond to the Jews when she worked for B’nai B’rith and ADL. She was a talented girl, a thing of pride.”
But when Myerson began to get into trouble, Simon said she was rejected. “Not rejected by Jews, but her reputation, her stature as a Jewish woman, must have been diminished.”
Arnold Forster, general counsel for the ADL for the last 46 years and the man who recruited Myerson for her cross-country speaking tours, said, “We were proud not that she had won this contest, although talent — her piano playing — played a large role.
“Our pride came in the time she gave against bigotry,” when she spoke on the topic: “You Can’t Be Beautiful and Hate.”
“The children loved her, the students loved her,” Forster said. “She conveyed a sense of accomplishment, of goodness, and she took them along the path of an appreciation of democracy. Our appreciation of her was her public service, and her service to the Jewish community.”
Simon agreed. “Her achievement was her jobs with Lindsay and Koch, that really raised her. She did a great deal of lecturing on antiracism — she was a true liberal.”
‘SOAP OPERA. NOT TRIAL’
Not everyone saw it that way. Feminist Betty Friedan said Myerson “never did anything for the women’s movement,” and that she was a “tragic example of self-destruction.”
Simon said she was afraid that if Myerson had been found guilty, “that would bury her. She would disappear as a symbol of Jewish womanhood, of Jewish women who achieved.”
Forster said he would not judge her in any way, “except to say how sad I am what has befallen her. Whatever judgment will be will be from her peers, the courtroom and the man upstairs.”
The jury returned its verdict after deliberating 37 hours over four days, following two months of testimony and a week of summation, in a trial that defense attorneys branded as “a soap opera, not a criminal trial.”
Some jurors said after the trial that they felt there was some illegality in the case, but that the prosecution had not presented enough clear-cut evidence to prove its case.
The prosecution brought 34 witnesses in an effort to show that Myerson gave a $19,000 a year job in New York’s Cultural Affairs Department to Gabel’s daughter, Sukhreet, in order to influence the judge to reduce Capasso’s alimony payments from $1,500 a week to $500.
Perhaps the most unusual aspect of the trial occurred when Sukhreet Gabel testified for nine days against her mother, telling the court how she taped conversations with her mother and brought some of her mother’s documents to the prosecutor.
The case also saw New York Mayor Ed Koch testify against his friend of 25 years, who was considered instrumental in helping Koch first get elected mayor in 1977.
Myerson, 43-year-old Capasso and Judge Gabel, 76, were all charged with conspiracy, three counts of fraud and bribery.
In addition, Myerson was also accused of obstruction of justice, a charge that she tried to induce Sukhreet Gabel to testify falsely in the investigation.