In September of 1945, just after the end of World War II, a young woman from the Bronx named Bess Myerson became the first—and, still, only—Jewish woman to win the title of Miss America.
But winning the crown was just the beginning of the battle. Myerson was urged by the pageant director to change her name to sound less Jewish and, unlike most Miss Americas before her, Myerson did not pose with Ford cars or model Catalina bathing suits. “Those companies didn’t want a Jewish woman representing them,” Myerson recalled in an interview.
After being denied entrance to a southern country club that didn’t admit Jews, Myerson accepted a post with the Anti-Defamation League, speaking out about religious and racial discrimination. Later, Myerson successfully pursued a career in television—as a panelist and MC on popular 1950s shows—as well as in politics, as New York’s first Commissioner of Consumer Affairs.
While three more decades would pass before a woman of color took the Miss America crown, Myerson’s groundbreaking win helped Americans see another image of beauty. Nearly 70 years later, though Myerson has left New York for sunnier pastures, her mark on the city—and on the generations she inspired—is indelible.