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In Novel ‘Bessie,’ Linda Kass Takes on Antisemitism By way of the Story of the First and Solely Jewish Miss America

“Bessie was not raised to be a magnificence queen,” mentioned novelist Linda Kass of Bess Myerson. “She sought to have a voice, to make a distinction.”

Bess Myerson (1924-2014) in New York Metropolis in June 1946. Myerson was topped Miss America on the 1945 ceremony. (Graphic Home / Archive Photographs / Getty Pictures)

In early 2020, novelist Linda Kass learn an article about Bess Myerson (1924-2014), the 1945 winner of the Miss America pageant.

“My two earlier novels, Tasa’s Tune and A Ritchie Boy, had been set throughout World Battle II so I used to be extraordinarily conscious of the cultural milieu at the moment,” Kass instructed Ms. “Her win befell six days after the warfare ended and simply weeks after we’d bombed Japan. The truth that a Jewish girl received the competitors for the primary—and thus far solely—time, made me inquisitive about her.” 

Kass started studying every little thing she might discover about Myerson. She additionally started a deep dive into mid-Twentieth-century magnificence pageants and the working-class Jewish immigrant neighborhood of the Bronx the place Myerson was raised.

The result’s Bessie—an interesting historic novel that plumbs the cultural contradictions that impacted Myerson and led her to talk out in opposition to each antisemitism and racial bigotry. Bessie was launched Sept. 12.

The novel additionally showcases the launch of Myerson’s lengthy profession with the Anti-Defamation League and zeroes in on the gendered expectations of the period. Nuanced, complicated and insightful, Bessie gives readers a glimpse into the ambivalence that Myerson felt between her dream of changing into a live performance pianist and that of settling into life as a spouse and mom.

Kass and Ms. reporter Eleanor J. Bader spoke earlier than Bessie was launched. 

Eleanor J. Bader: What was most compelling to you about Bess Myerson’s formative years?

Linda Kass: Bessie was not raised to be a magnificence queen. She sought to have a voice, to make a distinction.

Bessie was virtually six ft tall by the point she was 12. She was gawky, insecure and thought of herself ugly. In center faculty, she performed Olive Oyl in a faculty manufacturing and Olive Oyl remained in her soul all through her life. Regardless of how lovely she was, she didn’t consider herself as engaging. 

As well as, I wished to make the Bronx neighborhood that raised her come alive. It was an intriguing place. Everybody in her condominium complicated, the Sholem Aleichem Cooperative Residences, was an Japanese European immigrant, most of them from Russia; everybody was Jewish. There have been 5 buildings they usually housed a lot of Bessie’s family members and household buddies. Virtually each resident was a musician or artist, a socialist or a communist.

I wished to remain true to the composition of the neighborhood and the touchstones in Bessie’s life. I hope this can give readers a way of the overcrowded condominium, the social and financial realities she confronted as a baby, teenager and younger grownup. A number of the scenes and individuals are imagined or invented, however Sholem Aleichem was not solely actual, it was among the many few locations Jews might reside in 1945. Plenty of neighborhoods had been restricted: “No Blacks, No Jews, No Canine.”

Bader: Bessie’s mom pushed her three daughters to play the piano. When Bessie took classes, her non-Jewish trainer was one of many first Christians Bessie encountered. How did this influence her?

Kass: Dorothea LaFollette (1902-1964) was Bessie’s precise piano trainer, and he or she lived on the Higher West Facet of Manhattan, a subway journey away. Dorothea was tall, like Bessie, however sleek and assured, and Bessie revered her. Dorothea made piano enjoying joyful, not like Bessie’s mother who was extra of a taskmaster, forcing her to follow, follow, follow.

Bessie’s mother wished her daughters to have the ability to help themselves and do one thing prestigious that stayed throughout the bounds of anticipated roles.

Antisemitism, racism and sexism had been virulent, and homophobia was taken as a given. The arguments voiced then are just like what we’re listening to and seeing at present.

Linda Kass

Bader: Bessie attended the Excessive Faculty of Music and Artwork which opened in 1936. How did being there influence her outlook?

Kass: The varsity was the legacy of Mayor Fiorello La Guardia and the scholars who had been accepted had been thought of one of the best and brightest in music and artwork. At commencement Bessie was voted the best-looking lady, with no recognition of her expertise. This embarrassed her. Later, she attended Hunter Faculty—which was then free to attend. With most younger males off combating in Europe, she was centered on her research, her girlfriends, instructing piano and her personal musical progress. 

Her political consciousness developed over time.

She didn’t, for instance, discover the absence of Black contestants within the Miss America pageant when she first competed.

Bader: Was this additionally true about her consciousness of sexism and gender discrimination?

Kass: At one level Bessie went to listen to Antonia Brico (1902-1989), a Dutch-born conductor and pianist. One of many books I learn talked about that seeing Brico opened Bessie’s eyes to what was potential for girls. However she additionally knew, from Dorothea and others, that ladies had to surrender quite a bit to be skilled musicians. Nonetheless, that Brico had made it was potent.  

Nonetheless, Dorothea taught piano, which is what Bessie’s mom anticipated her to do. Antonia was a star, however as Bessie obtained older, she realized that Antonia was an exception, that the majority girls don’t get to do what she’d executed. At a sure level, when all of Bessie’s buddies began to get married, she felt the pull and adopted go well with. By then, she’d additionally had sufficient of the sweetness queen function.

Bader: One in all Bessie’s massive breaks got here when newbie photographer John Pape requested her to mannequin for his images membership. The lads every contributed a small sum and paid her $5 an hour—then, an exorbitant sum.

Kass: Modeling paid much more than instructing piano. Pape and his images membership wanted a topic and Bessie was lovely. The images he took of her had been those her sister and Pape submitted to the Miss New York Metropolis competitors.

Bader: After Bessie received that title, she went on to compete nationally. Lenora Slaughter, the manager director of the Miss America competitors, advisable that she change her identify to one thing much less Jewish sounding. Why was Bessie so adamant about refusing?

Kass: Bessie’s father had as soon as instructed her to always remember who she was. She understood this as a mandate to do not forget that she was descended from Jews who’d survived antisemitism in Russia. She knew that if she modified her identify to Betty Merrick, as Slaughter steered, her household and buddies wouldn’t know if she’d been victorious. It took actual braveness for Bessie to refuse Lenora’s request.

Bader: Class enters the combination when Bessie is instructed that she has to convey three robes to the nationwide competitors. The worth tag was out of attain for her till she discovered a benefactor.

Kass: Samuel Kass was a designer who was keen to donate three robes to Bessie. He was being altruistic, however he knew that this was additionally a means for him to advertise his designs and get his identify out. I modified his identify to Samuel Knapp as a result of I assumed it would confuse readers if we had the identical surname. 

However even with the robes, Bessie was conscious about how totally different she was. Not solely was she the one contestant who’d accomplished faculty, she was the one Jew. And in contrast to the others, her mom had not accompanied her. This proved to be a reduction since her mother would have been the one mother or father who was not U.S. born and Bessie was blissful to have her sister together with her. However she was intimidated by a lot of what she encountered.

Bader: Bessie competed in Miss America as a result of the prize was a $5,000 scholarship which she mentioned she deliberate to make use of to check music in graduate faculty. But when she received, she purchased a child grand piano, a brand new flute, and enrolled in a smattering of courses. What occurred?

Kass: Bessie’s objectives shifted after she received. She was given an opportunity to play at Carnegie Corridor and was conscious that had she not been Miss America, she would by no means have been given that chance. She not believed she had the ability to be a soloist or composer. 

Bader: After Bessie turned Miss America, she spent a 12 months on tour and a number of the locations she went appeared fairly seedy. Was this true?

Kass: Sure. At one of many tour stops, the entire finalists needed to get on stage with washed-up vaudevillians. Once they had been referred to as up, they had been recognized by their measurements, not their names. It was humiliating and Bessie realized that she must work extraordinarily laborious to be seen as clever. Sadly, she needed to fulfill pageant sponsors, however the expertise raised her social consciousness and, more and more, she wished to do one thing important. For this reason she preferred visiting sufferers within the nation’s veteran’s hospitals.

Bader: Throughout her reign she met Arnold Forster on the Anti-Defamation League and started working as an ADL spokesperson. How did that evolve? 

Kass: The ADL was shaped after the mob lynching of Leo Frank, a Jewish manufacturing unit employee who’d been convicted of murdering a 13-year-old lady. He was kidnapped from jail and killed in 1915, possible by the Ku Klux Klan. Most authorities now agree that Frank was harmless. 

Bessie met Forster by her sister’s boyfriend. The ADL’s Brotherhood Marketing campaign used the tagline, “You Can’t Be Lovely and Hate.” Bessie’s speeches linked antisemitism with different types of bigotry and the marketing campaign took her to each nook of the nation. 

Bader: Let’s change gears. You talked about your analysis earlier. What texts had been most useful to you in establishing Bessie’s formative years?

Kass: Victory Metropolis: A Historical past of New York and New Yorkers by John Straughbaugh, was great and well-written. One other e-book, revealed in 1964, that actually helped was Accent on Expertise: New York’s Excessive Faculty of Music and Artwork by Benjamin Morris Steigman.  

I learn a number of articles about Miss America, too, and a licensed biography of Myerson by Susan Dworkin referred to as Miss America,1945: Bess Myerson and the 12 months that Modified Our Lives.  Dworkin’s e-book included a number of direct quotes from Myerson which helped me think about how she spoke, noticed the world, and reacted.

Bader: Racism, sexism, homophobia, transphobia and antisemitism are actually surging. Do you see Bessie as a rebuttal? 

Kass: It’s terrible that this story is so related. Within the Thirties and ’40s, American hostility towards Jews was excessive, however by 1945, the Nazis had been defeated. Nonetheless, antisemitism, racism and sexism had been virulent, and homophobia was taken as a given. The arguments voiced then are just like what we’re listening to and seeing at present. Robert Bowers went into Pittsburgh’s Tree of Life Synagogue in 2018 as a result of he wished to kill Jews. He murdered 11. Payton Gendron went to a Buffalo, New York grocery store in 2022 to kill Black individuals; he murdered 10. It boggles the thoughts. 

The work Myerson did with the ADL continues and their agenda contains countering antisemitism and combating for gender, LGBTQIA+ and racial justice. I hope individuals might be impressed by BESSIE and decide to resisting hatred and discrimination in each kind.

Up subsequent:

U.S. democracy is at a harmful inflection level—from the demise of abortion rights, to an absence of pay fairness and parental depart, to skyrocketing maternal mortality, and assaults on trans well being. Left unchecked, these crises will result in wider gaps in political participation and illustration. For 50 years, Ms. has been forging feminist journalism—reporting, rebelling and truth-telling from the front-lines, championing the Equal Rights Modification, and centering the tales of these most impacted. With all that’s at stake for equality, we’re redoubling our dedication for the subsequent 50 years. In flip, we want your assist, Help Ms. at present with a donation—any quantity that’s significant to you. For as little as $5 every month, you’ll obtain the print journal together with our e-newsletters, motion alerts, and invites to Ms. Studios occasions and podcasts. We’re grateful to your loyalty and ferocity.

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