Ruined by scandal, a fallen New York icon finds peace with her daughter in Santa Monica
By Christina Campodonico
Beautiful, eloquent, scintillating … forceful.
These are the words that writer and actress Barra Grant uses to describe her mother — the late New York socialite and political booster Bess Myerson, who initially dazzled the world as the first (and still only) Miss America of Jewish descent and ultimately shocked it with a mob-linked corruption scandal so stunning the press gave it a name: “the Bess Mess.”
Myerson went on to spend her twilight years in Santa Monica, living outside the spotlight in an oceanfront high-rise near the north end of Palisades Park. But before her good name went down in flames, “She was an icon,” says Grant, who’s tackling her mother’s larger-than-life persona in a one-woman show called show “Miss America’s Ugly Daughter: Bess Myerson & Me,” now playing at The Edye inside The Broad Stage.
“Among the Jewish people, the mothers all wanted their sons to marry someone like Bess Myerson,” says Grant. “And they wanted their daughters to become someone like Bess Myerson.”
After becoming Miss America 1945, Myerson became the elegant “Lady in Mink” on the TV gameshow “The Big Payoff” as well as an outspoken advocate for civil rights, speaking against anti-Semitism (sponsors fled the pageant when she won) on behalf of the Anti-Defamation League.
New York Mayor John V. Lindsay appointed Myerson the city’s first-ever commissioner of consumer affairs, and she successfully pushed through “unit pricing” on shopping labels and the Consumer Protection Act of 1969, which returned $5 million to defrauded customers. She became a consumer consultant for Bristol-Myers and Citibank, coined the word “shamburgers” for patties not made with 100% beef, skewered “fresh” labels on frozen fish, and outed a toy manufacturer’s baby rattles for being filled with sharp metal shrapnel.
In the 1970s she was the right-hand woman of then New York City mayoral candidate Ed Koch — marching with him in parades, holding hands with him on subways, and campaigning with him “arm in arm,” as reported in a 1977 New York magazine profile of not Koch but Myerson. Both insisted that there was nothing romantic between them, but the association turned them both into political stars, at least for a while. (She became his cultural affairs commissioner and even made a run for U.S. Senate.)
And way before the nixing of Miss America’s ever-controversial swimsuit competition earlier this summer, Myerson was conducting a little revolution of her own. In the pageant program for the year she won her title, Myerson — a college graduate — appeared in that leaflet wearing a cap and gown, while the rest of her competitors sported swimsuits for their competition photos.
“All the girls were blonde and a little chubby,” says Grant. “My mother, her only picture was in a cap with a tassel and a black gown. She was very embarrassed to wear a bathing suit. There was nothing about Jewish culture that was supportive of going to Atlantic City to compete in a bathing suit.”
Even though Myerson did borrow a swimsuit and sported a particularly snug number to claim the crown, Grant believes that her mother would approve of this year’s changes to Miss America’s programming.
“She was a feminist with Gloria Steinem and Jackie Onassis. She walked down the street with them, with their arms around each other,” Grant says of her mother.
And yet Grant also recognizes that her mother spent much of her life seeking the love and approval of men, often concealing the fact that she was a single mom to potential suitors. One affair in particular — with the wealthy sewer contractor Andy Capasso, who reportedly had ties to the mob — was what enmeshed her in the 1987 judicial bribery and conspiracy scandal forever known as the Bess Mess.
“She fell in love with the mafia guy,” says Grant. “She was very susceptible to men that might not have been good choices.”
Even though Myerson was acquitted of attempting to bribe a judge as part of a conspiracy to lower Capasso’s alimony payments, the scandal got top billing in her obituaries in The New York Times, Washington Post and Los Angeles Times. Myerson, who is buried at Woodlawn Cemetery, died at age 90 in December 2014, but the papers didn’t learn of her passing until January 2015. She and Grant had deliberately kept a low profile as they made up for lost time together.
Grant’s memories of her mother are mixed. On the one hand, there’s the “scintillating” beauty queen who could walk into a room and charm everyone with her 5’-10” frame, bounce-back curly brown hair and “effervescent personality.” On the other, there’s the woman who was something of a narcissist, criticized her daughter’s looks, neglected her as a child and probably married Grant’s adoptive father, entertainment lawyer Arnold Grant, purely for money.
“My mom had a company presence, and then she had a behind-the-closed-door presence. … Hers were very disparate,” says Grant.
Growing up, Grant had to not only deal with the brightness of her mother’s star (and the long shadow it cast), but also compete with it.
“My mom was always very preoccupied. She was either preoccupied with being famous or getting boyfriends,” she says. “She worked all day, and went to the Stork Club at night.”
A self-described “chubby” and “buck-toothed” child, Grant also felt she couldn’t hold a candle to her mother’s world-famous beauty — hence the word “ugly” in the play’s title.
“Even when she wasn’t Miss America anymore, she was a celebrity, and she was very beautiful, and always looked very beautiful, and I never looked like that,” Grant says. “Once you have a childhood where you’re very insecure about what you look like, you’re never quite assured or secure that you look ‘OK.’ … Once you’re imprinted and once you’re criticized, it’s very tough to turn that around because your mother is the first person who’s supposed to look at you with unconditional love and think you’re amazing. If you don’t get 100% of that, it’s tough to provide it for yourself.”
With her mother away on television sets being the Vanna White of her day —after “The Big Payoff,” Myerson became a panelist on the TV quiz show “I’ve Got a Secret” — Grant aspired to enter the glitzy world of television, too.
“I wanted to be famous. Everybody was always paying a lot of attention to her, and I thought, ‘Wow, if I were famous, people would pay attention to me,’” says Grant.
After high school, Grant attended drama school in London, gained some professional acting credits through the Mark Taper Forum, then later moved into writing screenplays and script doctoring in L.A. She even mounted a 1994 theatrical production with her mom’s backing about a mother and daughter at the end of their ropes toying with a loaded gun on the night of a party.
At the time, Grant and Myerson insisted to the Los Angeles Times that the contentious mother-daughter play was not based on their relationship, but Grant’s “Miss America’s Ugly Daughter” is definitely personal — a way for her to reconcile with her mother’s complex and complicated memory, and its impact on her life, in an honest and slightly unconventional way.
The show is not a straight-up autobiography, says Grant, but a dark comedy that playfully and at times irreverently riffs on late-night, bicoastal phone calls that Grant had with her mother or imagined over the years. In one scene, Myerson (voiced by Emmy-winning comedy writer and comedian Monica Piper) calls Grant to declare that she wants to kill herself and has lined up all the little pills she’ll need to do it, but then goes on to talk about needing to lose four pounds on her new carrot diet — her obsession with keeping her figure trim overshadowing her suicidal impulse.
“My mother wasn’t very funny as a person. She was interesting, but comedy wasn’t her métier,” says Grant. “I imbued [her] character in the show with a tremendously comedic tone — not that she knows she’s funny, she just is. … It’s very much centered around finding a comedic glance on all the things that were true about her.”
Painful emotional baggage, differing tastes (“I was a hippie. … I wore a lot of black, and a lot of raccoon eyes. That wasn’t her style,” says Grant) and burgeoning careers on their respective coasts created a distance between Grant and her mom, but the chasm closed in Myerson’s later years in Santa Monica, where an ocean view became a welcome refuge from the scandal that bore her name.
“Here, it wasn’t a big deal at all,” says Grant. “There was something very ironically comforting to her that she wasn’t so much in the public eye, so she found it very peaceful.”
During the last eight to nine years of her mother’s life, Grant made a point to visit her mother every day. They’d reminisce, talk about the goings-on of life and politics, and Myerson eventually opened up about her life — including childhood poverty and emotional abuse in the Bronx — with a candor that Grant had never known.
“We formed a bond we had not had before,” says Grant, “because there was so much time. We had so much time to spend together.”
Grant says she chose to keep her mother’s death quiet to keep the ghosts of the past from looming over her mother’s legacy.
“When everyone caught up with it, I didn’t really give interviews because, listen, the thing that’s true is people love bad news, and they find good news relatively boring. So I just didn’t want that to become part of her passing,” she says.
But with “Miss America’s Ugly Daughter” she gets the chance to open up about a side of her mom few people knew, and whom she eventually came to forgive.
“One of the most important themes in the show is the theme of Michelangelo carving the stone until he sets the soul of the angel free,” says Grant. “That’s the point of the show. Forgiveness will set you free.”
“Miss America’s Ugly Daughter: Bess Myerson & Me” continues its run at 8 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays and 3 p.m. Sundays through Aug. 12 at the Edye at The Broad Stage, 1310 11th St., Santa Monica. Tickets are $55. Call (800) 838-3006 or visit missamericasuglydaughter.com