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Bess and Lillian


Bess Myerson, Miss America 1945

Lillian Lux, Star of Yiddish Theater 1918-2005

It was 1971 that my wife Lenore and I and her parents were invited to spend the weekend at the summer home of Irving and Feige Lustig in Bloomingburg, New York. The Lustigs were cousins of my in-laws. They called their home Irving's Villa. It was near the old Route 17, the road to Monticello and the Catskill Mountains, nicknamed The Jewish Alps. Lenore and I had to rent a room at a neighbor's house as the Villa was not big enough for all of us. And who was the neighbor? None other than Bella Myerson, the mother of Miss America 1945, Bess Myerson.

It was not until a few years later that I met Bess Myerson. Lenore and I went to a performance in Manhattan at Lincoln Center's outdoor Goldman Band Shell. The show was sponsored by The Workman's Circle and featured the singers Bruce Adler and Mike Burstyn. Bess was there. I introduced myself and I told her about my stay at her mother's house. Plus I told her that my sister Dora was her classmate at Hunter College, Class of 1945. Bess was not impressed. But I was. She was beautiful, tall at 5 foot 10 inches (1.78m), talented. She was an accomplished pianist and flautist and received a scholarship to Julliard. Bess went on to do graduate work at Columbia University. After that she became involved in New York City politics and worked for Mayors John Lindsay and Ed Koch.

As Miss America, Bess toured the U.S. for a year. She was a proud Jew and she would not change her name to make it sound less Jewish. It was then she first encountered anti-Semitism. Some sponsors of the pageant pulled out because Bess was Jewish. Some hotels and clubs would not allow or serve Jews. As a result Bess fought back by speaking on behalf of the Anti-Defamation League (ADL). She was a supporter of the New York Museum of Jewish Heritage. She was involved in a number of Jewish causes, including appearing at fundraising events on behalf of Israel Bonds.

Bess was a model and an actress. She appeared on numerous TV panel shows. She married and divorced a couple of times and had one daughter. She came from a humble background. Her parents were Russian immigrants to New York City, her father a house-painter, her mother was barely able to write or read English. Bess grew up surrounded by friends of the same socio-economic status as she. She said, "To me the whole world was Jewish." At the age of 12, Bess was already tall and beautiful. There were some rough spots along the way. She was among the 35 percent who survived ovarian cancer at the time, and became a strong supporter of cancer research in the U.S. and Israel. "It's those who choose life who survive," she said. "That's what the Torah tells us. We Jews are supposed to choose life."

Another rough time for Bess Myerson was in 1987, when she was forced to resign as Mayor Ed Koch's Commissioner of Cultural Affairs due to bribery and conspiracy charges. Her then boyfriend was wealthy New York sewer contractor Andy Capasso. He was married and going through an ugly divorce. Myerson was accused of trying to influence a judge in the case by giving the judge's daughter a job as her assistant. The story gets crazier. The judge was a social friend of Myerson and reduced Capasso's alimony payments substantially. Indictments followed for trying to fix the payments in Capasso's favor. But the daughter of the judge appeared to be unreliable and the jury acquitted the defendants of all charges.

There is more. In 1988 Myerson was arrested on shoplifting charges for taking $44 of cosmetics and other items from a store in Williamsport, Pennsylvania. She was worth $16 million at the time of her arrest. Myerson pleaded guilty and paid $148 in fines and other court costs.

In 1997, Myerson pledged $1.1 million to the Holocaust Museum of Jewish Heritage in Manhattan. She endowed a $100,000 scholarship fund, the Bess Myerson Campus Journalism Awards given by the Anti-Defamation League. She also worked for SHARE, an organization that provides free support and counseling to women with breast and ovarian cancer.

Bess Myerson moved to Florida in 2002 and then to California where she died at the age of 90 in Santa Monica. For more about Bess Myerson's life, read Susan Dworkin's book, "Miss America, 1945."

Now back to the Goldman Band Shell. In the audience was Mike Burstyn's mother, Yiddish singer and actress Lillian Lux. Born in Brooklyn as Lillian Lukashevsky, she did change her name. Not because it was too Jewish, it was just too long. In her younger days Lillian would perform with the singer Pesach Burstein in the Catskills. A young comedian there by the name of Danny Kaye was in love with Lillian and wanted to marry her but Pesach took her and his show on the road to Argentina and Uruguay, where he married Lillian. Ultimately they started a family...Mike and twin sister Susan.

As a kid, my parents would take me to Yiddish vaudeville shows where I first heard Lillian sing "Mein Shtetele Belz". My Sabra first-cousin, Sara, was a cousin of Mike's first wife, Edith. Unfortunately, Edith passed away young. Lillian knew Sara and asked me to stay to meet Mike after the show. I told Lillian in Yiddish that Lenore and I could not stay. A few years later Mike was in Manhattan starring in a Yiddish musical. This time I stayed and went backstage. I had a VHS tape of the Burstyn family show, The Komediant, which Mike autographed for me.

It was my privilege to meet these two outstanding women who contributed so much to Jewish life. 

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