Synopsis: “The One and Only Jewish Miss America” is the surprising story of Bess Myerson, the talented beauty queen from the Bronx, and how she won the world’s most famous beauty pageant 75 years ago, at the tail end of World War II. It is also a story of courage and breaking down barriers.
The film starts with Bess, the middle daughter of poor Russian immigrants, and her childhood in a one-bedroom Jewish housing project apartment. We see how her community and her family, especially her mother who insisted her three daughters study hard and excel in music, influenced her to become the poised and smart young woman who could compete in the Miss America pageant. In Atlantic City, Bess and her older sister, who was sent as her companion instead of her mother, brought a whirlwind of pageant activities and pressures. After all the competition scores were tallied, the judges were impressed by the college-educated musician. They chose her in spite of anonymous threatening phone calls and the sponsors’ clear disapproval of a Jewish pageant winner.
Then, on her 1945 Miss America tour, Bess continued to face antisemitism and closed doors at race-restricted venues which did not allow Jews.
After a few months on the Miss America tour, she took a new direction for the rest of the year: a tour to teach tolerance at high schools and colleges around the country. Working with the Anti-Defamation League, she traveled to educate people about the importance of respect and appreciation for others, regardless of religion or color. It was a tour which launched her lifelong passion for justice and her career in public service.
The story of Bess Myerson as the first Jewish Miss America and the antisemitism that she faced 75 years ago after the end of the Holocaust caught my imagination a number of years ago. It is the latest in a string of good stories that I have been privileged to tell on screen. As the grandson of Jewish immigrants from Russia, I was intrigued by Bess’s story. She grew up thinking she was ugly, and only entered the Miss New York City pageant in 1945 because her sister had signed her up. She won the title and then advanced to the national pageant, where she came in first in the swimsuit competition, tied for first in talent, and was the only contestant with a college degree. The judges just couldn’t vote against her, in spite of the threats they received about selecting a Jewish pageant winner. The Jewish community was jubilant when she won. However, because Bess was Jewish, the pageant sponsors reneged on the promises of a $5,000 scholarship and a new Ford car.
Overcoming many obstacles, Bess went on to accomplish great things for her city, for faith, and for civil rights and women’s rights every where.
David Arond started his career in film as a sound effects editor in Hollywood and later segued into nonfiction, storytelling, and creating documentaries for PBS, including the MacArthur Foundation Award-winning “Mother of the Year.” Other award winners include the documentaries “Houseboat Philosopher” and “Those Who Came Before.” His PBS-TV series include producing/directing the weekly program “On The Internet.”
Arond specializes in international TV and media production, having worked in Russia, Central Asia, Europe, Mexico, Latin America and Australia. In the 1990s, he was bureau chief and a broadcast journalist in Moscow for Worldwide Television News, London, and the PBS Nightly Business Report. Through his vast network of international filmmakers, David partners with some of the world’s top film crews and journalists.