Bess Myerson: Beauty Queen, Consumer Protection Pioneer

Bess Myerson, a true consumer pioneer and hero, died this week at age 90. I never knew her professionally, which I regret. She first made her mark as a beauty queen -- she won the Miss America title in 1945 as the first, and so far only, Jewish Miss America -- and later cemented her legacy as a queen of consumer protection.

New York Mayor John V. Lindsay named Myerson as the city's first commissioner of consumer affairs. Her tenure lasted five years from 1969-1974. Critics thought she would be a lightweight. How wrong they were.

Myerson demonstrated a passion for consumer protection, and she became highly visible in the job, issuing the first city regulation in the nation that required retailers to post unit prices on a wide variety of products to make comparison shopping easy. This is something that advocates continue to fight for today, in order to help consumers make better purchasing decisions.

Myerson pushed through consumer protection laws against deceptive trade practices, chastised restaurants selling hamburgers that were less than 100 percent beef (she called them "shamburgers"), and criticized manufacturers for putting too many peanuts in jars labeled "mixed nuts." She recovered millions of dollars for defrauded consumers, published a book about consumer fraud, and wrote a column for Redbook.

Myerson served three U.S. presidents. Lyndon B. Johnson named her to a White House conference on crime and violence, Gerald R. Ford to a board dealing with workplace issues, and Jimmy Carter to commissions on mental health and world hunger.

She was also a consumer consultant to Bristol-Myers and Citibank and made frequent appearances on radio and television, hosting Miss America contests, the Tournament of Roses, and Thanksgiving Day parades.

Myerson served on the board of Consumers Union (CU) from 1971-1974, another great American institution, where I worked before joining the National Consumers League. At CU, she overlapped on the board with Ralph Nader.

She tackled challenges with guts and tenacity. After winning the Miss America contest, she found that few sponsors wanted a Jewish Miss America to endorse their products. Certain country clubs and hotels barred her as she toured the country after the pageant. Some of her appearances were canceled. Cutting the tour short, she returned to New York, where she embarked on a six-month lecture tour for the Anti-Defamation League (ADL), speaking out against prejudice with a speech titled "You Can't Be Beautiful and Hate."

In those post-WWII years, Jews were blamed by anti-Semites for getting America into the war; prejudice was rampant, not only against Jews, but also Blacks, Asians, women, and many others. What we would regard as unacceptable today was de rigueur then: Ivy League colleges had quotas for the numbers of Jews they would admit; law firms openly discriminated in their hiring practices. Myerson played a key role in calling attention to these stubborn prejudices, using her profile to denounce the social evil of discrimination and hate.

The ADL, like the National Consumers League, was founded during the Progressive Era and has a long and admirable history of fighting prejudice and anti-Semitism. I was there early in my career and learned the ugly history of anti-Semitism in America. We were grateful that advocates like Myerson fought to change the public's prejudices and misperceptions about Jews.

In 1977, Myerson campaigned for Rep. Edward I. Koch in his successful race for mayor, "Koch wouldn't have won without Bess," the media consultant David Garth, who worked for both of them at different times, told New York Magazine. (Coincidentally, Mr. Garth died the day after Ms. Myerson.)

Consumers (and Jews, women, and minorities) all owe a debt of gratitude to Bess Myerson. She could have rested on her laurels as Miss America. Instead, she became a true pioneer, brave, outspoken, and a fighter for causes not fashionable in her day. What a great role model she was! I hope her legacy and contributions live on in future generations.