cover image Bessie


Linda Kass. She Writes, $17.95 trade paper (224p) ISBN 978-1-64742-595-1

Kass’s mediocre latest (after A Ritchie Boy) fictionalizes the life story of Bess Myerson, the first Jewish winner of the Miss America contest in 1945. The reader meets gangly Bess at 12, growing up in a tight-knit Jewish community in the Bronx. Despite being accepted into New York City’s newly formed and competitive High School of Arts and Music, Bess is constantly criticized and pushed by her mother, Bella, prompting her to cherish affirmation from others, such as a boy classmate who calls her “attractive.” After graduating from college, Bess tries out for the pageant in 1945, lured by the potential of scholarship funds for her graduate studies in music. As the pageant gets underway, Kass plays up the tension in Bess’s desire to be recognized more for her intelligence than her looks. Kass ably demonstrates how the pageant’s producers seize on the public’s appetite for a celebratory event after WWII, and she also shines a light on the era’s antisemitism (at one point, Bess is encouraged to change her last name). Unfortunately, the narrative lacks imagination, hewing fairly closely to real events, and Kass overdoes her characterization of the demanding Bella. This doesn’t quite do justice to its trailblazing subject. (Sept.)