WHEN SHE WAS BAD: The Story of Bess, Hortense, Sukhreet and Nancy by Shana Alexander
Kirkus Star

WHEN SHE WAS BAD: The Story of Bess, Hortense, Sukhreet and Nancy

Email this review


Alexander, author of accounts of the Jean Harris and Patty Hearst cases (Very Much a Lady and Anyone's Daughter), takes on Bess Myerson. As a beautiful, verbal college graduate, Bronx-born Bess became the first Jewish Miss America and then a game-show personality (she was the ""Lady in Mink,"" a Vanna White precursor on The Big Payoff). She went on to become Commissioner of Consumer Affairs during the Lindsay administration, and racked up genuine accomplishments despite the ugly disintegration of her second marriage. When Ed Koch was campaigning for mayor of New York, Myerson was a regular fixture at his side, helping to quell rumors about his homosexuality. At a political dinner in the course of Myerson's unsuccessful bid for a Senate seat, Queens boss Donald Manes introduced her to a local contractor, Andy Capasso. The two became an item; Capasso's wife, Nancy, fried for divorce. Hortense Gabel, a respected judge and housing policy expert, was in charge of setting alimony; Myerson gave Gabel's troubled daughter, Sukhreet, a job. In the government's well-publicized case against Myerson, Capasso, and Gabel, Sukhreet collaborated with the prosecution, and even secretly taped a phone call with her mother. The three defendents were acquitted, but with serious damage to their reputations. Alexander provides bounteous detail (friends musings on Myerson's sexuality, Sukhreet's idiosyncracies) and the whole account is extremely involving, even if her technique of crosscutting between the four women is occasionally confusing. Hortense Gabel comes across as the true tragic figure here--a committed idealist whose love for her daughter seems to have prompted a fatal error. More impressionistic and psychologically speculative than Preston's Queen Bess (reviewed below), Alexander's account doggedly stalks but never manages to capture its proud, elusive principal subject. Familiar events are recapped and fleshed out, but Bess remains mysterious.