Asked to describe her mother, actress and playwright Barra Grant marvels, “She was gorgeous!”
“She was 5’10, she had a beautifully sculpted face, and flowing black hair,” she continues, with a kind of awe. “And she used her beauty, all throughout her life.”
Grant herself, in contrast, was a chubby child, with frizzy hair, buck teeth, and no immediately discernible talents. In other words, she was an “ugly duckling” – something to which many of us can relate.
What was different for her was that her mother was Bess Myerson.
Myerson was the first and only Jewish Miss America, reason enough for a claim to fame; but she was also an accomplished pianist, television personality, New York City’s first Commissioner of Consumer Affairs, an adviser to Mayor Ed Koch, a candidate for U.S. Senate, and a national spokesperson against anti-Semitism. Then, in her sixties, she fell in love with Carl Andrew Capasso, a sewer contractor half her age with Mafia connections, and allegedly helped him to bribe a judge. Though she was acquitted after a four-month trial, the highly-publicized scandal turned her fame to infamy. She passed away in 2014 at the age of 90.
Growing up in the shadow of such a spectacular mother has its challenges, according to Barra Grant – who was Myerson’s only child, the product of her first marriage, to Allan Wayne, and who later adopted the surname of her stepfather, Arnold Grant.
“My mother always wanted me to be very pretty, so she could show me off,” she says. “And I never was.”
“When you grow up,” she reflects, “even if you improve, you carry this picture of yourself as a little girl. I became OK looking, but the initial part of my spirit was very affected”
To help work through some of the lingering emotional dysfunction of those formative years with her famous mother, Grant – who is herself a veteran actress, producer, screenwriter, playwright and director – wrote “Miss America’s Ugly Daughter: Bess Myerson and Me,” which is now being remounted by director Eve Brandstein at Hollywood’s Greenway Court Theatre after a successful, sold-out run last summer in the Edye at the Broad Stage in Santa Monica.
In the show, Grant performs as herself, having a middle-of-the-night phone conversation with her mother, who is played by actress and stand-up, Monica Piper. “We like to bill it as a one-woman show with two characters,” she says.
“I learned through a lot of people over the years,” she muses, “that their relationships with their mothers were not great. They just don’t talk about it – it seems irreverent to do that. But I found a way to talk about it through comedy – when you do that, it’s acceptable.”
“The two of us banter throughout the show,” she continues. “It makes it way more interesting than just me standing there talking to myself. It’s much more dramatic to have her enter my life, that way.”
Giving Myerson a presence in the play helps to ensure the audience will get the chance to connect with her side of the story, too; whatever difficulties may have arisen from being raised an iconic beauty queen, Grant has been able to find empathy for her mother’s struggles, too.
“She had a tough life,” she says. “She was given her title during a time of anti-Semitism – people spit on her, there were signs saying, ‘No Jews No Dogs.’ She had a really tough experience, and after that she carried with her a kind of fighting mentality – which is great – but she didn’t really carry a sense of how to love, or how to parent.”
“And she was unlucky with men,” Grant continues. “My real father drank too much, and he was an embarrassment. My stepfather was extremely wealthy – but also an embarrassment. And then she fell in love with the guy in the mafia – and that doesn’t help your life.”
“His friends were called ‘Manny the Fish’ and ‘Louie the Horse,’” she adds, chuckling. “She was close to the Gambino crime family because she thought they were lovely people.”
To add perspective, Grant reminds us that, though her mother’s fame has faded from public consciousness in recent decades, at the height of her fame, Myerson was big news.
“People followed her scandal in the same way they followed Marilyn Monroe – it was so profound,” she says. “Her whole world collapsed because her reputation was ruined. Her life was changed drastically.”
Though Grant’s experience as the child of a famous icon might seem a bit specific for the rest of us to relate, she thinks it strikes a chord with anyone trying to measure up to the image presented by a role model. By way of explanation, she tells a story about listening to a radio interview with filmmaker John Waters one day while she was driving.
“He said, ‘Look, all I wanted was to be Bess Myerson when I was growing up – she was my hero, I wanted to look like her, I wanted to be her – but somebody else was her, so I couldn’t be.’”
Myerson’s name on the lips of one of America’s biggest queer icons speaks volumes about her appeal and relevance to a certain generation of gay men – who traditionally have embraced the stories of strong, powerful women who struggle to rise above the obstacles in their lives.
Still, “Miss America’s Ugly Daughter” is not the Bess Myerson story – rather, Grant says, it’s the story of how to grow up and move on.
“One of the themes is that it’s okay for your mother not to be your role model,” she says. “You can pick someone else, like your kindergarten teacher or a sweet-looking lady on the subway.”
“And of course,” she hastens to add, “you have to try and forgive the trespasses that your mother may have inflicted on you – because she is your mother, and it’s healthier to love her. It’s too hard to continue with a chip on your shoulder.”
“Underneath the struggle, unless you have it really bad, there is always love,” she stresses. “You can’t help but love your mother – you just have to figure out how.”
Ultimately, though, Grant wants people to know that her show is, above all, “very funny.”
“It’s a chance to laugh at all this,” she says. “That’s important, to try and step back and see things comedically. People love to laugh, and what I love to do is to find that humor – that’s the essence of the show.”