Smack in the middle of my undergrad years at New York University, I dropped out for a time. The reasons are no longer important, but to get back into school — and free tuition — I got hired as a full-time receptionist at NYU’s august Office of Undergraduate Admissions. All kinds of people, especially the famous and notable, came through. There was Javier Pérez de Cuéllar, then Secretary-General of the United Nations, with one of his children; there was actor Mindy Cohn, of The Facts of Life sitcom fame, whose refusal to fill out an idiotic form turned into a not-so-hilarious contretemps. And there was David Hampton, the grifter who sparked John Guare’s play Six Degrees of Separation. Sitting upstairs in one of the small offices, meanwhile, was a young woman named Andrea Dukakis.
It was 1989. Dukakis’ father, Michael, had just made an unsuccessful run for President against George H.W. Bush. But you’d never know: Andrea was unassuming and delightful and always, always kind; she never wore her link to fame on her sleeve. One day as I was coming to work, I spotted a huge media phalanx outside our office, on Washington Square North. News had broken that Andrea’s mother, Kitty, ingested a small amount of rubbing alcohol. Even though the election was long over and Andrea’s mother was not First Lady, the story suddenly swamped the headlines.
Now the phone rang. Andrea, holed up in her office, begged me not to tell any pushy news crew member of her whereabouts. Of course, those reporters knew better, and they stayed outside all day, trapping Andrea inside. Still, I did my best — none of the reporters ever did make it into the building. Later, Andrea thanked me for protecting her, though I hardly felt I’d done anything quite so heroic. In that moment between us, though, I sensed something important, something tragic, about what it really means to be the child of celebrity.
No one asks to be born to fame, celebrity or notoriety. And while the cynic in us might roll our eyes at the so-called “problems” of the children of privilege, those problems can turn very real and very frightening very quickly. I thought of Andrea as I started to research Barra Grant, the daughter of Bess Myerson, who, in the immediate aftermath of World War II, became the first Jewish Miss America.
Myerson’s name may be less recognizable today, but for more than five decades it was all but synonymous with society and politics. During the 1950s and ’60s, she was regularly on TV as a pitch-woman, game-show guest and what today we’d whimsically call a talking head. NYC Mayor John Lindsay appointed Myerson to be his Commissioner of Consumer Affairs; NYC Mayor Ed Koch, said to be dating Myerson, appointed her as his Commissioner of Cultural Affairs. If, in more quiet rooms, Myerson was well known to be Koch’s beard more than his babe, her genuine romance with a mafia-entangled sewer contractor, Andy Capasso, led to a nightmare that involved the bribing of a judge and, fatefully, Myerson being indicted (and then acquitted), her reputation thus destroyed.
Grant grew up in Myerson’s shadow, to put it mildly. She never remotely felt like she could compete with her mother or match her achievements. Even as an adult who married and had a child of her own, Grant struggled to forge an identity separate from one of the most notable and accomplished of American women. She did achieve this — Grant is an actor, a screenwriter, a film director and a playwright. But did she ever reach escape velocity from the long penumbra of her mother’s fame?
Grant’s solo show, Miss America’s Ugly Daughter: Bess Myerson and Me, running through March 1 at The Marjorie S. Deane Little Theater (10 W. 64th St.), let’s everybody find out. The title signals rough waters, maybe score-settling, straight ahead. In fact, Grant is most unsparing in how she recalls her mother, who was unquestionably a world-class narcissist. What redeems the play — and this mother-daughter tale — is Grant’s ability to forgive and, thereby, to finally flourish as Barra Grant, not flounder as some famous woman’s progeny.
For tickets to Miss America’s Ugly Daughter: Bess Myerson and Me, click here.
The following interview with Barra Grant has been lightly edited for clarity and concision.
Leonard Jacobs: One of the reviews refers to the play as an exorcism. I’m curious if you respond well to that or if you take umbrage to it.
Barra Grant: I don’t think of it as an exorcism. The most important thing is I took a lot of facts and made it humorous, so it’s basically a mother-daughter story more than anything else. I find if I portray our relationship with humor, it’s very cathartic. I think all drama has to be heightened from what really happened, so it’s cathartic, but not an exorcism — I have a great deal of respect for my mother. People who worked for her were often in awe of her intellect, combined with how obviously beautiful she was. I think when she walked into a room, she commanded the space, and people listened and did what they were told to do. I go into my mother, her character, her power.
LJ: Power? That’s an interesting word.
BS: There was a consciousness that she had power. It was over me; it was over a lot of people, particularly those who worked for her. She was a powerful creature and she had a lot of obstacles to overcome after she won the pageant. It was 1945 and a lot happened to her because of anti-Semitism.
LJ: As your mother aged, was there a transfer of power in your relationship from her to you?
BS: I never saw a transfer. When she was much older, obviously I was in a position where I took care of her, but she remained very important and incisive character who retained her power to a very late age. She was still speaking out against bigotry and hatred in her 60s and 70s. Then she had about eight or 10 years where she retreated from the public and took care of herself.
LJ: Given who your mother was and how she raised you, does this show find you angry, resenting, forgiving?
BS: I would say that I understand a lot more about her and her relationship with her own mother. Her mother was not a kind person and my mother had to struggle with that. I felt compassion toward the end of my mother’s life. It was gradual but, when it burgeoned, it was very powerful and I treasured those last couple of years with her.
LJ: Do you think manipulative people — assuming you’d agree that your mother was manipulative — do it out of insecurity?
BS: I don’t think she was profoundly insecure. I think she was wounded by her childhood experience — and after she won the pageant.
LJ: When did you know you were going to write this play?
BG: Mostly after her death. There are things I’d written before in terms of my relationship with men, my husband and my own daughter, but largely what I wrote about my mother was after she passed.
LJ: If your mother could see the play, her reaction would be what?
BG: I think she’d be surprised, proud and she’d be a little daunted. Hopefully she’d find the humor; hopefully, she’d share in the humor. Poking fun at myself and her is very liberating and also a great trajectory to pursue in order to talk about the difficulties in her life and my life.
LJ: How did your mother’s scandal and indictment affect you?
BS: I was always a step behind what was happening. I was living in LA, so my experience was after it happened. My mother was very happy with the man; she fell in love with him. That was also a determining factor in criticizing her or in trying to change her behavior.
LJ: Did she have regrets in life? Do you?
BS: She certainly regretted the whole scandal and I felt sorry it had to happen because it created a groundswell of criticism. It became much less easy for her to function in NYC. Her name was tarnished and that was difficult for her — and for me, because I felt sorry that it had to happen and I felt sad. But it had to happen. In the end, she picked herself up started all over again. She was like a phoenix.
LJ: I’m curious if people speak to you after the play and ask you questions.
BS: They don’t ask me questions so much as comment on their own life. Their recognize how mother-daughter relationships can be difficult and how forgiveness is essential to become free. They take my story and reflect it back on their own. You always write for other people.
LJ: Surely you wrote this for yourself, too.
BS: If you only write for myself, it’s an unrewarding and narcissistic place to come from.
LJ: Your mother was a companion of Mayor Koch, who today we know was almost certainly gay. Was your mother comfortable as Koch’s “beard”?
BS: My mother never felt Ed was gay. She felt he was asexual. It was the people around in his campaign that wanted to make sure he was seen with my mouther. She loved him. But the gay issue wasn’t part of her thinking.