Picks and Pans Review: Queen Bess
by Jennifer Preston
Writing a book about a well-reported scandal can prove a daunting task. One solution is to dig up as much background as possible and present it straightforwardly, in the hope that readers are desperate for every shred of detail. The other is not to bother finding anything new, but to overreach for a "theme" with which to hit the reader over the head as many times as possible.
A corollary might be that, when two authors publish their treatments simultaneously, the better known—in this case Alexander, who also wrote a book about Jean Harris, another famous woman who fell from grace—will choose the theme system. It allows the famous writer to indulge her own opinions while the first-time author sticks to the facts.
Although she calls Queen Bess (Contemporary, $19.95) an "unauthorized biography," Preston did have contact with Bess Myerson, the ex-Miss America who was tried on and acquitted of criminal charges of influencing a judge to fix her boyfriend's divorce settlement. A reporter covering the so-called Bess Mess for New York Newsday, Preston convinced Myerson to talk about her Bronx childhood, her ambitious, domineering mother and the events leading up to her becoming the first and only Jewish Miss America, in 1945.
The rest—Myerson's appointment to the New York Department of Consumer Affairs, her TV career (as a panelist on I've Got a Secret, among other shows), her two troubled marriages, her role in the election of Mayor Ed Koch, her relationship with married sewer contractor Andy Capasso, her most recent position as New York cultural affairs commissioner, her two arrests for shoplifting—is pieced together from published materials and interviews with former and current Myerson friends and enemies.
Because so much has been written about Myerson (she co-wrote 1987's Miss America, 1945), Preston was at pains to make her book seem fresh. Mostly, she piles on details. Preston tells us, for example, that when the Miss America contestant discovered her regulation bathing suit was too small, her two-sizes-larger sister Sylvia slept in it all night to stretch it. Preston doesn't just mention Myerson's Fatal Attraction-like harassment of her ex-lover (John Jakobson, on whose doorstep a shopping bag full of human excrement was mysteriously left); she quotes some of the crude, obscene letters Myerson wrote almost in full. Likewise, Myerson's well-documented skinflint tendencies: Preston writes that as cultural affairs commissioner, Myerson once rewrapped and gave away flowers that had been sent to her. If it's Myerson minutiae you're after, here it is.
Alexander, on the other hand, couldn't care less about small things; in When She Was Bad (Random House, $19.95), she's too busy trying to write a "big book" about four women who were, the cover blurb intones, "brought down by love." The four are Myerson, Judge Hortense Gabel, Gabel's daughter Sukhreet (whom Myerson hired, allegedly to influence the mother to reduce Capasso's alimony payments and whose testimony for the prosecution failed to impress the jury) and Nancy Capasso, the betrayed wife.
The premise, at first, seems reasonable: How did four smart, achieving, modern women get into such an old-fashioned mess over a man? But Alexander's book descends into offensive generalizations. "The dread old Disease to Please," she writes, is "still epidemic among women today." About Capasso she says: "The Latin male behaves in certain ways, and Capasso was not only Latin, he was Neapolitan."
While her book devotes more space than Preston's to the other players in the soap opera, Alexander goes overboard trying to connect them in a lazy meanwhile-back-at-the-ranch style of journalism: "By spring 1969, Sukhreet Gabel, whom we last saw in the maternity ward of St. Clare's Hospital," one section begins. "When last we saw Sukhreet Gabel," starts a later one.
The phrase-o-matic prose continues. We're told that an inquiry "opened a can of worms," that "the gods were smiling on our four heroines," and that there was "rot" in "certain parts of the Apple."
Even clichéd writing could be forgiven if Alexander made a real case. Instead, she repeats the same points. The root of Myerson's woes was her mother, who didn't love her enough. Gabel had the opposite problem: She loved her daughter too much. Nancy Capasso was the proverbial last-to-know wife and Sukhreet, a hostile, ambivalent daughter. To use one hackneyed expression Alexander left out—so, what else is new?
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