Bess Myerson Resigns as New York Commissioner of Cultural Affairs Summary

  • Last updated on November 11, 2022

Bess Myerson, a former Miss America, television personality, columnist, and consumer advocate, was appointed New York City’s commissioner of cultural affairs by Mayor Edward I. Koch. She was indicted, then acquitted on charges of bribery, conspiracy, and mail fraud in a case involving her lover, contractor Carl Capasso. Capasso had bribed the judge, Hortense W. Gabel, by helping her daughter get a job in Myerson’s city department.

Summary of Event

Born in the Bronx to Russian immigrant parents, Bess Myerson was the first Jewish woman to win the Miss Miss America;Bess Myerson[Myerson] America title. She entered the contest because she wanted a new piano for her graduate studies in music. In the following decades, she made numerous television appearances on shows such as The Big Payoff, The Jackie Gleason Show, The Name’s the Same, and I’ve Got a Secret. [kw]Myerson Resigns as New York Commissioner of Cultural Affairs, Bess (Apr. 9, 1987) Myerson, Bess Koch, Edward I. New York City;Myerson scandal "Bess mess"[Bess mess] Bribery;Bess Myerson[Myerson] Capasso, Carl Gabel, Hortense W. Myerson, Bess Koch, Edward I. New York City;Myerson scandal "Bess mess"[Bess mess] Bribery;Bess Myerson[Myerson] Capasso, Carl Gabel, Hortense W. [g]United States;Apr. 9, 1987: Bess Myerson Resigns as New York Commissioner of Cultural Affairs[02280] [c]Corruption;Apr. 9, 1987: Bess Myerson Resigns as New York Commissioner of Cultural Affairs[02280] [c]Government;Apr. 9, 1987: Bess Myerson Resigns as New York Commissioner of Cultural Affairs[02280] [c]Politics;Apr. 9, 1987: Bess Myerson Resigns as New York Commissioner of Cultural Affairs[02280] [c]Law and the courts;Apr. 9, 1987: Bess Myerson Resigns as New York Commissioner of Cultural Affairs[02280]

Myerson became an icon for civil rights during her beauty pageant days when she refused to change her name to the pseudonym Beth Merrick to make it sound less Jewish. In response, numerous sponsors, including the Ford Motor Company, Ford Motor Company and events associated with the pageant refused to deal with her. A country club denied her admission to its facilities. She traveled around the United States for the Anti-Defamation League, speaking against Anti-Semitism[AntiSemitism] anti-Semitism. She became involved in New York politics during the 1960’s and 1970’s, serving as New York City’s first commissioner of consumer affairs.

In 1977, Myerson was a frequent companion to Edward I. Koch during his campaign for mayor of New York City, dispelling rumors that Koch was gay. In 1980, Myerson ran for the Democratic nomination to the U.S. Senate and lost by a slim margin. Her presidential appointments included sitting on committees for Lyndon B. Johnson, Gerald R. Ford, and Jimmy Carter. In 1983, Koch appointed Myerson commissioner of New York City’s Department of Cultural Affairs, after the position had been turned down by former first lady Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis Onassis, Jacqueline Kennedy and opera star Sills, Beverly Beverly Sills. The department’s principal function is to care for the city’s cultural institutions, such as its museums, theaters, art centers, and gardens, although it fulfills other functions, such as facilitating and funding free public performances and concerts as well as small arts groups.

Myerson’s tenure was marred by political and personal scandal. In a 1983 divorce case, a Bronx sewer contractor, Carl Capasso, was accused of bribing New York State Supreme Court justice Hortense W. Gabel to cut his alimony payments by inducing Myerson to give the judge’s daughter, Suhkreet Gabel, a job as a special assistant in her department in 1983. (Gabel, who resigned in 1987, was indicted, then acquitted in late 1988 for her role in the case against Capasso.) Capasso was Myerson’s lover.

Myerson had been summoned before a federal grand jury investigating Capasso’s alleged bribery, but she invoked her Fifth Amendment rights to not testify against him. She did this despite Mayor Koch’s earlier assertion that he would consider a refusal to appear before a grand jury grounds for dismissing any high-ranking city employee, including Myerson. In a report commissioned by the mayor and written by Harold Tyler, a former federal judge, there were numerous infractions and other ethical issues to be concerned about.

Further investigations, led by U.S. attorney Rudy Giuliani, revealed that Suhkreet Gabel had been unfit for the government position she was given by Myerson. Gabel’s former employers included a massage parlor, and she had a history of mental instability. At the time she was hired, the mayor’s assistant, Herbert Rickman, raised questions about her qualifications, but the mayor was reassured by Myerson that Gabel was the most qualified candidate. She failed to mention, however, that no other candidates had been interviewed. Rickman, who was not the most reliable witness, told federal investigators that he was in the early stages of Alzheimer’s disease. It was later revealed that an assistant commissioner, Richard Bruno, helped create a false story to justify Gabel’s hire. The post had been eliminated and then re-created specifically to make the hire possible.

In the meantime, during the last months of the grand jury investigations, Capasso was convicted in a separate criminal case for Tax evasion;Cal Caprasso[Caprasso] tax evasion. He was sentenced to four years in prison and fined $500,000. A federal grand jury then indicted Myerson, Capasso, and Judge Gabel for their roles in hiring Gabel’s daughter in exchange for reducing Capasso’s alimony payments.

The scandal proved stressful for Myerson. Just before her trial opened, she was arrested and fined for shoplifting forty-four dollars worth of merchandise from a shop in a small Pennsylvania town. Her spoils included six bottles of nail polish, five pairs of earrings, a pair of shoes, and flashlight batteries. She was in the area to visit Capasso at the Allenwood Federal Prison Camp. Other past indiscretions were uncovered by the media, including a London shoplifting charge from decades earlier as well as later police reports of dozens of anonymous phone calls and abusive letters to people involved in personal relationships that affected Myerson’s romantic involvements. Myerson’s Cultural Affairs Commission staff described her as effective but not personable. A former deputy commissioner went so far as to call her “the meanest manager I ever saw.”

The trial exposed details of Myerson’s unethical behavior, including having city employees run personal errands for her—such as grocery shopping and picking up dry cleaning—and she failed to disclose lavish gifts such as jewelry and a Mercedes sedan from Capasso, who had been a city contractor. Other erratic behavior included attending a morning meeting in hair curlers and talking through the first act of an opera before leaving at intermission.

Midway through the trial, Judge Kevin Thomas Duffy withdrew after U.S. attorney Giuliani submitted a motion to disqualify him on the basis that he had failed to disclose the extent of his relationship with one of Gabel’s lawyers as well as with Gabel herself. Duffy, who said he was withdrawing because he resented the prosecution’s tactics so much that he could no longer remain impartial, charged that Giuliani’s motion had been driven by the judge’s strict orders regarding publicity. Duffy had rebuked Giuliani for leaks of grand jury information that the judge believed could only have come from him. Duffy had an established contentious relationship with prosecutors. He accused them of delaying their response to defense motions in order to delay the trial, although he did not specify their motivation in doing so.

Duffy was replaced by Judge John F. Keenan, who was selected at random from the pool of active judges in federal district court. Myerson was indicted, then resigned on April 9, 1987. She was ultimately acquitted, as were Capasso and Judge Gabel.


Myerson was not the only city official accused of corruption during the administration of Mayor Koch. Other officials whose actions were examined in court during the Koch years included transportation commissioner Anthony R. Ameruso and comptroller Alan G. Hevesi. Despite the scandals, Koch’s work led to an overall improvement in city services and the lowest unemployment rate in twelve years. Nonetheless, the Myerson scandal led to the end of the Koch era.

Even Myerson’s detractors admitted that, in general, the Department of Cultural Affairs had been handled well during her tenure as its commissioner. She was a conscientious and thorough advocate for the department, whose budget doubled from $60 million to $123.5 million, making it second in the nation only to the federal National Endowment for the Arts in the amount of government funding it administered.

After her resignation, Myerson remained a frequent philanthropist. She helped found the Museum of Jewish Heritage, where she established the Bess Myerson Film and Video Collection, and she endowed the Bess Myerson Campus Journalism Awards given out by the Anti-Defamation League each year. Myerson, Bess Koch, Edward I. New York City;Myerson scandal "Bess mess"[Bess mess] Bribery;Bess Myerson[Myerson] Capasso, Carl Gabel, Hortense W.

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Alexander, Shana. When She Was Bad. New York: Random House, 1990. Focuses on the Myerson scandal and the circumstances behind Myerson’s employment of Judge Gabel’s daughter.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Mollenkopf, John H. A Phoenix in the Ashes: The Rise and Fall of the Koch Coalition in New York. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1994. Lays out and explicates the major events of the Koch administration, including the Myerson scandal, and discusses the relationship between Koch and Myerson.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Preston, Jennifer. Queen Bess: The Unauthorized Biography of Bess Myerson. New York: Contemporary Books, 1990. An unauthorized biography of Myerson that explores the scandal and its aftermath on her life.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Seidemann, Joel. In the Interest of Justice: Great Opening and Closing Arguments of the Last One Hundred Years. New York: HarperCollins, 2005. Includes arguments from the Myerson legal case from both the defense and the prosecution.

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Categories: History