Written and performed by Barra Grant – Bess Myerson’s daughter – MISS AMERICA’S UGLY DAUGHTER comes to the Greenway Court Theatre after a successful Los Angeles run last year at the Edye Stage at the Broad in Santa Monica. Beauty queen Bess Myerson had one child early on and suddenly became a mother who was not well equipped for the task of nurturing another. After all, her own mother never appreciated Bess’ talents and found only embarrassment at having a “Miss America” winner. Jewish families did not dream of their daughters becoming beauty queens, nor did they approve. On top of that, coming from a childhood during The Great Depression, Bess would always pinch pennies and expect the worst.
When she became Miss America in 1945, Bess Myerson was in seventh heaven – but what of her only child, the daughter born during her first marriage? Barra Grant described her mother as “a narcissist (who) used her beauty all throughout her life.” Barra’s childhood – and even adulthood – was typically spent in the shadow of her famed mother. And quite a big shadow that was, what with the talented Bess, who was an accomplished pianist, New York City’s first Commissioner of Consumer Affairs, an adviser to New York Mayor Ed Koch, a candidate for the U.S. Senate, and a national spokesperson against anti-Semitism. She became a celebrity with her own television show and enjoyed limitless other possibilities connected to her renown.
The play is Barra’s odyssey, her journey from childhood to the present, under her critical mother’s constant observation and evaluation. Grant reported years of lost identity, compounded by always being introduced to others as “Bess Myerson’s daughter.” While Bess was seeking adulation and attention from others, especially men, Grant was quietly sitting on the sidelines. Even when Bess entered her senior years, at 65 she was still seeking love – this time with a 35-year-old Mafia-connected sewer contractor. The “Bess Mess” is well documented in Barra’s story, as well as Bess’ arrests for a sleazy corruption scandal and shoplifting. Through all of Bess’ ups and downs, however, Barra seemed to remain the one stable person in her mother’s quixotic life. Even if that meant getting a dozen telephone calls from her mother in the middle of every night.
But, above all, MISS AMERICA’S UGLY DAUGHTER is the story of Barra Grant’s growth as a person and her ability to forgive her mother and move on with her life. And become the mother she never had to her own daughter. There is an underlying sadness to this account – but also a breath of joy at the end when Barra begins to appreciate herself. The play is an intriguing study about what it means to be famous – and the impact that fame may have on people close to the prominent.
Kudos to playwright/performer Barra Grant for her direct and honest play – as well as to the talented Monica Piper, who is Bess Myerson’s offstage voice. Helmed by the skilled Eve Grandstein, MISS AMERICA’S UGLY DAUGHTER has lots of lessons to teach – and yet remains entertaining, clever, sometimes tearful, and frequently amusing.
MISS AMERICA’S UGLY DAUGHTER runs through March 24, 2019, with performances at 8 p.m. on Saturdays and Mondays and at 6 p.m. on Sundays. The Greenway Court Theatre is located at 544 N. Fairfax Avenue, Los Angeles, CA 90036. Tickets are $40 (Mondays $25; mothers and daughters “Buy one get one free;” students and seniors $20). For information and reservations, call 323-285-2079 or go online.