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by Cynthia Citron

It’s difficult to watch Barra Grant portray her mother in the biographical play that she authored without remembering the devastating biography that Christina Crawford wrote about her own mother, Joan.

Grant’s mother was Bess Myerson, the only Jewish girl ever to be named Miss America, and the title of Barra’s play, “Miss America’s Ugly Daughter”, establishes the tone of their relationship. Myerson, who remained a self-absorbed beauty queen for the rest of her life, would call her daughter on the phone in the middle of the night to talk about herself, complain about her affairs, and whine about her anxieties. It was a special form of emotional abuse, since she never expressed interest in Barra’s life, but Barra absorbed all the calls and clung to the hope that her mother would eventually stop belittling her and come to love her.

Christina Crawford’s biography, on the other hand, was a bitter and vitriolic recitation of the abuses she absorbed from her adoptive mother, Joan. The book she wrote is titled “Mommie Dearest” and it includes many instances of physical abuse. (Who can forget the endless beatings with a wire clothes-hanger?) If a movie were ever made about Crawford and Myerson, it could be called “The Bitch and the Kvetch.”

“Miss America’s Ugly Daughter” begins when Barra is 27 years old, as she waits for her mother to disembark from a plane from which she has stolen all the blankets. Her mother’s greeting is, “You look old!”

It’s not hard to understand why Barra “daydreamed about becoming an orphan.”

Her father, Allan Wayne, might have provided the emotional support she needed, but she says ruefully, “He loved my mother so much, he never knew how much I loved him.”

Myerson’s second husband was Arnold Grant, “a shmillionaire”, unattractive and old, according to Barra, but Bess was looking forward to becoming his rich widow. That marriage ended suddenly, however, when Grant peeked into his wife’s diary and discovered that she had written, “I wish Arnold would die already!” But since Arnold had adopted Barra, her name became Barra Grant, the name she still holds.

Then there were the episodes with “shrinks”. Barra felt that her job was to “entertain” the shrink, but unfortunately he fell asleep. Bess’ meetings with her own psychiatrist encompassed her complaints about her daughter. “My daughter lost her virginity behind my back!” she wailed.

Both women were lonely and often depressed. “Being me is not what it’s cracked up to be,” Bess confessed. But love came to Barra suddenly in the form of a man named Brian Reilly. Because she was already pregnant, they married quickly and had a big wedding with the Jews sitting on one side of the church and Brian’s Irish contingent on the other. “When the ceremony was over,” Barra relates, “the priest and the rabbi hugged each other, the Irish wept, and the Jews fixed their makeup.”

A few months later, when her daughter was born, Barra found herself alone with her mother. Bess, apparently unwilling to spring for a taxi to the hospital, suggested they walk. Barra, already in heavy labor, refused. And so Barra continued her labor on the subway, as they rumbled along to the hospital where she quickly gave birth.

In the midst of Barra’s calamities the epic of Bess continued. A series of love affairs were mentioned in passing, but the story darkened when Bess fell in love with a married Mafioso. The two faced a jury trial in the 1980s for bribery and conspiracy, but she was acquitted. Later, however, she was arrested in Pennsylvania for shoplifting $44 worth of earrings and cosmetics from a department store. That became a public scandal, acquiring the name “Bess’ Mess.”

Her Mafioso lover, she had learned, was a member of the notorious Gambino Family, and when she was introduced to them she was impressed by how close the members were. “Such a lovely family,” she said.

Meanwhile, Barra had begun a successful writing career and wound up becoming a screenwriter, a film director and a playwright, in addition to being a respected actress in TVand films.

Bess, capitalizing on her celebrity, also entered into a multi-faceted public career. She was a concert pianist, an early television personality, and a panelist on such popular game shows as “I’ve Got a Secret.” In 1969 she was appointed by Mayor John Lindsay as New York City’s first Commissioner of the Department of Consumer Affairs, and she later chaired Ed Koch’s successful campaign for mayor. In 1983 Koch named her Commissioner of the Department of Cultural Affairs. During this time she was also an activist for Jewish causes and spoke out vehemently against anti-Semitism.

Eventually Barra realized that “There is always love. You can’t help but love your mother. You just have to figure out how.” And at the end she became her mother’s support, remaining at her bedside and taking care of her until she died at the age of 90. Even at that age, Bess Myerson maintained her lifetime role as the feisty Miss America. “Old age isn’t supposed to happen to beauty queens!” she declared.

“Miss America’s Ugly Daughter” is directed by Eve Brandstein and features the backstage voice of Monica Piper as Bess Myerson, phoning her daughter Barra to aggravate her in perpetuity.

The play can be seen Saturdays and Mondays at 8 p.m. and Sundays at 6 p.m. through March 24th at Greenway Court Theatre, 544 N. Fairfax Ave. in Los Angeles. For tickets, call (323) 285-2078 or online to MissAmericasUglyDaughter.com

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