Tuesday, September 12, 2023

Q&A with Linda Kass


Photo by Lorn Spolter


Linda Kass is the author of the new novel Bessie, which focuses on the life of Bess Myerson, the only Jewish Miss America. Kass's other novels include Tasa's Song. She is the founder and owner of Gramercy Books in Columbus, Ohio.


Q: What inspired you to write this novel based on the life of Bess Myerson (1924-2014)?


A: In early 2020, I read an article about the Miss America pageants that mentioned Bess Myerson’s win. I was quite aware of her receiving the title and knew that she was Jewish, a first and only. Having written two historical novels set during World War II, I was also well versed in the precise timing of all events of the war, including the events during the late summer of 1945.


So, when I read that Bess Myerson won the crown on September 8, 1945, six days after the official end of World War II and weeks after bombs fell on Japan, it struck me as an improbable and extraordinary choice, given the sentiment of bigotry at the time. It made me curious to explore her life and learn what I didn’t know about her.


Q: How did you research Myerson's life, and did you learn anything that especially surprised you?


A: I read three biographies about Bess Myerson. I came across an abundance of articles about her, many written in the immediate aftermath of her death in 2014 at the age of 90.


I was surprised to learn that she was a piano prodigy and became extremely proficient in flute, that she grew up poor, that her parents were Russian immigrants, that she was accepted into the very selective High School of Music and Art.


Really, her entire upbringing was new to me—her relationship with her parents and sisters, her close mentorship of her piano teacher, Dorothea LaFollette. And then all the insecurity that came from being so tall at such a young age, and her lack of confidence that seemed to result from her overcritical mother, Bella. It was as if I was learning about someone for the first time. 


Q: The writer Louis Bayard said of the book, “Linda Kass's deeply researched novel is a poignant origin story, a fascinating window into mid-century American life, and a compelling case for Myerson as an authentic American heroine.” What do you think of that description, and what do you see as her legacy today?


A: Well, I loved Lou’s take on the novel, given his noteworthy work of biographical fiction, as in The Pale Blue Eye, Courting Mr. Lincoln, and Jackie & Me. I thought his assessment quite astute.


Bess Myerson was an authentic heroine because she really didn’t have any role models on her journey. Certainly not her mother who still couldn’t read English. Bessie clung to women like conductor Antonia Brico and her music teacher, Dorothea LaFollette, but she rode a singular, uncharted path.


She began to experience the secular world outside of her Sholem Aleichem community the moment her piano lessons took her to Manhattan’s Upper West Side, then to the High School of Music and Art, then to Hunter College, and then the world of beauty pageants.


Her political consciousness developed over time, as did her awareness of sexism and gender discrimination, of racism, of the horrific events in the world.


Bess was steadfast in keeping her ethnic-sounding name when asked to change it to something more acceptable in the pageant world. She put herself in the public eye and sought to make a difference, jumping at the chance to work with the Anti-Defamation League to fight intolerance and hate.


Her world was a window into mid-century America as she traveled the country and sometimes stepped into places that judged her based on being Jewish and had expectations of her as a woman and a beauty pageant winner.

Bess Myerson didn’t fit any stereotype. She was her own person. And, despite some of her difficult personal experiences later in her life, her legacy today is as a voice for social justice. She was unwavering in that regard.


Q: What did you see as the right balance between history and fiction as you wrote the novel?


A: Fictionalizing a person in history needs to respect the true touchpoints of that individual’s life, and it should adhere closely, in my opinion, to the facts that can be known about that life. I learned about Bess Myerson’s childhood through an authorized biography that included her recollections. That book gave me a sense of her voice and her values.


I knew she was self-conscious about her height because she admitted it. I knew that her mother was a task master, her father the softer parent, because she talked about this. I knew that Dorothea LaFollette was very important to Bess in her journey as a musician.


I took these facts and people and imagined the scenes that could bring this young woman to life for the reader. I inhabited her world at that time after immersing myself, through research, in New York during World War II, in both her high school and her college, in the Miss America pageant. So, the balance comes by staying true to the history and inhabiting and imagining the characters within that history.


Q: What are you working on now?


A: I am slowly exploring a topic set during the tumultuous changes of the late ‘60s. It had such an impact on young people at that time.


The idealism of the peace movement and of the early feminist movement, along with the weight of the Vietnam war, and the shock of Kent State—it’s such an interesting time to explore in fiction. It seems like there are so many ways that a character could be affected by those events.


I’m thinking of a Midwest high school that is an ecosystem of social bonds and individual relationships, and a container that holds a mixture of idealism and possibility alongside the darkness of the reality of that time. I’ve been rolling this idea around in my head for quite a bit.


Q: Anything else we should know?


A: I’m excited for my upcoming book tour, which will be both in-person and virtual. My hometown book launch in the Columbus, Ohio area will be through my own bookstore, Gramercy Books, on Sept. 13 where I will be in conversation with noted novelist Lee Martin.


My national launch will be on my pub date of Sept. 12 at 5:30PT/8:30EST in a conversation with bestselling historical novelist Kristin Harmel and virtually hosted by California’s wonderful indie store, Book Passage.


I’ll be visiting Cleveland, Detroit, Pittsburgh, Toledo, and Boca Raton this fall, along with several virtual panels and conversations, and more events are scheduled for early 2024. I’m excited to be in conversation with historical novelist Fiona Davis and virtually hosted on Sept. 28 by the wonderful Books & Books!


All stops on my book tour are listed on my author website, https://www.lindakass.com, and can be found under News/Events.


--Interview with Deborah Kalb. Here's a previous Q&A with Linda Kass.

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