Updated June 29, 1987 12:00 PM

She has always been the indomitable Bess—carrying on through disastrous marriages, career detours and even a bout with cancer, taking life’s knocks like the Bronx-born striver that she is. From the day in September 1945 when a dazzling smile and vital good looks swept her to fame as the first Jewish Miss America, Bess Myerson has strayed only rarely from the public eye. Long before Vanna White, she was the archetypal TV game show hostess, exciting ’50s fantasies as the glamorous “lady in mink” on The Big Payoff. She was admired for her brains and her beauty as an I’ve Got a Secret panelist in the ’60s. In the years that followed she was New York Mayor John Lindsay’s high-profile commissioner for consumer affairs, a crusading TV correspondent and, though her bid failed, she even sought the Democratic nomination in a race for the U.S. Senate in 1980. Most recently the woman who once sardonically called herself the “Queen of the Jews” has reigned in her native New York City as Mayor Ed Koch’s commissioner of cultural affairs. “I’m like a phoenix,” she has said. “I rise from the ashes.”

This time, however, she may find restoration impossible. Mired in a widening scandal, Myerson, 62, recently had to resign her city job; three months earlier, she had refused to answer questions before a grand jury investigating her 21-years-younger lover, Andy Capasso, a wealthy sewer contractor. By last week, when Capasso began to serve a four-year term in federal prison for evading $774,600 in taxes, Myerson had become the queen of the New York tabloids—the alleged villainess in an unlovely, labyrinthine tale of lust, greed, lies and betrayal.

Though details had been accumulating for months, it was only with the release of a bombshell investigator’s report in New York City’s Village Voice two weeks ago that the public learned the story behind her disgrace. Among other disclosures, the report concluded that while her lover, Capasso, a married man, was waging a bitter divorce battle in the courts, Bess used her political clout and personal charms to win the judge in the case over to his side. According to the investigative report prepared for Mayor Koch by former judge Harold Tyler, Myerson manipulated the elderly jurist Hortense Gabel, by befriending her emotionally disturbed daughter, Sukhreet, whom she put on the city payroll as her personal assistant. Once the favorable ruling was granted, said the report, Myerson coldly ditched the judge’s daughter, ordered a cover-up and lied about what she had done to her longtime friend and political ally Mayor Koch. “Bess Myerson has fallen from grace,” Koch lamented. “I’m aghast at what she did.” So are some of Myerson’s closest friends. “She’s always been a straight shooter,” says Linda Janklow, wife of millionaire superagent Mort and a buddy since childhood. “God knows how she got mixed up in all of this.”

By all appearances, Bess’s motivation was as elemental as love—or loneliness. When she met Capasso in 1980, she was in the midst of her exhausting and ultimately futile primary race for a New York seat in the U.S. Senate. When few others believed in her, Andy—a man described by one of her close friends as “street smart, very, very bright and very real”—did. He is said to have provided her with a limousine owned by his Queens-based company, Nanco, and to have pressed other contractors to contribute to her $1 million-plus campaign.

Perhaps more important, after her loss in the Democratic primary he stayed with her. As Bess later explained to a friend, it had been a shattering period. She felt unloved, and her supporters seemed to have deserted her. “After the Senate race I was dog-meat,” she said. “I couldn’t even find a man to take me to the movies. No one would call.”

No one except Andy. “I knew he was doing things I didn’t want to know about,” she told a friend at the time. “But this is love, and what I do for love!” Her dark, not-so-handsome suitor reportedly rang her twice a day. He sent flowers. He was sensitive and romantic, promising something better than her previous entanglements, which included two failed marriages and numerous broken affairs. Born the same year that Myerson captured the Miss America crown, Andy Capasso had grown up admiring from a distance the beautiful, witty woman with whom a nation had fallen in love—and he had certain material charms himself. A self-made millionaire, he lived extravagantly, with a $1 million house on the Long Island shore and a home in the leafy, wealthy New York suburb of Old Westbury. (Reputed mob boss Matty lanniello, a friend, lived nearby.) Andy’s wife, Nancy Capasso, was a stylish, sophisticated woman who had first caught his eye years before, when she was 24 and he was a 19-year-old laborer digging a ditch outside her home. They had blended their own son and daughter with Nancy’s three children from an earlier union, but the marriage was rocky now, terminally so.

After the Senate loss, Capasso set Bess up in an office at Nanco and helped her straighten out her financial affairs. Later, when she suffered a mild stroke, he was at her hospital bed every day. “Other people she went out with may have been better looking, better educated and so forth,” says one close friend. “But they have not treated her as kindly as he does. He is a strong, confident person. That’s one of the reasons Bess liked him.”

Their romance became increasingly overt, despite Capasso’s marriage and Bess’s imminent appointment as commissioner in the Koch administration. Andy lavished gifts on Bess—including jewelry and a $41,000 Mercedes—which she allegedly failed to disclose to city officials. Andy had bought a 10-room duplex on Fifth Avenue, and he found it easy enough to visit Bess at her Manhattan home. A former Nanco employee has said that Capasso sometimes left home at 5 in the morning to visit Myerson’s apartment before his day began.

As usual, the wife was the last to know. There was a tense scene in a Chinese restaurant where Nancy found her husband at dinner with Bess, but not until Bess asked the couple to her daughter Barra’s 1982 wedding did Nancy Capasso draw the inevitable conclusion. “It was the worst day of my life,” says Nancy, 46. “I still thought she and he were just business. But then I began to hear the whispers—’Everybody knows but his wife’—stuff like that.”

By November the battle lines were drawn. Nancy confronted Capasso with her suspicions about his affair with Myerson. Suddenly enraged, Andy—who reportedly had been drinking heavily—threw his wife over a table and kicked her, leaving her with large bruises.

The subsequent legal proceedings were tortuous and unpleasant: Nancy evicted him from their apartment, and she rejected his offer of a $2 million settlement—reasoning that she deserved a bigger chunk of his estimated $15 million fortune. In June 1983 Judge Gabel awarded Nancy $1,850 a week in child support and temporary maintenance.

Andy and Bess, however, seemed unwilling to let the matter rest—and apparently seized on the judge’s 34-year-old daughter, Sukhreet, as leverage to get the award reduced. Despite Judge Gabel’s intensive efforts to find employment for her daughter—contacting at least 50 well-placed friends—Sukhreet had not been granted a single interview. She had left her last full-time job in 1971, and her aging parents—whom Bess had known casually for 20 years—were desperate to find a position for her. As a commissioner Myerson had a city budget and, with it, the power to create a job slot for a $19,000-a-year “personal assistant.” The investigator’s report tells of her pursuit of the vulnerable Sukhreet in chilling detail; chapter headings include “Spring 1983: The Courtship of Justice Gabel,” “Summer 1983: Courting the Mother Through the Daughter” and “The Birthday Present: Myerson Gives Ms. Gabel a Job….”

Bess seemed the perfect chum for the hapless Sukhreet: She invited her to Andy’s Long Island estate, shared gossip over dinners à deux and trundled her along to a friend’s Rosh Hashanah celebration. Sukhreet was dazzled by the attention and, according to her mother, Judge Gabel, she developed “a crush” on the older woman.

The stage was set for what the investigative report calls a “secret bargain” between Myerson and Judge Gabel. Sukhreet, who apparently was unaware of the connection between her mother and the Capasso divorce case, went to work as Bess’s special assistant on Aug. 29. That same day her mother heard an appeal in State Supreme Court from Capasso asking her to reduce the maintenance and child support that he had to pay estranged wife Nancy. Two weeks later the total payments were cut from $1,850 a week to $680 a week. Bess and Andy were “jubilant,” in the words of the report; Capasso’s housekeeper recalled Myerson crowing, “We got it reduced,” and ordering her city driver to deliver flowers to the judge.

After Gabel had handed down the decision, a New York paper noted the “coincidence” of the hiring. Bess pulled back from her protégée. At a dinner party at Sukhreet’s one-room apartment, Bess turned to another guest and announced, “I can’t stand Sukhreet. She makes me crazy.”

In the spring of 1984 Bess asked Sukhreet to resign—and, according to Judge Tyler, continued to direct a frantic cover-up. With the press and federal prosecutors on her trail, Myerson finally went to Gabel’s daughter with a warning. “She told me that I’ve got a big mouth, that I should keep [it] shut, that I was a little fool and I could be dangerous,” Sukhreet remembers.

Some former subordinates who claim to have suffered under Myerson’s management-by-tantrum and her penchant for hurtful remarks are surprised only by the arrogance of her abuses. Many of her supporters are driven to explain the scandal as a regrettable consequence of her “complex” character. “She’s fabulous, funny and bright, but she can also be mercurial, temperamental,” says New-market Press President Esther Margolis, a longtime friend who will publish Bess’s Miss America memoirs this fall. Says Linda Janklow: “From what I’ve read in the papers it all sounds very manipulative. But she is a dynamic and extraordinary woman who never shirked a moment of her duty. I just hope people understand there was a whole life before this.”

Despite her career successes, Myerson’s private life was always a struggle with adversity. Her first marriage came on the heels of her unhappy 1945 reign as Miss America. The first Jew to win the title, she had been the victim of blatant anti-Semitism and fled her official duties well before her reign was over. In October of the following year the 22-year-old beauty queen eloped with businessman Allan Wayne. The marriage, which eventually ended in divorce, was a hellish 10-year union that daughter Barra remembers for the beatings her mother sustained at the hands of the alcoholic Wayne. In 1962 Myerson entered into an equally stormy second marriage. Arnold Grant was a wealthy entertainment lawyer who threw lavish parties at his Sutton Place triplex. Bess, raised in the Bronx’s Sholem Aleichem housing project as the daughter of a housepainter, would always be insecure about her upbringing, and having a husband who carped about the placement of the oyster forks only heightened her self-doubt. The two divorced, were briefly remarried, then split for keeps in 1970. After Bess moved out, Grant reportedly discovered love letters and diaries detailing her relationships with other men (an allegation that Myerson has denied).

In any case there was no shortage of male companionship: As Bess once said, “Men go after me, and I choose among them.” She was named as a corespondent in one swain’s divorce, and a passionate fling with a millionaire stockbroker was cut short when she discovered he was seeing other women.

To this point, whatever disarray there has been in Myerson’s personal life—she endured ovarian cancer and grueling chemotherapy in 1974—has been offset by professional success. But what New York’s tabloids have dubbed the “Bess Mess” taints both her personal and professional life—and has stained everyone it has touched. The scandal has severely damaged her friend and mentor the mayor and threatens to undermine his administration. Sukhreet Gabel, jobless again and reliant on handouts from her family, appears to be a reproachful reminder of a heartless ploy. Sukhreet’s mother, a respected veteran of 17 years on the bench, has been suspended, pending an investigation by the state commission on judicial conduct. Andy Capasso, now an inmate of Allenwood federal prison, Pa., still faces an investigation into the circumstances by which he won a $53.6 million construction contract with the city—and Myerson herself is the subject of investigation by U.S. Attorney Rudolph Giuliani. So far, her friends say she is showing a steely resolve, but in the months if not weeks ahead, that poise will be sorely tested.