Isabel Brown (1928–2014)

April 1, 2015

Isabel Mirrow Brown, a corps member of Ballet Theatre in its early days and the mother of ballet dancers Leslie, Ethan and Elizabeth, died in August. The 1977 film The Turning Point was partly based on her and her family.

“She was the one you wanted to be around,” her son Ethan recalled recently. “Her no-nonsense attitude and straight talk about dance made people look up to her. She knew lots of dancers from NYCB and ABT.” For years she opened her Manhattan apartment to young dancers who needed a place to stay, among them Julie Kent and Misty Copeland.

Brown’s older daughter Leslie said her mother was so funny that people thought of her like Lucile Ball. “She could find humor in everything. If you were having a bad day, she would make you laugh. People gravitated to her because she knew how to talk to everybody. She didn’t care what anybody thought about her. She was brutally honest. People could trust her.”

Isabel Brown in the 1940s

Brown was born in the Bronx, the daughter of Jewish-Russian immigrants. She was childhood friends with Nora Kaye, who grew up in the same brownstone building. Inspired by Kaye’s involvement with ballet, Isabel got a scholarship to study ballet at Carnegie Hall and took class with Anatole Vilzak. Kaye, who later married film director Herbert Ross, was Leslie’s godmother.

In 1945 Brown danced in the Broadway musical The Day Before Spring. She joined Ballet Theatre the following year, during the era when Tamara Toumanova, Irina Baronova, Tatiana Riabouchinska, Alicia Markova and Anton Dolin  were the stars of the company. She danced in the original Theme and Variations, which Balanchine made for Alicia Alonso and Igor Youskevitch in 1947. In a recent phone interview, Ethan said, “She got to do all the great Tudor and de Mille ballets. She continued to be close with Tudor, Herbert Ross, Hugh Laing and John Taras.” Leslie added that her circle of friends included the comedian Steve Martin and the choreographer Kenneth MacMillan.

Isabel and Kelly on tour with Ballet Theatre

Brown met and married dancer Kelly Kingman Brown while they were both in Ballet Theatre; she was in the corps and he was a soloist who had also danced in Hollywood and on Broadway. They had four children: Kevin Kelly Brown, Jr., Leslie, Elizabeth (who danced under the surname Laing), and Ethan, a soloist at ABT.

After their onstage careers were over, Isabel and Kelly moved to Phoenix, Arizona, to operate a dance studio. When their daughters auditioned for School of American Ballet in New York, Leslie was accepted, and her sister Elizabeth was promised a spot the following year. Isabel and Kelly later divorced and Isabel moved back to New York. As Leslie said, “She came back because she couldn’t stand to be away from New York.  That was her breath, her oxygen. When we moved to Arizona it killed her. She cried every day. She needed to be in New York with ballet and theater people.” She later worked in a travel agency and helped raise money for Finis Jhung’s ballet company.

Right: Isabel with Leslie (on left) and Elizabeth in Phoenix

In the 1970s Arthur Laurents developed a screenplay based on the Brown family. Shirley MacLaine was cast to play Deedee Rodgers, who was modeled on Isabel, and Herbert Ross directed. Originally Gelsey Kirkland was cast as Deedee’s daughter and Baryshnikov’s love interest. When Kirkland dropped out, Ross auditioned young dancers in several countries, and Leslie, who was 17, got the role.

The film, produced by Ross and Kaye, was, of course, The Turning Point. It was nominated for 11 Academy Awards including Best Picture and Best Supporting Actress for Leslie Browne. (Leslie had added an “e” to Brown for her stage name, believing it sounded more feminine.)

Above: The Brown family in Phoenix, all photos courtesy the Brown family

Kelly Brown died in 1981, shortly before Ethan joined ABT. “My father was beloved by Tudor, Robbins, and De Mille,” said Ethan. “I bobbled around in the corps for a few years and then when I was about 24, Tudor cast me as the lead in Pillar of Fire. Once I did that role everything changed.”  About Robbins, he said, “Jerry loved Daddy in Interplay and Fancy Free, and he cast me in Fancy Free in the same role my father did. I looked like him and moved like him.” Ethan, who danced with ABT for 23 years, retired in 2004 and now teaches and adjudicates. Leslie Browne, who danced with ABT for 17 years, left in 1993 to choreograph and teach. Elizabeth teaches in a public school, and Kevin is a Hollywood producer.

“She had a huge heart and was completely selfless,” said Leslie about her mother. “She was a great woman and she touched a lot of people’s lives.” —Wendy Perron

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