Brown was the daughter of an African-American surgeon and mixed-race musician. She attended Juillard where she received the Margaret McGill Prize as the school’s best singer. She started working with Gershwin after writing to him and requesting an interview. She nailed it. As Gershwin composed the opera, Ms. Brown sang the music. “Porgy and Bess” opened in October 1935 with Brown playing Bess. Ms. Brown was the only person Gershwin ever saw perform the role of Bess. Brown also appeared in “Mamba’s Daughter” in 1939, and a revival of “Porgy and Bess” in 1942.
Brown then performed throughout Europe and the Americas as a concert artist. In 1948, she moved to Oslo and married a Norwegian man. In a 1998 New York Times article she said: “We tough girls tough it out. I’ve lived a strange kind of life–half black, half white, half isolated, half in the spotlight. Many things that I wanted as a young person for my career were denied to me because of my color.”
Brown was not able to continue her singing career because of difficulties with asthma. She became a voice teacher of many famous performers including Liv Ullman.
In 1998, Brown received the George Peabody Medal for Outstanding Contributions to Music in America.
Brown had two daughters–one from her second marriage and one from her third. Her marriages ended in divorce. Brown died in 2009.-Heidi Durrow
Mixed Experience History Month is the annual blog post series created by The New York Times best-selling author Heidi Durrow celebrating the history of the Mixed experience. Established in 2007, Mixed Experience History Month is an effort to highlight the long history of folks and events involved in the Mixed experience. Please look for archived profiles of people, places and events of the Mixed experience every weekday of May! Thanks for reading. And check out some of the previous year’s profiles: 2007, 2008, 2009, 2010, 2011, 2012, 2013, 2014, 2015, 2016.