DALLAS (CBSDFW.COM) – It was a life filled with the passion of dance, the demands of perfection and the test of strength. For the founder of a respected Dallas ballet school, it was also been a life lived under a veil of secrecy.
Denise Brown, the founder of City Ballet, has died, but last year her life was a source of celebration by the organization she helped found.
Brown’s life started out much differently than the life she led for the last six decades. It’s a life that, until three years ago, was shrouded in a lie. “For 55 years I’ve been lying to everybody– including myself.”
Brown wasn’t the Methodist wife and homemaker she’d let everyone believe. She was born into a prominent Jewish family in Paris, 14 years before World War II. Ballet became her passion until 1941, when her father was arrested by the Nazi’s and sent to Auschwitz. “When we heard about the first train leaving, even though nobody knew exactly where they were going, we knew it wasn’t going to be good. So you hid,” she recalled.
Brown joined the French Resistance and at the end of the war met and married American GI Gene Brown. He brought her to his family home outside Corsicana, but made her promise to keep her Jewish heritage a secret.
“I knew they wouldn’t understand anymore than they understand the way you are Mexican, or you are Black, or you are Catholic, or you’re Chinese… that doesn’t happen,” she said of what was asked of her.
But the secret wouldn’t stay in the dark. Brown’s youngest daughter, Evelyn, learned her mother’s heritage when she visited relatives in Paris as a teenager. But even then, Brown wasn’t ready to open up. “You know when you have lived a lie your whole life… there was nothing but lie. That’s all you could get by and survive.”
Despite her choice to hide her faith, two of Brown’s children turned to Judaism as adults and raised their own children as Jews. “She was afraid that we were putting them in harm’s way that they were going to be endangered by having a Jewish identity,” explained Evelyn.
Then something incredible happened. Although her family had lost most everything during the war, more than 60 years later, Brown received a precious gift — her father’s sacred prayer shawl, called a Tallit.
Brown never knew the shawl survived, but as it turned out her mother had given the Tallit to a friend to hide during the war. Brown wanted to present it to her granddaughter, Madison, during her Bat Mitzvah in 2007, but to do so would mean admitting her true faith.
Brown says the decision was hard. “It’s very difficult to go back and say all at once… this is what I am.”
A few years ago, Brown made the choice to admit, finally, her true background and heritage. As she wrapped her granddaughter in the long-lost Tallit, she added her own special words to mark the day: “I’m wrapping you in my father’s Tallit. His life ended in Auschwitz in early 1942. Today is the first day it’s been worn in 67 years. Your great-grandfather is part of the past. Today is part of the present, and thank you for making it part of the future.”
After six decades of lying, there is now truth. And after six decades of ballet, there is a tribute as Brown’s students honored her life through dance.
Last May when the dancers of City Ballet performed their end-of-the-year recital their performance told the story of Brown’s life. It began with her early years in Paris, went through the holocaust and the war, her arrival in Texas and her years as the matriarch of City Ballet.
She smiled and beamed with pride as she sat in the audience and watched her life unfold before her eyes.
It was a life of which Denise Brown’s family can be proud.