Obituary: Vanessa Brown

Tom Vallance
Sunday 23 October 2011 00:28

THE DIMPLED Vanessa Brown was a popular screen and stage actress who as a child was a star of the Quiz Kids radio programmes (she had an IQ of 165).

On stage she created the role of the "the girl upstairs" in The Seven Year Itch, the part played by Marilyn Monroe on film, and she acted with Katharine Hepburn in As You Like It. On screen she gave appealing performances in such films as Margie, The Late George Apley, The Ghost and Mrs Muir and The Heiress, and was Jane to Lex Barker's Tarzan in Tarzan and the Slave Girl.

When she was 18 years old, Look magazine picked her as one of four future female stars, along with Elizabeth Taylor, Ann Blyth and Jane Powell, but Brown's career never managed to reach the level of the other three and in later years she turned to politics and writing, her works including a book on labour policy. "In Hollywood," she told Life magazine, "having a mind is all right if you conceal it behind a low-cut bosom."

Born Smylla Brind in Vienna in 1928, she was the daughter of two brilliant minds - she once joked that she wanted to earn a doctorate because her parents were PhDs, "and I don't want to be the only one who isn't". Her father, Nah Brind (who had hiked across the frontier from his native Russia at the start of the 1917 Revolution), translated all of Dostoevsky's works into German, wrote for French papers, and acted in Yiddish theatre, and his wife Anna was an Adlerian psychologist.

Keeping one step ahead of the Nazis, the family moved to Paris from Vienna in 1933, and thence to New York in March 1938, where Nah wrote for the Jewish paper Daily Forward. (Later, the family moved to California to help Smylla's career, and the Brinds helped found the first Psychodrama Institute of California.)

Smylla spoke English fluently within a few months (her father spoke 11 languages, including Chinese and Sanskrit) and at 12 was appearing on radio as part of a junior movie review panel. This led to an invitation to test for the role of the daughter in Lillian Hellman's anti-Fascist play Watch on the Rhine. Ann Blyth was cast, but Smylla Brind was hired as her understudy, continuing her studies by day, and when the show finished its post-Broadway tour she passed her exams at Hunter High School for the Gifted.

Hired to do a guest spot on the popular Quiz Kids radio programme, Brind was placed first and was promptly asked to do more appearances. One of the former panellists said later, "She wowed listeners by answering riddles posed in French and German and translating Hitler's speeches and Napoleon's letters." She herself said, "I wanted to be on the show terribly much. I guess I wanted to show that I knew a lot. I've always been competitive, ambitious to succeed." Her parents had expected a lot of her and being top student in accelerated classes was "the accepted standard in our house". "My mother was a very pushy woman," she added. "She was always talking about how brilliant my father was. So naturally I wanted to be brilliant."

As a child Smylla played the piano, sang, painted, won a newspaper short- story contest, and wrote, directed and acted in school plays. Her theatrical career had begun in Paris at the age of seven when her father, then writing sub-titles for European releases of American films, had her dub a child's role. When they arrived in New York it was her father who coached her for radio auditions but it was her mother, attracted by the money a film career could bring, who took her to the movie agent who spotted a resemblance to Ingrid Bergman and sent her picture to the mogul David O. Selznick.

Selznick signed her to a contract, then promptly loaned the 15-year old to RKO for a leading role in the Val Lewton production Youth Runs Wild (1944). Though only a B movie, its tale of youngsters left undisciplined while their parents were working for the war effort struck a chord with the public and brought the actress (then billed as Tessa Brind) favourable reviews. Manny Farber in The New Republic wrote, "She presents a touching portrait of thoroughly sincere, trusting innocence that makes the adolescence of a Jennifer Jones seem corny and that of a June Allyson seem like a pampered midget."

Brind was less happy about the emphasis on her Quiz Kids background. "RKO started playing it up and it just snowballed," she said later. "I met Orson Welles at a party and the first thing he said was, `I'm bright too, you know!' " With her name changed to Vanessa Brown, which she loathed, she had a good role as the daughter of a concert pianist (Catherine McLeod) in Frank Borzage's splendidly overwrought soap-opera I've Always Loved You (1946), but, when her contract was acquired by 20th Century-Fox, she was disappointed to be given minor roles:

I was very full of myself in those days, and not humbled when I went to the office of studio head Darryl F. Zanuck. He said, "We're going to do big things for you, make you a star." Right away I was given a role as a high-school student in Margie, which I felt was a comedown. I always sort of seemed to be on the sidelines in it.

Henry King's 1946 film is a beguiling and beautiful evocation of growing up in the Twenties, but Brown's role, though sweetly played, is a minor one. It was followed by roles as the girl a stuffy Bostonian (Ronald Colman) wants his son to marry in Joseph Mankiewicz's The Late George Apley (1946), the daughter of a widow (Gene Tierney) in the same director's delightful The Ghost and Mrs Muir (1947), and a college friend of stage-struck Betty Grable in Walter Lang's hit musical Mother Wore Tights (1947).

After Fox let her go, she played the role of Maria, maid to the plain Catherine Sloper (Olivia DeHavilland) in William Wyler's fine version of The Heiress (1949), then starred as Jane in Tarzan and the Slave Girl (1950). "My intellectual friends said, `My God, what you won't do for money.' I needed a job, I had to pay the rent," she said.

In 1950 she married Robert A. Franklyn, a plastic surgeon who took over guidance of her career and encouraged her to cultivate a sexier image, replacing her skirts and sweaters with decollete gowns. The same year Katharine Hepburn chose her to play Celia to her Rosalind in As You Like It when Cloris Leachman left the cast of the hit production, which was about to tour. Brown recalled:

I went up to read for her, and this forbidding lady said, "You think you're smart, you Quiz Kid you! What did Shakespeare mean by the phrase, bearded like the pard?" And I said, "Leopard, bearded like the leopard". It was a guess, a wild guess. And she said, "By golly, yes! You are smart!"

Brown became Hepburn's protege and later named her daughter Cathy. After returning to Hollywood to play a small role in Vincente Minnelli's brilliant story of film-makers, The Bad and the Beautiful (1952), Brown became a Broadway star with the best role of her career, as the wholesome but seductive "girl upstairs" who tempts the married hero (Tom Ewell) of George Axelrod's play The Seven Year Itch. Described by critics as "a joy to watch", "exquisite as a wild violet", "delightfully giddy" with "a perfect mixture of innocence and allure", Brown was the toast of Broadway. She shared top place in a radio poll with Princess Margaret as "the two outstanding young women of the season" and found herself on the covers of Life, Cue and Cosmopolitan magazines, though she almost missed the Life cover. "Stalin died that week, but the Russians held back the news for two days. By then I was already on the cover and the next girl got bumped!"

Brown left the cast of The Seven Year Itch in 1954 after her husband got into a fight with the producers and threatened to sue them for more money. With her marriage breaking up (it was dissolved in 1956) she made what she later conceded was a mistake and turned her back on the theatre, although Sam and Bella Spewak had written a new play, Festival, for her:

I wasn't content in New York. My marriage had finished and I hadn't settled down. I wanted to go back to Hollywood and try to make that kind of success there. But I didn't go about it very cleverly. I didn't have any jobs once I got back. Stage success does not automatically translate into cinema stardom.

She tried unsuccessfully to buy the film rights to The Seven Year Itch, and considered Billy Wilder's version "Miserable. It was not Marilyn's fault. The direction was heavy-handed. The delicacy of the encounter was what the play strove for. But if you lay it on with a trowel . . ." Brown returned to radio, replacing Joan Caulfield for the third and final season of the comedy show My Favourite Husband, then with no acting offers forthcoming concentrated on writing, selling several short stories, and developed her interest in politics.

During the run of The Seven Year Itch, Brown had campaigned for Adlai Stevenson. In 1956 she produced and co-hosted a radio programme on election issues and made a television documentary on the hydrogen bomb and nuclear fallout. She was a delegate to the 1956 Democratic convention and, after Stevenson's loss, she continued as Los Angeles media liaison for John F. Kennedy and did extensive research and lecturing on automation, in co-operation with the Labor Secretary Willard Wirtz. During this period she dated Frank Sinatra for a time, and she was to recall, "One evening we talked about science - he knew a lot - and he said, `I've never had an evening like this.' "

In 1959 Brown married Mark Sandrich Jnr, son of the film director, and they had two children. They divorced in 1989. In 1962 the radio journalist Edward R. Murrow, then at Voice of America, hired her to do interviews with political leaders and she spent eight years as a writer, producer and correspondent on the station, after which she did economic reporting for National Public Radio. Her interviewees included Robert Kennedy, Benjamin Spock, Zubin Mehta, Walt Disney and Arthur Goldberg. She wrote personality profiles and book reviews for the Los Angeles Times and other journals, and a book, The Manpower Policies of Secretary of Labor Willard Wirtz. An impressionistic oil painter, she had one-woman shows, signing her work Smylla ("That's my name").

Brown returned to acting occasionally - she was one of Rosalind Russell's grasping daughters in Rosie (1967), and more recently played character roles on television in such series as General Hospital, Murder She Wrote and a 1997 episode of Homicide: Life on the Streets. A startling increase in her weight she put down to her liking for sweets and the years of non- acting.

Brown, when asked during her spell on Broadway, "What happens to a Quiz Kid who grows up to be an auburn-haired beauty?", replied: "You do anything to convince people you're not some sort of intellectual monster. You draw the stage-door johnnies who are always bringing red roses, and you love it. It's wonderful to have people think you're normal, and I don't ever want to hear about being a Quiz Kid again."

Smylla Brind (Vanessa Brown), actress: born Vienna 24 March 1928; married 1950 Robert A. Franklyn (marriage dissolved 1956), 1959 Mark Sandrich Jnr (one son, one daughter; marriage dissolved 1989); died Woodland Hills, California 21 May 1999.

Join our new commenting forum

Join thought-provoking conversations, follow other Independent readers and see their replies

View comments