When Porgy and Bess opened on October 10, 1935, at New York’s Alvin Theater, the Bess was Anne Wiggins Brown, a twenty-three-year-old classically trained singer from Baltimore. She went on to play the role in many different productions and, after retiring as a singer, became a stage director and teacher. Since 1948 she has lived in Norway. During a recent telephone conversation from her home in Oslo, she explained how she first met George Gershwin.
“I read in an afternoon newspaper in New York that he was writing Porgy and that he was searching for singers, classical as well as musical-comedy singers. So I wrote him a letter that same evening and asked for an audition. A few days later I auditioned [at his apartment]. He met me at the door, standing behind his butler. He shook my hand, and then a strange thing happened. It was raining that day and I had on some galoshes, and I took them off and was standing there in the hall, looking under the coat rack to see where I should put the wet foot gear, when he said suddenly, ‘What are you looking for?’ I had a mad notion and said, ‘I’m looking for your roller skates.’ He laughed and asked, ‘How do you know about my roller skates?’ I explained I had read about his roller skates being one of his favorite possessions when he was young, and that I, too, had skated a lot. That broke the ice, and we became friends at once.
“I sang songs of Schubert and Brahms, and, I think, a French aria, and he was impressed with my background” — Wiggins was a student at the Juilliard School of Music at the time. “When I sang a Negro spiritual he was very pleased that I could do all kinds of music.
“After that he would call me and say, ‘I’ve just written so many pages of music. I’d like you to come down and sing.’ I lived on 99th Street at the time, and I would go down [to Gershwin’s apartment] and sing whatever he had written — even if it was for the tenor or baritone,” Brown said with a laugh. “He would play the melody and I sang it, then he played the accompaniment and I sang. Practically everything. We would even sing the duets.”
Some articles have claimed the composer was so taken with Brown’s artistry that he renamed his opera Porgy and Bess, from its original Porgy, in her honor. “Other people have said so, but I never said that,” Brown insisted. “Gershwin told me that all three men, Sportin’ Life, Crown, and Porgy circle around Bess, and that it was as important a role as Porgy. But he did not say to me, ‘I’m changing it for you.’ And I have never said that.
“[As a child Gershwin] roller skated around Harlem and often found himself in front of nightclubs in the daytime where black musicians were practicing, and he told me he was fascinated by the rhythms and the harmonies. He used to stand outside the door, or sit on the curb of the sidewalk and listen. He said the rhythms stayed in his head, he couldn’t get rid of them. I suspect that had a great influence, particularly when he wrote Porgy and Bess.”
Did Gershwin ever discuss a desire to break down the barriers between popular music and classical music? Brown thought for a moment. “He might have mentioned that sometimes. Very often after I had sung myself out, we would sit and talk about things like that. He also played music for me on his organ — jazz and musical comedy music. Mostly his own music, but sometimes popular music by other composers. Once he played something classical by a French composer. That was a thrill for me as a young student. There was no hanky-panky, but still my husband was very jealous and even threatened to give me orders to stay home. I just laughed.
“As a composer, Gershwin really knew what he was doing. He was a genius. He was a very complicated man, but he did have a side that was humble. He would ask, ‘Do you like that? Do you think that’s right? Is this too high for a baritone?’ Things like that. He was very open and honest.”
What comes to mind when Anne Brown thinks of Gershwin today? “American. He was really an example of an American. Coming from a completely different background, Jewish and Russian, and having been brought up in New York, then developing his talent along both classical and jazz lines, that’s something typically American. I think he should be hailed as, probably, the American composer.
“Before he went to Hollywood he told me, ‘I’m going to write another opera, and I’m going to write it for you and Todd [Duncan, the first Porgy.]’ I was sitting in my living room when the radio blared out the news that George Gershwin was dead. I was numb. Not long before that he had written me a letter from Hollywood saying that he was coming back to New York, and he was going to write some music. I had the feeling he meant it was for me. It was such a terrible loss.”
This article appeared originally in the program book of the San Francisco Symphony in connection with “George Gershwin, American Natural,” and is used here by permission.
Anne Wiggins Brown died in 2009 at the age of 96.