Obituary of Brenda P. Ballin

January 28, 2021

Brenda Phillips Ballin died at her home in Manhattan on January 28, 2021 of an extended illness complicated by coronavirus—what her relatives called a "COVID storm." Her family all agreed that it would take a mighty storm to end the life story of such a fiercely independent and fiery spirit.

Always larger than life, Brenda was a well-known figure to three decades of visitors to the Metropolitan Museum of Art as a popular docent. At the Met, those visitors received not only a look at the museum's treasures through Brenda's unique, humorous and opinionated eye – they also had a memorable encounter with a genuine New Yorker through and through.

"She was an excellent docent and her sense of humor always showed through," recalled Diane "Didi" Burke, a former trustee of the museum.

Brenda Phillips was born in New York on May 7, 1929. A lifelong resident of Manhattan, she spent almost her entire life living within a 10-block radius on the Upper East Side. Through her father, Arthur Phillips, she was part of the Phillips family whose quirks and secrets were later made famous by Brenda's first cousin Anne Roiphe in her family memoir "1185 Park Avenue." However, Brenda Ballin's world was far from small and was in no way restricted by her longtime and unchanging area code – she used her home as a launchpad for her many travels, wild adventures, and cultural explorations.

She trained her eye early on by studying fashion at Tobe-Coburn School for Fashion in the early 1950's, went on to Finch Junior College, and began her career in fashion at Vogue and Harper's Bazaar. She then turned her devotion to art and art history.

Brenda was a fantastic storyteller. She used that gift on her twice-weekly docent tours at the Met, where she offered up her candid and refreshing take on themes that ranged from "Highlights of the Museum" and the American Wing to the Old Masters Gallery. She always chose fashionable shoes to walk the many miles of museum corridors, of which she knew every nook and cranny and secret route.

Or she would regale her circle of family and friends as they sat around her living room on Park Avenue, which was lined with mercury mirrors and full of furniture she had painted as well as decorative objects from her many years of studying with the renowned Isabel O'Neil learning the art of the painted finish There would be Brenda, a glass of scotch in hand (her signature drink, and always at 5'o clock) sharing her strong opinions about your hairstyle, your outfit, or the choice of restaurant for dinner. Or she'd be reciting poetry, singing a silly song.

Or recounting that one time she traveled to the French Riviera and went swimming with Elizabeth Taylor in matching Emilio Pucci terrycloth bikinis that became so heavy they feared drowning or having to swim back to shore with their suits at the bottom of the sea…there was never a dull moment with Brenda.

Friends and relatives encountering Brenda would be greeted with a cornucopia of answers to questions you didn't even know were questions about things you didn't even know existed. A cousin put it this way: You would simply say, "Hello, Brenda" and she would answer: "I finally learned how Marcel Breuer got that rough texture in the concrete in the stairwell of the Whitney Museum." What texture? What stairwell? You had probably never noticed these things, but she made it sound like one of the great questions of the age.

She seemed to notice more than most people, and once something caught her imagination she was on a mission – she wouldn't let it go until she learned all about it and made sure others knew all about it, too.

It was an ongoing game between Brenda and her family, one that they called "Who Painted That?" As Brenda dared challengers to stump her, in galleries from New York, to Washington, D.C., to Paris. Brenda always won.

Speaking of games, in her day, Brenda was an avid bridge player playing many duplicate tournaments at the Harmonie Club, first with her husband of 32 years, Stanley Ballin (who died in 1987), and later with her longtime companion Arthur Horwitz. She took her attitude onto the ski slopes, spending many winter holidays abroad with friends or teaching her grandchildren to ski out West.

A deep appreciation for beauty and her childlike wonder shaped the way Brenda saw and interacted with the world. While walking down Madison Avenue on a sunny day she would stop abruptly, throw her head back, grab a companion's hand and exclaim (loudly, because she was always loud): "Look at the clouds. You'll never see clouds like these ever again!"

She had a mischievous nature and everyone who knew Brenda appreciated her unapologetic authenticity and biting sense of humor. Once when visited by her nephew and his two young boys, Brenda instigated "the toilet paper challenge." After some debate and discussion and rough calculations about the number of sheets and length per roll of two brands, Brenda decided that the only way to know for sure was to send two new rolls out of her 14th story window. All three watched as the rolls unfurled during their decent and came to decorate the trees down below – doing nothing to prove the math, of course, but sparking hilarity and laughter.

Brenda lived life to the fullest, touched the lives of many, and inspired them to become better observers of the world. While others might rely on the old saw "Grow old along with me, the best is yet to be," Brenda would say: "Pish-posh – the first hundred years are the hardest." In her 91 years of contagious curiosity about everything in the world, she came close to testing the truth of that saying.

She is survived by her daughters Leslie Ballin of Maine and Shakira Ballin of North Carolina and by her grandchildren Sabrina Arora of Maine, and Derek Arora of North Carolina.

[A memorial service, either in-person or virtual, will be announced at a later date. Contributions in Brenda's honor can be made to the International Foundation for Art Research (IFAR) or Citymeals on Wheels.]

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May your hearts soon be filled with wonderful memories of joyful times together as you celebrate a life well lived.

Posted by: Simone Taylor - , - February 13, 2021