In 1949 Herbert Ross, a young choreographer, was rehearsing his first ballet, Caprichos, for the Ballet Theatre. Prima ballerina Nora Kaye had been offered the starring role and stopped by to watch the dance. Abruptly she borrowed a dime and called the company’s director, Lucia Chase. “You must be crazy if you think I’m going to be in this!” she complained, pointedly loud enough for Ross to hear. He recalls thinking, “She is an extraordinary star, but she is also a very disagreeable lady.” He adds, “But fools rush in…”
Indeed—if cautiously. Married 10 years later, the erstwhile antagonists have forged one of the most durable marriages in show business—and one with comparable professional success too. Ross, 50, is a sought-after director with an astonishing three current hits: two movies, The Turning Point and The Goodbye Girl (both possible Oscar nominees), and his first play, Neil Simon’s Chapter Two. Kaye, 58, who in her distinguished career danced for Balanchine, Robbins and de Mille, now works as her husband’s associate. “There is a lot of quarreling,” Ross says, “but if Nora can convince me I’m wrong, I’ll change whatever it is.” In the case of Turning Point, a film about ballet which features Anne Bancroft, Shirley MacLaine and some extraordinary dance sequences, Kaye acted as executive producer and supervised the editing of the complicated dance footage. Ross does not conceal his gratitude. “I was hysterical most of the time,” he says. “There would have been no movie without Nora.”
They shared credits on Funny Lady, Play It Again, Sam, The Seven Percent Solution and The Sunshine Boys, too, but The Turning Point clearly evokes the most passion. Says Kaye of a project that took eight years to bring to the screen, “Dancing is not glamorous at all. Everybody isn’t always dressed in pristine pink. They wear wool to keep their muscles pliant. They wear torn tights. We wanted to show the sweat.” Ross adds, “People were saying, ‘Nobody’s interested in a story about two old ladies or the ballet!’ They were wrong.” The film won Golden Globe awards for best director and best drama. (Goodbye Girl took four others.) Turning Point grosses have more than doubled the $4.5 million production costs; the Rosses are donating part of their earnings to the American Ballet Theatre.
It came as no surprise to them that their working relationship on the movie could be so intense without arousing hostility. “We have never had a serious domestic argument,” says Ross, “and we are together all the time.” (They even share the same acupuncturist, who put a staple in the left ear of both to stop his craving for cigarettes, hers for snacks.)
Part of their time together is spent in a four-bedroom home across the street from Kirk Douglas in Beverly Hills; the rest in a new co-op overlooking Central Park in Manhattan. They like New York’s theater, ballet and art museums but, Ross declares, “L.A. is a terrific place to work. I feel when I go home that I’m in the country.” They have a Portuguese cook and entertain friends like Natalie Wood and Robert Wagner and Bob Evans and Phyllis George. (“Besides loving each other,” says Natalie of her hosts, “they are best friends.”) In California Ross tools around in a burgundy Porsche. Nora drives a silver Mercedes, often to auction houses, where they are eclectic, compulsive buyers of antiques, Jean Cocteau ballet posters and especially Buddhas, which are tucked into the corners of both homes for good luck. Ross also gardens—roses, camellias and fruit—but he says with determination, “We don’t do tennis.”
Neither of them comes from a “tennis, anyone” background. Kaye (who changed her name from Koreff to sound American) was born of Russian émigrés in Manhattan. Her father acted with the Moscow Art Theatre but language difficulties forced him into business in America. Her mother, a milliner, enrolled her at the Metropolitan Opera Ballet School at 7. “I never went to a regular school,” Kaye recalls. “I didn’t know anything except how to dance.” She become the protegee of choreographer Antony Tudor when she joined Ballet Theatre in 1939. “He taught me what to read, how to dress, how to think.” He also made her an overnight star in his Pillar of Fire in 1942. That led to a national tour by bus. “My home was in a suitcase,” Kaye says, without nostalgia.
While her career flourished, her romantic life sputtered. Her first marriage, in 1943 to architect Michael Van Buren, was annulled after two months: “He knew I wouldn’t give up my career and he had his own.” The result was the same when she married violinist Isaac Stern in 1948. “He was adorable, sweet, bright, really a nice man,” she says, “but he toured one circuit and I toured another. We giggled a lot on the phone but only saw each other when we happened to be in the same town.” They divorced after 18 months but are still friends.
Ross, the son of a postal clerk, grew up in Florida. He left high school at 15 to study ballet in New York, where he worked as an artist’s model (sometimes nude) before becoming a chorus boy in musicals. At 23 he broke his ankle onstage in Inside USA. While it mended he choreographed Caprichos.
Having settled their initial dispute (though she never did dance the role), Ross and Kaye eventually fell in love on an 11-hour flight to play Casablanca. “We talked the whole night through,” he remembers. “We’ve never stopped talking since.” After a 1959 wedding in Majorca (friends predicted it “would not last 15 minutes”), they launched their own company with Kaye starring in ballets by Ross.
After quarreling with an impresario the next year, Kaye retired. “We were driving through the Black Forest in Germany,” she recalls, “and I said, ‘Well, I’m going to give up dancing.’ ” With that she began flinging her 36 pairs of toe shoes out the car window, one by one. They motored on to Rome, where she abandoned afternoons at the barre in favor of museums and spaghetti lunches.
Ross began choreographing musicals in London, then New York, before turning to movies (Dr. Dolittle and Funny Girl among them). The first film he directed was Goodbye, Mr. Chips starring Peter O’Toole and Petula Clark.
“Nora was very motivated to make this marriage work,” says Ross. “After all the years that went into her career, and then to suddenly stop, was probably harder for her than I realized.” They agreed early not to have children but on other issues there was more divergence. Kaye loves crowds; Ross is more solitary. She likes to shop, he prefers reading. “She tells me I’m not romantic,” Ross says, “because I refuse to ride in a gondola. They’re embarrassing. I feel like such a simp.” They also have one strange joint quirk: They celebrate what they call “Portuguese-style” New Year’s Eve by writing wishes on paper and throwing them in a fire, clutching a coin, eating pomegranate seeds and raisins, and while the clock strikes 12, running up and down a stairway. “We’re riddled with superstition,” Ross admits.
This year Kaye has returned to ABT as associate artistic director. The job will mean travel to raise funds and help direct the company’s artistic policy. Ross, meanwhile, will begin filming Simon’s California Suite with Jane Fonda and Richard Pryor in Hollywood.
“I don’t like that,” Ross says of the separation. In 18 years of show business marriage, they’ve never been apart for more than 28 days.