INSPIRATION: Peaches & Daddy Browning

The Sexual Revolution was a long time coming. Decades before the Pill, bra-burning, Roe vs. Wade or the Equal Rights Act, there was the struggle to establish that female sexuality existed, that women had enough agency over their bodies to enjoy – and even initiate – sex acts. Women in the USA and the UK won the right to vote, but they still faced an uphill battle against the entrenched Angel/Whore dialectic.

Victorian women, in the eyes of their mutton-chopped patriarchs, were feeble creatures faced with a simple binary choice. Either they remained distant and aloof regarding all sexual matters, and therefore maintained a good character regarding any other moral issues, or, they submitted to base sexual desires and fell, hard and irrevocably, never to be trusted with anything again. Such women were idealized in the ‘sensation novels’ of the 1860s (such as Wilkie Collins’ The Woman in White). These heroines quite literally passed out at the first indication the sexual elephant in the room might be wiggling his trunk. This was a defense mechanism: to remain conscious was to risk moral – and subsequently social – ruin.

The wheels of change were turning however. Within a couple of generations, the Flappers of the 1920s played by very different rules. They chopped off their hair, abandoned their corsets, raised their hemlines and rolled down their stockings to (Heavens!) expose their knees and dance dance dance their way out of wartime misery. Their parents and grandparents watched in horrified fascination as these Bright Young Things redefined feminine beauty and desirability. They struck angular shapes rather than accentuating curves, and expressed sexual allure through bare skin and translucent dresses rather than layers of satin and whalebone.

They also set about redefining moral values, scrapping the fainting couches so beloved of their grandmothers. Swooning at modest propositions was out. Dangling a string of lovers – even, like F. Scott Fitzgerald’s nonchalant heroines, after you married one – was in.

“I’ve kissed dozens of men. I suppose I’ll kiss dozens more.” – Rosalind in This Side of Paradise (1920)

The Flappers set out to shock and titillate and, thanks to the slavering media that reported breathlessly on their antics, they succeeded. Tabloid newspapers adored everything about these wayward gals: skimpy clothing, salacious scandals, syncopated slang, all the symptoms of moral decay – the stories wrote themselves. What couldn’t readers love to hate about the teenage temptresses of the Jazz Age?

Enter fifteen year-old blue-eyed strawberry blonde Frances Belle Heenan, a high school drop-out who, in 1926, lived with her mother in Washington Heights. By day she worked as a $15-a-week shop clerk, by night she took advantage of the new moral freedoms (and, doubtless, the freely available bootleg booze) and partied with the Manhattan It Girls. She was appraised by an acquaintance as “a nice girl who petted.” Late in the evening of March 5, 1926, she swung by a sorority party at the Hotel McAlpin on Broadway and 34th, where she caught the eye of millionaire real estate tycoon, Edward Browning, one of the benefactors of this event – and many others patronized by local schoolgirls.

Browning was known as ‘Daddy’, for a variety of reasons. He was a familiar figure in newsprint of the time. The press covered his fairy tale marriage to the beautiful Nellie Adele in 1915 and he threw open the doors to his family life. The New York Times gushed about the “Bridal Pair’s Roof Garden”, their opulently decorated twenty-four room penthouse overlooking Central Park, while The Washington Post added details about the bedroom suite that came from Versailles, the 16th century Italian dining table that seated twelve, and the water fountain that changed color according to Adele’s mood.  Using classified advertisements, the Brownings adopted two little girls, Marjorie and Dorothy Sunshine, to live in this wonderland, further indulging the fantasies of instant wealth and lifelong luxury so dear to the tabloid readership. It’s perhaps no coincidence that the comic strip Little Orphan Annie first appeared in 1924.

There was another side to Paradise, however. Adele ran away to Paris with her dentist in June 1923. An ugly and very public divorce followed – as proceedings began, Adele excused her behavior by saying “He is interested in women very much younger than I am”. Marjorie (who had never been legally adopted by Browning) went to live with her mother, while Dorothy Sunshine stayed with her single Pa.

When the dust settled, Browning decided that Dorothy Sunshine was lonely, and once again turned to the line ads:

ADOPTION – PRETTY, REFINED GIRL, about 14 years old, wanted by aristocratic family of large wealth and highest standing: will be brought up as own child among beautiful surroundings, with every desirable luxury, opportunity, education, travel, kindness, care, love. Address with full particulars and photograph.

The response – over 12,000 replies from all over the world, from applicants ranging from three to eighty seven years old – delighted Browning. He partnered with the New York Daily Mirror to run the contest, and made a big deal out of poring over applications and interviewing hopefuls – all, of course, in front of the flashbulbs. His ability to transform a young girl’s life from rags to riches earned him the sobriquet ‘Cinderella Man’. Eventually he settled on Mary Louise Spas as his new princess. She admitted she was sixteen, two years older than the limit, but her gold-toothed smile and charming demeanor convinced the tycoon he had found the ideal big sister for Dorothy Sunshine.

Mary only managed to spend a few weeks riding round Manhattan in Browning’s Rolls Royce, learning how to address the servants and being showered with expensive frocks, shoes, and jewelry by her new Daddy before this fairy tale, too, turned sour. Reporters dug into Mary’s background and discovered that she was in fact twenty-one years old, had previously been engaged to a plumber, appeared in a movie and posed for photographs in a swimsuit (!). Browning rapidly backtracked on the adoption, claiming he had been duped. Mary claimed he knew her real age all along and had encouraged her to maintain the lie – while he enjoyed petting and spanking her and telling her he loved her. “I know he is not fit to associate with young girls,” she told the Daily Mirror. “I think he is a very evil man and I hate him.”

Once his legal team had dispatched Mary back where she came from, Browning, oblivious to the cynical newspaper reports of his activities, carried on indulging his interest in young girls. He used his wealth to insert himself into clubs, societies and organizations, and became notorious for showing up at events with his pockets stuffed with colored handkerchiefs, to bestow on the youthful and attractive guests. He asked them all to call him Daddy, and, mindful of his power and influence, they complied.

And then, fifty one year-old Daddy Browning met fifteen year-old Frances Heenan in a glitzy Manhattan ballroom, told her “you look like peaches and cream to me”, and, thirty seven days later, walked her down the aisle.

“I knew the first time I saw her that she was the girl of my dreams. I loved her. I saw the blazing reflection of my own love in her eyes. Here was my perfect mate! I could not trust myself alone with her. I was too overwhelmed with love.”  Daddy on Peaches

“My other boyfriends were forgotten. I had glances for none save Mr. Browning, my silver-haired knight, his gentle caresses, his quiet dignity, his savoir faire.” Peaches on Daddy

The steps of the dance should be clear by now: it was Peaches’ turn to ride around in the Rolls Royce spending upwards of $1000 per shopping trip in Manhattan’s boutiques, and to be paraded in endless photo ops. Daddy wooed both the girl and her mother with expensive gifts, and was serious about marriage from the start. Perhaps he was mindful of the accusations of both his ex-wife and Mary Spas about his inappropriate interest in young girls, and he wanted to put a neat legal ring on it? He might also have been aware that Vincent Pisarra of the New York Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children was working behind the scenes to indict Carolyn Heenan as an unfit parent, in order to protect Peaches by making her a ward of court.

Peaches also seemed keen to tie the knot, especially after she was awakened on Saturday, 26 March by violent burns on her face and neck – she had been attacked by an unknown assailant flinging acid. This brought Daddy rushing to her bedside, but it also attracted the attention of the ever-circling reporters, who felt her story didn’t add up. Regardless, Daddy forged ahead with his plan to make Peaches his legal bride, and the odd couple married in the village of Cold Spring, NY (away from prying eyes) on April 10.

After honeymooning in the Adirondacks, Peaches spent the summer squirming in the lap of luxury, as her new husband showered her in jewelry, furs and fashion. She was bombarded with invitations to society and charity events: her name on the line up ensured a crowd. News photographers and curious onlookers swarmed their every public appearance. Daddy loved the attention and even went as far as to arrange stunts with the editor of the New York Graphic, Emile Gauvreau. Gauvreau felt the newlyweds needed an appropriately eccentric pet, so he dispatched them to Staten Island to collect an African Honking Gander. Peaches posed for pictures with the goose on the boardwalk before the bird was packed into the trunk of their car and returned with the couple to their apartment – where it proceeded to defecate all over the floor, to Daddy’s great amusement.

Peaches, however, didn’t get the joke. Although she kept smiling for the cameras, in private she was falling apart. By September she was suffering from nervous seizures and had booted Daddy from the marital bed, preferring to sleep in the safety of her mother’s arms instead. By October 2, not quite seven months after the couple first laid eyes on one another, the romance was dead. That’s when the child bride and her mother stuffed all her luxurious new belongings into trunks, called for the car, and fled. On her way out of the door, in true Peaches style, she sold a sensational Why I Left Daddy Browning exposé to the New York Graphic for $1000.

The next time Peaches saw Daddy was in court, where they fought out the legal terms of their separation. Divorce was not available in New York at the time unless either party admitted adultery and, tawdry though much of the relationship was, neither husband or wife was prepared to go that far. Peaches, who sought (naturally) alimony to keep her in the manner to which she had become accustomed, accused Daddy of mental cruelty.

He counter-claimed abandonment.

Each party gave evidence to support their accusations. The tabloids breathlessly relayed the details to their readers, as Peaches recounted Daddy’s odd boudoir behavior, how much she hated that damn goose crapping everywhere, and how her husband’s late night visits to the ten year-old Dorothy Sunshine’s bedroom (where he ‘rubbed his daughter to sleep’) disturbed her most profoundly. Daddy’s legal team framed Peaches as an immoral gold digger who had been out for financial gain from the get-go. They produced witnesses who had overheard her conspiring with her mother, and even produced one James Mixon, who claimed he’d spent the night with Peaches in a hotel room prior to her marriage. A weeping Peaches announced to the court she’d never seen the man before in her life. P.T. Barnum could not have presided over a more colorful and chaotic circus.

Eventually the judge ruled in Daddy’s favor, effectively cutting off any further financial obligation to his wife. Peaches, though disappointed, was not destitute, far from it. She embarked on six figures a year career in vaudeville: audiences across the United States would get a kick out of seeing all the lurid headlines made flesh for many years to come. She remained legally married to Daddy until the day he died, but after that she wed and divorced three times more. She died after collapsing in a bathroom in 1956.

Daddy, like certain New York millionaire property tycoons that were to follow, couldn’t relinquish the thrill of seeing his name in the newspapers. When he died in 1934 (in the grip of a brain haemorrhage-induced delusion that had him thinking he was the President of the United States, living in the White House) legal reps found a giant vault in his office filled with thousands of newspapers and magazines, all of them referencing Browning in some form. Gossip columnist Jack Lait described him playing “with these printed pieces like a miser with his gold – counting, gloating, drooling”.

This would be peculiar behavior even if the media coverage was flattering but, for the most part, it was not. Indeed, in 1927, the New York Society for the Suppression of Vice took Gauvreau and the New York Graphic to court for alleged violations of Section 1141 of the New York Penal Code in their stories about Daddy and Peaches. The NYSSV objected in particular to the ‘composographs’ (outrageous staged photos with cheeky captions and speech bubbles) used to illustrate the copy, one of which featured a negligee-clad Peaches, a bumbling Daddy, and the Honking African Gander cavorting in the bedroom. Did Daddy sit up late nights in his vault, gloating over this lewd image as a fond souvenir of his brief second marriage? Sadly, we’ll never know.

1926-27 were crazy years, in which we can see many echoes of our own time. There was the feeling that the carousel had started to rotate too quickly, that moral and sexual values were evolving too fast for many Americans to keep up. A brazen self-publicity hound used his wealth and influence to keep himself in the headlines, indulging and parading his proclivity for very young girls (including his daughter) without facing any penalties other than a few disapproving editorials. One of his paramours was able to parlay her sexual notoriety into a career as an entertainer, weaving her personal drama into a lifelong and lucrative performance. It seems it’s always been Peaches and Daddy’s world: the Trumps and Kardashians are just living in it.

Of course, Daddy Browning wasn’t the only New York millionaire who was fatally fascinated by a Flapper. And, naturally, one of those baby vamps was also a Poplars girl…

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