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Peaches: Who’s Your Daddy?

She was 16, he was 52, what could go wrong?


1926

Daddy’s attorney wanted to know whether she blamed Daddy for the acid attack. There was no proof at all, but Peaches said she suspected he had something to do with it all the same.

Though she did not act very much like it, Frances “Peaches” Browning was only 16 years old. On the witness stand, she wore a bandage on her chin to cover the scarring from the vial of acid she claimed was splashed on her as she awoke one morning a year ago, just before her wedding. It had become yet another point of contention in the legendarily tawdry trial for separation (divorce was not an option at the time, since neither had claimed infidelity), which her husband, 52-year-old Edward “Daddy” Browning, one of the most successful real-estate developers in Manhattan, had opposed. He’d intended to be with Peaches forever, but after lavishing her with 200 bunches of flowers and 50 boxes of candy and 60 dresses and 179 coats, less than six months into their marriage and twenty pounds heavier she’d walked out of their Kew Gardens residence, along with her mother, whom Daddy had agreed to let live with them and whom Peaches had used, he would testify, as another tool in the arsenal of excuses and obstructions she’d put between him and his “rights as a husband.” As part of her suit for alimony, Peaches—a “nice girl who petted,” as one acquaintance summarized to reporters—asserted virtuousness, and claimed that she had no choice but to flee given Daddy’s aberrations, from his affinity for bent spoons and a honking pet African bird and alcohol and pornography to his demand that she parade before him naked and interact with an occult woman who wore a snake around her neck and espoused sexual magic.

As vendors hawked hot dogs and souvenirs to the 3,000 gawkers who gathered outside the White Plains courthouse, more than 40 newspapermen assiduously reported every detail, with fresh Western Union and telephone lines run to the city to accommodate their transmissions. The grotesque fairy tale of Peaches and Daddy Browning had become one of the most sensational news stories in post–World War I America. With the couple’s frequent cooperation and coordination, the press had witnessed nearly every milestone of their whirlwind romance, including Fifth Avenue shopping trips with a six-person security detail, all-night dancing adventures across Manhattan, and a trip to Atlantic City with Peaches in a shocking, thigh-bearing one-piece. Indeed, when the couple took up residence in the Hotel Gramatan, several reporters followed suit, so that, according to Michael M. Greenburg’s definitive 2008 account of the marriage, the sound of typewriters was audible in the hallways.

Even before Peaches, Daddy was well known in New York as perhaps the most idiosyncratic of the city’s eligible bachelors. A single father worth what would now be an estimated $300 million, he’d become a tabloid fixture after marrying, at age 40, his first wife, Adele, a considerably younger blonde file clerk with whom he lived in a 24-room penthouse apartment overlooking Central Park. Unable to have children—throughout his life Daddy would vehemently defend himself against rumors of infertility—the couple adopted two daughters—Marjorie and little Dorothy “Sunshine,” as Daddy nicknamed his favorite—and when Adele slipped off aboard a steamship to Paris with the 28-year-old playboy dentist whose office she’d been visiting frequently, she took Marjorie with her. The couple split, and each kept a favored daughter.

Vowing never to marry again, in what the tabloids quickly helped morph into a Willy Wonka–style lottery, Daddy set about finding a sister for Sunshine: After personally reviewing 12,000 applications and interviewing scores of would-be daughters, he chose Mary Louise Spas of Queens, who, despite being 16 and therefore two years older than the cutoff, bore a charming gold tooth and stole his heart. A My Fair Lady transformation ensued, rapturously reported by the press, which continued trolling Spas’s past, ultimately uncovering revealing swimsuit photos that led to school records that led to the disclosure that Mary was actually 21 and not poor. Daddy moved to have the adoption annulled. Mary responded with a tabloid tell-all and lawsuit, alleging Daddy was a pervert.

Daddy turned his attention to charity. Especially for children, and especially for the local chapter of the Phi Lambda Tau social sorority for high-school girls, of which he was the main benefactor. The sorority’s primary function was throwing dances across Manhattan for girls in scanty flapper dress, where Daddy, with his long, sagging face and steep W-collared dress shirts, smoked cigars and held court. And so it went that one night, inside the ballroom of the Hotel McAlpin on 34th and Broadway, Browning’s life intersected with Frances Heenan’s, whom the press would describe as a “chubby,” strawberry-blonde high-school dropout with “piano legs” but an inexplicably “magnetic” smile who worked as a shop clerk and lived with her single mother in Washington Heights. He likened her to peaches and cream, securing her lifelong nickname. Thirty-seven days later, to thwart a child-protective-services investigation, they were married.


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