How else to explain the acts of Halloween night, when Braunstein allegedly set two chemical fires in Dixie cups on the landings of the Woman in Market’s Chelsea apartment building wearing a firefighter’s uniform he had bought on eBay under the I.D. “gulagmeister”? He had changed it from “dr-groovy” a month prior, explaining to one seller, “Same loyal customer. I just don’t feel like Dr. Groovy anymore.” All Braunstein had to do was say “fire” and knock on the victim’s door. While neighbors made their way downstairs to the wail of fire trucks, he allegedly drugged her with chloroform, bound her to her bed with duct tape and leg shackles, and assaulted her for eleven hours. He gave her a sleeping pill and took one himself. In her closet, he selected choice pairs of shoes from her abundant store of stilettos, outfitting her in them as a video camera ran.
In the month since the attack, the New York Post and Daily News have devoted more than a dozen front pages to the case, encouraging the notion of Braunstein’s crime as Jacobean revenge drama, and perhaps only Act I. With security posted on the floor of the W newsroom and segments about the fire fiend running on Fox’s America’s Most Wanted, reports surfaced that Braunstein’s other eBay purchases included an expired Detroit police badge and 8.8 pounds of potassium nitrate—TIME BOMB! screamed the New York Post. (Actually, saltpeter was the main ingredient in the chemical fires Braunstein is alleged to have started on Halloween.) Meanwhile, not only the victim but many of the women who knew Braunstein more casually went into hiding themselves, afraid of where Braunstein’s obsessions might take him next. As a public allegory, it gave frightening life to a common daydream: that no matter how successful any woman becomes, her physiognomy renders her vulnerable to the coercions of the stronger sex, who may wish her well in public but secretly harbor resentments too deep to fathom.
Today, the victim, currently staying on friends’ couches and visiting trauma counselors, has friends make periodic trips to her apartment to pick up clothes. “All of her friends are gathering around her to lend their support, to help her through this trying ordeal,” says a close friend. “The wish we all have for her is peace of mind, and that she will be able to retain her privacy and go on with her life.” Also on the stage is Braunstein’s angry, proud Iraqi-born mother, holed up in her gracious Kew Gardens complex, and Braunstein’s father, Alberto, estranged from his son since a blowup over the relative success of the younger Braunstein at a dinner at Pastis two years ago. It is he who has become the public face of the case, making multiple TV appearances to plead with his son to surrender. One day last week at his gallery on First Avenue, a line of reporters wait for an audience. A mysterious man in a trench coat takes a surreptitious photo with his camera phone. Kew Gallery is more a high-end gilt-wood-framing store than a gallery, though there are some Monet-type florals and many nudes. The fine-line drawings on watercolor feature plump backs with heads turned to one side, and a woman with a breast out looking at herself in the mirror with a faint smile.
“I am devastated,” says Alberto Braunstein, a small man, 82, in a black-and-white-check suit and a silk tie. “For heaven’s sake, my son is no monster! He is a sick man who needs help—if he is found, he must plead insanity, and if there is a chemical balance it can be cured. All I want is to avoid further tragedy, and to avoid the day when I am called to identify his remains.” His face is crumbling with age, and his sea-green eyes are unfocused. He taps a small canvas of a Lhasa Apso, pink tongue and brushed white mane leaping out from a background of baby-blue sky. “Tiko died yesterday, at eight years old,” he says. “I returned from the south of France, and the dog was there, paralyzed in the apartment. I don’t know what to do. In life, there is nothing but tragedy.”
When Peter Braunstein began at Fairchild in 2000, he was well liked on the journalism side of things, if not the fashion one, a kind of office curio—“Peter Brahhn-stein is hil-arious!” the women editors would tell each other. He might have grown up the son of immigrants, but he went to the best private school in Kew Gardens, and afterward studied political science at the University of Washington and the Sorbonne. Braunstein was a flirt. He knew how to compliment without seeming lascivious, to use smiles sparingly, and to speak softly to women so they had to lean in to hear him. “In truth, Peter was really ugly, but he transcended his ugliness,” says one female editor (many women with professional and personal relationships with Braunstein asked that their names be withheld, for fear of retribution while he remains at large). He knew about esoteric fashion historians, Faye Dunaway’s sweaters, and the international nightclub Regine’s, and he always had some sort of comeback, like “She’s about 30 minutes into her Behind the Music special.” “W is full of Ivy League graduates who give up semiotics seminars to talk about Ralph Lauren’s way with gauchos, and here was this skinny little guy who was unrepentant about pop culture,” says a former co-worker. “It made everybody feel better about working in a frivolous industry.”