Sometimes in the afternoons, they would come to the filing cabinet across from his small beige-paneled cubicle, these fashion girls. This was the sliver of newsroom designated for them to lay out some accessories for upcoming shoots, the python-embossed leather belts and Dalmatian-print fingerless gloves, the diamond-flecked lavender jade earrings and quilted pastel Provençal scarves. They paid no regard to that guy with a weird hairdo and the wrong clothes, finally a straight guy in the office and of course he had to be totally undatable. They stood in front of him, swaying. The refreshing smell of citrus hung in the air.
A journeyman in the world of fashion, Peter Braunstein, 41, had found himself employed at Fairchild Publications, home of W magazine, the most culturally elitist and wealth-driven fashion magazine in the country and, consequently, the stomping ground of some of Manhattan’s most rarefied females. Once a well-regarded Ph.D. candidate in the history department at New York University, Braunstein had thrown over his thesis for the lesser rigors of journalism at W’s sister publication, the fashion-business trade paper Women’s Wear Daily. Braunstein was a media reporter. He was part of a team that reported on the time Gisele was carried into a Balenciaga show because she may have had food poisoning; provided a sneak peek of an all-fur issue of French Vogue, a shock because editor Carine Roitfeld’s only furs were a short Cerruti jacket and a Helmut Lang shearling; and chronicled André Leon Talley’s visit to a Persian nutritionist, who encouraged Talley to eat egg whites and strawberries for breakfast. In longer articles, he wrote sometimes of sexual politics, and these had some nice grace notes. A dispatch on men’s magazines began with a line from H. G. Wells’s The Island of Dr. Moreau—“Are we not men?” He was referring to manhood’s indeterminacy as displayed in titles like Maxim and GQ. He could have asked the same of himself.
The girls who used the filing cabinet in front of Braunstein were market-department girls. At a fashion magazine, the market department is not about creativity—it’s about shopping, and shopping is these girls’ lives. They are mental for clothes. On weekends, they go to Balenciaga to check out the new bags; they save up their meager salaries for what they are not gifted, like a new Louis Vuitton, and daydream about which style they’re going to get. Market is about satisfying the fashion department’s needs. When a stylist asks for topaz-colored slim-fit leather pants, these girls have to know who has the best ones, and these pants must arrive immediately, so that in a few days, a neat rack of 30 topaz pants stands in the closet for the stylist to peruse—and if Vogue or Harper’s Bazaar wants the same pants on the same day, a good market editor can muscle the publicist for first dibs. At Vogue, they say that Anna doesn’t care what you look like unless you’re in the fashion-market department, in which case you’d better look good.
So some days the market girls were working on bangles, and 30 glittering objects would appear on the cabinet; other days there were scarves, or bags, or shoes, and these were the happiest days—the lacy leather matador heels, ostrich-and-crocodile-trimmed snakeskin heels, leather kitten-heel pumps, velvet peep-toe slingbacks, all these size-9 beauties. The only time Braunstein saw better shoes was on one Woman in Market, a striking, brusque thirtysomething with bronzed skin, Dolce & Gabbana blouses, and a thick mane of hair that swung back and forth while she arranged the delicate soles on the countertop by height and color. This woman was dating a man who was a real man, a man who wore pressed oxford shirts and a Rolex on his hairy wrist. This woman only wore stilettos. It seemed like every day she had a new pair. A python with marabou feathers, the laces extending up her slender ankles to muscular thighs that disappeared under a Miu Miu wool miniskirt; patent-leather T-strap stilettos, red-painted toes poking out the front; velvet Christian Louboutin boots, the steely gray heels hitting the carpet with a dull thump as she approached.
It was the shoes that always got him.
Shoes have become the prevailing synecdoche for the powerful New York woman—sexually liberated, sharp, expensive, able to do all a man can do and in those shoes. In his dreams and now reality, Braunstein was surrounded by such women. He had no interest in the weak. Long before he became known as the “fire fiend,” his icons were Faye Dunaway in Bonnie and Clyde, Jackie Onassis, Jane Fonda, any woman of the postwar era who struck a pose of stylish defiance of societal rank and file. Braunstein’s desire to subvert normative ideals and his taste for mainstream success were deeply in conflict. He had a crippling insecurity and an enormous sense of his own intellect, and was possessed of a desire to court the most powerful New York women and an equal, and then overwhelming, need to destroy them.
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.”
In this environment it was normal for people to be working a persona, but no one quite got Braunstein’s—the Jheri-curl mullet, Huckapoo shirts, velvet blazers, an unironic briefcase (for shame!), and the daily parade of leather pants. “Studio 54 by way of the electronics shop,” says one co-worker; “as if he discovered mousse ten years too late”; “a hair trope like Robert Townsend in The Hollywood Shuffle”; “could’ve been the drummer from Boston circa 1971.”
To Braunstein, though, this was a carefully crafted exterior born of a deep engagement with sexual politics. Taken in graduate school with the concept of theatrical alter egos and “role play” as the defining social experience of the mod era—the wigs, the charadelike dances, the ever-changing looks of Twiggy and Brigitte Bardot—he saw his look as early disco era, and even sold a book to Routledge on the topic to publish in 2007. He was particularly interested in the unstable role of the straight white male in disco, which, he theorized, began as an interaction between black female divas and gay men. “Straight men were welcome to join the party, but only if they learned the lingo,” Braunstein wrote. “Some did, but for many, this new demand aroused a kind of castration anxiety. Disco symbolized a world where straight men were not only expected to engender the female orgasm, but to incorporate it … It wasn’t homosexuality that disco ushered in but a sustained exploration of the sexual self, including the femme side of the male persona.”
Braunstein got in touch with the femme side of his persona through Debra Michals, a woman he met in graduate school and dated for eight years. Michals, who moonlighted as a reporter at WWD, worked on early radical feminism. She wrote on groups such as the New York Radical Women, who famously protested the Miss America pageant in 1968 by crowning a sheep Miss America and demanding to speak only to female journalists. Michals also wrote articles on feminism for Ms. and other publications, writing a treatise on Internet chat rooms where users acted out virtual gangbangs. “Clearly, ‘virtual rape’ is not the same as the rape a woman experiences in the physical world,” she wrote. “But something as yet unnameable is going on in chat rooms where an erotic scenario can shift to a gangbang with a few keystrokes from an observing male who jumps in with, ‘Let’s skull-fuck the bitch.’ ”
Michals is stunning—“the most beautiful graduate student at NYU,” says a friend—with wavy raven hair, filmy sweaters, and slim trousers paired with chunky boots, an extreme faded beauty with the look of a present-day Carol Alt. In fact, Braunstein’s pet name for her was Beauty. The two lived in a shag-carpeted one-bedroom on Thompson Street, often with the television playing a sixties art film in the background. “They were a cool, cool couple,” says a friend.
“How could you not be there for me?” he ranted to a friend after he was sent to Bellevue. “You used to be so real. Now you’re just another one of those fashion bitches.”
Michals spent her savings throwing Braunstein a party at a Greenwich Village Italian restaurant for his first book, a compilation of countercultural essays whose cover lining was made from the same paper used for sheets of LSD; friends expecting meager hors d’oeuvre were surprised to find dinner waiting. Braunstein had interviewed Jane Fonda days before, and he rhapsodized about the interview—she represented a half-century of culture, a “libertine in the mid-sixties, radical by the decade’s end, progressive in the seventies, entrepreneurial in the eighties, and a corporate grande dame in the nineties,” he explained in an essay, concluding “Jane Fonda is America.” She was his celebrity fantasy hookup. “If she had slept with me, I would’ve done it,” he said and shot a look at Michals. “If I got her, could I have her?” Michals laughed and said that she was willing to make that bet.
A few weeks later, the couple broke it off. Of course, since this is Manhattan, they continued living in the same apartment. Fearful that Braunstein was spying, Michals used pay phones at the library to call friends to ask them to set her up on dates.
By enlisting at Fairchild, Braunstein had joined a world of women. There were the sallow, plump girls who wore designer samples that were a little too tight, and the no-nonsense women with motorcycle boots and thin pale shoulders who worked in production, and gaunt beauties from ruined aristocratic families, all of them dripping with trinkets like chandelier earrings or elaborate handbags, hair plaited with textured rose-colored barrettes and faces shining with daubs of $500 moisturizer. Braunstein would never comment on their bodies the way gay men in the office would—cooing to the market girls, “Girl, your rack looks so good in that dress!” Interviews were alluring too, like one with the teenage Frieda twins, the girls from the Sheer Blonde ad. The twins told Braunstein that they were cutting a demo and looking for a band name. “What do you think of Stiletto?” one asked.
Although they saw each other nearly every day in the sprawling newsroom, the Woman in Market almost never spoke to Braunstein, as far as anyone can remember. But Braunstein made inroads with other women, notably a beauty editor. She had a softer, more welcoming mien than the hard-edged, quasi-European market girls. The Woman in Beauty’s look is Babe Paley, with her fur tippets, perfect fifties heels, and flamboyant flip hairdo. A childhood friend of Dina Lohan’s from Long Island and a bridesmaid in her wedding, she was famous for her vintage finds, sleeveless white shift dresses that were mod but not extremely mod—at the opening of the Mary Quant boutique, she wore a Quant dress she bought on eBay for the occasion. She is the Platonic ideal of a refined New York woman, a trained singer, a volunteer at a breast-cancer charity, an avid chef who clips from Gourmet for dinner parties at her mod midtown apartment.
“Such a beautifully maintained façade usually conceals ugly machinery behind it, but with her there was none of that,” says a friend. “She wasn’t an intellectual snob, a social snob, a fashion snob, or a gossip—not a fashion person in any of those Vogue-etty ways. She looks good because she is good.”
Braunstein fell hard for this mod-era emblem come to life, the perfect hostess setting down martini glasses in front of an Eero Saarinen chair. The relationship began in secret. She had recently broken an engagement with a handsome editor of Fairchild’s men’s-fashion trade paper. Braunstein held the Woman in Beauty in high esteem. He moved into the Forest Hills Inn, an Arts and Crafts masterpiece in the cobblestone square next to the LIRR stop, and told confidants that he and the Woman in Beauty would go to midtown hotels during the day but did not have sex. “Peter said she was so much more worldly and sophisticated than Deb Michals,” says a friend. “He made a big deal about how their relationship was so pure and above everything else.” She called him “My Dark Prince.”
Braunstein and the Woman in Beauty’s official coming-out party as a couple was at a 35th-birthday party in an East Village railroad apartment. The two sat close together on the end of a couch, the beauty editor in vintage Missoni. The editors of fashion-gossip outlet hintmag.com, notorious practical jokers, sat kitty-corner. Now, you’re the media columnist, and you’re the beauty editor, so how does that work? asked one, setting off a round of questioning designed to make the couple uncomfortable. “As soon as I started asking about sex, they got up and left the party,” says the other.
The relationship had the odd characteristic of both feeling that they were each other’s saviors, their insecurities in precise balance. To Braunstein, the beauty editor took solace in her career because it made her feel better than him; to her, Braunstein was a fragile man who hid behind an image of himself as swinging cultural hero. A big advertiser would pull out, and the beauty editor would blame herself and worry that she was going to lose her job; Braunstein’s pitches to magazines would go unanswered, and he would unleash a stream of vitriol and then collapse in a ball. Still, “he was into the concept of marriage,” says a friend.
Braunstein wasn’t one of the chosen at W, though he steadily contributed articles, like on seventies sex kitten Helen Mirren, and Guy Bourdin, whom he called the “godfather of porno chic—his work was a meticulously executed tableau of his childhood fears.” Nevertheless, editorial director Patrick McCarthy was wary of him, says a former W editor: “It was the snobbery of W, and something about his hairstyle. People saw that as a symbol of his ambivalence about their world, and questioned how badly he wanted to make it.” Braunstein was aware of this, and he readily shared his views on the “fashion bitches.”
He enjoyed his job, and the power accrued. A favorite game was grading the editors’ letters of women’s magazines, then soliciting responses. Some editrixes sent packages of cookies and framed photos of themselves in response; Lesley Jane Seymour of Marie Claire sent him a handwritten letter: “Dear Professor Braunstein, Sorry my first try at my editor’s letter was so poor: my cat ate the best version, the second got caught in the rain, the third got slipped under the door of the wrong teacher!”
At the same time, Braunstein was unfulfilled. He was an artist, and yet people whom he regarded as not as talented were being richly rewarded. His envy reached its zenith in October 2002, when Vogue star writer Plum Sykes received a $625,000 advance for her first novel, Bergdorf Blondes. A week later, Braunstein called Vogue public relations to request an extra ticket to the VH1/Vogue Fashion Awards. Though he received the ticket, there was some initial resistance, and Braunstein became incensed. The next day, he received an e-mail from his editor, James Fallon: “It was kind of the publicist simply to invite you, and then he gets harassed for another ticket for you and yelled at by [another reporter] for giving him a ‘bad’ seat. I have told both of you that aggressiveness in pursuing a story is fine, but I will not tolerate bullying, sarcasm or prima donna behavior … The behavior will end, and it will end now.”
Braunstein leapt up out of his seat in anger. He strode over to Fallon’s desk and threw a “You’re out of order, sir” scene—Do you know what people get away with here? he asked. And you’re harassing me for this? He strode out the building, leaving behind his Rolodex, which he never claimed. He immediately telephoned the gossip columns to push a story about his firing as a symbol of the “subservience of W to Vogue,” and demanded that the beauty editor quit her job in solidarity. She declined.
The beauty editor celebrated her 40th birthday weeks later, hosting a bunch of fashion people at the Lower East Side media hangout the Slipper Room. To a crowd of about 40, the beauty editor ascended a small stage to sing Carpenters songs. Braunstein was nowhere to be found—they’d had a fight, she said apologetically. Around 11 p.m., he showed up. He grabbed her arm and led her out the door. “It was the first time that any of us had an inkling that something was very, very wrong,” says a friend.
In Braunstein’s pantheon of women, Edie Sedgwick occupied the center. Among Manhattan “It” girls, she was Eve—all woman, all surface, the perfect mannequin, a kind of blank slate for the male erotic imagination, forever pursued, never quite captured. In Sedgwick, Braunstein’s fascination with sixties counterculture and the hard-edged market girls he’d known at W came together perfectly.
After he left Fairchild, Braunstein began work on a play titled Andy and Edie, a fantastically puerile piece of work‚ including such insights from the Warhol character: “Dying for one’s art is one thing … but dying because some crazy butch dyke claims you never returned a screenplay called Up Your Ass is another.” He dreamed of whom he could cast in the Edie role and approached heiresses Casey Johnson and Elisabeth Kieselstein-Cord. Ads in Backstage and on Craigslist.com attracted some 500 women, all these wannabe Edies in their pseudo-Gernreich dresses. Auditions were an elaborate game of dress-up. The best day was the last one. Late in the afternoon, Natalia McLennan, the prostitute who was on the cover of New York this July, auditioned for Ingrid Superstar. “She was very strange,” says a crew member. “I thought she was a Method actor, acting drugged-out like people used to be in the Factory.” Next up was Misha Sedgwick, Edie’s striking niece, whom Braunstein instantly wanted as Edie. And then there was a dominatrix, her hair styled in Edie’s blonde bob. This was quite a crowd. Braunstein took them all out for drinks after the auditions, and they taxicabbed up to a Madison Avenue bistro for a rendezvous with Peter Beard.
But the play was only part of Braunstein’s Edie fantasy. He also persuaded the Woman in Beauty to dress up as Edie—leopard-print coat, dangling earrings, heavy makeup—at an art-gallery party for a Vogue writer’s book. Sometimes, he took his real-live Sedgwick and the actor playing Andy out to parties, in shimmering short white wigs. Braunstein even wrote a journal in Edie’s voice: “Does anyone know where I can find those fishnets with the seams down the back? All my old places have closed and Betsey J and I are still in a tiff.” At the beauty editor’s, he watched Ciao! Manhattan repeatedly. One night, when they hosted a dinner party for eight, he put it on the VCR and sat down at the table with his bong.
Braunstein would call his actresses at 4 a.m. “Let’s get down,” he’d say. “Tell me your secrets, your tragedies, your dark past.”
As the fall of 2003 wore on, Braunstein’s relationship with the beauty editor became increasingly strained; she was supporting him financially—she even had to hop down from the Fairchild offices to pay for his drinks at a bar on occasion—and her friends had started to introduce the term “freeloader.” On a November night, she told Braunstein he had to move out. He threatened suicide. He said he would frame her for his murder because he was a successful playwright and she was an unsuccessful singer. She called the police, who arrived to find Braunstein reportedly wielding a knife he had cut himself with, though he insisted the marks came from the Woman in Beauty. They took him to Bellevue. “He went for a very short time, and the doctors said he was fine,” says his father, who says that Braunstein had been previously treated with Prozac. After his release, he called a friend to rant about the indignity of being caged with patients he characterized as rage monkeys. “How could you not be there for me?” he asked. “You used to be so real, and now you’re another one of those fashion bitches.”
It was around this time that Braunstein heard the Woman in Market had resigned from W. She had been accused of taking dozens of shoes from the fashion closet, all the beautiful stilettos that she had set out on the filing cabinet. It was too perfect—he thought that she had no culture and no class, this haughty woman who thought she was better than he was, and the fact that she felt it was necessary to steal the mantle of modern femininity confirmed how weak she truly was. Braunstein passed along the gossip, a friend remembers. Afterward, many noted the proximity of the market department’s filing cabinet to his former desk, and recalled his rapt attention.
As a graduate student, Braunstein was lauded for introducing the now-established term “possessive memory” to describe the psychology of aging sixties activists and academics. This memory, he wrote, “leaves the person and his memories in a lover’s embrace: The person is in possession of his memories, and no one else can touch them; at the same time, his memories are in possession of him.” Now on the receiving end of unrequited love, the theoretical construct meant more to him than he expected. He began a campaign against the Woman in Beauty—hundreds of harassing phone calls, some a running loop of a woman orgasming; threatening e-mails to her father; posting her nude photos on the Web. He started a blog on his play’s Website: “Before I could write a play about Edie Sedgwick, I had to become Edie Sedgwick, and that channeling was ignited by my two-year hellride with someone who, for the sake of both propriety and nomenclature, I’ll simply call ‘BioHazard’: because she’s the most toxic woman I ever attempted to love.”
Braunstein embarked on a series of 4 a.m. calls to the actresses in the play, as well. “I don’t understand why you don’t want to get real with me,” he would say. “You know, babe, I’ve seen it all. Let’s get down—tell me your secrets, your tragedies, your dark past.” When they resisted, he’d say, “Man, are you a boring person or what?” One actress became so frightened she played his rambling voice-mail messages for a lady cop at a police precinct; the policewoman said that she could hold Braunstein for 24 hours, and he’d be able to learn who had filed the complaint; she couldn’t bring herself to do it.
At the play’s close, Braunstein said he was moving to Europe to work on a new project: Valley of the Dolls, the musical. In truth, he hung around Queens searching for a job in journalism, heading out to Englewood Cliffs, New Jersey, for an interview at Life & Style magazine—“He wanted to write about David Bowie,” says the interviewer. “I was like, ‘You know this is a job about Cameron Diaz’s belts, right?’ ” He took to writing his own letters to the editor, chastising Jane Pratt for running an article by Jayson Blair, threatening Atoosa Rubenstein for putting Paris Hilton on the cover of CosmoGIRL! magazine. A piece on stalking Kate Moss was one of the only ones he published in these years, in Black Book magazine. He wrote, “There will never be a ‘next Kate’ for one simple reason: Kate is always the ‘next Kate.’ She is her own successor … That makes her every woman, real or fake, I’ve ever fallen hopelessly in love with.”
With such obsessions, Braunstein was increasingly inhabiting his own Guy Bourdin porn world. Girls in magazines, real girls, long-dead “It” girls like Edie flashed like a slide show in his mind. Some he worshipped, some he reviled, but all were objects, emptied of whatever they possessed, given his own meanings. His hatred for some—the Woman in Beauty, especially—was building dangerously.
Forensic psychologists call a case like Braunstein’s an obsessional disorder with a disturbance in interpersonal attachments. Louis Schlesinger, professor of forensic psychology at John Jay College, says there are three key factors in escalating this kind of obsession: crossing the line from being a fan to obsession, unrealistic obsessions of being a part of a celebrity’s life, and observing the victim doing something that the assailant finds morally offensive.
In September, the Woman in Beauty, so humiliated by Braunstein’s acts that she kept the extent of his harassment from friends, took him to court. She got a permanent order of protection barring Braunstein from contacting her, and Braunstein was sentenced to three years’ probation and five days’ community service. The offense was great, and the frustration greater.
A common feature of violent sexual obsession is its fluidity—the object can shift, even as the impulse is constant. On Braunstein’s computer the police found notes he’d made for an assault—to dress up as a firefighter, break into a woman’s apartment, and tie her up. He had someone in mind—the plan was meant for the beauty editor.
He allegedly took his revenge on the other woman, the Woman in Market, who never gave him the time of day, who was cold and impeccable, armored with the best clothes and best shoes any woman could have, and she didn’t deserve them. A woman who was always just out of reach. A woman who offended him by her taking of the shoes. A woman who was just as bad and as shameful as he was, a Dark Princess for a Dark Prince. The attack was about fetishized humiliation—with shoes, the symbol of her glamour and power—more than sexual release. There was no DNA evidence left at the scene.
The Woman in Market never recognized Braunstein in the attack. It’s unclear whether she’d have even known who he was if she had. It was the beauty editor, the woman who knew Braunstein best, who called police with her suspicions.
“She has been able to rebuild her life, and it’s not easy,” says a friend, Anna Moine. “If anything, I hope this brings more attention to crimes against women.”
On the run for more than a month, Braunstein has become an urban bogeyman, a face women see on the subway. A cop chase in the garment district turned up a Braunstein look-alike Italian tourist. And in Cobble Hill one morning, a man who looked like Braunstein walked into a café on Court Street at 7:30 a.m.—“I looked at him, he looked at me, we vibed each other, and he walked out quick,” said the proprietor, a jovial guy who thrummed with anxiety after the incident (“It’s the definition of a freak-out experience,” he said).
That morning, reporters amassed across the street from the shop. Near their cameras were those of an NYU student making a short film about a young man who falls in love with a young woman who is a man. An elegant student in a black overcoat stared mournfully at a Lucian Freud book before helicopters began to whir overhead and a SWAT team in hazmat suits gathered, extending Braunstein’s pillowcase to the nose of Chase the bloodhound. Chase led to the door of an empty brownstone on a picturesque stretch of Henry Street, a yoga flyer on the doorknob and decaying Yellow Books on the stairs. Chase went no farther.
Dejected cops distributed $12,000 reward flyers at all the nice new boutiques. They left one with the manager of the American Apparel store, a barrel-chested guy in a T-shirt with purple palm trees. He stared at it with mild curiosity. “I wish I saw him,” he said, tracing the reward amount with a finger. “I could use the money.”
His stubbly co-worker looked him up and down. “By the way, where did you get that shirt?” he asked.
“Nom de Guerre,” said the manager. “And it was $50.”
“I’m so sorry to hear that,” said the clerk, nose in the air.