Edward “Daddy” Browning was a famously eccentric millionaire when he crossed paths with fifteen-year-old shop clerk and aspiring flapper Frances Heenan at the Hotel McAlpin. Frances reminded Daddy of peaches and cream—and a scandalous romance began. Thirty-seven days later, amid headlines announcing the event and with the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children in close pursuit, Peaches and Daddy were married. Within ten months they would begin a courtroom drama that would blow their impassioned saga into a national scandal.
Peaches & Daddy vividly recounts the amazing and improbable romance, marriage, and ultimate legal battle for separation of this publicity-craving Manhattan couple in America’s “Era of Wonderful Nonsense.” Their story is one of dysfunction and remarkable excess; yet at the time, the lurid details of their brief courtship and marriage captured the imagination of the American public like no other story of its day.
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THREE THOUSAND PURPLE ORCHIDS
"If ever there was an unselfish man, this was he."
— REV. EDWARD H. EMMET
It was a cerebral hemorrhage that finally left Edwardwest Browning, the man who had built an empire of Manhattan real estate, mentally and physically debilitated, but death had been stalking him for a long time. After surviving the initial critical stage of his illness, Browning was removed to a mansion in Scarsdale, New York, where he suffered from a curious series of delusions. At times he believed himself to be George Washington, leading the Continental Army; at other times he was elected President of the United States and was occupying the White House as the successor to Franklin Roosevelt.
He lived in a vice of extreme paranoia and saw faces peering at him from every window. Kidnappers, he was sure, had marked him as the object of their sinister plots. He often asked his attending nurses to fire rifle shots through the windows to ward off assailants (on more than one occasion these requests were hesitatingly granted). There were hours where he fancied himself commander of world armies and proclaimed the necessity of killing everyone, friends and family included. He became convinced he had lost his fortunes, and moans of anguish from his bedroom could be heard throughout his house.
During the last years of his life, Edward Browning had quietly succumbed to a world of vacuous eccentricity. He nurtured a strict regimen of exercise and cold-water hose baths. He believed that cooked food was not fit for human consumption, and he lived solely on raw vegetables and fruit. He boasted of a 46-inch expanded chest, but it was balanced atop a ghastly 26-inch waistline. In societal whispers he became known as the "grass-eater." He proclaimed, "Do good; help others, keep fit. Get back to nature and you'll get back to health." In the end, however, even this compulsive attention did little to prolong his life.
Though bedridden for much of his time at the Scarsdale estate, Browning occasionally seemed to rally. There was hope of ultimate recovery. But after four months of varying degrees of health and unrelenting battles of the mind, he finally succumbed to pneumonia, with only his sister, Florence, and adopted daughter, Dorothy "Sunshine," at his bedside. It was two days before his 60th birthday.
* * *
It was 1934 and the Great Depression enveloped the nation. Hopelessness was a metastasized cancer in the American soul. The careless frivolity of the previous decade had vanished, and nostalgic recollections of years-gone-by preoccupied otherwise unoccupied minds. Edward Browning had come to represent a happier time, a time of carefree gaiety and whimsical idealism. His passing closed the door on that wonderful Whoopee Era. "If there is a gardener in Heaven, I hope he'll keep Edward Browning supplied with orchids," said Reverend Edward Emmett in his eulogy. "He had the tender, sweet mind of a child." Edward Browning passed from this world as he had wished — with his coffin adorned by three thousand purple orchids.
The funeral service was held at Campbell's Chapel in the heart of Browning's beloved Manhattan. Eight years earlier, at the peak of Browning's own flamboyant career, the "pink powder puffed" corpse of Rudolph Valentino lay in the same home while a ghoulish bacchanal of a hundred thousand delirious mourners crowded the streets to pay tribute to the silent screen legend. Edward Browning's send-off, subdued and quiet, would not remotely resemble Valentino's. There were no more than two hundred mourners.
Edward Browning's death stirred up memories of odd and overexposed periods of his life, but also of his philanthropic enterprises. His obituary in the New York Times recalled Browning's charitable intentions in liquidating real estate holdings after the market crash of 1929:
A large part of the proceeds of the auction sale of realty was used to establish a Browning Foundation, the purpose of which was to operate and maintain playgrounds for children in various parts of the city, and to provide hospitals with expensive toys and play devises of a permanent character for the benefit of children who were patients.
Rarely, however, were Browning's benevolent endeavors private in nature. They were grandiose affairs, assiduously calculated to attract the maximum amount of attention and press coverage. He became well known for distributing toys to children at annual Christmas parties given at his office. The event had become a yearly spectacle with thousands of children and parents lined up for blocks outside of his building waiting for their turn at the knee of Santa Claus. On one of these yuletide occasions, in 1928, a near riot ensued and police squads were called to quiet the stampeding crowds. Browning was heard to say, "Next year I'll hire Madison Square Garden!" On another occasion, Browning offered the City of New York one million dollars to be used to convert the old reservoir in Central Park into a playground and swimming pool for children. Though the offer was rejected, Browning thrived on the newspaper coverage of the story. Children, many of whom had benefited from Browning's numerous neighborhood philanthropies, solemnly filed past the coffin in the chapel on the Sunday before his burial to pay their last respects to Daddy.
Browning had died largely friendless. It was left to his employees to scour the city and pay for the purple orchids that blanketed his casket. There was no one else to fulfill his funerary wishes. There were, of course, acquaintances, business associates, and lawyers who came to pay their last respects, but it was more likely social obligation or simple morbid curiosity that drew them; affection for the man was hardly the reason for their attendance. Tears flowed from the eyes of some, but the inevitable whispers from the lips of others were inappropriately audible over the droning eulogy. Controversy, it seemed, would follow him into the next world.
And, there was the question. Would she come? Could she bear the pain of history? Would she agitate the barely-healed wounds of her past? It had been eight years, but the breathless clamor of their time together had only begun to fade. Those attending the funeral searched for her, men and women alike, necks stretched like giraffes in a fruitless search for some sign of her.
* * *
Within days of Edward Browning's death, the personal representatives of his estate began the task of gathering and preserving his property in preparation for the probate process. In the case of Edward Browning, this was no easy charge. With an estate valued between 7 to 10 million dollars (about 300 million twenty-first century dollars), the process would be arduous and time consuming. To properly inventory every asset of the estate, it was critical that all records and financial documents of the business be examined. Ultimately, the estate representatives — Browning's business associates and an appointed board from the Title Guarantee & Trust Company — arrived at his expansive Manhattan offices, which were located on 61st Street and Broadway.
All seemed as expected as the representatives made their way through the records. Books, office equipment, business files — all the typical appurtenances of Browning's ongoing real estate and charitable enterprises. Upon entering his private suites, however, the representatives were drawn to a large vault — a mausoleum that stretched the width and breadth of an entire room. To their astonishment, the vault contained case upon glass-covered case, imbedded horizontally along the walls and vertically from floor to ceiling — and filled to capacity. They were aghast when they viewed the contents.
Letters. Many, many letters — all addressed to Edward Browning. Later estimates ranged as high as 2.3 million written items. Edward West Browning had retained what seemed to be every note, letter, correspondence, and writing that had ever been delivered to him.
Many were inscribed simply, "Daddy, New York," "The Millionaire Daddy, U.S.A." and "The Girls' Santa Claus of America." They were written by fans and foes, lawyers and associates, and hopeful young girls. There were marriage proposals and death threats, love notes and financial pleas. There were appeals for adoption and articles of blackmail, business exchanges and charitable requests. They bore worldwide postmarks. Some were little more than a paragraph in length and one was 150 pages long.
And there was more. Newspapers — thousands of them, stacked in huge piles like bricks of a building, and all of them naming, describing, depicting, complimenting, criticizing, or simply referring to Edward Browning. "He played with these printed pieces like a miser with his gold ... counting, gloating, drooling," wrote Jack Lait in Walter Winchell's On Broadway column. Being written to and about was Edward Browning's greatest love, and being forgotten was his greatest fear. He carefully maintained these archives as an open tribute to his own life. They were his insurance policy against obscurity.
The representatives painstakingly examined the contents of the vault, and began to realize the pathetic irony of the man — death had come to him without a flicker of limelight. Edward Browning, who had at one time gazed romantically into the camera lens of virtually every newspaper photographer in New York, was now forgotten.CHAPTER 2
EDWARD WEST BROWNING
"If personality is an unbroken series of successful gestures, then there was something gorgeous about him, some heightened sensitivity to the promises of life, as if he were related to one of those intricate machines that register earthquakes ten thousand miles away."
— F. SCOTT FITZGERALD, The Great Gatsby
Edward West Browning was born on October 16, 1874, IN A RAPIDLY evolving New York City. It was the Gilded Age and the American landscape, previously a collection of provincially isolated communities, began to take on an urban-industrial look. Rural Americans flocked to cities, together with throngs of immigrants searching for new homes and new lives. It was an era marked by great progress and great instability. It was the age of the self-made man.
The Browning family resided in a large house on West 75th Street in New York's Upper West Side and enjoyed a chauffer-driven lifestyle. Edward Franklin Browning, Edward West's father, ensured his family all the privilege and comfort of every modern convenience and a full staff of servants. Young Edward was denied precious little, and he acquired, early in life, a taste for high-society and affluence.
While the entrepreneurial landscape of early twentieth century New York would play an immeasurable role in the man he would become, Edward West Browning was also the product of impressive pedigree. Browning's ancestors can be traced back through eight generations, to a Puritan by the name of Nathaniel Browning who was born in London in 1618. The persecutions of the Anglican Church inspired Nathaniel to cross the sea to Boston and then to Portsmouth, Rhode Island, where he settled in the year 1640. Succeeding generations of Brownings would remain in Rhode Island and flourish as farmers and businessmen. In 1833, Edward Browning's grandfather, John Hazard Browning, migrated to New York and created the family business.
For over a century, the name Browning, King & Co. was nationally synonymous with clothing and uniforms. From college wear for Ivy League gentlemen to uniforms for tradesmen and officers, Browning, King & Co. manufactured and sold clothing to men in every walk of life. Formed by John Hazard Browning and operated by his sons Edward Franklin and John Hull, the business adapted to the times and expanded into new arenas. In 1849, when reports of western gold reached New York, the company quickly shifted production to workmen's pants and coats, which were crammed into clipper ships bound for the coast of California. It was said that Browning "outfitted the gold rush of '49." When the Civil War erupted, the company wrangled a huge federal contract from the army for the provision of soldier uniforms. The Spanish-American War brought a similar contract for the outfitting of the entire United States Navy.
The enormous success of the clothing business eventually provided the members of the Browning family with the means and the caché to branch into other vocations. John Hull Browning found his way into the banking and railroad industries and four times became a presidential elector. Edward Franklin Browning began business life with Browning, King & Co. shortly after graduating from Columbia College in 1859. Though he would spend nearly a quarter century with the company, he would pursue his midlife vocation in, and introduce his son to, the world of New York real estate investment.
In 1863, Edward Franklin Browning was drafted for active service into the Northern Army. As was the common practice of the day for those of means, he appealed for the provision of a substitute to serve in his stead. Edward Franklin candidly described the intriguing arrangement and ensuing story:
[A]t the same time James Browning, of Manchester, England, came over to this country for the express purpose of going into the Northern Army. Mr. E.F. Browning having applied to an agency for a substitute, was introduced to this Mr. James Browning, and engaged him to take his place, paying him the usual amount paid for such service at that time, namely $300. He entered Company F, 83rd Regiment of New York Volunteers. He served in the army for some time, was in many engagements, and was wounded in a battle in South Carolina, and left for dead on the field. A Southern soldier came along and was about to plunge his bayonet into him, when a Southern officer swore at him and arrested his act. After the soldiers had all gone, James Browning crawled to a Negro cabin, where they nursed and took care of him until he was able to walk. Then they dressed him in Negro clothing and he managed to get to the seacoast, where he hailed a passing vessel, which took him on board and brought him back to New York City. After remaining there a few days he again went into the army and went to the front fighting till the war was over. On June 28, 1865, he was honorably discharged at New York City. He had acquired such a liking for the army, however, that he again enlisted as a member of the Regular Army, and served for several years until his death of fever at Nashville, Tenn.
There appears to have been no blood relation between James Browning and Edward Franklin Browning; the matching of last names was wholly coincidental. Furthermore, there is no indication that Edward Franklin ever met James Browning again after consummating their initial business transaction, yet he clearly followed his exploits with interest and, no doubt, gratitude.
Edward Franklin remained with Browning, King & Co. for twenty-four years. By 1886, however, his eyesight began to fail, and at the age of forty-nine he was forced to retire. Away from the stresses of business life, Edward Franklin was now free to devote more of his time to home and family. He also began investing in New York real estate. Edward West observed his father's business acumen and penchant for prudent investment, and as he came of age, began to develop his own sense of entrepreneurial drive. As he contemplated his future, his father contemplated a business alliance with his son.
As a child, Edward West Browning exhibited a proclivity for athletics and physical culture. He was also infatuated with art, building, and architecture and drew ostentatious plans for mythical homes and estates. Edward Franklin wrote of his son, "He has a natural gift for drawing and designing, and often entertains his friends with his humorous sketches and with legerdemain."
Edward West Browning received his undergraduate education at Columbia University and then attended Columbia Law, though he never became a lawyer. Business was Browning's clear vocational preference. His father identified this preference and invited Edward into a real estate partnership. Regarding his son, Edward Franklin later wrote, "After his father left the firm of Browning, King & Co., his son went into the real estate business in connection with his father, and has devoted himself to the study and management of New York real estate. He has prospered and owns many fine buildings, of which he takes a general oversight." He added, "He is a favorite of the social world."
Through the years, Edward Franklin Browning would bequeath to his son not only tangible wealth but also a sense of unrivalled self-confidence. Edward Franklin's years of experience in the world of New York business would prove to be the fertile groundwork of his son's unfurling industry and unrivaled ambition.
* * *
By the turn of the twentieth century, the City of New York, the burgeoning metropolis that was home to Edward West Browning and nearly three million others, convulsed with Victorian prosperity and nascent opportunity. Skyscrapers and the businessmen that occupied them marked New York as the financial center of the nation, if not the world.(Continues…)
Excerpted from "Peaches & Daddy"
Copyright © 2008 Michael M. Greenburg.
Excerpted by permission of Abrams Books.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.
Table of Contents
Chapter I: THREE THOUSAND PURPLE ORCHIDS,
Chapter II: EDWARD WEST BROWNING,
Chapter III: THE GARDENS OF BABYLON,
Chapter IV: THE SEDUCTION OF NELLIE ADELE,
Chapter V: WANTED: PRETTY, REFINED GIRL ...,
Chapter VI: TWO STROKES TO MIDNIGHT,
Chapter VII: THE LIFE AND TIMES OF FRANCES BELLE HEENAN,
Chapter VIII: PEACHES AND DADDY,
Chapter IX: CRUELTY TO CHILDREN,
Chapter X: NOTHING SO POWERFUL AS TRUTH,
Chapter XI: 'TIL DEATH DO US PART,
Chapter XII: AMERICA'S MOST TALKED ABOUT NEWLYWEDS,
Chapter XIII: A BIRD IN A GILDED CAGE,
Chapter XIV: A BASTARD ART FORM,
Chapter XV: INTO THE COURTS,
Chapter XVI: BROWNING V. BROWNING,
Chapter XVII: A MAN OF PECULIAR CHARACTER, TASTES, AND IDEAS,
Chapter XVIII: A WOLF IN SHEEP'S CLOTHING,
Chapter XIX: AN ADMISSION,
Chapter XX: CREDIBILITY, CORROBORATION, AND CORRUPTION,
Chapter XXI: THE REVEL OF FILTH,
Chapter XXII: A WOMAN OF THE WORLD,
Chapter XXIII: NON PAYMENT OF KISSES,
Chapter XXIV: THE SUPPRESSION OF VICE,
Chapter XXV: JUDGMENT,
Chapter XXVI: THE GOOD JUDGMENT OF THIS CITY,
Chapter XXVII: POST PEACHES AND DADDY,
Chapter XXVIII: MONEY, MONEY, EASY MONEY,
Chapter XXIX: THE BROWNING PRIZES,
AUTHOR'S NOTE ON SOURCES,
Advance praise for PEACHES & DADDY,
Most Helpful Customer Reviews
Few writers have been able to capture the glitzy zaniness and excesses of the 1920s as well as new author Michael M. Greenburg. Not only does Greenburg create a novel of one of the wildest and most notorious 'romances' of the past century - the multi-millionaire 51 year old Edward 'Daddy' Browning and the 15 (or 16) year old department store clerk Frances 'Peaches' Heenan - and wraps our attention around every aspect of this caper that 'invented' tabloid journalism - he also introduces a gift for prose that alerts us to a fine new talent. Greenburg's writing style is airborne and he takes the reader on an unforgettable flight through the events that created the madness of the frivolous, self indulgent 20s that followed the horror and shock of WW I.
Tabloid journalism, that aspect of news reporting that titillates readers with gossip about the movie stars and all figures in the public eye, began with the media exposure encouraged by the notoriety hungry Browning and his 'inappropriate' married partner of a few months time. The Brownings flaunted their May December marriage and all the antics that accompanied it such as the thousand dollar a day spending excursions, outrageous and irresponsible wastes of money - all willingly delivered fodder to the 'new journalists' who followed their every move, giving rise to not only the tabloids but to the birth of the paparazzi. Greenburg shares this fascinating tale with his polished writing style and with his careful documentation, including many photographs from not only his infamous couple, but also from the backgrounds of each of them. Almost more interesting than the brief but highly visible taint of his affair and marriage to a near child is the rich background of Edward 'Daddy' Browning and his many quirks of lifestyle: he adopted young girls in their teens, had affairs that border on bizarre, and yet had his 'good' traits as a wealthy (if necessarily highly visible) benefactor to children. Greenburg covers the entire history of this odd character from his birth to his death with all the notable debris left strewn about Manhattan as his memorial.
Though it is often said that fact is stranger than fiction, Michael M. Greenburg's PEACHES AND DADDY is one of the best examples of that truism. This is an inordinately fascinating, beautifully written book that makes history come alive in the hands of a master. Greenburg, a former editor of the Pepperdine Law Review and now a practicing attorney in Boston, may just have entered the arena of fine biographers: with his superb talent for writing one can hope he will continue entertaining us with further books - based both on fact and fiction. Highly Recommended. Grady Harp
OK, this guy was a creep and she was a prize manipulator.