Michael M. Greenburg
The Rebel guns on Dorchester Heights were trained squarely upon the British occupiers of Boston below. Henry Knox had completed his fifty-six day journey through the winter snows from Ticonderoga, and by March 5, 1776, the sixth anniversary of the massacre at Boston, an impressive battery of mortar and cannon had been silently hauled into place and bore down upon His Majesty’s forces. “I know not what I shall do,” reported General William Howe. “The rebels have done more in one night than my whole army would have done in one month.”
The consequences of inaction were painfully clear to Howe – either the guns had to be removed, or the British would be forced to evacuate the town. Wishing to avoid the consequences of another Bunker Hill — a nominal victory for Howe, but at terrible cost to his troops and morale — only a meager naval attempt to dislodge the continental positions from the heights was attempted. As severe weather and high winds moved into the harbor, however, navigation became treacherous and the attacking fleet was forced aground. As one historian aptly noted regarding the turn of events, “Leaving or not leaving was no longer a matter of choice.”
Boston found herself in the crosshairs of a vanquished army in full and frustrated retreat. Though General Howe and the earlier departed governor, Thomas Gage, had each long understood the folly of permanent occupation in the hotbed of American rebellion, exit from Boston was anything but orderly. Despite vague and conflicting orders not to destroy the town, hordes of British personnel accompanied by Tory sympathizers looted and devastated private homes and businesses, leaving the streets and harbor docks littered with barricades, animal carcasses, and tree limbs.
By the early morning hours of March 17, 1776, General Howe had begun the final evacuation of his forces from the shores of Boston. Under the escort of Admiral MolyneuxShuldham of the Royal Navy, the departing fleet skirmished its way through the mesh of harbor shoals, pausing specifically to engage the fort at Castle Island. Strategic sites within the garrison were mined by British engineers and every structure on the island was ultimately burned. The cannons serving the fort were summarily spiked and the trunnions, which allowed aim and maneuverability, were torn from their mounts to further hinder any thought of repair. As the flotilla exited the harbor, Boston Light was blown up as a parting nod.
Within days of the British departure, General George Washington entered the town and scanned the wreckage left behind. He visited the Common, Fort Hill, Faneuil Hall, and other prominent locales within Boston, and promptly ordered that the houses and streets be “cleansed from infection” to avoid an influx of diseases such as smallpox.
On March 20, the Continental Army reentered Boston and took control of the town’s defensive positions. Recognizing the strategic importance of the now burned fortress on Castle Island, Washington quickly commissioned the refortification of the site and ordered the swift repair of the armaments damaged during the British departure. Though the task of general reconstruction would ultimately fall upon military engineers, Richard Gridley, who oversaw the bulwark of Dorchester Heights, and William Burbeck, who was then keeper of the ordnance on Castle Island, the Town of Boston would turn to “that ace of versatility,” Paul Revere, to assist in the immediate repair of the island’s cannon.
Neither statesman nor soldier, Paul Revere had, by 1776, nonetheless earned the reputation as a talented artisan and an ardent champion for the cause of American liberty. Though he had served briefly in the French and Indian War, Revere had become known more for his political, creative, and entrepreneurial talents than for battlefield prowess. As a resolute envoy among the colonies through Boston’s Committee of Correspondence, Revere’s name was widely recognized, and it was, therefore, not surprising that General Washington would utilize this “Messenger of the Revolution,” for the weapons restoration work at Castle Island.
Originally constructed in 1634 as a small stone and mud redoubt designed to protect the burgeoning Town of Boston, “The Castle” as it was simply known, had undergone a period of renovation and by 1701 a more comprehensive structure had been erected on the island, to be christened “Castle William” in honor of King William III. As revolution brewed in the streets and taverns of Boston in the 1770s, the island had become a place of safe haven for weary British officers against unruly and rebellious citizens. With the evacuation of the British from Boston, however, and Washington’s eventual removal of the Continental Army to New York, the task of defending the town would fall upon her populace, and Castle Island would be seen as an important element of that defense.
Upon the British departure, the strategic garrison was renamed “Fort Independence” by the colonials and the project of restoration began in earnest. The island’s fortress guns were, in fact, badly damaged during the exodus, but not beyond preservation. Revere’s talents as a silversmith and engraver may have served him well as he and others fashioned repairs and raised fortifications.[i] Revere’s appointment to the restoration work on Castle Island would be the earliest in his long and often chaotic engagement at the site.
Though posted by Washington without formal military commission, it would not be long before Revere would serve Massachusetts in a more official capacity. Recognizing the grave and immediate need for the defense of Boston and its Harbor upon the departure of the Continental army in March of 1776, the General Court of Massachusetts – the legislative body of the colony – soon began raising companies of militia to defend its ground. Revere would ultimately be commissioned as an officer in the local artillery regiment called the “Massachusetts State’s Train” and by the fall of 1776, he would find himself in full command of Castle Island.
Though clothed with an air of authority, Revere’s post would quickly dissolve into a source of bitter frustration, providing little if any opportunity for distinction and merit. Life at The Castle would prove repetitive and uneventful. The regiment would face only insignificant military action, and Revere’s position, it seemed, merely served to magnify the otherwise mundane existence within the confines of the bleak and isolated fort.
There can be no doubt that Paul Revere had played a pivotal role in the birth of the American Revolution. “He had the keen zest of the citizen whose patriotism is of the lusty type that causes him to…take an active part in all movements that make for civic progress,” wrote one historian. Yet, he was recognized neither as an educated “gentleman” nor an esteemed military authority. He had bravely collaborated with many leaders of the revolutionary movement in the prelude to war and he had adapted his skill as an adroit craftsman and entrepreneur for the patriotic cause, yet, as hostilities with Britain erupted, he would find himself conspicuously overlooked for service as an officer in the more prestigious Continental Army. “I have never been taken notice…[of], by those whom I thought my friends…,” Revere wrote to his trusted acquaintance, John Lamb in April of 1777. “[I] am obliged to be contented in this State’s service.” As Esther Forbes noted in her Pulitzer Prize winning biography, Paul Revere and the World he Lived in, “He could learn a new trade as fast as most men turned around, yet his military record is undistinguished. He certainly had no liking for army life.”
Despite the undeniable esteem he had earned for his bold exploits in support of the patriot cause, Revere appeared restless and generally unsuited for service in the local militia regiment, and, over time, developed a somewhat restive and truculent disposition. Circumstances for Revere’s men at The Castle were difficult, and the often surly temperament of their commander led to some enmity in the ranks. A heightened scrutiny by the soldiers and officers in his regiment began to follow his official actions and, in time, political rancor would envelop the unit. Fellow officers began eyeing Revere with rising antagonism, and soon conspiracies began to stir.
In colonial days, the expansive territory of Maine was actually the eastern province of Massachusetts, governed and controlled by the political structures of Boston. In 1775 Benedict Arnold had carried the battle to British controlled Quebec using this wilderness as his staging headquarters, in an attempt to thwart the possibility of British maneuvers in the areas west of the colonies. The campaign failed, but the strategic importance of Maine to the Crown, as a buffer between British controlled Nova Scotia and the rebellious colonies to the south, was unmistakable. Though General Howe had departed the shores of Boston several months earlier, the Crown would continue to eye the rocky coastline of northern New England with eager and covetous eyes.
Early in the summer of 1779, word came to the Massachusetts Council, acting as the interim executive of the colony prior to the adoption of a state constitution, that a British fleet had finally landed in Penobscot Bay, Maine, and had begun work on a fortress on the peninsula known, through its Native American appellation, as Majabigwaduce. Such a defensive post would serve not only as a point of refuge for colonial loyalists, and a ready source of timber for British warships, but would also provide the enemy with protection from American invasion of the north. The fort, angry Massachusetts officials resolved, could not stand.
On June 26, 1779, Paul Revere, at long last, received the orders that he had hoped would rescue him from military obscurity:
Ordered – That Colo. Revere hold himself and one hundred of the Matrosses under his command including proper Officers in readiness at one Hour’s Notice to embark for the Defense of this State and to attack the Enemy at Penobscot, under the Command of General Lovell and make Return to this Board upon their being so prepared.
Revere and his Castle Island artillery train would be part of a combined naval and marine expeditionary force designed to disengage the British from their Maine outpost.
Though a complex and expensive undertaking, the attack was calculated to be massive in force and would most certainly result in victory. Indeed, even Brigadier General Francis McLean, the commanding officer of the British forces at Majabigwaduce, would lament as the battle ensued, that surrender of the garrison was all but assured.
The sober and salient facts spoke otherwise. The Penobscot Expedition, as it would come to be known, would later be described by a noted Maine historian as, “A prodigious wreck of property, – a dire eclipse of reputation, – and universal chagrin.” The financial hardship and political embarrassment to Massachusetts created by the ill-fated exercise, would leave in its ruinous wake a fiasco of finger pointing and political haranguing.
Soon, outrage would lead to inquiry – and inquiry, to arrest.
On September 6, 1779, Lieutenant Colonel Paul Revere, dedicated member of the Sons of Liberty, paladin of Concord and Lexington, active participant in the Boston Tea Party – Paul Revere, artisan, activist, and agitator for the revolutionary cause – was summarily relieved of his command at Castle Island and placed under house arrest, his salary and rations suspended.
The charge: “…unsoldierlike behavior during the whole expedition to Penobscot, which tends to cowardice.”
War and Peace
At 7:55 on the evening of December 2, 1956, as the epic narrative of War and Peace began to unfold on the picture screen of Brooklyn’s Paramount Theatre, there was no mistaking the sudden and violent explosion that ripped through the rear of the auditorium for anything remotely connected to that evening’s movie presentation. In a blinding moment of fierce light, smoke and fire, a locally powerful device had detonated at precisely the moment contemplated by the simple timing mechanism within.
A 36-year-old postal clerk named Abraham Blumenthal, who had taken his wife, Ruth out to the movies for the first time in what seemed like ages, was immediately thrown from his 12th row seat. Fierce pain began to radiate from his left leg where shards of jagged metal had inflicted their damage. “Suddenly I heard a report like a grenade. Then a small column of smoke rose in front of me and drifted across the screen,” Blumenthal would later tell reporters.
Panic began to envelop the room and as War and Peace continued without pause, patrons began rushing for the exits. Seated about 80 feet from the explosion itself, a young mother, Doris Russo, and her sister Joyce were pummeled with scabrous debris, which settled deep in the face and scalp of each. Earlier that day the sisters had made their way through the retail menagerie of Fulton Street in downtown Brooklyn on a shopping spree with their mother, Mary Young, and Doris’ two children in tow, and decided to cap off the evening with a movie. Mary Young would later say, “The shock and terror of what happened that evening will never leave my memory.”
The unarmed outer casing of the “infernal machine” that he had hurriedly prepared for use earlier that day had already been assembled. He had many of them securely stored where only he could find them. To the maddening frustration of law enforcement authorities, the raw materials that comprised these creations were commonplace and generic; they could be purchased in virtually any retail outlet throughout the country and they provided little if any evidence as to their origin. In keeping with his meticulous manner, the Bomber purposely omitted any specialized or unique components that would betray their points of purchase.
A length of galvanized iron or “coupling” purchased from Sears and Roebuck had been carefully fitted on each end with metal plugs (prudently purchased elsewhere) that were machine-tooled and neatly threaded into the cavity of the pipe. With the precision of a machinist, a small hole was drilled into the cylinder to allow the later arming of the device with a detonative material, and a so-called “filling plug” - a 3/8 inch allen screw - was used to close the puncture. This, the Bomber would later state, ensured a “neater package.”
Alone in his garage, his castle--“the one place on earth where nobody could bother me,” he would later recall--he worked with painstaking resolve. The workspace was meticulously ordered; against one wall was a neat and sturdy workbench, and hanging above on evenly arranged hooks were rows of carefully polished tools. Situated around the structure in even intervals were seven windows of smoked glass that allowed neither sunlight nor view into this grim and very private world. An organized collection of blueprints lay on a wooden desk, and beside them, a worn Remington typewriter whose ribbon had been frequently replaced. Though the garage housed a rather out-of-place black, English Daimler automobile, the focal point of the space was a metal machinist’s lathe that ominously suggested craft beyond the typical household project. And beneath this well-oiled machine lay a small wooden box temporarily housing the various components of a deranged endeavor, stockpiled for later use and burrowed daily behind two soapstone tubs in the basement of his home. The 10x14-detached garage, constructed of sheet metal and corrugated iron, was, in the later words of the New York City Police Department, “as clean and orderly as a hospital operating room.”
On the morning of December 2, 1956, with the structure of the device complete, he began the process of converting this harmless assemblage of iron into an instrument of hate and potent danger. He fashioned a fusing mechanism by carefully grinding a flashlight bulb on an emery wheel to reveal a small hole that he perfected with a nail file and filled with black gunpowder. To the case and center conductor of the bulb he soldered two silk covered, multi-stranded copper wires which led to a chrome protected #7 Burgess battery used to heat the filament. Interrupting this nefarious circuitry was nothing more than the distance between the hour hand of a Timex, “shock resistant,” wristwatch and the contact point of a metal ignition terminal. With a steady hand, he slipped the fusing mechanism into place and screwed the iron plug back onto the body of the cylinder.
Then, as unaware New Yorkers made plans for an evening out on the town, he deftly funneled the fine, smokeless, black powder from the cartridges of fifty .22 caliber long rifle bullets into the filling hole of the iron cap and reinserted the plug - completing the final step in the arming process.
The beads of sweat that had formed on his brow during this process in earlier years were missing on that December morning. To the contrary, he admired his workmanship regretting only that no one would ever see it. By now the process had become rote to him. According to official police records, he had performed it no less than 31 times before – his own later estimates ranged closer to 60. Yet his message, so clear, so right, so just, seemed lost on all but himself. Why were they not listening? When would justice prevail? This time, he pondered, would be different. This time they would be forced to reckon with him.
The Bomber wiped the “unit” (as he coldly referred to all of his bombs) clean of powder and fingerprints, placed it in what had become a signature red wool sock, and then he held it to one ear. Listening for the faint and soothing sound of the ticking Timex, he smiled with smug pride at the barely audible heartbeat emitting from his creation. He knew that later that evening the metal hands of the watch would make contact with the copper wires leading from the battery to the flashlight bulb, completing the lethal circuit, and detonating the surrounding cache of powder.
The timing mechanism had been set for shortly before eight o’clock.
The 60 mile drive from his home in Waterbury, Connecticut to New York was well known to the Bomber. As he had done so many times in the past, he drove through the affluent suburbs of Westchester County and stopped in White Plains for a bite to eat at a local diner. On some occasions he had parked his Daimler outside of the city and traveled into Manhattan via the New York Central Railroad. Feeling uncomfortable as one of the only men on the midday train rides, however, on his more recent trips he had elected to park closer to the city and blend into the chaos of the New York subway system. On the afternoon of December 2, 1956, the Bomber drove straight into Brooklyn.
He had wrapped the wool sock that housed his device with a rubber band and attached a length of string. A few moments prior to the start of the movie, he entered the theatre and found a seat toward the left rear of the orchestra section. As the opening credits of the film began to role and the attention of each moviegoer was transfixed, he looked to his left and then to his right. With feigned nonchalance, he reached into the side pocket of his wool overcoat, and with eyes firmly affixed to the movie screen, grasped the string and gently lowered the device to the floor just behind seat #19, of row GG.[i] With his foot, the Bomber carefully nudged the unit out of sight. Within 20 minutes, he had left the theatre and was hurrying to his car.
THE WORDS OF TOLSTOY’S VOLUMINOUS CLASSIC LEAPT off the page and onto the silver screen with much the same fury as Napoleon’s 1812 march into Russia. Though Henry Fonda himself had misgivings about his casting in the film, War and Peace was eagerly greeted by moviegoers and reviewers alike upon its release in August, 1956. “There are sequences and moments of fire and beauty, and certainly the mighty spectacles of clashing armies and Napoleon’s retreat from Moscow are pictorially impressive and exciting beyond words,” wrote one New York critic. In a “Techincolored panorama,” director, King Vidor, captured the fury of the Russian invasion - and the imagination of an engrossed American public with breathtaking scenes of battle that burst onto theatre screens across the country. The film would later receive three Academy Award nominations and by the end of 1956, nearly five months after its release, War and Peace was still drawing patrons into crowded movie houses.
Post World War II America seemed to roar with a cultural vitality and social clamor. A young performer from Tupelo, Mississippi stormed onto the national scene with his hit recording, Heartbreak Hotel, and before long Elvis Aaron Presley would redefine music and canonize “rock and roll” as America’s signature form of entertainment in the twentieth century. The new medium of television, with broadcasts such as the Ed Sullivan Showand Ted Mack's Original Amateur Hour, would bring an endless variety of new musical acts, comedians, and drama directly into the living rooms of neatly aligned suburban tract homes. And development of an interstate highway system, the hallmark of the Eisenhower Administration, would bring people and products together in a web of personal and cultural inter-connectivity unseen prior to that time.
In the halcyon days of the American movie industry, however, a picture show often provided a singular respite from the rigors of life during the Depression. The Paramount Theatre arose in an era where competitive movie houses were owned by and often took the name of their founding production companies. The construction of the Paramount and several other rococo or Renaissance theatres, with their splendorous arrays of architecture, literally stole the show from the movies themselves and represented an early local foray into the entertainment business. They would become Brooklyn’s theatre district.
Located at the corner of Flatbush Avenue Extension and DeKalb Avenue in Brooklyn, New York, the Paramount was designed by the Chicago architectural firm of Rapp & Rapp, specialists in the creation of the so-called “atmospheric theatre.” With an ornately decorated 60 foot satin-embroidered stage curtain, and 4,400 seats adorned in burgundy velvet, the Paramount, at its 1928 opening was Brooklyn’s largest, and perhaps most opulent theatre, and the second largest in New York City. According to the New York Times, the Paramount was fashioned along “the plans of an outdoor moonlit Italian garden.” Nearly $3 million worth of elaborate sculpture, paintings and tapestries together with domed and frescoed ceilings provided “scenic effects…not confined to the stage but made to envelop the audience by carrying a scenic architectural treatment completely around the auditorium.” The rather drab exterior façade of the eleven story office building to which the Paramount theatre was appended, was strikingly enlivened by the placement of a neon powered sign that stretched nearly four stories in height above the roof. The massive glowing letters,
implored the bustling populace of Brooklyn, New York, to come and enjoy.
Though the Paramount was considered by some the area’s “most famous movie place,” the theatre was, by no means, limited to film presentations. Behind the opulent décor, lay a very practical and financial motivation for the owners, who demanded a diverse use of the property to help defray the ever expanding “cost per seat.” In its early days, frequent guests included musical performers such as Bing Crosby and Ethel Merman, and in the mid-1950s Alan Freed’s renowned rock and roll shows introduced acts such as Chuck Berry and Fats Domino. Through the years, the Paramount would play host to other marquee names including, Buddy Holly, Ray Charles, Bobby Rydell, Neil Sedaka, the Drifters and many others, earning the theatre the reputation as one of America’s premier rock and roll venues.
With no warning of the distressing events that would follow, cheery moviegoers braved the cold, northeastern, winter winds and began lining up outside of the Brooklyn Paramount Theatre for the evening show. Nearly fifteen hundred New Yorkers, warmed with pre-holiday cheer, clamored with eagerness over that night’s screening of War and Peace. As Horatio Tedesco, the theatre’s assistant manager, greeted patrons, he couldn’t help but compare the refined makeup of the gathering to the ruckus throngs attending the recent musical performances. He was grateful for the easy cleanup and closing that would follow.
It was sure to be another uneventful evening at the Paramount.
Horatio Tedesco heard the explosion and the muffled sounds of a commotion coming from the crowd. Rushing into the auditorium and scanning the escalating panic, he mustered his most authoritative voice and announced that a “firecracker” had exploded and that everyone should remain calm. He then summoned the police and rounded up several ushers to assist the injured through the lobby and into his private office. Ambulances from Cumberland Hospital joined officers from the 84th Squad of the New York City Police Department in response to the call. As the injured were removed and order restored, investigators from the mobile crime laboratory, under the direction of Captain Howard E. Finney, and detectives from the New York City Bomb Squad, took over the scene. They conducted a row-by-row search of the theater and roped off a section of about twenty rows in closest proximity to where the explosion had taken place in an effort to gather evidence. Through the years the detectives had investigated many of the other bombings that had plagued the city and it took them little time to pinpoint the usual markings of their ethereal suspect. Soon after, Kings County District Attorney Edward Silver huddled with police detectives and pronounced to the gathering of newspaper reporters that “old screwball” had struck again. The citizens of New York knew him better as the “Mad Bomber.”
As Doris Russo fought for her life following surgery to relieve the pressure that had developed from a depressed fracture of the skull, the Bomber watched and waited. Would the world finally stand up and take notice of his plight? Would the “dastardly deeds” of his enemies be redressed? Would he finally make them pay?
On no less than 32 separate occasions, he had slid into his automobile, his jacket pocket bulging with iron and gunpowder, and traveled from Waterbury to New York City with a deluded rage and nefarious intent. For 16 years, he had imperiled unsuspecting New Yorkers, placing his insidious “units” in locations all over the city, without so much as a sniff of suspicion from family members or an inquisitive glance from frustrated police departments. For 16 years, the man who could “easily pass as a person who could be your next-door neighbor,” had evaded investigators, detectives, patrolmen, and citizens alike from Connecticut to New York, avoiding the killing of innocents only “through some quirk of fate.” He had planted his bombs amongst women, children, workers, and patrons, and he had solemnly pledged to continue until he was either apprehended or dead. He bore no lofty social goals or political objectives. He harbored no broad civic message or popular agenda. He espoused neither government overthrow nor violent rebellion. He sought no extorted money and gained no pleasure from indiscriminate injury. The Mad Bomber simply held a grudge – a grudge that was relentlessly fueled by a simmering madness.
Across America people began to ask, who is this person - this Mad Bomber and what does he want? And in New York City, Police Commissioner Stephen P. Kennedy announced “the greatest manhunt in the history of the Police Department.”
March 5, 1926
In the late evening of March 5, 1926, Edward West Browning waltzed through the doors of the legendary Hotel McAlpin at the corner of 34th Street and Broadway. The peacock blue Rolls Royce that had become the emblem of his opulent lifestyle remained at the front of the building, engine purring, chauffer at the wheel.
On any given day the clatter of wealth echoed through the marble-encased hotel lobby, as out-of-breath butlers carted load upon load of clothing-filled trunks, and impatient nannies hurried flawlessly mannered children through the walkways of the McAlpin’s gender-restricted floors. Fashionable women strolled leisurely among tapestry galleries and dined beneath the arched ceilings of ornate banquet rooms, while their husbands reclined in Russian and Turkish baths amid plumes of cigar smoke and the banter of high finance. Designed with the finest of classic pre-World War I amenities to serve even the slightest caprice of its clientele, the Hotel McAlpin, upon its construction, boasted it was the largest hotel in New York and perhaps the world.
It was roughly 11:00 pm and although the Phi Lambda Tau Sorority high school dance in the hotel’s lavish ballroom was already several hours past primetime, the sweet-sounding rhythms of Ernie Golden and his Hotel McAlpin Orchestra could still be heard from the ornate Marine Grill at the basement level of the hotel. Edward Browning, dressed in his blue sack overcoat, snapped his fingers to the familiar ditty as he strolled confidently toward the ballroom. The tops of three rotund cigars stood prominently in the upper outside pocket of his coat, like soldiers at attention during reveille.
“Pretentious” isn’t quite the word for Edward Browning. It might have been entitlement that led him to The Hotel McAlpin on that late winter night. Browning was a chief benefactor, some say the founder, of the local Phi Lambda Tau chapter. The newspapers affectionately referred to the sorority as P.L.T., or Pretty Little Things. Browning himself often presented dance trophies and sorority pins to young ladies at school dances. People had become accustomed to seeing him in the company of young females. They called him Daddy—Daddy Browning.
Did his presence raise an eyebrow of suspicion? For some, perhaps, but Daddy was well known to the girls attending the dance, and they adoringly greeted him as he entered the room.
It was, of course, the Golden Age of Hot Jazz, and the sleek sounds of the day flowed from dancehalls across the nation and into the hearts and minds of flappers and gentlemen alike. The Charleston, with its wildly shifting rhythms and heart-stopping tempo, captured the defiant mood of the prohibition era. Enamored with ballroom dancing (and the Charleston in particular), Edward Browning fancied himself a danseur noble—and many an underage girl readily agreed. Hardly a weekend passed in which he didn’t flutter like a schoolboy from one dance floor to the next, unblushingly strutting his two-step like an aging peacock. Acquaintances aptly described his utter thirst for attention:
He dearly loves the spotlight and when it is turned in his direction it thrills him to the point where his balance, so evident in business dealings, becomes wholly upset. He loves show. He would rather appear as a person who had been put upon, deceived, outraged and fooled beyond all belief than not to appear at all. He must be seen. When he attends dances he always wants to be the master of ceremonies and offer loving cups to the best dancers. He is absolutely harmless, as free from guile as a new-laid egg and as innocent of evil thinking as an unshucked scallop.
He would joyously skip amongst groups of teenage girls, “chucking chins, pinching cheeks and sometimes a derriere.” For their part, the young flapper girls did their level best to appear chic and urbane, brashly donning short shapeless skirts that revealed rolled stockings and bony powdered knees. They wore peek-a-boo hats that fell dangerously over the eye, and they coughed as they puckishly dragged smoke through sleek painted cigarette holders. They gathered in likeminded circles and they slandered their rivals as “Dumb Doras” and “flat tires,” but the “sheiks” were the “cat’s meow.” Their chests were as flat as washboards, and “the intoxication of rouge,” (as one period publication described the flapper penchant for makeup), became a statement of their reckless rebellion.
Browning himself bore a perpetual red glow which, despite his shamelessness in the public eye, might have been mistaken for a blush of embarrassment. He looked like a young boy holding his breath, or an overtaxed weightlifter. Some even thought his features suggested an imprudent predilection to drink. His bulging eyes glistened within the deep pouches that underscored them. To the delight of many, he spoke in a thick Bowery accent—“bird” was “boid” and “perfect,” “poifect.” A pocket comb would frequently find its way through the locks of wavy white hair that clung tenuously to his pink and shedding scalp.
Edward Browning’s appraising eye was to happen that night upon the round face of a particular young girl. Her name was Frances Belle Heenan and she was fifteen years old. She was not a member of the sorority and she knew only one of the sorority sisters in attendance. She had not been on the list of invited guests and her unexpected arrival aroused some resentment among some in the sorority.
Pitiless newspaper writers would later describe Frances Heenan as a “chubby schoolgirl” and other even less flattering things, but Daddy clearly saw something in her that attracted him. She was sophisticated for her age. Though her face generally bore an expression of haughty distaste and her mouth drooped in an unfortunate frown, when she chose to smile, she was capable of lighting up a room. She spoke in affected tones and she never answered a question with a simple “yes;” it was instead, “pos-i-tive-ly.” As Allen Churchill wrote, “Though pudgy, pettish and only sweet fifteen, Frances Belle had already proved herself the enviable possessor of the mysterious something called It.”
Frances Heenan could not help but notice as Daddy Browning flittered into the ballroom, holding court with the coterie of young girls who were eagerly drawn to his side. She turned to a guest and inquired, over the high pitches of trumpet and saxophone notes, “Who is that?” It was Daddy Browning, she was told. He had millions, but no one to spend it on. Frances smiled and pronounced, “Well he can pos-i-tive-ly spend it onme.”
What happened next is the subject of some speculation. Peaches would later testify that a mutual acquaintance introduced them and that Daddy immediately pursued her. “You look like peaches and cream to me,” he told her, grinning with foolish delight. “I’m going to call you Peaches.” Daddy, however, maintained that the relationship began at Peaches’ hot insistence.
Whatever the circumstances of their initial meeting, Edward Browning and Frances Heenan spent the balance of that evening engaged in lighthearted conversation and the wild gyrations of the Charleston. She listened with less than comprehending interest to his boastful soliloquies and he fawned over her skillfully timed blushing giggles—all under the jealous eyes of the sorority sisters and guests.
On March 5, 1926, the temporary rally in American stock prices was abruptly checked as violent swings in the market led to heavy selling. In Paterson, New Jersey, forty thousand textile workers prepared for a walkout among predictions of a nationwide sympathy strike. At the White House, President Coolidge was recalling the Ambassador to Great Britain and the Minister to Switzerland to discuss the approaching disarmament conference of the League of Nations. And beneath the vaulted ceilings of a fashionable Manhattan hotel, Peaches met Daddy.
Thirty-seven days later they would be married, and 296 days after that they would begin the legal battle that would turn their domestic drama into a national scandal.