In the early part of the twentieth century, newspaper readers were just as avid consumers of stories involving scandal. No story captured their imagination as much as that of Frances Belle “Peaches” Heenan who seemed to epitomise the new modernising spirit of the “jazz decade”.
She came to public attention at the age of 15 when she met a millionaire playboy and real estate mogul called Edward ” Daddy ” Browning. He was 50 years old at the time, a divorcee known to have a weakness for pretty young girls. He adopted two of them, taking them from poverty to luxury — hence his nicknames of “Daddy ” and Fairy Godfather.”
His romance with Frances began when Browning saw her at a dance in the Hotel McAlpin in the centre of Manhattan, New York, organised by the Phi Lambda Tau social sorority for high-school girls. Browning was the main benefactor of the sorority at the time. He began a very public courtship; lavishing the girl with expensive gifts (according to some newspaper reports spending around $1000 a day on shopping trips) and taking her to some of the city’s finest restaurants in a very distinctive peacock blue Rolls Royce. The press description of her was not very flattering: they described her as a “chubby,” strawberry-blonde high-school dropout with “piano legs” but an inexplicably “magnetic” smile who worked as a shop clerk. Browning however likened her to peaches and cream, securing her lifelong nickname.
Within weeks, and despite the objections of the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children, they were married in a quiet ceremony in the village of Cold Springs, New York state in April 1926. It was her sixteenth birthday. Because of Frances’ age, both her parents were required to give consent to the match.
Newspaper readers lapped up any titbits of news about the couple’s exploits. “Peaches” wrote her honeymoon story for the newspapers and the couple reportedly rode in a Rolls-Royce while geese attached to silk ribbons waddled along with them. In the early days of the marriage Mr. Browning announced that his wife was spending $200 and that he loved her for it.
Love match becomes court battle
But the marriage didn’t last more than a few months. By early October 1926, Peaches had left the marital home and started separation proceedings. Under New York law at the time, divorce was only possible if one party admitted adultery, so Peaches tried to obtain a legal separation, claiming cruelty, while Browning filed a counter-claim of abandonment. He also accused his wife (and her mother) of excessive spending. The trial at White Plains drew intense media attention, particularly from tabloid newspapers like the New York Daily News, their rival New York Daily Mirror and the more down market New York Graphic. which made fun of the couple by publishing “Composographs.” These were graphics composed from the heads or faces of current celebrities, glued onto staged images created by employees in Macfadden’s in-house studio.
Newspapers all over the world picked up the stories through the Reuters wire service. There was plenty to titillate their readers as the case proceeded including the fact that Browning kept a honking African goose in their bedroom. The phrase “Don’t be a goof,” which he allegedly used as an insult to Peaches, became a widely-used term. It even turned up in the lyrics of the title song from the Rodgers and Hart musical comedy On Your Toes in 1936.
In March 1927, The Scotsman newspaper in the UK told its readers that Peaches had lost the case because the judge wasn’t convinced Browning was either “abnormal, unnatural, cruel or inhuman” as she had claimed. He granted a separation though the marriage remained in force.
In 1934 the saga of Browning and Frances Heenan’s relationship was again in the news. Browning was found unconscious in his suite at a New York hotel one day in June that year having suffered a cerebral haemorrhage. Newspapers reported that his doctors were hopeful of his recovery but there was speculation that, should he die, Frances, as his legal wife, would receive a third of his estate valued at around $30m at that time.
He died in October that year but if Frances thought she was about to become a wealthy widow, she was in for a shock. Browning’s first wife Nellie Adele Low Browning and two of of his adopted daughters, disputed Frances’ right to claim any of the dead man’s estate. Unfortunately for Frances, only six weeks before Browning’s death, a new law had come into effect which stipulated that a wife who abandoned her husband (as the court in 1927 had ruled) lost any right to his estate. Frances, who had not been mentioned in Browning’s will, walked from court with nothing more than a widow’s annuity of $1,000 annually.
Life after Browning
Frances went on to two more husbands: Joseph Salvador Civelli Jr and Bernard John Hynes. In August 1956, Frances slipped in the bathroom at her apartment at East Fiftieth Street, New York and died in hospital on August 23 at the age of 46. She was buried in the Ferncliff Cemetery in Hartsdale, New York.
Frances Belle Heenan was born on 23 June 1910 in Columbus, Franklin, Ohio, United. She was daughter of William Bernard Heenan, a travelling salesman, and his wife Caroline Chamberlain. Both were born in the United States. On her father’s World War 1 draft registration papers Frances, listed as his nearest heir, is living in Cold Spring, Putnam. New York state.
“New York, County Marriages, 1847-1848; 1908-1936,” database with images, FamilySearch
“United States World War I Draft Registration Cards, 1917-1918,” database with images, FamilySearch
Nottingham Evening Post – Tuesday 04 December 1934
Belfast News-Letter – Tuesday 26 June 1934
The Scotsman – Tuesday 22 March 1927 page 7
Daily Herald – Saturday 13 October 1934