Take a look at this smiling mug. It’s June 17, 1929, the height of the Roaring ’20s, right before it all went crash. Here’s Daddy Browning, looking far younger than his 55 years of age. Whence the gray that tousled his head when just a few years earlier he walked 15-year old Peaches Heenan down the aisle, and a year earlier, petitioned the Queens County Surrogates Court to adopt Mary Louise Spas? And where else but the old Madison Square Garden, capacity 18,496, would Browning hold his stellar event, trying to auction off his New York City portfolio at the peak of the market? Prize fights and circuses were standard fare at the old MSG. Browning’s lifestyle and business acumen fit right in. Was he really expecting such a massive crowd of bidders for his variegated lofts, apartments and stores? None of this stuff was Park Avenue quality. But Daddy Browning did nothing small…
True to his WASP-ish upbringing, Browning employed the archtypical gentile real estate firms to get himself liquid: Joseph P. Day, Charles F. Noyes and Howard C. Forbes teamed up to score for the horse’s ass of all New York. Take a look at the jazzy marketing: (interested parties can view the entire brochure at the end of this post).
Detailed property statistics and photos were used for all 25 properties included in the sale, ranging from lofts on lower Broadway (in what is now known as Soho) to Harlem tenements. Even two of Browning’s prized sliver buildings on West 72nd Street were put on the block. Daddy had, uncharacteristically, built 118 West 72nd St. and 42 West 72nd St. from scratch, cladding their narrow residential facades with glazed white terra-cotta tiles, his initials EWB emblazoned in cartouches above the entry doors.
Heaven knows the results of the auction; Browning’s will, probated in 1934, detailed an estate worth about $7,000,000, almost all of it tied up in New York real estate, much of it in Harlem, perhaps the result of re-deployment of the auction proceeds by an inveterate jumper in bricks as in love. I’ve got a good guess as to what went wrong.
Browning offered liberal seller financing for all of the parcels: 80% of the purchase price would be held by him in the form of a mortgage, if the buyer should so desire, for a term of 3 to 5 years, with interest at 5 ½% per annum plus 2% annual amortization of the principal. Black Tuesday came four months and 12 days later: October 29, 1929 and it was all over. Browning ended up foreclosing on most of the 25 parcels (assuming they were all sold in June). 11 of the 25 jewels ended up back in his estate (including the cartouched palaces on West 72nd Street) along with approximately 80 other improved sites and 324 parcels of vacant land in the five boroughs and on Long Island.
Daddy’s legacy had been intended to be a Nobel-prize look-alike: the vast bulk of his estate was left to The Edward West Browning Foundation, which was to award annual prizes in seven fields of human endeavor. The original trustees, or at least those who survived Browning, all resigned when they learned of their appointments. Men like Nicholas Murray Butler, President of Columbia University, must have been dumb struck when they learned of Browning’s secretive appointment of them to head his wannabe charity. Litigation tied up the corpus of the estate for 37 years while the value of a portfolio mostly made up of Harlem slum tenements and third class downtown loft buildings withered in value over New York’s darkest 20th century years. By the time the first Browning Foundation awards were handed out in 1971, the endowment amounted to only 10% of its 1934 beginnings.
Poor bastard, that hapless Daddy: Fleeced and cuckolded with the family’s bi-sexual gigolo Jewish dentist by his first wife Adele Lowen, then swindled by his putative adopted daughter, Mary Louise Spas, and taken merciless advantage of by child bride Peaches Heenan: it’s a miracle how much Daddy managed to retain, a sheep so well shorn. The final insult came shortly before his death. One of Browning’s trusted attorneys, Victor Ross, drafted a second codicil to Browning’s will 20 days before a man whom Damon Runyon called that “gallus old codger” was declared mentally incompetent by various physicians at The Hospital for Joint Diseases, who stood to gain by the terms of the instrument. Ross claimed before Surrogate Delehanty that Browning’s scrawled signature on the piece of paper was genuine, but the judge was having nothing of it. The litigation dragged on for years as Browning’s money and his good intentions trickled down the drain.
All images are used with the permission of Barbara Cohen and New York Bound Bookshop and may not be copied or distributed without their prior written consent