Saturday 20 January 2018

Nicky Browne

Her husband was the Guinness heir whose death in a car crash was immortalised in song by The Beatles

NICKY Browne, who died last month aged 70, was the widow of the Hon Tara Browne, heir to the Guinness fortune and archetypal golden child of the Sixties, whose death at 21 at the wheel of his car inspired the Beatles' song A Day In The Life.

A gamine farmer's daughter of Irish descent, she became an emblem of Swinging London, flitting amid a glamorous elite exemplified by her wealthy young husband, one of a cabal of fashionable aristocrats to court the the Rolling Stones and The Beatles.

Having married Tara Browne in London in August 1963, she quickly bore him two sons. But a week before Christmas 1966 he was killed when, reputedly under the influence of the psychedelic drug LSD, he drove his turquoise Lotus Elan through a red light at high speed and collided with a parked van in Redcliffe Gardens, Earl's Court, London. As The Beatles sang:

He blew his mind out in a car

He didn't notice that the lights had changed

A crowd of people stood and stared

They'd seen his face before

Nobody was really sure

If he was from the House of Lords.

Nicky Browne was not with him on the night he died, and indeed by then was separated from her husband; Browne's companion in the passenger seat was an 18-year-old fashion model, Suki Potier, with whom he had reportedly taken up residence at the Ritz. She escaped with minor bruises.

As a result of the Brownes' estrangement, Nicky Browne had launched a very public and painful legal battle for custody of her two young children, her adversaries being not only her husband but also his mother, Lady Oranmore and Browne, the former Oonagh Guinness, the formidable matriarch of the powerful brewing family. The case became something of a cause celebre, and when a judge ruled that the boys should live with their grandmother, Nicky Browne suffered an emotional collapse.

In the years that followed, she was further distraught that her young sons were shuttled from one school to another (some 20 in all, she recalled), and that she was allowed to see them only in the holidays. Close friends observed that both mother and sons suffered as a result.

Although Oonagh Guinness made her daughter-in-law a small financial allowance, the settlement was dwarfed by the Guinness family fortune. Tara Browne had stood to inherit £1m on his 25th birthday, and even at the age of 21 his estate exceeded £56,000 -- a sum that would have made him a millionaire today.

Nowhere was the gilded Guinness lifestyle more in evidence than at Luggala, the Gothic family seat in the Wicklow Mountains. There, in the spring before Tara died, Nicky Browne had been at her husband's side at his lavish and -- so it was said -- acid-laced 21st birthday party. Two private jets flew the 200 or so guests to Ireland, including John Paul Getty, Mick Jagger, Brian Jones, his then girlfriend Anita Pallenberg, and Paul McCartney.

At the inquest into his death, Browne was described as a man of "independent means", but his widow was not a beneficiary in his will. When John Lennon chanced to read a newspaper account of the coroner's proceedings, he immortalised Browne as "a lucky man who made the grade" in A Day In The Life, the closing track of the Beatles' 1967-album Sergeant Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band.

She was born Noreen Anne MacSherry in the autumn of 1941 near Yeovil, Somerset. The eldest of three children, Noreen ran away to London as a teenager in search of a more exciting life. After being sacked from her first job, at the Bank of England, when she got in a muddle over exchange rates, she worked as an artist's assistant, making canvases and keeping the studio clean.

In late 1962, when she was 19, mutual friends introduced her to Tara Browne at Battersea funfair. It was a coup de foudre. He was one of the most eligible bachelors in London, and when they married at Islington register office the following summer, Tara's mother refused to attend the ceremony, telling friends that in a "commoner" like Noreen MacSherry, he had made an unsuitable choice of bride.

Furthermore, she believed that the free-spirited farmer's daughter had deliberately stopped taking the newly available Pill in order to get pregnant and ensnare her son, who at 17 was himself a ward of court following the break-up of Oonagh's second marriage.

Charming, witty and attractive -- a "hippie-babe par excellence", according to one admirer -- Nicky soon established herself as an exotic butterfly on the London scene. For a country girl, she had an unexpectedly worldly air, socially at ease at a time when old-class barriers were breaking down. Her husband, on the other hand, was almost impossibly precocious, having hobnobbed in Paris with the likes of Cocteau, Dali and Beckett before moving to London.

But while Tara Browne's money and aristocratic background earned him a raffish reputation, Nicky -- always unmaterialistic -- lavished as much attention on her two young sons as on the rock stars of the day whom she helped entertain at their mews house in Eaton Row, Belgravia.

"Musicians were interested in having a place to hang out where there were no fans bothering them," she told the author Paul Howard, Tara Browne's biographer. "We had a good sound system, so our flat became a place where they could come around and smoke dope. It became another club. One place would finish and everyone would say: 'Where can we go now? Tara's.'"

Paul McCartney told interviewers that he took LSD for the first time with Tara Browne, and Marianne Faithfull has asserted that Browne "was on acid" the night he died -- but Nicky herself seemed to be no more than a casual smoker of pot.

Nicky blamed pressure from her mother-in-law for the eventual breakdown of her marriage; matters deteriorated still further when Oonagh Guinness began her custody battle for the children. When Nicky lost the case a few weeks after Tara's death, she moved to southern Spain.

Before he died, Tara Browne and Nicky had bought a 400-year-old whitewashed house in Marbella, and had been among the first to spot its potential as a fashionable resort. In Spain, Nicky planned to convert the house into an exclusive, expensive boutique, but decided instead to pursue a brief career as an actress.

Latterly, she lived in a farmhouse in the small mountain village of Benahavis, near Marbella. Her partner of 26 years, Robbie Oliver, died last year. Her two sons survive her.

Sunday Independent

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