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Wednesday 21 March 2018

Sixties girl who married ill-fated Guinness heir behind a Beatles hit

Nicky Browne, who has died aged 70, was the widow of Tara Browne, heir to the Guinness fortune and archetypal golden child of the 1960s, 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 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 in 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.

As the Beatles sang:

He blew his mind out in a car

He didn't notice that the lights had


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; by then she 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 célèbre, and when a judge ruled that the boys should live with their grandmother, Nicky Browne suffered an emotional collapse.

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 which 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 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 an 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' album Sergeant Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band (1967).

Nicky Browne 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, 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 registry 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."

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

Before he died, Tara and Nicky had bought a 400-year-old whitewashed house in Marbella, Spain. More recently, she lived in a farmhouse in the mountain village of Benahavis. Her partner of 26 years, Robbie Oliver, died last year. Her two sons survive her.

Nicky Browne, born 1941, died June 2012

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