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Beatles’ ‘Sgt. Pepper’ at 50: The Doomed Socialite Behind ‘A Day in the Life’

How Guinness heir Tara Browne’s untimely death inspired the album’s epic final track.

The Beatles Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, which Rolling Stone named as the best album of all time, turns 50 on June 1st. In honour of the anniversary, and coinciding with a new deluxe reissue of Sgt. Pepper, we present a series of in-depth pieces – one for each of the album’s tracks, excluding the brief “Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band” reprise on Side Two – that explore the background of this revolutionary and beloved record. Today’s final instalment tells the full story of the late Swinging London socialite immortalised in “A Day in the Life.”

Just past midnight on December 18th, 1966, a light blue Lotus Elan sports car slammed into a parked van on Redcliffe Gardens, an affluent residential street in southwest London. The driver, 21-year-old Tara Browne, heir to a million-pound Guinness Brewery fortune, died of his injuries a shortly thereafter. The story was still making headlines a month later, when the coroner’s verdict was published in the January 17th, 1967, issue of The Daily Mail. John Lennon, a voracious newspaper reader since childhood, had a copy propped on his intricately carved upright piano in the den at Kenwood, his English country estate. He scanned the pages while his hands floated over the keys, finding the chords that would ultimately close the Beatles next album, Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band.

“I noticed two stories. One was about the Guinness heir who killed himself in a car. That was the main headline story,” he recalled in a 1980 interview with Playboy. “On the next page was a story about 4,000 potholes in the streets of Blackburn, Lancashire, that needed to be filled.” While the holes were delightfully absurd, Browne’s accident hit chillingly close to home. He was a familiar face in the Beatles’ social circle, and one of Swinging London’s first famous fatalities.

The two disparate articles would find their way into “In the Life Of …,” as Lennon’s new composition was provisionally titled. He brought the still-incomplete song to Paul McCartney’s London home to workshop. “It was his original idea,” McCartney confirmed to Barry Miles in his book Many Years from Now. “He’d been reading the Daily Mail and brought the newspaper with him to my house. We went upstairs to the music room and started to work on it.” Lennon’s opening verse obliquely referenced Browne’s death, but he took some creative license with the details. In reality, Browne had not missed a red light, and a crowd of gawkers did not materialize at the site of the crash. “I didn’t copy the accident. Tara didn’t ‘blow his mind out.’ But it was in my mind when I was writing the verse,” he told Beatles biographer Hunter Davies.

McCartney had a different interpretation in mind when he contributed to the verse. “Certainly as we were writing it, I was not attributing it to Tara in my head,” he recalled. “In John’s head it might have been. In my head I was imagining a politician bombed out on drugs who’d stopped at some traffic lights and he didn’t notice that the lights had changed. The ‘blew his mind’ was purely a drug reference, nothing to do with a car crash.” Considering McCartney had been particularly close to the late socialite, it’s possible that Lennon kept quiet about the connection to spare his feelings.

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The final seconds of Browne’s brief existence would forever mark him as a pop cultural footnote, the so-called “man who made the grade” in the Beatles’ “A Day in the Life.” His role in what many believe to be the band’s single greatest creative achievement has a tendency to eclipse his colourful reign as London’s most visible “man of independent means.”

He was born on March 4th, 1945, into Anglo-Irish aristocracy, the youngest son of Dominick Browne, a member of the House of Lords, and Oonagh Guinness, whose grandfather Edward Guinness, 1st Earl of Iveagh, had amassed a brewing fortune valued at nearly a billion dollars in 2017 currency. After his parents divorced when he was five years old, Browne lived with his mother in the ancestral family home of Luggala, an extravagant 18th-century hunting lodge located on a 5,000-acre estate in Ireland’s idyllic Wicklow Mountains. Oonagh ran a salon for artists and cultural elites, and hosted a ceaseless stream of parties that often stretched over several days. Coming of age in a world of adults fostered a precocious streak in the young child. Dinner guests recall him climbing onto the table one night, clad in blue satin pajamas, casually strolling across the place settings and introducing himself to each reveller with a cheery, “Hello, I’m Tara.”

When not at Luggala, he traveled extensively. At age eight he jetted to Italy to watch director John Huston, a family friend, shoot Beat the Devil with Humphrey Bogart. He would later describe Bogie passing time on set by challenging the film’s screenwriter, Truman Capote, to arm-wrestling matches. Long stretches in New York, Venice and Paris broadened his mind, but did little for his formal education. “His school career lasted for about 18 months,” says author Paul Howard, who chronicled Browne’s life in the 2016 book I Read the News Today, Oh Boy. “He went to a school in Goatstown called St. Stephen’s, arriving every morning in a chauffeur-driven Rolls-Royce. After about 18 months, he decided he didn’t like it any more, and phoned a taxi to bring him home. He was aged 11 at that point. He never went to school again. He really got his education in his mother’s drawing room, which is what made him so supernaturally precocious.”

Prior to the million-pound inheritance he was due to receive at age 25, Browne was given a 720-pound-a-month allowance. (The average annual salary for a factory worker was 550 pounds at the time.) While undoubtedly privileged, his childhood could also be lonely. During his brief tenure at school, he confided in a classmate that the family butler was his only true friend. “At 15, in 1960, Tara was barely literate, having walked out of dozens of schools,” recalled journalist Hugo Williams, who knew him during the period. “He smoked and drank but he hadn’t got on to joined-up handwriting yet.”

Residing in Paris as a teen, Browne socialised with the likes of Salvador Dali, Samuel Beckett and Jean Cocteau, frequented shadowy jazz haunts, and played host to English debutants who visited the city. Despite his youth, his worldly manner, elfin features, and – no doubt – money made him popular with older women. “He was like a young prince, really,” clothing designer Michael Rainey told Howard.

After moving back to London, he risked his mother’s wrath in August 1963 when he married Noreen MacSherry, an Irish farmer’s daughter nearly three years his senior. Furious that he had married beneath his social station, she became convinced that MacSherry, known as “Nicki,” had intentionally stopped taking her birth control pills in order to get pregnant, thus forcing her 18-year-old son into marriage. This couldn’t have been further from the truth, and by 1965 they were the proud parents to two boys, Dorian and Julian.

The class distinctions so important to Oonagh’s generation had begun to disintegrate as the Sixties progressed. Famous actors and pop stars – children of (in the Beatles’ case) cotton salesmen, bakers and bus drivers – mingled freely with aristocrats. “Tara was absolutely central to it,” socialite Jane Ormsby-Gore told Howard. “We were meeting people from different walks of life, but we needed somebody in the middle saying, ‘Oh, so-and-so, have you met such-and-such?’ And that was what Tara did.” The glamorous couple counted Huston, Dali, Michael Caine, photographer David Bailey, Jimi Hendrix, Peter Sellers and a young David Bowie among their friends. Browne was also very close to the Rolling Stones, particularly founder Brian Jones. They bore a striking resemblance to one another with their stylish Carnaby Street threads and shaggy hair, and occasionally pretended to be brothers.

Browne’s reputation as a dandy flourished. He appeared in a 1965 GQ spread, and later posed in Vogue with Nicki and Brian Jones. “In his green suits, mauve shirts with amethyst cufflinks, his waves of blonde hair, brocade ties and buckled shoes, smoking menthol cigarettes (always Salem) and drinking Bloody Marys, he was Little Lord Fauntleroy, Beau Brummell, Peter Pan, Terence Stamp in Billy Budd, David Hemmings in Blow-Up,” wrote Williams. He soon invested in his own boutique, appropriately named Dandie Fashions, on King’s Road, which supplanted Carnaby Street as the hotbed of cutting edge looks. He also was a financial backer for the West End hotspot Sibylla’s, of which George Harrison owned 10 percent.

He first crossed paths with the Beatles in the glitzy banquettes of darkened London nightclubs. McCartney was introduced to Browne by his own brother, Michael, at the Ad Lib in Leicester Square. “Paul liked being around people he thought he could learn something from,” mutual friend Nicholas Gormanston told Howard. “I think he would have been absolutely fascinated by Tara’s accent and his appearance.” His bandmate wasn’t as taken with the young heir. “John was much more contrary – he either liked you or he didn’t. I don’t know if Tara was John’s cup of tea.” Nicki was more blunt about the future Working Class Hero: “I think [Lennon] really sneered at people from Tara’s background.”

Just as his mother has done, Browne opened his home in Eaton Row, Belgravia, to all manner of artists. “Musicians were interested in having a place to hang out where there were no fans bothering them,” Nicki told Howard. “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.'” A consummate host, she made a habit of purchasing five dozen eggs every Friday, in anticipation of the inevitable onslaught of guests. “The house was always strewn with bodies. You never knew who was a Beatle, who was an Animal, who was a Trogg and who was a Pretty Thing.”

In mid-December 1965, the Browne home became the scene of McCartney’s first LSD trip. He had been blowing off steam at the Scotch of St. James club after wrapping the Beatles’ recent British tour when Nicki invited him over along with Lennon, Pretty Things drummer Viv Prince, dancer Patrick Kerr and a number of attractive women. Lennon, due back at Kenwood with his wife Cynthia, declined, so the rest of the posse descended on Eaton Row without him. Browne was home when they arrived, and suggested they drop acid together.

“Tara was taking acid on blotting paper in the toilet,” McCartney later told Miles. “He invited me to have some. I said, ‘I’m not sure, you know.’ I was more ready for the drink or a little bit of pot or something.” He had been apprehensive of the psychedelic since the other Beatles had started experimenting with it earlier in the year. “I’d not wanted to do it, I’d held off like a lot of people were trying to, but there was massive peer pressure. … And that night I thought, well, this is as good a time as any. So I said, ‘Go on then, fine.’ So we all did it. We stayed up all night. It was quite spacy.”

Browne remained straight in order to keep an eye on his friend. “He felt it was important for him to remain lucid just in case Paul had a bad trip,” Nicki explained. “And what Paul did was spend his whole trip looking at this art book of mine called Private View. He wasn’t interested in any of the females there. He wasn’t interested in listening to music, either. He just stared at this art book.”

His bliss continued through to the next morning, until an unwelcome business call interrupted his reverie. “One of the serious secretaries from our office rang about an engagement I had; she had traced me to here. ‘Um, can’t talk now. Important business,’ or something. I just got out of it. ‘But you’re supposed to be at the office.’ ‘No, I’ve got the flu.’ Anything I could think. I got out of that one because there was no way I could go to the office after that.”

The experience would have a lasting effect on McCartney’s creativity, and cement his friendship with Browne. A few weeks later he invited the young blueblood to celebrate the Christmas holiday with his father and brother in Liverpool. On December 26th they rented mopeds for a different kind of trip – to visit McCartney’s cousin Bett five miles from where they were staying. “I was showing Tara the scenery. He was behind me and it was an incredible full moon; it was really huge. I said something about the moon and he said, ‘Yeah,’ and I suddenly had a freeze-frame image of myself at that angle to the ground when it’s too late to pull back up again. … It seemed to take a few minutes to think, ‘Ah, too bad – I’m going to smack that pavement with my face!’ Bang!” The accident left him with a nasty gash above his left eyebrow and a chipped tooth. A shaky-handed doctor was called to sew his split lip with a needle and thread – sans anaesthetic. Given Browne’s fate, he got off easy.

Browne’s fatal interest in fast cars began in earnest around this time. He acquired a Shelby AG, which he had painted with a dizzying array of Art Deco designs and geometric shapes; all done in lurid fairground colors by the design firm Binder, Edwards and Vaughan. The vehicle made such a splash that it was exhibited at famed art dealer Robert Fraser’s gallery for a time. (Fraser, a friend of the Beatles, would serve as art director for the Sgt. Pepper cover.) McCartney was so impressed that he asked the firm to paint his upright piano. Browne also purchased his Lotus Elan, which he entered to race in the Irish Grand Prix. “He let me drive it once in some busy London street: ‘Come on, Hugo, put your foot down,'” says Williams. “He spent most of 1966 disqualified from driving for a speeding ticket.”

One of the biggest social events of that year was Browne’s 21st birthday party, for which he chartered two private jets to fly 200 of his friends to Luggala for an evening of unadulterated debauchery. Guests included Mick Jagger, Brian Jones, Michael McCartney, John Paul Getty and Robert Fraser. A pharmacy worth of mind-altering substances were laid out for all on sterling silver serving trays, befitting a man of Browne’s breeding. The Lovin’ Spoonful, then one of the hottest bands in the world, were flown in and paid 1,000 pounds for a private performance.

Fast living began to put a strain on his marriage to Nicki, and the couple separated by mid-1966, leading to a painfully public custody battle over their two children. Oonagh, who had never warmed to her daughter-in-law, poured considerable resources into the case. Unsurprisingly, a judge awarded the Guinness matriarch herself custody of the two boys. The ruling drove Nicki to the brink of a psychological collapse. “I said to him, ‘Tara, we need to go and get the children back right now. They’re our children – not hers.’ And that’s when he said the strangest thing to me. He said, ‘What’s the point? I’m not going to live very long anyway.'”

On December 14th, 1966, Browne had his license reinstated, allowing him to cruise London once again in his Lotus Elan. Three days later he was out with his new girlfriend, 19-year-old model Suki Potier. Exactly how they spent their evening has been subject to decades of debate – some believe they were celebrating Keith Richards’ birthday, others that they were off to meet Binder, Edwards and Vaughan about painting the front of Dandie Fashions. It’s most likely that they were returning home from a restaurant when a white car – never traced – unexpectedly darted across the intersection from the Redcliffe Square side street. Browne swerved right to avoid a collision, plowing into a stationary black van. He was pronounced dead of “brain lacerations due to fractures of the skull” two hours later at St. Stephen’s Hospital.

Potier escaped unharmed, suffering nothing more serious than shock. She wrapped Browne’s dying body in her coat, cradling him until paramedics arrived. At the inquest she proclaimed that he had intentionally steered into the van to shield her from the full force of the crash. “He saved my daughter’s life, I am convinced of that,” her father told The Daily Mirror in the wake of the accident. “It was a very gallant act. It’s tragic it should have cost him his life.” (Ironically, Potier herself would be killed in a car accident 15 years later.)

Unlike in the song, Browne did not “blow his mind out” behind the wheel. Pathology results proved that he had between half a pint and a pint of beer in his system. “I do not think it was significant [to the accident] in any way,” Dr. Donald Teare told the press. Though many assumed the amateur racing enthusiast must have been speeding – some reports cite him traveling at an absurd 106 miles an hour down the sleepy London street – Potier denied that they were driving recklessly. However, one eyewitness described the Lotus blowing by going “very, very fast indeed.” In either case, the vehicle was completely destroyed. “The car virtually disintegrated,” said a neighbour. “The steering wheel was bent like a flower stem.”

In addition to his estranged wife, two sons and estate worth 56,069 pounds – just over a million dollars in today’s value – Browne left behind a shocked circle of London’s social elite. Brian Jones was reportedly inconsolable when informed him of his friend’s death. “I am numbed,” he wailed. “It’s ghastly. He was so full of life.” Jones and Potier were drawn together by grief and eventually began living together.

Browne’s memorial service in upscale Knightsbridge resembled a nightclub opening, drawing crowds of fashionable young mourners. “It was like a death knell sounding over London,” Marianne Faithfull says in I Read the News Today, Oh Boy. Browne’s friends Keith Richards and John Paul Getty Jr. both named sons “Tara” in his honor. Afterwards his body was flown home to Ireland, where it was interred at Luggala. McCartney visited the simple gravesite on numerous occasions, according to his brother Michael’s memoir.

The dark spectre of death had forced its way into the glittering world of London’s beautiful people, and it would continue to claim vibrant members of the creative vanguard. Beatles’ manager Brian Epstein, Brian Jones and Jimi Hendrix would be gone in a few short years, and many others would follow. Though Lennon had been cool on Browne, his wistful opening verses of “A Day in the Life” suggest that he too felt the potent sense of dread and malaise, given wordless voice in the song’s orchestral climax. In the words of Anita Pallenberg, Brian Jones’ onetime girlfriend, after Browne’s death, “the Sixties weren’t the Sixties anymore.”