Brownie McLean: 100 years of fabulous for Palm Beach icon

An orphan who turned down the Hope Diamond, Palm Beach’s beautiful, boisterous Brownie has led a life worthy of a Hollywood film.


Even at 100, the queen bee of Palm Beach continues buzzing.

“I’m still out every night,” said Brownie McLean on the phone a week before she reached the centenary mark. “”You have to keep moving. You don’t dare slow down.”

Not that McLean has ever spent time in the slow lane.

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Her life reads like an improbable 1950s Hollywood plot: charming orphaned country girl finds money and romance while rising to the pinnacle of high society, suffers ups and downs while maintaining an imperturbable sense of fun and happiness.

“When life gets to you, you have to do the best you know how,” said McLean. “Just keep going, keep dancing.”

“She’s a drop of Peter Pan, a drop of Marilyn Monroe and a whole lot of Auntie Mame,” said her goddaughter, Jane Schmidlapp, three years ago when Mclean was still keeping her age a nuclear secret.

Why confirm it now?

“I think it’s quite an accomplishment to survive that long,” McLean says, with a laugh.

In honor of her birthday, July 14, the Town of Palm Beach issued a proclamation signed by Mayor Gail Coniglio, which will be presented to McLean Saturday at a party friends and family have organized, the only reason many would brave a trip to Palm Beach during a stifling South Florida summer.

“… Brownie would love you all, with a martini in hand, to raise a toast to celebrate her 100th birthday,” it reads.

Three years ago, we wrote about her birthday party, when McLean was still giving her age slyly as “61-plus.”

This story ran on Aug. 23, 2014:

Brownie McLean saunters into her birthday party and poses, grinning, her chin tilted up like the model she once was.

Squeals of “Brownie” percolate through the air-kissing frenzy that greets the effervescent dowager duchess of Palm Beach, whose darkly-lined eyes and blond page boy have graced a thousand society columns across the globe for nearly 70 years.

This is McLean’s element. Her natural habitat. A party with plenty of cocktails and confidences. Laughter. Conversation as bubbly as the Champagne.

“It’s an excuse to create some action in the summer,” she said. “I like to stir up some trouble. I’m a party animal.”

Says longtime friend, Skira Watson, “Palm Beach is so boring in the summer, but everyone comes back for her party.”

Just don’t ask which birthday she’s celebrating.

“I know why you all came, because you want to know how old I am,” she teased more than 100 guests at the sold-out private dinner at Trevini restaurant, where her guests streamed by to pay adoring obeisance to one of the last links to Palm Beach’s Old Guard.

She coyly admits to being “61-plus.”

When pressed, she’ll admit there should be several more pluses after that number.

“It’s just a number,” she insists. “It doesn’t have anything to do with me or who I am.”

Which is true. In fact, far younger folks would collapse under McLean’s relentless social schedule.

She’s out almost every night. Often after a lunch date. And she’s still planning parties, like this one that was still going strong past 11 p.m. on a summer Saturday.

So many old friends are gone now. But McLean — who says she never visits doctors or has so much as an aspirin in her Palm Beach Towers condo —says one of her credos is to always have younger and older friends.

Another is to make sure you show up in life, preferably with a smile on your face and a martini in your hand.

“She’s a drop of Peter Pan, a drop of Marilyn Monroe and a whole lot of Auntie Mame,” said her goddaughter, Jane Schmidlapp, who grew up at the McLeans’s Palm Beach house. “She would wake me up at 2 a.m. and say ‘Let’s go raid the ‘fridge,’ then take me for a nighttime walk on the beach. She’s one of a kind.”

She’s the unsinkable Brownie McLean.

Diamonds not always a girl’s best friend

Mildred Brown (“Brownie”) was a horse-riding tomboy on her family’s working plantation in Virginia when her parents died in separate tragic accidents. At 13, she left school to work as a messenger girl in a West Virginia pulp and paper factory. By 16, she was a New York model for the Harry Conover Agency, frequenting nightspots such as 21, El Morocco and the Stork Club.

There was an early marriage to club owner George Schrafft, with whom she had her only child, a daughter, Victoria. She says they don’t get along.

When she found her husband in bed with her friend, she walked out. “I left all my clothes, even my shoes. I didn’t care because I had met Jock McLean.”

They were both married to others when McLean asked her name at a New York cocktail party, then said, “I’m going to marry you.” She said “Good luck” and walked away. “But he kept calling,” McLean said.

Jock’s family owned the Washington Post and developed McLean, Virginia. The Hope Diamond had been part of his mother’s famous gem collection before jeweler Harry Winston bought most of them, including the Hope Diamond. One day, Jock thought Brownie might want to wear it to a fashion show.

But when Winston brought the 45-carat deep blue diamond out of his safe, she recoiled.

“It looked evil,” said McLean. “I could see red sparks shooting from it. My skin still crawls even thinking about it.”

The orphaned, former factory clerk refused a chance to wear the world’s most famous diamond.

Later, scientists discovered that ultraviolet light sets off a lingering red phosphorescence inside the stone.

Winston eventually donated the diamond to the Smithsonian Museum.

But Brownie got her own rock. She wore an only-slightly-smaller 39-carat diamond engagement ring until it was stolen from her Freeport, Bahamas, hotel room.

“I found out later the thief followed me to Europe, then to The Bahamas to get his hands on that diamond,” she said. “He was arrested, but I never got the ring back.”

Parties, parties, parties

It was Brownie who paid $6,000 for El Salano, the couple’s nine-bedroom South Ocean Boulevard Mizner mansion that became a top party destination for both the who’s who and the who’s that.

“In the ’50s and ’60s, I used to have 300, 400 people for cocktail parties,” McLean recalls. “The head of the school, head of police department and fire departments would come. Everybody knew everybody then. It’s not that way now.”

“Brownie’s secret is that she treats everybody the same,” said Bryant Sims, an attorney and one of the “younger” crowd McLean adopted in the 1970s.

McLean became one of the top charity ball hostesses, in Palm Beach, New York and Europe. She helped choreograph the party opening the Flagler Museum in 1960, with Jean Flagler Matthews. Her co-chair for a Paris ball was the Duchess of Windsor.

In New York, she ran the prestigious April in Paris ball for 14 years. And in Palm Beach, she toiled for dozens of causes. In 2011, the American Red Cross honored her for helping to fill seats at the Red Cross Ball for more than 40 years.

Meanwhile, she and Jock traveled the world. One year in the early 1950s, they rented the biggest house in Biarritz, France. They flew to Morocco, which became one of Brownie’s favorite destinations, on the private plane of the country’s king and became friends with the Aga Khan.

There were beautiful clothes, fabulous houses — the family’s Washington, D.C. house is now the Indonesian Embassy — and parties, parties, parties.

After Jock died of lung cancer in 1975, the 1919 Palm Beach house became increasingly difficult for McLean to maintain herself.

Several rooms were damaged in a fire caused by faulty wiring. Brownie began renting it. Through a third party she once leased it unknowingly to Hustler publisher Larry Flynt, who used it for nude photo shoots.

“Oh, we don’t want to talk about that,” said McLean.

On Thanksgiving 1980, the turkey was roasting when her real estate agent brought over two prospective buyers.

John Lennon and Yoko Ono looked around, then offered to buy the 22-room mansion.

McLean said no.

“They made lowball offers,” said McLean, who refused to budge. “Finally, they got up to my price, but demanded I be out of the house in a week. I called up Northwood University, offered them the antiques I didn’t want, and left.”

The Lennons paid $725,000.

McLean thinks John and Yoko spent only a few nights in El Salano before Lennon was murdered in New York a few weeks later.

After renovating the mansion, Ono sold it for $3.15 million.

“I heard later that she (Yoko) thought my husband’s ghost was haunting the place,” said McLean.

Never a bad word

Although she says she’s “secure” these days, McLean has never been motivated by wealth.

“I don’t care about money. I’ve had it and not had it,” she says.

Her legions of friends insist McLean walks under a charmed star.

“It’s because she never says a bad word about anybody and Palm Beach, it is a nest of snakes,” said Italian artist Emanuele Viscuso who drove up from Miami for Brownie’s birthday bash. “It’s why she’s lived so long.”

Nancy Drohan, who jetted from Panama to celebrate, says she’s never heard McLean say an unkind word.

“When she doesn’t like someone, she changes the subject,” said Drohan. “She’ll say, ‘I don’t remember her.’ That’s Brownie.”

McLean explains, “If I can’t do anything good for you, I won’t do anything bad for you.”

This summer, she’s spent more time at home than usual.

Although she says she’s given up local charities, McLean is organizing the “Mission on Mars” ball in New York to benefit space research at the University of Houston’s aerospace engineering department

She’s been sorting through decades of her life’s treasures.

“There’s a book here, don’t you think?” she asks. “It’s been quite a life.”

She consents to pose for a photo in the lobby of her condo building, then walks briskly and unassisted to the elevators.

The door has begun to close when she waves.

“Bye-bye. I’m off to two dinner parties tonight.”



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