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Sugar daddy

Q From Philip Madell: Is it true the term sugar daddy came from Alma de Bretteville, mistress and then wife of sugar magnate, Adolph Spreckels, who said “I’d rather be an old man’s darling than a young man’s slave”?

A An intriguing story is associated with the early history of sugar daddy but this probably isn’t it.

Adolph Bernard Spreckels, scion of the California sugar family, was 23 years older than Alma de Bretteville. They were married in 1908 and continued to be until his death in June 1924. No contemporary reference links sugar daddy with either of them. The only one in print I can find is in a detailed story about the couple by Joseph Potocki in the Bay Time Informer dated 17 November 2009. Alma de Bretteville’s comment is a proverb known from the sixteenth century. Proving a negative is difficult and it’s possible she invented the first and used the second. But I’m doubtful. It feels more like a factoid of the internet era.

The first known use of sugar daddy is in an episode of a surreal tale with the title Fat Anna’s Future that appeared in the Syracuse Herald on 27 March 1923. Coincidentally, its notorious introduction to the wider American public would come in the following day’s newspapers. The story had actually begun two weeks before, when the body of Dorothy Keenan King was found in her New York apartment. “Dot” King was a former model and unsuccessful actress who had become what people then called a vamp, a woman who used her undoubted attractiveness to target men. She had been set up in the apartment and given lavish presents by a 50-year-old tycoon named John Kearsley Mitchell III. He used the pseudonym of Mr Marshall but was publicly unmasked in press reports on 28 March below a formal posed photograph:

John Kearsley Mitchell, son-in-law of K. T. Stotesbury, multi-millionaire, of Philadelphia, has been revealed as the mysterious “Mr Marshall,” who was the “heavy sugar daddy” of Dorothy Keenan King, New York model, who was chloroformed to death in her New York City apartment.

Kingston Daily Freeman (New York), 28 Mar. 1923.

Her murderer has never been found. Claims were made at the time that she had been killed because she refused to go along with a criminal group who wanted her to help blackmail Mitchell. Dot King’s story became a cause celebre and was widely publicised, often mentioning her pet name for Mitchell, heavy sugar daddy. It gained instant public recognition and it has been in the language since, though heavy was soon lost.

The term seems to have been a New York creation of the louche and criminal worlds linked to Broadway in Prohibition days. Sugar was a long-established slang term for money and heavy sugar was a lot of it. Sugar was also an endearment, which originated around this time in African-American slang and which reached a wider white audience via blues lyrics. Daddy was an obvious reference to an older man, but it may similarly have had a link to African-American slang of the time, in which a daddy was a lover with no implications of age. Heavy sugar daddy was literally an older man with lots of cash but in the theatrical world it specifically meant a rich man who pursued actresses for immoral purposes.

Herbert Corey wrote about the term in a widely syndicated newspaper article about Broadway slang the following year:

A daddy is a good thing, and when the daddy is a very good thing indeed, he becomes a sugar-coated daddy, as vide recent stories in which unfortunate vamps of Broadway appeared as the victims of murder. When a vamp gets a sugar-coated daddy she puts him on the merry-go-round until his money has spilled. Some say he goes through the separator. But Broadway slang is of the day only.

The Sioux City Sunday Journal, 2 Nov. 1924.

It certainly was. A newspaper report only a year later said sugar daddy had been replaced on Broadway by big butter and egg man, a prosperous farmer or rich small-town citizen who came to New York and tried embarrassingly hard to be a playboy. It was created in 1924 by Mary Louise “Texas” Guinan, who ran a New York speakeasy called the 300 Club. The story goes that a shy, middle-aged man was so flattered by her friendliness that he paid the steep cover charge for every guest and pressed $50 notes on all the entertainers. When he said he was in the dairy business, she introduced him as “the big butter-and-egg man”, borrowing a term for a dairy farmer that had been around for decades. It became the title of a Broadway play in 1925 and Louis Armstrong recorded a song with that title in 1926.

But sugar daddy has outlasted it.

Page created 29 Mar. 2014

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Last modified: 29 March 2014.