2022 update: You’re probably reading this because of a documentary called Dear Mr. Brody, now streaming and appearing in film festivals. Though I’m not in the final cut, I went to Austin in 2018 to meet the filmmakers and be interviewed about the story and the research I did. Opening some of the long-lost Brody letters myself was an incredible feeling. I suggested that they partner with an archive to digitize and catalog the thousands of letters he received, and Columbia University is now on board. Never give up on the power of story!
Michael James Brody Jr. made the news in January 1970 as he offered to give money from his $25 million fortune to anyone who needed it. Newspapers called him a “hippie angel,” a “giveaway millionaire.” But as the attention grew overwhelming and checks started bouncing, he withdrew from the public eye, resurfacing only occasionally amid legal problems, killing himself three years later in Upstate New York.
When turned 21 on Oct. 31, 1969, Brody got access to his part of a trust fund set up by his grandfather, Chicago oleomargarine millionaire John F. Jelke. Brody had graduated from Butler University that year, where he’d been a member of Phi Delta Theta.
On Jan. 10, 1970, Michael James Brody Jr. — arriving back in New York with his new wife Renee after a honeymoon in Jamaica, for which they’d bought out all the seats of a Pan Am 707 for more than $7,000 — announced he wanted to give away his fortune. He broadcast his phone number and home address and welcomed all comers. By some accounts he was worth $25 million or $26 million or $10 billion; in a report on NBC the fortune was $50 million:
His wife, Renee Brody, says of her husband, “Michael has always had Cadillacs and Corvettes. He thinks everyone should drive them. All he wants is a chicken farm and 13 children.” …
Mr. Brody is seen playing his guitar. After the performance he claims that he is a wizard at the stock market. He kisses his wife then talks about wanting to build a spaceship but says he needs time to “get his organization together.” He then states that he has received millions of dollars in pledges for his “Harlem project.”
Brody said, according to the New York Times:
“Money hasn’t made me satisfied. I wasn’t satisfied until I found Renee. Now I have everything I want — love, fresh air, food. So why shouldn’t I give my money away?”
The New York Times reported on Jan. 11, 1970, that Michael and Renee, married Jan. 3, had met only three weeks before, at Brody’s home in Scarsdale, NY. (The Times reported Renee had sold him hashish.) The Times reported on Jan. 17 that many people were taking Brody up on his offer of free money. Hundreds of telegrams poured in from Western Union; the Scarsdale police said their switchboard was tied up with calls from around the country. Brody opened up an outpost office at 1650 Broadway in New York City.
He is reported to have given $2,500 to a man with mortgage trouble, $1,000 to a taxi driver, $500 to a heroin addict, $100 to a barber who opened a door for him and $100 to a newsboy who sold him a paper — all on Thursday.
But as the flood of money-seekers overwhelmed the office and phone lines, Brody briefly disappeared, and the Scarsdale National Bank and Trust Co. said his accounts didn’t have enough money to cover his checks. Brody’s interactions with the hungry public alternated between “kneeling before them on the sidewalk,” playing his guitar to the crowds and “shouting obscenities,” the Times reported Jan. 18. He shouted at one point in Midtown:
“If you don’t leave me alone, I’ll kill myself and you’ll all die. I need seven days and then I’ll save the world.”
Brody’s estimation of his fortune was grandiose — his father said the inheritance was about $3 million; his uncle said it was less than $1 million. As Brody escaped to Puerto Rico on a charter flight with close friends and a reporter, the needy and the curious stood vigil at his Broadway Avenue office.
Brody was reportedly paid $3,500 to appear on the Ed Sullivan show on Jan. 18, 1970 — alongside June Allyson, Muhammad Ali and Minnie Pearl — and play a Bob Dylan song, “You Ain’t Going Nowhere.” In this recording of an original song called “The War is Over,” he said all the proceeds from would “go to peace”:
Songs about Vietnam and Nixon weren’t in short supply in 1970, but some of his lyrics are worth noting:
“President Nixon, if you’d seen me in Washington DC last week, we could’ve ended it all
I’m really not a freak, I’m just trying to do my thing and end the war in Vietnam
I’ve no bitterness against you for locking my friends away too
Let your Secret Service kill me if that’s what you want to
Makes no difference, I’ll be reborn in Biafra”
RCA Records signed him on Jan. 21, and newspapers reported his first single might be out by the end of the week:
On one side is the unpublished Bob Dylan song that Brody, 21, sang without any particular distinction on the Ed Sullivan television show last Sunday, accompanying himself on a 12-string guitar he learned to play a few weeks ago. On the other side he sings one of his own songs, “The War is Over.”
Brody mostly fell out of the public eye, until April 21, when the Times reported he was being held temporarily in a Bay Area psychiatric center. At the San Francisco Airport, Brody had claimed he was kidnapped and injected with drugs against his will for a number of days prior. In May, he was arrested on drug charges in New York. He later said much of his conduct was the results of hundreds of doses of LSD. Michael and Renee had a son, Jamie, later in 1970.
In December 1971, Brody was arrested for calling the White House and threatening President Nixon’s life in a series of phone calls.
[US Atty. Randy] Roeder said Brody first called the White House Sunday and said he was coming to Washington on Christmas and burn himself as a form of protest.
He repeated this call Monday, according to Roeder, and gave the Secret Service agent on duty the telephone number he was calling from.
Secret Service agents went to the South Norwalk, CT, home where Brody was staying to talk to him. Then, Thursday, Dec. 23, 1971, he called the White House three times.
First he said he had called off the self-immolation, then he said he was just going going to burn his thumbs, and it was during the third call that he made the threat on the President’s life, according to Roeder.
Roeder quoted part of Brody’s final conversation as, “This is Michael James Brody, I’m going to kill President Nixon tonight … don’t bother to come and get me because I’ll be gone.”
He was arrested two hours later, and released later Thursday on a $10,000 bond. But hours after being released from jail, the home he was living in with his sister in burned to the ground. Police found him sitting on the front lawn, and he was arrested and held on a $100,000 bond.
The next time Brody appeared in the New York Times was July 1972 — Roeder said he was going to ask for a dismissal of the charges of threatening the president. Brody had been in psychiatric care since December, according to his lawyer.
Michael James Brody shot himself on Jan. 26, 1973 — 40 years ago today — in the home of his father-in-law Robert Dubois in Shokan, NY. Newspapers reported he was separated from Renee the previous year. The Village Voice reported rumors that he’d been talking about suicide for months before the final act.
All that exists of Michael James Brody Jr. online, aside from copious newspaper articles in archives, is a tribute website with fewer than 50 views and a YouTube channel with the one video and similarly few views. I only found out about the story from this tiny item in a 1970 encyclopedia supplement:
In a 1991 New York Magazine article, his former wife, Renee, said:
“It’s so hard to believe that we all lived through that. My attraction to Michael was almost supernatural. I really felt as if it were destiny — that we were meant to live through these things. … It was a very idealistic time for America. It seemed like a great idea to give away all his money. At least in theory.”
it’s a joke that you write about him, I knew him , he made my life happy, was always there for me, he was kind, I loved him like no other, so sick of the myth, his wife, his son, never knew him, yet they prey on his myth, tell that to the person who carried me, and sang to me about the splinter in my foot…..times in the kitchen , stiches in my head…you dont know one godamn thing!!!
What Myth…? Care to tell me about my Father? I’d love to get to know him better having lost him while I was so young. “Prey on his myth”????? Don’t be selfish…. he wouldn’t be.
Hey Michael, I am writing a story about you’re father as my father knew you’re dad and told me great stories of him. I would love for you to be involved, I am unsure how to contact you. Here is my email RyanMFlanzer@gmail.com
My grandfather worked for your great-grandfather as his business manager for many years in Lake Forrest. After your grandmother’s death, your grandfather gave my mother Lana’s doghouse and furniture for it. I still have the furniture today. I also have photos of your family from the time your grandmother was young. Ok to contact me if you have interest. I did not know any of the Jelke’s personally, but my mother and grandparents were filled with many stories and had great love for your family. Lisa email@example.com
Thank you for commenting. Would you be open to talking to me about Michael? I would love to round out my understanding of him.
grace, thank you for the article. I am his half brother but I never met him, or to this date my half sister Robin.
Are you Michael Brody’s son? My father was Michael Brody’s brother. I would love to connect with you as we are probably cousins.
Jon, that would make you my Uncle. Let us know more please.
Would love to talk to you Jon. I am your cousin.
I enjoyed the article
I was riding my bike tonight and started thinking about the guy who was giving his inherited wealth away on the Ed Sullivan Show.. I saw that show, and it had been stacked in my brain all these years. Thanks to Google and you Grace I found out the story in 10 minutes. I didn’t remember his name but was able to google around his circumstance. Thanks again, I started following you on Twitter
Hello Grace Thank you so much for this article on Michael James Brody Jr. I was in my early teens growing up with the ongoing Vietnam war. Every night, Walter Cronkite on his nightly news would put up numbers of over a thousand soldiers that died that day in the fields of Vietnam. It was sickening and there was protest everywhere in the United States because of the war. Mr. Brody was one of many bands and celebrities who opposed the war. I also remember Mr. Brody on T.V. of giving away his money to help the poor. I hope those that benefited from his money can remember of his kindness and humanitarian qualities that he posed. Michael James Brody Jr. was from my era and his protest song The War Is Over is hauntingly one of the best protest songs I have heard. Thanks again
I was going through some old memorabilia and had the newspaper clipping of Michael and Rene .
I knew him when I went to school at Butler University. He dated one of the girls I knew. We used to go over to his apartment, which was a mess. He was always a kind and sharing person. I think he drove a Lotus at that time, which impressed most girls. I wish I could share more. I was very sad to find out he had committed suicide. I am very sad for his son, I think if he had gotten the help he needed this could have been avoided. Again to MJB III, I am sorry u never knew him.
My mother, who died in July 2012, was Michael J. Brody Sr’s first wife in Pittsburgh in the 1930’s. After they divorced in 1939-1940, my mother married my father and I believe Michael married Lana Jelke. They gave birth to two children, Michael Jr and a daughter, whose name I don’t know.
Mom re-acquainted with Michael Sr in the 80’s in NYC by letter and phone and I finally was able to meet this man who I had heard so much about in the late 90s at the home of Dr. A in Delaware. I learned a lot about him and his two children during the next few years. Sadly, he died on Sept 28, 2004.
Hey Susan, If you would be open to it I would like to interview you about the late Michael James Brody Jr. My father was a friend of his (in scarsdale) and I am doing a project and really would like to get to know his story from all walks of life. Hope to hear from you. RyanMFlanzer@gmail.com
Hows it going Ryan? Cheers…
Hi Susan, I visited with Joyce (Dr. A in Delaware), a few moths ago, and brought this up. She remembers the visit, but had no clue Michael Sr. had been married before Lana. She just noted what a Gentleman Michael Sr. was and assumed it was kept from her for her own good (if my memory is not failing, sorry for responding so late). Its wonderful to hear more about my Grandfather, I only connected to him later on and our time was too brief.
My dad knew your mother and thought she was a lovely lady. Michael and my father were brothers. Would love to share more on this. My dad told me about his first marriage to your mother. My email is firstname.lastname@example.org if u ever want to connect.
My father was Michael’s brother and k knew your mother. He always wondered what happened to her he said she was a lively gal. We even had pictures of Mike and her. Dad called her Betty
I do have tons of press/TV/misc. stuff on this story. Although I never met Michael Jr., I was captivated by this one week time capsule back in 1969. In later years, I did meet Michael III and Renee. I liked them both very much and pledged not to pursue any kind of project based around the Brody story unless I had their support. I’ll stick with my commitment.
Hi Gary… all the best.
I keep saying this is year after year… I can only hope something really comes together sometime. Someone wrote a book… from Pub-Domain info. He was just compelled to, he said. He had to add a lot of Jelke stuff to fill the pages though. He’s still looking for a publisher. I am happy so many are compelled to bring his story about and don’t think any of its a coincidence.
I was a close high school friend Mike. I along with a few other close friends was staying at the rented house on Paddington Rd. In Scarsdale when he and Renee returned from Jamaica. I was there when the crowd of people were lined up down the road to ask for money for days, and watched Mike on Sullivan show from the living room and partied after the show when they returned. I only knew Renee briefly, but Mike was a good friend and I still think of him fondly, he had a good heart and was always kind.
I knew Mike when I lived in Scarsdale. I once pulled him out of a pool at a party when it was evident that he was having trouble. He was always great to me and would often let me use his car. It was a beautiful Jaguar and I certainly loved driving it. He was a good guy and people took advantage of his good nature and generosity.
That Jaguar (probably), brought me and my Grandfather together. I first met Michael Sr. when I was 17 and had just bee kicked out of high school. I met him again and maybe one other time, but then lost touch with him as he had moved from NYC and I had no clue of where he went. One day I received a letter out of the blue. It was someone from Michigan or Wisconsin, and he wanted to know more about the history of a Jaguar he was restoring. He wrote to every Michael J. Brody he could find. He got two responses – one was from me who said I think thats my Father and another from Michael Sr. saying I think thats my Son. He wrote us both back saying you two should talk, and we did. I would then visit Michael Sr. at least once a year till his passing, enjoying many a story. He cooked pasta for me one time. I put a crew together and produced a video of him in hope to sharing his stories with future generations (which I hope to make happen someday). Unfortunately I lost contact with the person restoring the Jaguar, but it was incredible it brought me and my Grandfather together, of course it helped we all shared that same name. Or was it Michael Jr.’s spirit?
Also I had almost drowned in a pool when I was a tot. Thought I could paddle with the big boys I guess. Mom pulled me out when no one else (life guard) noticed. Funny given what a great swimmer Michael Sr. was. I think one of Michael Sr.’s stories was about palling around Johnny Weissmuller (swim champ 1920’s). I do recall Michael Sr.’s lamenting (only a bit) he should have stayed in Hollywood with the Tarzan of the time and Johnny was the Tarzan after his swim career.
And I’d love to find that Jaguar if its still out there.
I know of at least 2 Jaguar E types that Mike had either a 1965 and 1966 or 1966 and 1967 I’m not sure. I drove them both and they were fast. The speedo read up to 160 and it would do it. There was a road between Hartsdale and Scarsdale called Aqueduct Drive also know as the pipeline. It had only one entrance so everyone would use it for a dragstrip or race track.
I remember when he was giving away , his money. I often wondered why. I think that if you did a title search, you may be able to locate that Jag.
Met Michael once in New York before he received all the money. He was friends of friends and we all shared a meal together. I will never forget that night and so happy to see his name is still alive.
I lived in Northern New Jersey after being on the road for a while. I had taken a temporary job as a dishwasher and was surprised at the reaction of some of the poorly paid workers and patrons of that diner when Michael James Brody Jr. made the news. He was a rich young man looking for a way to ensure that he might fit through the eye of the needle when the time came but some reacted with anger that he would give away what they wished so hard to have. It really moved people, this action of his and THAT interested me.
I did write a note to send but I did not leave a return address or ask for money, just wanted him to feel some support.
The New York news media seemed to make it an important part of their job to take him down. He would lecture them and they would cat call. Some of the public did as well. I remember clearly a clip when someone in the crowd called out “You’re a phony.” Michael responded with the most remarkable emotions. He agreed with the person “A phony? You’re right! I’m a phony, I’m giving you money … I want to give you love and I’m giving you money.”
I admire logic and I think that people who make plans and look for stability are the ones most likely to do the most good when they set out to do good. But the pure impulse and the near-saintly reaction at that time impressed me no end.
I became a puppeteer for many years, I did political satire and the central character in my performances I named Michael James Brody Jr. This led, from time to time, over the years, to a call to explain his name and to that I related what I knew.
I didn’t know him personally but what he did and they way he responded was very personal to me. I still feel a connection.
I hung out with Michael for a year or so. Renee stayed in my house in Connecticut ti hide out from the press one summer. We all went to dinner and did stuff together, New York, pizza, dinner in White Plains, hanging out in Scarsdale. My friend Jerl Lee grew up with Renee. It was a heady time,and we were all hoping for the best at our 21 years of age. When Michael left the Mercury on the side of the road out west somewhere, I pressed him to tell me where so that I could retrieve it. He couldn’t remember, and we were never able to find it.
He got a satellite phone from Ed Sullivan. It was in a suitcase and very expensive to make a call. I still have memories of feeling special as we would go to a small restaurant and be surrounded by people who knew who he was. I’ve always been sorry that someone has to take their life with so much promise.
i am 60 yrs. old now and remember Michael Brody from back when I was 16 or so. We were all kids seeking something. I did not forget him after all this time. I mean …I looked him up and thought, Michael Brody would never believe where his information ended up. On a computer world wide. What a cool guy….He reminds me of the fun days. I appreciate him. Ray.
there was Jimi Hendrix..the Vietnam War, Rolling Stones..MIchael Brody….It all seemed so confusing at that time, but compared to now , it was so relaxing..and Michael Brody added to that time and era. He really made an impact for those who were paying attention. Like I said before…What a cool guy. I miss people like that …and he was probably the only one like that. I miss it all. Ray Daughtry.
Hi Michael James Brody the 3rd. My name is Betty Ann Herman. I was married to Rick Herman who was a close friend of your father. I met you once many years ago in New York. You were in your 20’s. I have a portfolio of your family and a screen play with John Travolta that you may want to have. Rick passed away 10 years ago; however, he called your grandfather every year on St. Patty’s Day every year and cared very much for your family. My email is email@example.com.
Michael the 3rd here… sorry I haven’t chimed in recently… OMG Betty… thank you so much for reaching out. I will email. Also.. I just posted Michael J Brody Jr on Ed on YouTube… https://youtu.be/qgtrNFUC6gw Cheers All…
Oops… a better version of MJBJr. on Ed. https://youtu.be/Tl7tezdTSTY
Michael J. Brody Jr., on acoustic guitar, opened for the Grateful Dead on January 23, 1970, at Golden Hall, San Diego, CA.
I was looking for info on Michael, because we invited him to Marlboro College March 9, 1970, to help us celebrate the near total solar eclipse that day–we had our Spring Rites coincident–and Michael came to join us. I don’t remember much, we all sang together, he talked some. Not sure if his wife was with him or not. I remember hearing of his passing and being sorry for it.
I found this article after a web search, because I was watching ‘Le Cercle Rouge’, a French film from 1970 (starring Alain Delon), in which there is a shot of a French newspaper, mentioning ‘Michael Brody’, ‘hippy’ and ‘héritage’.
Good eye! I’ll have to check that out.
Although I was only 11 in 1970, the Michael Brody story fascinated me. I recall him all over TV news & newspapers. I then saw him on the Sullivan show, even drew a picture of him & his wife the next day in school. I’ve lost family members to suicide, so when I learned of Brody’s death a few years later it hit truly home.
I just found this and I remember my father gave him $5 to get something to eat when he came into my grandfather’s pawn shop Stuyvesant Loan / Music on west 48th street in NY. My father was Larry Friedman he is in the photo taken by the daily news. My father told him not to pawn his guitar because he could make money playing music. My father didn’t know who he was or that he gave away his money to others. My father was also a professional musician. My grandfather made up a different story when the press came back into the store. I still have a copy of the Daily News with the photo of both of them..
Richard Friedman owner We Buy Guitars LLC NY / Stuyvesant Music NYC
Thank you for sharing this about my cousin!
I remember the story, having met Rene Brody ten years after her husband’s death. She told me about it all and I remember. What ever happened to Rene? Saint Maarteen, 1982, we had a drink at Le Jardin Braziien.
Still alive. Spends her time between Florida and NYS
Hi, I write from Italy.
Just to tell you I never heard about this story till today.
I born in 1970, too young to knowing that.
So today, in an old book I found a tiket.
Someone (maybe in the seventies!), in block letters, in a childish way, wrote those words:
MICHAEL JAMES BRody jR.
SCARSDALE (NEW YORK)
I was curios and then I found thath story.
Amazing story and lovely too.
In this page many people leaved a talk about him.
It was surprising to see how many people still remember him. He touched hearts and this moved me to write few words.
I think his life was like a comet.
Fast and unforgettable.
He was in his twenties when he made his statement. I think at thath age you can do everything. In the best or in the evil.
And you ‘ll do fast, fitful, ingenuos maybe.
But you do things you ‘ll never do when you ‘re older.
Because you ‘re older, more reflective…
less alive perharps…
When I saw all this people remember him, I realized good actions save us.
Because everyone can always chose between god and evil.
Today I was in anger with a person. I was thinking on punish and revenge.
It was a good reason to doing that.
But this story moved my heart.
Talked to my soul.
You allways can chose.
You allways pay for your actions.
I allways can do god.
bee proud of such men.
Live your life at best!
A friend and I drove to Scarsdale to meet Michael. He answered the door and invited us in. We had a fun night with him and Renee. There were a few other people around. Always a good memory and something that has stayed with me as an influence. Good to find this site and comments.
best to all.. jeff
an old friend e-mails if I remember this cat from new paltz n.y….a college town near the town of SHOKAN…
we were all there (n.p) in 1970, before and after. brody made no appearance there at that time I had to opine…being a ‘hippie’, street person, bar tender, and editor of several radical newspapers of the day., I would have known. of n.p. interest though, is the association DOBUSH. I knew dear CHRISTINE at the time…and later, her brother, a MONK. I wonder if grace dobush is connected? I would love to re-connect with CHRISTINE, or at least beg forgiveness that I could not be more supportive of her at that time. I felt terribly torn. DB is dead, and I was with him hours before. please give her my info…henry Cavanagh, 679 lapla road, Kingston, n.y. 12401 –(845)338-2199; firstname.lastname@example.org; ceramicar.com…………………message in a bottle….thanks.