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.”