Hippie millionaire who gave away fortune

By | March 5, 2022

For a few weeks in 1970, Michael Brody became the most beloved millionaire in the world.

The 21-year-old margarine heir, from Scarsdale, NY, vowed to give away his fortune — all people had to do was ask — setting off a whirlwind month that led to money raining down on Manhattan streets, an appearance on “Ed Sullivan ” and Brody attempting to land a helicopter on the White House lawn.

It’s all recalled in the new documentary “Dear Mr. Brody,” available on demand on Amazon Prime and Google Play.

Never mind that Brody did not have, as he once claimed, $10 billion. He apparently had a $1.25 million trust fund (worth $9 million in today’s dollars) from a grandfather who was the first person to brand margarine and sold the company, Good Luck Margarine, in 1948.

Michael Brody’s fortune came from his grandfather having been the first person to brand margarine.
Bettmann

“At the age of 21, I’ve been told, Michael received maybe $250,000 of the trust and a monthly allowance of $20,000 or $30,000,” Keith Maitland, the film’s director, told The Post.

Brody’s caper began when he met a girl named Renee in December 1969: She showed up at to his house to make a hash delivery for her drug-dealing boyfriend and didn’t leave. Three weeks later, Brody married the 19-year-old.

Cover of documentary, "Dear Mr.  Brody"

“Michael was on a beach in Jamaica, on his honeymoon [in early] January 1970,” Maitland said. “His feeling was that there was love between [he and Renee]blue skies above them, and the world should experience what they were experiencing.”

Spreading the love, Brody apparently gave away some $50,000 in tips during the trip. As a romantic gesture, he bought out a Pan Am 707 flight back to New York, so that he and his bride could fly home private. When they landed, an army of reporters awaited them at the airport.

“I think Pan Am got wind of the plan and tipped off the media in order to get publicity,” Melissa Glassman, a producer on the film, told The Post. The attention must have inspired Brody. “He spontaneously announced that he was going to give away all of his money. He revealed his home address, in Scarsdale, and asked people to mail in requests.”

Brody married his wife, Renee, three weeks after she showed up to deliver drugs to his house.
Brody married his wife, Renee, three weeks after she showed up to deliver drugs to his house.
Michael Stroud

Quickly, more than 200,000 letters — sob stories and pipe dreams — poured in. There was the kid who wanted $5,000 so he could go to Japan and shoot a movie. The wife of an imprisoned drug addict sent in a photo of their child with a request for finances that would “keep the smile on his face.” People sent X-rays while seeking cash to cover doctors’ bills.

Immediately, Brody began writing checks and handing out cash. People lined up on the front lawn of his upscale home. A woman named Bunny Jones received $60,000 for the launching of a Harlem recording studio and allowed Brody to use her Broadway office as a Manhattan headquarters. It, too, was soon besieged with folks clamoring for a handout.

Over the next week, Brody would walk the streets of Manhattan and hand out $100 bills to strangers. He and his crew of hangers-on, often with joints in their hands, repaired to the East 60s apartment of his father, who was reportedly out of town as all this went down. Soon, the sidewalk in front of the building was jammed up with fortune seekers. Hamming it up, Brody tossed $20 bills out the window while flipping the bird.

When Brody offered to give away his money to people who needed it, he was inundated with mail.
When Brody offered to give away his money to people who needed it, he was inundated with mail.
Greenwich Entertainment
Some of the letters are featured in the documentary.
Some of the letters are featured in the documentary.
Greenwich Entertainment

On Jan. 11, the newly minted celebrity appeared on “The Ed Sullivan Show,” played a Bob Dylan song on his acoustic guitar as the host marveled over “the youngster giving away $25 million.” Audience members applauded wildly.

A day later, he and Renee chartered a helicopter with the intention of landing on the White House Lawn. Brody told the press that he was going to offer the North Vietnamese $10 billion to broker an end to the Vietnam War. (Not that he had $10 billion.)

But as the chopper came to airspace above the presidential lawn, Secret Service agents were on high alert. “They kept telling the pilot that if he lands on the lawn, he will get shot down,” bodyguard Michael Aronin says in the documentary. Brody kept throwing $20 bills at the pilot, insisting he land.

For a few weeks, Brody handed out money as he walked down the streets of Manhattan.
For a few weeks, Brody handed out money as he walked down the streets of Manhattan.
Bettmann

Finally, though, the pilot got cold feet and pivoted to a nearby airport. Brody and his crew — including Aronin — taxied to the White House, where they insisted on seeing Nixon so that the war could be stopped. Secret Service agents detained the group before kicking them out and arresting the bodyguard, who had an outstanding warrant.

At a press conference right after the incident, Brody griped, “I came down with a surefire peace plan … President Nixon showed how much he cared by arresting a person I came down with. I [wanted] to give $10 billion and a lot of love and what did he give me?”

Reporters and establishment-hating hippies ate it up. RCA Records offered Brody a contract. And in the middle of all this, the Grateful Dead recruited him to open a show in Hawaii.

Brody performed on the "Ed Sullivan Show" after announcing his big giveaway.
Brody performed on “The Ed Sullivan Show” after announcing his big giveaway.
John Lent

“He was paid $300 for the gig, requested the money in singles and threw it all into the crowd,” said Maitland. “He also happened to be dosed with LSD by a Grateful Dead roadie.”

Back in Manhattan, Brody kept writing checks as if drawing from a bottomless pit. But by Jan. 19, those checks were bouncing. His admirers began turning against him, shouting from the street. A disheveled Brody was asked by a reporter what his purpose was.

“To bring peace to the world,” he said. “The world will realize that they are killing themselves over paper. I am the phoniest thing there ever was. I’m a big phony. I’m not real. If I die, the whole world dies with me.”

People seeking Brody's money showed up at his family's various homes.
People seeking Brody’s money showed up at his family’s various homes.
Bettmann

In fact, Brody was ill-equipped to handle such a wild spree and the scrutiny it generated. His mother had died when he was 3 and, a boyhood friend recalls in the film, he was raised by babysitters and housekeepers while his father, a notorious playboy, faded out of the picture.

Brody was so desperate for friends that he’d invite local kids over for poker nights and then happily lose to keep them coming back.

“Michael struggled to find connections,” said Maitland. “I think that giving away his money was about finding connections. But it went off the rails.”

There was something else at play. According to Ed Dwyer, a journalist who wrote about Brody for High Times magazine, those joints that he chain-smoked contained more than mere marijuana.

He was mobbed by crowds outside his father's Upper East Side apartment.
He was mobbed by crowds outside his father’s Upper East Side apartment.
Ron Frehm

“If Michael Brody was just a pothead, I don’t think any of this would have happened,” Dwyer says in the doc. “Do you know anything about PCP? I wouldn’t recommend it to anyone at any time. It makes you feel like you have all this power and energy and you really don’t.”

As Maitland told The Post, “PCP was the fuel that kept the engine running.”

Word spread that things were going bad and that the money was not as much as Brody had promoted. A New York Times article quoted him saying he “was tripped out on drugs” when he decided to blow his inheritance.

“What a joke I’ve pulled on the world,” he added. “They think I’m Jesus Christ.” On Jan. 19, 1970, The Post’s front page blared: “Brody’s Millions – More Questions.”

Body and Renee split after he was admitted to a mental hospital.
Body and Renee split after he was admitted to a mental hospital.
New York Post

Considering the whirlwind nature of it all, Aronin marveled, “It’s an Andy Warhol ’15 minutes of fame’ story.”

In an effort to get away from the insanity and the throngs of critics, Brody tried to keep a low profile as 1970 wound down. He and Renee moved to a home in Woodstock. But the come-down from everything — maybe the drugs, definitely the fame — was brutal. After having given away an estimated $350,000, he became increasingly depressed.

He wound up in a mental institution. Renee, as she explains in the doc, “went to California in a VW bus with [the couple’s baby son] Jamie.”

He was arrested on arson charges after a fire destroyed this rented $100,000 residence in Norwalk, Conn.
He was arrested on arson charges after a fire destroyed this rented $100,000 residence in Norwalk, Conn.
Bettmann
Brody and Renee had one child, son Jamie.
Brody and Renee had one child, son Jamie.
Bettmann

Brody was released in 1971 or ’72, only to be arrested at home in Norfolk, Conn., for making threatening calls to the White House. Speaking to Nixon’s receptionist, he threatened to set himself on fire and vowed to kill the president.

He was released on bail, then re-arrested and charged with arson when his $100,000 rental home burned to the ground. Brody temporarily ended up in a mental hospital once again. Upon release, he was drinking a case of beer a day.

On Jan. 26, 1973, he went to the home of Renee’s father and shot himself with a hunting rifle.

Looking back at it all, having gone through more than 12,000 of the letters sent to Brody, Maitland said, “The obstacles and issues, which held people back in 1970 — finding money for college, paying off medical costs, dealing with tragic drug addiction issues — are the same as they are today. I think we could use a Michael Brody right now, just without the unraveling he endured.”

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.