In 1970, a young woman named Renee delivered a package of drugs from her dealer-boyfriend to Michael James Brody Jr. in Scarsdale, New York. Evidently, wide-eyed young Brody was the drug for her because she didn’t leave, and within a month, they were married. He whisked her on a Jamaica honeymoon, buying out all the seats on the 747 for a private flight.
We piece together these details at the start of Keith Maitland’s enthralling and moving documentary, Dear Mr. Brody, now on DVD and digital streaming from Greenwich Entertainment. The Brodys’ honeymoon is only the beginning of an amazing trip. Near the end of the film, Renee remarks that it’s a terrible story and that she’s not one of those who have happy memories of the good old days. We understand her point of view. Much of it must have been a strange and scary nightmare, and finally a tragic one, but it makes a great movie.
What seems to have happened next is that a confident African-American entrepreneur named Bunny Jones, who owned hair salons tracked down Brody at his home after asking directions at gas stations by pretending to be a lost maid. She’d heard about Brody, the heir to an oleo margarine “empire” founded by his grandfather. (Young Brody made his money the old-fashioned way: he inherited it.) Brody liked Bunny’s idea of starting a record company, Astral Recording Studios, and he thought of launching his own singer-songwriter career with it.
They rented an office in Manhattan and called reporters to promote the venture. Bunny praised his generosity and vision, and suddenly Brody blurted on camera that he would give away millions of dollars in the next few months to anybody who asked for it and that this was his way of spreading love “because people don’t really need money, they need love.”
Well, you can imagine. The press loved the story and began surrounding Brody, who sounds increasingly unhinged and irrational in the many news clips. His assertions vary wildly. First, he says his worth is essentially “unlimited”. When pressed, he says $25 million, or $30 million, and soon he’s saying $100 million, a billion, even a trillion. He admits he hasn’t been getting any sleep because of the mob scenes he’s instigated at his home, his office, and in the street handing out cash. His ravings become increasingly manic as his moods swing alarmingly.
We shan’t go into all his statements and antics, worthy of rolled eyes and dropped jaws, but let’s say an impromptu helicopter trip to President Nixon’s White House is on the agenda, plus a plan to end the Vietnam War by paying Hanoi a billion dollars. We see a brief clip from the Brodys’ appearance on The Ed Sullivan Show and one of his entourage claims Brody shared a few tokes with Walter Cronkite. We see Ed Bradley quietly hovering behind Brody like a keeper or a hitman.
Among many topics raised in Dear Mr. Brody is how media and money blur our already imperfect perception of mental illness. As someone points out late in the film—way too late—Brody’s behavior is full of red flags that may signal illness, drug use, and cries for help. No doubt many people thought, “This guy’s wacko”, but nobody suggests he needed help or reached out to him in that sense. Nobody makes constructive suggestions that take Brody seriously as a person instead of the crash-and-burn ten-day-wonder cash cow he was. Until we get to the letters.
Brody’s story is almost incidental, or rather he’s the catalyst. As implied by its title, the larger story traced in Dear Mr. Brody is the thousands of letters sent to him in January 1970. In the film’s “today” story, explaining its genesis as a project, we’re introduced to Melissa Robyn Glassman, an assistant to illustrious film producer Edward R. Pressman, whose filmography is longer than both your arms. By the time Pressman passed away in January 2023, he surely had more money than Brody ever did.
In the late ‘70s, Pressman was briefly involved in developing a script about Brody. No such film was made, but Pressman acquired several crates of unopened letters from Brody’s estate, and these crates were stored in Pressman’s massive storage vault. It turns out Brody’s son has many more boxes than that. To repeat: unopened letters.
Glassman was overwhelmed by this cache. Many letters are cleverly designed mail art, and many contain works of personal expression within. By the time of filming Dear Mr. Brody, Glassman and her assistants had opened more than 12,000 letters, a small percentage of the overall legacy. Several of these letters are performed aloud by actors, accompanied by arty little re-enactments. Simply reading a sampling aloud would make a great stage show; a musical would be the next step.
The final touch is that Glassman and Maitland have tracked down several of the writers, who are startled and moved to revisit this little piece of themselves, tossed off one afternoon in January 1970 with little or no hope of a response. One woman reads the letter she wrote at 14 about her troubled family, and she’s amazed to learn that her mother also secretly wrote a letter.
You’d think some of the letters might be scams, and it’s possible, but those we hear have the sad ring of credibility. You’d assume the letters would be a parade of heart-tugging sob stories, and of course, some are. These are evidence of a diverse America aching in poverty, illness, and debt, and part of the tragedy is that they feel a need to grasp at Brody’s straw or to open their secret hearts. Another part of the tragedy is that it’s still true; some of these lives never improved.
What’s revelatory and refreshing is how many letters don’t ask for money. Some writers express concern, counsel Brody to look after himself and his wife and advise him not to let the frenzy get him down. If only the people mobbing him had offered such concern. Some letters speak of family members and ask Brody to donate money to meaningful groups, like the American Cancer Society or charities for the deaf.
Some praise his intentions. One man explains that he’s a poor fry cook, but he too tries to give what he can to people in need, and enclosed, please find a five-dollar bill, which is all he can afford right now, to add to Brody’s donations. If some of these good people don’t restore your faith in humanity, nothing will.
In one of the 1970 news clips, male reporters tower above a slumping, drained Renee, the newly married Mrs. Brody, and ask questions like what she thinks of all this greed from people. Facing the ground away from the journalists, as if embarrassed for them more than herself, she pronounces calmly, “It isn’t greed. It’s need.”
Another clip displays the line of people outside Brody’s Manhattan office. They’re presented as a spectacle, as though the moral of these images is naked desire, but even these folks subvert expectations. Some cheerfully list the practical things they’d like money for—school, business, medical bills—but they don’t really expect to get it. We get the impression of a fun outing, a lark to pass the day. One woman happily declares that she’s just trying to get on camera to promote herself as an aspiring actress. After hearing some of the others, one man says he realizes he doesn’t really have any problems and doesn’t need any money.
These documentations of the real-life zeitgeist of America in January 1970 can be compared instructively with a sour satirical film called The Magic Christian. It opened in December 1969 in England, just as Renee was about to meet Michael, and in February 1970 in the USA, just after the Brody Show had whimpered to a fizzle. Directed by Joseph McGrath and co-scripted by Terry Southern from his 1959 novel of the same name, The Magic Christian depicts a cynical billionaire who gives away money to people who humiliate themselves in stunts like swimming in feces. He believes he’s making a point about greed, but Renee Brody would have set him straight.
Brody’s bank stopped the checks because institutions act in self-defense and won’t permit people to give away their money willy-nilly. Then a New York Times story broke tales of Brody’s drug use, taboo depravity to middle-American society in 1970, and implied it was all a hoax. Whatever its degree of truth or falsity, this story was probably a blessing in disguise and brought the frenzy to a halt, along with Brody’s increasing on-camera meltdowns.
Dear Mr. Brody hints at many implied stories behind stories and within stories, from Brody’s emotionally isolated and possibly abusive childhood as a “poor little rich boy” and his drug use (including PCP) to the many stories glimpsed in the letters and the stories of those lives in the succeeding 50 years. Sadly, the more things have changed, the more they’ve stayed the same. Only now we have more lotteries.