We need you. Yours very truly, America.
By Iris Chen
Letters to Mr. Michael Brody Jr. typically begin with a confession.
“I must say I feel a little embarrassed writing to someone I don’t even know asking for money,” one begins. “I guess not embarrassed enough not to write.”
Others describe him as “generous” and “wonderful.” They paint him portraits, write him songs.
In 1970, Brody, the 21-year-old soft-eyed heir to a supposed 25-million dollar margarine fortune, announced that he would give all of his money away.
“I’m gonna cure the problems of the world,” he promised, pouring his voice through television screens nationwide. All you had to do was write a letter.
Today, most of them remain unopened. Upon request, students can sit inside Columbia’s Rare Book and Manuscript Library and hold these dreams deferred, such as the following, in their hands:
“Dear Mr. Brody,
Our family has needed a lift for many years. Though nothing can take the place of a negligent father, money will greatly help my mother for our debts. Please give $9,000.
I wish I could have given it to them myself. Thank you for your help.
Eugenie Pedersen and Family”
The situation devolved within the year. Beyond sporadic donations—hundred dollar bills handed out at Times Square, a handful of answered letters, and offerings to those who lined up at his door—Brody’s money largely remained his own. By 1971 he was in a mental institution; three years later he committed suicide.
Critics since then have not stopped speculating; they frame Brody as a nutty hippie, high on drugs. But even then, very little was known about the man. Society’s relationship with its idols, as such, often tells us more about the audience than the star; to have been betrayed, one must first have had to believe.
And in 1970, people believed not just in Brody’s generosity but his sainthood: “I prayed that the Lord would sent [sic] someone to help the poor and he did.” Others believed that he had created “the most wonderful event that has ever happened in the United States.”
Saint or Samaritan, Brody was an indubitably American figure, venerated for his great luck to have been born rich and his great egalitarian impulse to hand it out.
By volunteering to give his money away Brody showed the average American that he was on their team—and conversely, that they were on his. A loan reeks of laziness and beggary, but a gift implies that Brody’s beneficiaries were selected—a chosen people redeemed by their moral fortitude with which they would achieve world peace.
John G. Crocker certainly thought so. “I’d like one hundred thousand so I could give away some too,” he wrote in his letter.
But in all of this it was not Brody who kept the letters coming.
As Brody’s wife, Renee Dubois, said in an interview for Dear Mr. Brody, a documentary on the cult figure: “He told me his story of his mother dying when he was little and being very lonely. And I told him about my life, and being very lonely, basically … All of a sudden you have a missing part of your life.”
During public appearances with Brody, Dubois did not speak. When things got uncomfortable she became a place for him to look, someone who would smile and affirm.
Brody was this person for the average, lonely American. “People say that you shouldn’t chase rainbows, but when you’re desperate I guess you try anything,” wrote Richard J. Williams, a veteran who had five operations to keep his leg from falling off. In Brody, there was finally an audience to his pain. He and others shared with a stranger things they would not tell their parents. They asked for thousands of dollars having “never asked for anything” in their lives. Others wrote in, asking not for money but for his company. “If you have any property suitable for hunting, I would like to come to New York and hunt some rabbits … I just want to get away from everything here.”
However, in order to relieve people of their loneliness—the vain hopes and debt that mangled their everyday dignity—Brody forced them to confess and to thereby acknowledge it all. There is unintentional cruelty in this but not one that Brody alone generated. Rather, this cruelty is far more original, stemming from the disjunction between our expectations for life and the lives that we actually experience.
Keith Maitland, the director of Dear Mr. Brody, reminds us that “there was always positive and well meaning intention.” At 21, Brody was buried by a magnitude of woes to which God has not yet been able to respond.
Faithfully, we now preserve the evidence that he tried.
Maitland and his team ultimately wanted the letters to go somewhere where they would be opened and read. Columbia was the only institution in New York that would allow for this.
“Nobody has exposed what’s inside this envelope to oxygen since January of 1970,” Maitland tells me as I handle a letter. As such, there is a “little bit of magic” inside them—magic that we now inherit.
“Take a breath. Open that letter. Share in that bit of time travel.”