An Inheritor, a $25 Million Giveaway and 30,000 Unopened Letters

At some point in early January 1970, Michael James Brody Jr. stepped off a Pan Am jet at John F. Kennedy Airport and into what could be one of many new decade’s shortest, strangest quarter-hour of fame.

Brody, the beforehand obscure 21-year-old inheritor to a margarine fortune, was getting back from his honeymoon in Jamaica, and, as a grand romantic gesture, had impulsively purchased out each seat on the airplane so he and his bride might fly residence alone. After touchdown, Brody, sporting bell-bottoms and huge inexperienced sun shades, introduced to assembled reporters that he could be giving freely his $25 million fortune to unusual folks to unfold love and “remedy the issues of the world.”

Over the subsequent 10 days, the shaggy haired, dreamily good-looking Brody appeared on newspaper entrance pages and “The Ed Sullivan Present,” the place he strummed a Bob Dylan track on a 12-string guitar. Crowds swarmed his rented home in Westchester County and workplace in Midtown Manhattan.

After which there have been the letters — flooding in by the tens of hundreds, and piling up so quick the put up workplace threatened to burn them.

Virtually instantly, Brody’s checks started bouncing, and his life unraveled. Quickly he disappeared from the headlines, and all however vanished from historic reminiscence.

However paper has a approach of sticking round. And on a latest morning, Thai Jones, a curator at Columbia College’s particular collections library, picked up a scalpel-like letter opener, reached right into a field of jumbled mail and took a deep breath.

“Right here we go,” he mentioned earlier than slicing into an envelope with a return tackle on Queens Boulevard in New York, marked “Private and confidential — to be opened by addressee solely.”

“Expensive Mr. Brody,” Jones started, studying rapidly by a neatly typed plea for $1,000 from a lady whose husband had died and left behind a mountain of payments.

He opened one other letter, written in a jagged scrawl, from a person in Brooklyn struggling to assist six youngsters on $125 per week. “To show I’m truthful,” the person wrote, “you’ll be able to come go to my house anytime.”

Subsequent was a postcard promoting a limousine service. “The archives,” Jones mentioned wryly, “are stuffed with spam.”

It was Jones’s first in-person glimpse of a trove of some 30,000 letters — the overwhelming majority unopened — that have been donated by the filmmakers behind “Dear Mr. Brody,” a documentary that begins streaming on Discovery+ on April 28. Within the film, the letters (some learn aloud by their authors, whom the filmmakers tracked down) present a typically emotionally devastating counterpoint to the wild story of Brody’s Age of Aquarius grandiosity.

They’re half message in a bottle, half voyeuristic parlor recreation, half potential bonanza for historians.

“It’s very, very uncommon to get on a regular basis folks’s tales into the archives in a approach like this, with hundreds of individuals writing and speaking about their lives at one second in time,” Jones mentioned.

However the letters additionally pose some scholarly conundrums, beginning with a primary query: Simply how does an archive cope with a mountain of unopened mail?

The letters now at Columbia resurfaced a decade in the past, when Melissa Robyn Glassman, a producer of “Expensive Mr. Brody,” was sorting by a storage locker belonging to the Hollywood producer Edward R. Pressman (“Badlands,” “Conan the Barbarian,” “Wall Avenue”), who was making ready to donate his archive to the Academy of Movement Image Arts and Sciences.

Up on a shelf, she observed some packing containers labeled “Brody letters.” Inside have been piles and piles of letters, all addressed to the identical individual, all postmarked January 1970 — and all unopened.

“I requested Ed’s spouse about them,” she recalled in a joint video interview with Keith Maitland, the documentary’s director. “She mentioned, ‘Oh, I’ve been making an attempt to get Ed to throw them away for years!’”

Pressman had acquired the letters within the early Nineteen Seventies, together with the rights to a screenplay about Brody, which he envisioned turning right into a Billy Wilder-style black comedy. (Potential title: “The Final Flower Little one.”) “I imagined Richard Dreyfuss” because the star, Pressman mentioned in an interview.

Brody’s story, which unfolded over the course of lower than two weeks, definitely had no scarcity of loopy twists. A couple of days after showing on “Ed Sullivan,” he received a recording contract and reduce a number of tracks, together with one referred to as “The War Is Over.” “I’m not giving freely cash,” he instructed a CBS reporter. “What I’m giving freely is sweet emotions for mankind.”

However the story took a darker flip. An article in The New York Occasions the morning after his “Ed Sullivan” look quoted Brody as saying he had introduced his huge giveaway “whereas tripped out on medication.”

“What a joke I’ve pulled on the world!” he instructed the reporter. (An official from his financial institution referred to as his claims in regards to the measurement of his fortune “gross exaggerations.”)

Information footage within the documentary reveals him flipping the chicken at crowds outsides his window and bitterly denouncing the typically terrifying hordes asking for cash. “They’re sick,” he instructed an interviewer. “They don’t want cash. What they want is meals, shelter and love.”

In an interview within the movie, a good friend of Brody’s described tagging alongside as he tried to land a chartered helicopter on the White Home garden, in a bid to pay Richard Nixon and the North Vietnamese authorities $1 billion to finish the warfare.

Initially, Glassman wished to revive the trouble to make a characteristic movie. However what saved pulling at her was the letters, which she started taking residence at evening. “I grew to become obsessed,” she mentioned. “I began opening them with my mother.”

Maitland, the husband of an previous good friend she employed to take pictures of them, had the same response. “It wasn’t one story,” he mentioned of the Brody story. “It was one million tales.”

And the letters in Pressman’s storage locker, it turned out, have been simply the tip of a really massive iceberg. The filmmakers tracked down Brody’s son, who turned out to have about 100,000 extra, which had been discovered stashed in a toolshed after which saved by a screenwriter who had additionally tried to make a biopic.

“Expensive Mr. Brody” affords kaleidoscopic photographs of envelopes elaborately adorned with doodles and stickers. Many of the still-unopened letters at Columbia are extra prosaic, although lots have peace indicators drawn over the seals.

An hour and a half of opening yielded many tales of debt, sickness and desperation. However there have been additionally loads of youngsters asking for cash for toys, for assist with school tuition or a down cost, for cash to start out “a hard-rock radio station in a college city” or an off-the-grid newspaper in Alaska — or to simply dwell like Mr. Brody.

“Let’s face it,” a 24-year-old lady within the East Village wrote, “we too wish to go to an island and make love!”

Within the documentary, the filmmakers zero in on heart-tugging particular person tales, just like the mom and daughter who every wrote letters, unbeknown to one another. However additionally they uncovered some hanging clusters that time to broader themes. One group of letters from the kids of migrant agricultural employees in Immokalee, Fla., written as a college project, bluntly describe the violence and alcoholism rampant of their city.

One envelope held an elaborate pitch from a Black movie producer proposing to affix with a dozen craftspeople and begin an all-Black movie studio, full with an in depth marketing strategy and scripts for 4 initiatives.

“They mentioned, ‘We’re simply on the lookout for somebody to imagine in us sufficient,’” Maitland mentioned. Not one of the movies seem to have ever been made, he mentioned, and the aspiring filmmakers, now all useless, left little different hint.

After which there have been the sheer larks. By a colleague, Maitland heard that the younger Paul Stanley, the long run guitarist of KISS, had written Brody a letter.

“We by no means discovered it,” he mentioned. “It might be at Columbia.”

It stays to be seen how historians will use the huge trove — or how they’ll even know what to search for. For Jones, a scholar of the ’60s, the letters illustrate the paradox of an period outlined in in style reminiscence by a countercultural ethos that didn’t penetrate very deeply into society.

Brody, whom Jones described as “hyper-privileged,” had entry to “all essentially the most stunning issues, together with this stunning shiny concept that you may use wealth to unravel actually all the issues of the world,” the curator mentioned. “However what he received again, and what I sense shocked him, is how little of that had touched the lives of the overwhelming majority of individuals.”

Donating the letters to an archive, the filmmakers mentioned, was a aim from the start. A number of archives have been , however with a stipulation: If the letters have been donated unopened, they must keep that approach.

Jones mentioned he might think about getting events collectively for “a letter-opening occasion,” to make a dent within the overwhelming pile. “However within the day-to-day use of the studying room,” he mentioned, “we’ll must take a extra buttoned-down strategy.

Opening the letters could also be magical, but it surely’s additionally exhausting. After an hour and a half, Jones mentioned he felt drained.

However it was additionally onerous to cease. “There’s a rule with archival analysis,” he mentioned. “The very last thing you open would be the greatest.”