A margarine heir vowed to give away his $25M fortune in 1970. It didn't go as planned
Hundreds of thousands of people wrote letters to Michael James Brody Jr. Most remained unopened — until now
Film producer Melissa Robyn Glassman was sorting through her boss's storage locker a decade ago when she found something that piqued her curiosity — a dozen boxes of unopened letters, all marked January 1970 and addressed to the same person.
That person was Michael James Brody Jr., an eccentric millionaire heir to a U.S. margarine fortune who made international headlines 52 years ago when he promised to give away his money to ordinary people who needed it.
Tens of thousands of people wrote Brody heartfelt letters, hoping to get a piece of his fortune. But the story took a tragic turn, and most of the letters remained unopened — until now.
"The more I read them, the more … there was this ghost-like feeling that I was unleashing these voices. Not in a scary way, and actually a quite beautiful way," Glassman told As It Happens guest host Helen Mann.
"These voices that were kind of stuck in 1970, and all their wishes and their hopes and dreams and their wants and desires, etc., were finally being recognized, even though I couldn't help them in the way that they had intended the letter to help. But I felt in some kind of way I was at least acknowledging those people, and it was quite magical."
Those letters, the people who wrote them, and their intended recipient, are now the subject of a new documentary, Dear Mr. Brody, co-produced by Glassman and directed by Keith Maitland, now streaming in Discovery+.
A young millionaire's big promise
According to the New York Times, the saga begins in January 1970, when Brody, 21, and his new bride were flying home from their honeymoon in Jamaica. In a spontaneous romantic gesture, he purchased every seat on the plane so he and his wife could fly home — just the two of them.
When the young couple landed, they were greeted by reporters, and Brody announced that he would give away his $25 million US inheritance in order to spread love and "cure the problems of the world." He gave out his home address and phone number and told people to get in touch.
Yes, they wanted money to help their situations. But I think on a deeper level, there is a sense of just wanting someone to hear their woes.- Melissa Robyn Glassman, co-producer of
Brody — the grandson of margarine magnate John F. Jelke — became an overnight celebrity. News outlets all over the world covered his generous vow, dubbing him the "hippy millionaire." He appeared on the Ed Sullivan Show and played a Bob Dylan cover on a 12-string guitar.
But it soon became clear that Brody could not live up to his promise. People sent more letters than the post office could handle, and while some people did receive money, many of the young heir's cheques bounced.
His inheritance, it turned out, was in a trust fund, and according to the filmmakers, he could only access so much at a time. He later told the New York Times that he'd made the promise "while tripped out on drugs."
The story fizzled from the headlines, and Brody's life took a turn for the tragic. He spent the next three years struggling with addiction and mental illness, culminating in a death by suicide in 1973 at the age of 24.
More than 100,000 letters
It's not clear how many letters people sent. Some remained with Brody's family. Others were destroyed by the post office. And some ended up in the possession of Glassman's former boss, Hollywood producer Edward R. Pressman of American Psycho and Crow fame.
Pressman had acquired the letters in the hopes of one day making a feature film about Brody, but it never quite panned out. Glassman decided a better use would be a documentary — not just about Brody, but the people who wrote to him.
Reading through their letters, she said, became a sombre ritual for the crew.
"We would all kind of sit around and read letters together, because what we found is that there were so many that were very heavy, and kind of having the support of each other to kind of go through it together really helped us get through the sadness," she said.
The ones that really stood out, she said, were those from people who didn't want any money for themselves.
One woman asked Brody to help her neighbour whose home had burned down. A 14-year-old girl asked him to donate to the Easter Seals, because the charity ran the school that her deaf brother attended.
"That to me, is the most inspiring," Glassman said. "And then also the letters that just say: Thank you for letting me acknowledge what I'm going through, and it's made me sit down and think about what matters to me and what's important to me."
Glassman said the film crew took the issue of privacy seriously, both legally and ethically. They consulted with lawyers before opening the unread mail. If a letter writer asked Brody not to share their story publicly, they honoured that.
Then came the hard work of getting in touch with the letter writers, or in some cases, their surviving family members, several of whom appear in the film.
"We struggled a bit with whether or not to reach out to certain people whose letters were, you know, very intimate and talked about things that we might not think they would want to reconnect with," Glassman said.
"But I think, in the end, we felt that these people had taken the time to reach out to Michael Brody and … they wanted him to read it and acknowledge it, but I think at the heart of it is they just wanted someone to acknowledge them and to acknowledge what they were going through and to know that they weren't alone. And yes, they wanted money to help their situations. But I think on a deeper level, there is a sense of just wanting someone to hear their woes."
Between Pressman's collection, and the ones in Brody's family's possession, Glassman estimates there are at least 100,000 letters in total — but she says there could be more they don't know about.
After wrapping up the film, Pressman donated most of the letters, about 30,000, to Columbia University's special collections library.
"That was really important to us early on, to find a place that would take the letters because we didn't want them to go back into the storage unit for another 50 years," Glassman said.
If you or someone you know is struggling, here's where to get help:
- Canada Suicide Prevention Service: 1-833-456-4566 (phone) | 45645 (text).
- Kids Help Phone: 1-800-668-6868 (phone), live chat counselling on the website.
- Canadian Association for Suicide Prevention: Find a 24-hour crisis centre.
This guide from the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health outlines how to talk about suicide with someone you're worried about.
Written by Sheena Goodyear. Interview with Melissa Robyn Glassman produced by Morgan Passi.