The War is Over
For ten days in late September and early October 1972, Henry Kissinger and Le Duc Tho met in Paris to hammer out details of a peace agreement to end the Vietnam War. With the American presidential election a few weeks away, the North Vietnamese had moderated their position, making several key concessions apparently under the belief that President Nixon would be more willing to negotiate before election day. The concessions led swiftly to an agreement in principle, which was approved by Nixon on October 17. Kissinger then flew to Saigon to meet with South Vietnamese President Nguyen Van Thieu, who rejected the agreement. As Thieu proposed numerous changes to the agreement outlined by the negotiators, the peace unraveled. Nevertheless, Kissinger appeared in Washington on October 26 and stated that peace was “at hand.” Twelve days later, Nixon was re-elected in a landslide over George McGovern. Shortly before Thanksgiving, North Vietnam withdrew the concessions it had made in October. The talks broke off on December 13 with a promise to reconvene sometime in the future. With no date set for future talks and a Democratic Congress scheduled to be sworn in on January 3, Nixon and Kissinger huddled about what it would take to get North Vietnam back to the table. The countries were at a “fundamental” impasse. In his first news conference since he had announced that “peace was at hand,” Kissinger explained to the American public that Hanoi had reneged on the agreement reached in October. The peace process had become a charade, and the United States would not be blackmailed, stampeded or charmed into a peace agreement that, in Nixon’s view, was not just and fair.
The bombing began on December 18, 1972. Operation Linebacker II targeted airfields, storage depots, railroads, bridges, power plants, and other strategic infrastructure in and around Hanoi and Haiphong. Much of the bombing was accomplished by massive waves of B-52s flying out of Thailand and Guam. Originally planned for three days, the bombing continued, except for a three-day Christmas ceasefire, until December 29, when Nixon agreed to stop the bombing if peace talks reconvened in January. Secretly, Nixon had directed Kissinger to accept the terms that had been outlined and agreed upon the previous October. Nixon’s major issue was getting South Vietnam President Thieu to agree to the terms.
Brody’s son Jaime was running around the rented Woodstock house like any other 27-month old. Brody’s relationship with Renée struggled but was surviving. Renée and Jaime spent time with her parents in nearby Ashokan. Brody stayed home in the rented house, trying to write his autobiography. He had been trying to avoid recreational drugs but was drinking more and more. During the fall of 1972, Brody tracked the peace discussions between the United States and North Vietnam. He eventually drifted back to drugs. He did not like the anti-psychotic medication, and he often skipped dosages, then stopped altogether. He started hearing the voices again that Christmas Eve, during the ceasefire. Brody struggled, his moods alternating. The War was continuing, escalating, yet that gave him his chance to end it, to bring the peace he had been dreaming about. He locked himself in his room for long periods of time and peered out the window looking for Secret Service agents. Renée begged him to go back on the Thorazine, and he did. The bombing stopped, and Brody’s mood leveled out.
January was gloomy and cold, and Brody turned to drinking, nearly a case of beer a day. The Thorazine made him catatonic. He did not like to get out of bed. He lamented his condition, his lack of money. Many days he had trouble dressing and bathing himself.
On January 9, Kissinger and Tho returned to Paris to resume negotiations. Thieu, under pressure from Nixon, agreed to the terms, and Nixon announced the cessation of hostile action on January 16. Kissinger and Tho signed a preliminary peace agreement on January 23. That night, Nixon addressed the nation. The final agreement was slated to be signed by the leaders of the official peace delegations in Paris on January 27.
By the time it was announced that all sides would sign the Paris Peace Accords, Brody had fallen into a deep depression. From the moment he had stepped up to the Pan Am counter in Montego Bay and asked about chartering a jet to get back to New York, there had been one thing on Brody’s mind, the War in Vietnam. He had seen it as his life mission. The giveaway and his music career were meant to bring notoriety to his peace efforts. His efforts to join Lennon were aimed at ending the war. And his Vietnam Peace Plan had one important feature that Nixon’s did not—himself. His song, The War is Over, was recorded and released soon after he attempted to see Nixon at the White House on January 19, 1970. With the song, Brody hoped to join the ranks of other singers at the front of the anti-war movement: Bob Dylan, Arlo Guthrie, Phil Ochs and, of course, John Lennon. It was a time when many of the same age as Brody believed that song would end the war.
Brody’s musical contribution to the protest movement was disjointed and arrhythmic. The many acid trips were evident in the lyrics, and Brody’s voice and guitar playing suggested that he was high when he wrote it and higher when he recorded it. The song began with a short announcement:
I just want to thank everyone for letting me record now
All of the money that I record off this record goes to peace
Let’s get into it
The song followed:
I met you on the battlefield of Biafra
Saw you in Vietnam
Lost an arm
In the Middle East War
She was free then
I was searching for freedom
If you’d seen me in Washington, D.C., last week
We could have ended it all
I’m really not a freak
I’m just trying to do my thing
End the war
I have no bitterness against you for
locking away my friends too
Let your Secret Service kill me if
that’s what you want to
Makes no difference, I’ll be reborn
She was free then
I was searching for freedom
Vietnam brothers, drop down your guns
The war is over now
No pieces of papers
Can make it die
Believe in god
And we will all fly to heaven when we die
She was free then
I was searching for freedom.
The piece lasted about two minutes. Brody had hoped that it would sell a hundred million copies so that he could fund his philanthropy and peace plans. It didn’t. Sale figures for the record are unknown. Brody’s managers later claimed that he had signed a bad contract. Brody claimed that the record was too radical and RCA would not release or publicize it. In fact, RCA tried to market it, distributing demos to radio stations and taking out a full page ad in both Cash Box and Billboard. The record was not well received by critics or the public. Billboard’s reviewing panel decided that it did not merit enough consideration to be included with other recently released singles; however, Billboard’s editors felt obligated, because of Brody’s fame, to add a separate note, entitled “Brody Record Rated ‘Poor.’” Brody’s foray was described as “an inauspicious disk debut” that had received a 3-star rating from the panel. The short article concluded that the rating was only being mentioned “as an adjunct to the over-all Brody hooplah.” Brody would become a no-hit wonder.
On January 26, the day before the Paris Peace Accords were to be signed, Brody slipped out of the rented house on Glasco Turnpike in Woodstock. Renée was upstairs with their son. She didn’t know Brody had left. The oleo heir drove south from Woodstock toward Renée’s parents’ house in Ashokan. He turned onto Route 28 and drove west parallel to the reservoir. It was a gray, sunless day but it was also unseasonable warm, and what little snow was piled on the shoulder was quickly melting. He turned onto DuBois Road and then, after a hundred yards, into the driveway in front of the old farm house with a metal roof tucked under several spreading maples. Nobody was home.
Brody let himself in with the key hidden above the front door. He went to the closet in the downstairs hallway. It was where Robert DuBois kept his hunting rifles. Brody selected a Savage .243 caliber Model 110, with a bolt action. The ammunition was nearby. The shells were small in Brody’s large hands. He sat down in a chair in the corner of the living room next to the picture window. Across the backyard, a weathered wooden shed was visible: it contained dozens of cardboard boxes full of the letters and telegrams Brody had received three years earlier. Only a few had been opened. Brody put the rifle between his legs. He pinched the stock with his knees and stretched to reach the trigger. The bullet ripped through the top side of his skull. Blood splattered on the walls and ceiling. He slumped in the chair, the rifle still between his legs. A rivulet of red ran down the side of his face and soaked into his shirt.
The next day, Nixon announced that the United States had achieved “peace with honor.” The press found Craig Nolan, one of Brody’s old managers. Nolan told the reporters that the Vietnam Peace caused Brody’s death. “He had seen his ultimate goal in life fulfilled, the end of the war, and there was nothing else in life to live for.” He added: “It hit us like a tragedy, just an incredible thing. I guess we knew it was coming. He talked about it right from the beginning of the whole thing, when he began giving the money away.”
Brody’s suicide was the sad coda to a story many had forgotten. In a few short years, Brody had gone from a nobody to a worldwide celebrity to a vague memory. “Remember Michael Brody, the oleo fortune heir who in 1970 tried to give away $25 million,” Cronkite began the story for CBS news the evening of Brody’s suicide. “Well, today he was found dead in upstate New York apparently from a self-inflicted gunshot wound. Brody was 24 years old.” The newspaper headlines summed up his life and death:
Suicide Ends Life of Giveaway Heir
Oleo Heir Kills Himself; Set off 1970 Dollar Fever
Heir to Oleo Fortune, 24, Kills Himself With Rifle
Oleo Heir, Who Offered to Give Fortune Away, Kills Self
Margarine Heir Kills Himself; Once Sparked Riches Rush
Heir Who Sought to Give Fortune Away Kills Himself
Young Oleo Heir Shoots Self to Death
There were many variations on the theme. Some were cruel: “Brody Makes Ultimate Gift.” The articles all recounted the wild weeks in 1970 when Michael took the world on a LSD trip into the human soul—into dreams, promises, hope, faith, greed and ultimately insanity. Many articles mentioned the threat Brody made against Nixon, or the arson charge or the time he spent in mental institutions. A few speculated about Brody’s fortune. Many indicated that the true amount of his inheritance was never determined. Another article ended by noting that the fortune Brody tried to give away remained in the bank.
A few days after his death, an obituary ran in the New York Times. It recounted the essentials of Brody’s life: his birth and death dates, his schools and his surviving relatives. It indicated that private services would be held in Woodstock on January 30 and closed with a short sentence that summed up Brody’s life: “He did what he could in his own way.”
Brody’s funeral was small. The private ceremony was held in Woodstock at the Mountainside Chapel, a small A-frame building set back from the road. It was a cold day, and there was more than a foot of fresh snow on the ground. Brody had been cremated, and the urn was placed on the altar surrounded by photos and newspaper articles. A few copies of his record were placed there as well. His managers—Rick Herman, Brian Wilder and Craig Nolan—attended, along with Renée and her family and a few others. Brody’s ashes were eventually sent to the Lake Forest Cemetery, outside Chicago, to be placed in the Jelke family mausoleum.
Within a month after the signing of the Paris Peace Accords, the United States began a savage bombing of the Ho Chi Minh Trail and other locations in Cambodia and Laos to disrupt North Vietnamese supply lines and camps. President Nixon claimed that the bombing was necessary to protect the peace and support South Vietnam. Using B-52s, the United States devastated the country, dropping more and more ordinance as winter turned to spring. Led by Senator Eagleton, who had returned to the Senate after his aborted vice-presidential bid, Congress stepped in to stop the bombing in late June by amending an appropriations bill, which effectively prevented the use of federal funds for the purpose of bombing Cambodia or Laos. Nixon vetoed the measure, and Congress could not gather the votes to override the veto Congress continued to pressure the Executive to end the bombing, and, in late June, a compromise was reached, with August 15 set as the ending date. For the six weeks that followed the compromise, the bombings escalated as the Nixon administration made one last show of American military strength.