The Mother Lode
In the twenty-four hours after Brody announced his giveaway, the New York Telephone Company’s Scarsdale office saw a 65 percent increase in long-distance calls, all directed to Brody. By midmorning, the young millionaire and his entourage had stopped taking the calls, deciding to leave the receiver off the hook. “The phone is just too tied up,” Brody’s people explained to the press. The calls continued, however, over 6,000 per hour, which overloaded the Scarsdale exchange. The phone company soon disconnected the oleo heir's number in order to preserve the system for other users. Within a few hours, Brody would ask the phone company for a new, unpublished number. The constant busy signal on his line, and later the message that the number had been disconnected, did nothing but fuel the frenzy. The gold rush was on, and, as the Associated Press said, the mother lode was in Scarsdale.
By mid-morning Friday, the Scarsdale Western Union office had received over 500 telegrams for Brody. It started delivering them one-by-one before it realized what was happening. It quickly hired three temporary workers to make the deliveries but it couldn’t keep pace with the incoming telegrams. Thereafter, it made batch deliveries, first in batches of 10, then 25, then 50. The letters asking for money started arriving later that day. The Scarsdale post office would later describe the volume as comparable to a typical Christmas season. Post Office workers began working overtime to process the thousands upon thousands of letters. Some of the envelopes had Brody’s full address. Others were addressed simply to “Mike Brody, Millionaire, New York” or “Michael Brody, Oleo Heir.” A few simply had his name without any other information. Many had no stamps and no return addresses. Brody’s fame had reached such heights that the post office was able to, and did, deliver all of them, even those without postage or address. The name “Michael J. Brody Jr.” was enough.
Brody’s house was located in the Fox Meadow section of Scarsdale, off the Bronx River Parkway between Ogden and Butler Roads. Scarsdale was a small suburban community—sedate was the word often used to describe it. Officially a Village and, at the time, with a population of around 15,000, Scarsdale was white and wealthy with big houses and established trees. The ranch house at 31 Paddington Road was light gray with dark trim and shutters. It had a large lawn and was set back from the road on a small hill. The 100-foot driveway had a bridge that spanned a small stream that ran through the front lawn parallel to the road. Some newspaper accounts indicated the house had a value of $400,000, then an enormous sum. In reality, the rancher was worth far less, and many newspapers did not report that Brody was renting. The crowd gathered in the driveway, over the bridge, and spilled onto the street. Snow covered the lawns and was piled high along either side of the road. The police were called out to assist with crowd control. It was cold. The stream was frozen. Many of those seeking money were not warmly dressed. Some carried guitars. Many were high. Most were, according to the newspapers, hippies, junkies and students, but the crowd included others.
Two business executives in gray suits wanted money for their children’s college educations. A housewife wanted money for the mortgage. Another wanted money to catch up on the bills. A mother of five from the Bronx wanted money for a down payment on a house somewhere in the country. A wife and mother wanted money to send her husband to college, so he could eventually earn more money for the family. Two brothers, who worked as truck drivers, wanted money to help pay for their mother’s hospital bills. Clergymen, like the vestryman who had called UPI, asked for money for their churches. A teenager needed cash to replace his car, which had been totaled in an accident a few days before. College kids wanted money for tuition or books. Members of a high school football team wanted money for their school prom. A Boy Scout leader wanted money for his troop. A few hippies just wanted money for “Peace, brother, peace.”
Horace Miles from Wilmington, Delaware, had lost his job as a fruit peddler. Miles was behind on his truck payments. He and his wife and their 2½ year old son had been using the pickup as a home for the last few weeks. He usually slept on the floor of the cab, and his wife and his son slept on the bench seat. Miles had heard about Brody on the news and decided it was worth the two-hundred mile drive. His mother-in-law and a 6-year-old niece rode with Miles and his family on the pilgrimage north. The trip had been costly, in gas and tolls, and the group was down to its last 80 cents. They were looking for anything, even just enough money to get back to Delaware. A frail, gray-haired woman, Blanche Duffy, also waited outside the house, shivering in the cold. A widow, she was living on welfare and needed help. She had borrowed $35 to take a bus from Chattanooga, Tennessee, to see Brody, whom she considered to be “God’s messenger.” She had ridden all night on the Greyhound. “I think he’s a wonderful man—I think the Lord is using him for the benefit of the needy. Yesterday, I was in my room praying for God to deliver a miracle. Then I read the papers and that’s why I came up here. It seemed like the Lord has just answered my prayers.”
Inside his rented house, Brody sat at a small Formica-topped kitchen table. Renée sat beside him. He was tired. He had not slept in two days, and was living on coffee, cigarettes, pot and amphetamines. His managers had tried to usher in the beggars one at a time but it was not working. At least 15 hopeful charity cases crowded in the kitchen, leaning over Brody. Many more milled in the living room and dining room. Some had wandered upstairs. A few, coming down from highs, had crashed on the beds upstairs. There were easily over 100 persons in the house. Many more were outside pressing to get in. Brody’s managers saw that things had gotten out of control.
Although Brody had run out of ready cash, he had his checkbook. He listened to each fortune seeker’s story and wrote checks. $250 for one, $500 for another. The requests for money varied. One person wanted money for food; another wanted money to buy a helicopter, for reasons not fully explained. Twenty-five dollars a month would help another to pay for grazing land for his horse. Pregnant women promised to name their unborn children after Brody if he helped them.
A reporter asked Brody if he knew any of the persons who were asking for (and receiving) money. “I’ve never seen them before in my life,” Brody said. “But if they think they need the money bad enough to come here and ask for it, they must need it.” His hand grew tired as he wrote and signed check after check. And his patience grew tired as well. When he got to the last three checks in his checkbook, he said, “I want everyone out of this house right now.” His voice was edgy but forceful. “You’ve got to leave me three checks,” he pleaded. “I can’t write my last three checks.”
Brody’s managers called the police when they realized they could not cope with the crowd. The Scarsdale squad was small, and though not used to performing crowd control, the responding officers were able to clear the house quickly. They blocked off the street with wooden horses. With a little more order in place, Herman and Nolan set up a queue and told the claimants to drop written requests in paper shopping bags on the porch. Like supplicants at an altar, the claimants lined up and one by one deposited their pleas. The requests came in all shapes and sizes. “Help,” one man scrawled, followed simply by a name and an address. “If that doesn’t work,” the unemployed African American man later told the press, “nothing will.”
The line continued far down the street and the shopping bag filled quickly. Periodically, someone from inside would pick up a full bag and replace it with an empty one. Inside the house, the living room soon became filled with dozens of shopping bags overflowing with requests.
Fortune seekers had also besieged Brody’s office, located on the 14th Floor of 1650 Broadway, a building that sat at the corner of the Great White Way and West 51st Street. The office was small, really just a cubicle, and sparsely furnished. Hundreds gathered in the hallway outside the office waiting for a turn to request money. The mob, which according to the New York Times consisted mostly of “long-haired hippies,” had learned of the office’s location on the radio. Several local FM rock stations, including WHOM (92.3) and WWRL (105.1), had announced that Brody had set up the office as his headquarters. Brody was nowhere to be found. The office was staffed by several volunteer workers. Few noticed that the door to the office read “Christ Productions.” It would be the name of Brody’s record company, as soon as he started it.
Inside the office, Bunny Jones answered the phone, which rang repeatedly. Jones was a tough African-American woman in her 50s who didn’t like to tell anyone her age. She was the owner of a number of beauty salons in Harlem. In the aftermath of Malcolm X’s murder in 1965, Harlem became a tinderbox. Residents and storeowners feared a full scale riot. The Federation for Independent Political Action picketed stores up and down 125th Street in order to get them to close for Malcolm X’s funeral. Jones would have none of it. She would not be burned out by rioters or closed up by any political action committee. She stood guard in the doorway of Bunny’s Wig Wam on West 125th Street holding a shotgun. In later years, she survived foreclosure, eviction and IRS troubles. When Jones saw the front page of the New York Sunday News on January 11, she knew she had found her savior. The front page that day ran the photo of Brody and Renée in the Boeing 707, arm in arm, smiling. A story on Brody’s honeymoon extravagance and plans for the future ran on page four.
Like Brody, Jones was trying to break into the music business. She had produced a few musical shows, mostly in local theaters. But she had bigger dreams. She said she was president of Astral Studios in Harlem. She wanted to produce records for young black stars, and needed cash to get started. When she read that Brody wanted to get into the music business, she knew she had to speak to him. It was relatively easy to find his number, and she called Brody in Scarsdale the day after he and Renée returned from Jamaica. She wanted some help starting a recording studio. It would cost $350,000, she estimated, but all she wanted was $40,000 and Brody’s co-signing a loan. He promised to help and soon the papers reported, incorrectly, that he had promised her $350,000. She became a believer and, later in the week, when Brody announced his intention to give away all of his money, Jones promised to help. She soon found herself in charge of his office. She and Brody were partners, she told everyone, in their “Harlem Project,” which she described as a recording studio that would serve as a training center for disadvantaged kids who were interested in becoming recording engineers and technicians. The studio would also hold workshops and seminars and “keep the kids off the streets.” It was her lifelong dream.
“He’s like an angel of God,” Jones also told the press. “I want to get him together with the Beatles, and together they’ll rescue the world.” She spent Friday morning of the 16th at Brody’s Manhattan office answering the calls for help. She told the fortune seekers and the press that Brody was worth $500 million. Others in the office, all volunteers, dealt with the crowds in the hall. Waiting near the front of the line was Joseph Cassella, from Weirton, West Virginia. A bulky man with a crew cut, he had driven all night with two friends just to meet Brody. Cassella was 33-years-old and worked as a dynamite blaster. He had scrawled out a request for $1,000,000 to start a pig iron smelting factory, which would employ 25 persons. He planned to call it The Weirton Metallurgical Company. He had spoken with Brody by telephone about his plans earlier in the week: he had promised to pay back the gift after the plant was up and running. Brody wasn’t interested in the factory or the employment. He wanted to see President Nixon to discuss the evils of the world, and Cassella said he could help by acting as an intermediary between Brody and Nixon. After the first conversation, Cassella wrote letters to Billy Graham and Nixon, urging them to meet Brody. After gathering two friends, Cassella made the long drive north to press his plea. He never saw Brody, but Bunny Jones indicated that he could expect his check within seven days. He and his companions drove back, elated at their good fortune.
Jones and several other volunteers worked the office most of the day, taking requests and making promises. But, by mid-afternoon, Jones and most of the others had grown weary and left the office, leaving behind one unidentified volunteer worker, who was desperately trying to man the phones and fend off the crowd in the hall. He was exhausted. The press returned late in the afternoon, trying to find Brody, whose trail had gone cold amidst reports of multiple sightings throughout the city. The reporters weren’t the only ones looking for Brody. Ed Sullivan was.