“A reeeally big shoe”
Sullivan was an old newspaperman who had gained fame as the host of the most successful television variety show. His success as the emcee of a highly-rated television show was surprising. He couldn’t dance or sing or act. He didn’t play a musical instrument. He did not do stand-up or perform in comedy skits. He was uncomfortable on the stage and suffered from stage fright. He had trouble maintaining eye contact with guests or even the camera. His arms were always at war with his body, swinging about noticeably: in the end, Sullivan learned to hold them in check by crossing them around his body. This created a hunched look and made him easily impersonated or caricatured. As an emcee, he was stiff and stone faced. His speech was monotone. He tended to linger on some sounds and swallow others, famously turning “show” into “shoe.” But the public loved him and his show. His trademark phrases—”And now, right here on our stage” and “reeeally big shoe”—sum up his singular gift: His talent was talent. He could find it, book it, put it on the stage with other acts. He knew what the public wanted and how to mix acts together into a fast paced variety show for all ages and tastes.
Toast of the Town started in June 1948. By mixing old talent with new, Sullivan quickly established the show as must-see television on Sunday nights. The show, which was always informally known as the Ed Sullivan Show, officially changed its name to that in 1955. Sullivan knew that a “reeeally big shoe” required pace and variety. His early shows had five or six guests and Sullivan filled the time in between acts with talk. He learned quickly that he should talk less and allow the guests to perform more numbers. He also decided to book more guests per show to increase audience appeal. During the 1950s Sullivan also learned that variety meant variety, and that the show had to appeal to all ages and all tastes. For the teenagers, that meant he had to book rock ‘n’ roll: in the 1950s, Buddy Holly and, of course, Elvis; in the 1960s, The Beatles, The Rolling Stones, The Doors, among others. The rock ‘n’ rollers appeared, on “this very stage,” alongside Borsch-belt comedians, movie stars, classical musicians, acrobats and sports figures.
By the late 1960s, despite his efforts to stay current, Sullivan’s demographics did not fit CBS executives’ vision of the network. His audience had grown old and the show slipped out of the top twenty in the Nielsen ratings. As the 1960s closed out, CBS began exploring a wholesale revamping of its programming. A purge was in the offing. Plans were being discussed to move away from its mainstay, the rural comedies like The Beverly Hillbillies and Greenacres. The Mary Tyler Moore Show was in the works, slated to premier in the fall of 1970. And All in the Family was on the creative horizon. The demographics showed an untapped audience that was younger, urban and hipper. CBS planned to mine that audience with new sitcoms and variety shows. The days of the old-time variety shows—the days of Ed Sullivan—were numbered. Sullivan had survived in the business by hard work and hustle, and he was not content to go out without a fight.
As an old newspaperman, Sullivan knew a good story when he saw one, and Brody was a good story: a rock ‘n’ roll guitar playing hippie millionaire who wanted to give his fortune away in the name of love and peace. Sullivan’s newspaper training also told him that he had to move fast. Old news is no news. Brody was on the front page of nearly all the major newspapers. The New York papers were covering him with daily stories. He was riding the media wave, and Sullivan wanted to ride it too. When Brody touched down at JFK and held his press conference, Sullivan’s show for the following Sunday, January 18, 1970, had been booked. As was typical for the late 1960s, Sullivan had lined up an eclectic mixture of talent, clearly trying to hold onto his old audience and at the same time appeal to the younger generation. But Sullivan could wedge Brody into the lineup. Calls between Sullivan’s people and Brody’s managers began Friday afternoon.
Negotiations were complicated. Sullivan was trying to book an unknown act. He and his producer had questions about Brody’s singing ability and selection of songs. Brody wanted to sing an original piece as soon as he had finished writing it. Sullivan was in favor of Brody’s covering a song, perhaps something by Bob Dylan. Brody could do Dylan. Brody wanted Renée to appear on the show with him even though she wasn’t part of his act. That was okay with Sullivan since she was part of the attraction. Brody first wanted to be the opening act, then wanted to be the closing act. Then he wanted to be both the opening and closing act. Maybe he could cover a Dylan song and do an original piece, if he finished writing it. Sullivan’s producer convinced Brody that it was better to perform in the second half of the show when Sullivan’s ratings always picked up as viewers of The Wonderful World of Disney on NBC, which ran from 7:30 to 8:30, dialed over to CBS to catch the end of Sullivan. A bigger audience would be better for Brody’s career, Sullivan’s producer explained to Brody’s agents. As for performing multiple songs, the producer didn’t think that possible or advisable. The show was top heavy with singers, and they would have to cut back one of the acts in order to fit Brody into the lineup. The producer also convinced Brody’s agents that it would be better if Brody covered a well-known song. It would show his talent and leave the audience wanting more.
While negotiations with Ed Sullivan continued, Brody planned to cut a demonstration record at the A & R Recording studio at 322 West 48th Street. It was step one of starting his own record label—the Prince of Peace label. A & R Recording Studio was so named for artists and repertoire, which, in the parlance of the record world, was the division of a record label responsible for finding and developing new talent. Brody, with his managers’ help, had expressed interest in investing in the studio earlier in the week. Donald Frey, the President of A & R, was a cautious man. He’d be happy to have an investor, but he wanted some assurance that Brody was serious. Brody and his managers cobbled together some financial information and met with Frey. He was convinced by the documentation that Brody could invest at the level they had discussed, though he had an uneasy feeling about Brody, who seemed to vacillate between coherence and insanity. But Frey was certainly willing to let Brody fiddle around in the recording studio as they discussed finances and a possible partnership.
During the ride to the A & R, Brody swallowed a couple of Nolan’s Seconal tablets, and he smoked one of Herman’s joints. Brody’s patience with the crowds was wearing thin. Fame had proven to be more complicated than he had dreamed. WHOM-FM was tracking Brody’s movements and announced his whereabouts on the air. A crowd was waiting for Brody as he arrived at A & R. Earlier that day, Brody’s managers had told him that they needed seven days to set up a more orderly process to give away his fortune. They had plans for a non-profit entity, the Michael J. Brody Jr. Foundation, and several other related corporations: Prince of Peace, Tarot Talent Productions, Kimcat Publications, each with a different mission. They needed time to enlist volunteers and establish toll free phone numbers. They had told him to discontinue the giveaway until everything was in place. “Just let me sleep, just let me alone,” Brody said as he pushed through the mob outside A & R. “I’ve been up 60 hours. Let’s all be greedy in seven days. Money will be pouring out in seven days. You want love? You’ll get love. Money? Cars? You’ll get what you want. If you want my death, you can have that too. I’m ready to die for you if that’s what you want.”
Inside the studio, Brody took out his guitar and entertained the reporters. Brody had been working on four or five or six songs—he couldn’t keep them straight. He sang part of one of the works in progress. The lyrics were heavy with “love,” “freedom,” and “world.” Brody’s voice muffled most of the words. The only discernible complete sentence was “I love the world as it falls on my veins.”
Some of the fortune seekers had managed to get inside the studio. Brody wanted to cut a demo in peace, but a couple pressed him for a donation. Their child had a kidney ailment, and they needed money to pay for the medical expenses. Brody offered to pay the bills but had no cash and no checkbook. He told the couple to come back with the bills. They did not like that answer. We need cash, now, they pleaded—just $1,000. Brody was tired, strung out, wired. He was tripping on some reds and pot. His speech was slurred. He took out his wallet. It was empty. He dropped to his knees. “I have nothing, nothing.” He held his empty wallet out, showing them the inside. The couple pleaded. The woman was crying. Just $1,000, for the bills, that’s all we want.
“Leave me alone, or I’ll kill myself,” he shouted. He grabbed a step ladder and threw it across the room. He became hysterical, screaming. “I’m going to kill myself,” he shouted again, then locked himself in one of the recording rooms. The newspaper photographers pressed against the recording room’s glass wall and took photos of Brody as he walked back and forth, agitated. There was a drum set inside the room, with recording equipment—microphones, headsets. Brody started playing the kettle drums, and this seemed to calm him. He started singing, softly. “In the world of God, I love you. Oh, if I could only hold you….” Renée stroked his hair and kissed her new husband, a man she had known for less than four weeks. She fretted.
To the public, Renée Brody was a mystery. While Brody spoke to the media, she remained silent, occasionally nodding her head in agreement with things that he said, often kissing him after he finished. At times, she laughed at his statements. Some speculated that she was drugged or under some sort of spell. But, at times, her wide-eyed expression betrayed what she was thinking when Brody made wild claims. Many times, when reporters tried to talk to her, Brody interrupted, talking a mile a minute and not letting Renée say anything. She didn’t mind. She didn’t like talking. She was rarely quoted in the papers, but when she spoke, she spoke clearly and lucidly.
“Sweet” was an adjective that aptly described Renée. It was used often by those who knew her. Newspaper descriptions of her varied. She was described by one paper as “delicate” and “child like.” By another as “waif-like.” Others said she was “charming” and “adoring.” Time magazine called her “a quiet, fey brunette.” Her high school principal said she was a “very bright and intelligent girl.” She had a toughness to her, though. Her cousin, who grew up with Renée in upstate New York, told the press that Renée was “a different kind of girl, who knows her own mind.” In the one in-depth interview that she gave, she showed an intense but passionate side.
Renée Louise DuBois Brody pronounced her maiden name the French way—”DuBwa”—and always added that her first name was spelled with two e’s. Renée’s father, Robert operated heavy equipment for the New York State Highway Department. Her mother, Margaret, was an assembly line worker in a factory that manufactured fans. She liked to be called Peggy and often worked the swing or graveyard shifts. They were solidly blue collar. The family lived in Ashokan, New York, a reservoir town of about 200 in the heart of Catskill State Park. The family had been in the area for generations. The family home was an old white farm house with shiplap siding and a raised-seam metal roof on DuBois Road, named after Renée’s grandfather. Growing up, Renée found the home sterile and stifling. Renée hated her home town. It was small and provincial, even desolate. Besides the church, the only other buildings of note were the post office and funeral parlor. She wanted desperately out of the area, out of her house. She barely spoke to her parents. They lived on the other side of the generation gap, she told friends. She took accelerated courses at Onteora Central High School in order to graduate early. She did well, being named a Regent’s Scholar. She graduated a year early but stayed in the area, opting for community college. On her eighteenth birthday, she moved out of her house and started living with her boyfriend, who was from a well-to-do family in Scarsdale. She became a model in New York City—she had the Twiggy-look, lean and young, but she didn’t enjoy the fashion world and moved into a house in Woodstock with her boyfriend and another couple. She worked for a while on the assembly line, alongside her mother, making motors.
She came into some money from the settlement of a car accident claim, and she picked up and flew to Israel and the sun of the Mediterranean. She returned after 10 days and the onset of the long, cold New York winter. She was drifting when she met Brody on December 15, 1969. She was taken by him immediately; he had a charming manner and a sweet soul. The night they met, he played the guitar and sang parts of songs. He spoke of his inheritance, but it didn’t impress her. Her family was not well off, nor, for that matter, comfortable. Her boyfriend’s family had money—his father was a physician—and he spent it on her. It meant nothing to her, however, and she longed for meaning. Brody interested her. His money didn’t. In many ways, she had found someone who shared her views on life and love. She felt as if they had lived together in a former life—that they connected in some sort of cosmic sense that no one but she and Brody could understand.
In the only interview she gave to the press, she explained, more rationally than Michael ever had, why they were giving the money away. “I think that by giving our money away,” she explained, “many people will realize how unnecessary money really is.” Love and peace were more important. “What I want from life is simply to see everyone happy, and if money makes them happy, we’ll gladly give it to them until they realize what we have.”
After she met Brody, they spent much of the following two weeks together. They talked about music and growing up in upstate New York. They smoked pot and made love. He said he wanted to marry her, and she laughed. But he was serious. He wanted to elope, just as his mother had done when she was 21. They could get married in a civil ceremony, then go on a honeymoon. They picked the date, Saturday, January 3, and the location, Yonkers. Renée told no one of her plans, not even her parents. She told her boyfriend of Brody as she moved out. She left behind her clothes, her Morris Mini convertible and three cats. It was a true-life Cinderella story according to one paper.
Renée wore a long vintage satin white dress to her wedding without any hat or veil, and no bouquet of flowers. If she wore makeup, it was not evident. Justice of the Peace Albert Gleeson presided over the ceremony. He would later recount the event for the press. He described Renée as quiet. She smiled and said nothing the entire time, except “I do.” She was a “little doll”—a “very quiet little girl.” And Brody was manic. He introduced himself as “Michael Brody, millionaire and genius.” After the ceremony, Michael and Renée flew to Jamaica for their honeymoon, and from there, back to New York and instant fame. But her new husband’s behavior had rapidly deteriorated once back in New York. He wasn’t sleeping and his managers or others in his growing entourage were keeping him high on pot, Seconal or Hog—the street name for phencyclidine sprinkled on oregano or parsley leaves. The drug was better known as PCP; its street name derived from its original purpose, a hog or other large animal tranquilizer. It was also called Angel Dust. And more and more, Brody spoke of being Christ, the Messiah sent to save the world, to end the Vietnam War.