Michael Brody Sings Charlie Manson
Charles Manson’s album, LIE: The Love and Terror Cult, was released on March 6, about two months before the scheduled start of his murder trial. The album cover reprised the December 19, 1969, issue of LIFE magazine, with the famous photo of Manson’s wide-eyed hypnotic stare, but changed “LIFE” to “LIE.” Reviews and sales were poor. Like Brody, Manson had minimal talent, and some in the record industry were just trying to cash in on his celebrity. Soon a joke in the music industry spread about the next great album: “Michael Brody Sings Charlie Manson.” By the time that joke was being told, Brody had exited the public stage. The appearance on The Dick Cavett Show was the curtain call for Brody’s 15 minutes of fame, which had lingered far beyond the allotted time. The reporters had stopped calling, and Brody’s entourage had dispersed. Some friends returned to school or jobs. Herman and Reynaud had moved on to their next management gig. The expected offers for movies, TV, books and speaking engagements did not roll in, and the managers soon found themselves without anything to manage. Nolan had a falling out with Herman, with Herman claiming Nolan had pulled a gun on him during an argument over the management of Brody. Bunny Jones and the other volunteers returned to their lives. The office at 1650 Broadway was closed. Supplicants no longer made the pilgrimage to Scarsdale.
Although Brody still had tentative plans for the Michael J. Brody Jr. Foundation, funding was a problem. Letters and telegrams asking for money continued to arrive, but Brody’s hope that others would contribute to his cause—to his foundation—was not realized. One paper reported that of the 8,000 telegrams delivered to Brody in the three days after he announced his giveaway, only one wired any money. The sender wired $5.00 with a message: “You’ll be needing this pretty soon for a meal.” Nor did it seem that Brody fever was sweeping the country. There were no signs that anyone was emulating Brody, at least not seriously. A group of Iowa high school students in the West Branch Methodist Youth Fellowship had cobbled together $26.00 and placed an advertisement in the paper indicating they would give it away to anyone in need. After ten days, the group had received only one request. The students were disappointed. Theirs is the only known instance of anyone deciding to give away money along Brody’s model.
In mid-March, Brody and Renée made one trip, together and without any entourage, to Amarillo, Texas, where Renée’s brother had been arrested along with a friend on a minor drug possession charge. Brody posted the bond for each, and held a news conference, where he again made promises and discussed his plans and philosophies. He had decided that he no longer preferred “Michael” and was telling everyone to call him, “Mike.” He still spoke of his plans, his foundation, his desire to be the prophet of a “radical middle,” where he would bridge the generation gap. “I’m tired of the wars, the bombings, the violence in this country,” he announced. “I’m setting out to do something about it, and I’m going to do it.” He added that he had seen the error of his giveaway program and that he would try to be more orderly in his philanthropy. He also wanted some peace and quiet. He and Renée had been fighting “every once in a while and this isn’t good,” he said. “Renée and I have to settle down a little bit.” They had discussed moving upstate, near Woodstock, far away from the limelight.
In Amarillo, Brody was still news, but he had become more carnival freak show than anything else. He stayed at the house of Stanley Marsh III, a local eccentric millionaire who a few years later would change the “III” in his name to “3” and would become famous for his Cadillac Ranch, a sculpture consisting of Cadillacs (model years 1949 through 1963) half-buried, nose down, in a dusty wheat field off Route 66 outside Amarillo. But Brody and Renée soon returned to Scarsdale to the now empty house. They were alone, finally, for the first time since their honeymoon, alone and away from the crowds. The landlord had given notice that he was ending the lease, and the newlyweds began discussing their next move, perhaps to Brody’s father’s apartment, on a temporary basis, just until they could get things sorted out. Brody had spent or given away all of his ready cash. Most of his securities and bonds had been cashed and used to cover the checks he had written. He still received quarterly income checks from the trust set up by his grandfather, and he and Renée were waiting for the next check. At all of his news conferences, Brody had always stated that he did not need any money: that all he needed was love and shelter and food and that all that mattered was Renée. By the end of March, he had realized that dream. He had what mattered most, Renée. But he also needed money.
The Paddington Road house felt empty to him, even with Renée. Letters, notes and telegrams were everywhere: in dresser draws, in paper bags, scattered on the floor. Brody told Renée that he would read and respond to each letter but he didn’t. Sometimes, he would sit on the floor and grab a handful of letters from a bag. He examined the letters. He scrutinized the stamps, the return addresses, the different hand writing. But he did not open them. Sometimes he spoke about the Michael J. Brody Jr. Foundation and the good it could do. He also spoke of Nixon. The Vietnam War had escalated, expanding beyond the borders to a neighboring country when Nixon authorized the secret bombing of targets in Laos in late February. Several weeks later, he admitted as much to the nation. The bombing was necessary, Nixon explained, to assist the war in Vietnam, protect U.S. troops, and prevent Laos from falling into Communist hands. The carpet bombing continued at an intense level for weeks. Brody’s attitude about Nixon turned hard and cold, and he had become bitter and more paranoid. He blamed Nixon for his misfortune. He refused to leave the house for fear of assassination. He spoke of death. He had also become bitter about Lennon, who had disrespected him, refused to join him in his peace efforts.
Soon after Brody and Renée returned from their honeymoon, one local New York paper did a small piece on Renée subtitled “A Real Cinderella Story.” She was the local girl from the working-class family who had found her Prince Charming, the scion to an oleo fortune. It is hard to say when midnight came, but it was probably soon after the February 9 Cavett show. Brody was exhausted, as was Renée. She’d not been feeling very well the last few weeks, and the travel had worn her out. Brody was uncertain of his future. At times, he was lucid and talked about going back to school, to the University of Colorado, to complete his degree. He might become an investment banker. At other times, he spoke of plans to be a movie star, bigger than Brando. He told her that he had a contract with a movie studio for $100 million. He was planning on giving the money away, for peace. He wanted volunteers to read the bags of unopened letters and telegrams. At times, he revived plans to get together with Lennon. In April 1970, McCartney announced that The Beatles had split up. Lennon’s plans for the Toronto Peace Festival had collapsed, with Lennon and Ono offering a public apology via a letter printed in Rolling Stone. They still hoped to hold the festival somewhere, sometime. “Have we all forgotten what vibes are?” the letter said. “Can you imagine what we could do together in the one spot—thinking, singing and praying for peace?”
Brody grew excited. He began making plans to return to the public arena in order to usher in the end of the war, but Renée had grown weary of Brody’s manic phases and his obsession with Nixon, Lennon and the Vietnam War. And Brody had started believing that the Secret Service was following him. He wanted to go to California for reasons not entirely clear. He had vague plans to get back together with The Grateful Dead and groove in the West Coast scene. There was a complicated plan to set up a series of charities to feed the hungry. He wanted to do benefit concerts. He had other plans that no one could understand, some related to Lennon and others to his own international peace concert. Renée decided to stay behind in New York, and Brody flew to the coast, in coach, by himself.
On April 14, Brody tried to hold a press conference in Marin County, California, just north of the Golden Gate Bridge. A few reporters from the local newspapers attended, more out of curiosity than anything else. Brody claimed that he was in the San Francisco Bay area to help the people of California. He glided from topic to topic, talking coherently one moment and losing his train of thought the next. He knew “all the secrets” to the Tate-LaBianca Murders but he couldn’t reveal them, and he knew what went wrong with Apollo 13, which had just returned to earth following a near disaster that had captivated the country for days as the astronauts desperately jury-rigged the capsule for a safe reentry. He spoke of the War, of Nixon, the Beatles and his fortune (which he thought was no more than $135 million). He wanted to take “people on welfare off welfare.” He was the “Third Coming,” “Hare Krishna.” At one point, he said he was “not God yet,” and at another, “Only if people realize I’m God will they be saved.” He said he had given up drugs, and added a few minutes later that he had never used drugs. At first, the reporters asked follow up questions but eventually tired of the affair and drifted away “in embarrassed groups.” Brody tried to entice them to return. “I’ll do anything you guys want,” he called out as they exited. “I’ll hire a helicopter and scatter money from the skies.” The reporters were not lured back.
During his California trip, Brody stayed at Buck Sumski’s house in Ross, a small community in Marin County just outside San Rafael. Sumski was a rock music entrepreneur involved in the San Francisco music scene. His house was well known for its wild parties, where drugs were prevalent. After using drugs heavily for several days at Sumski’s house, Brody called the Ross police station to report a kidnapping—his. When the police arrived, Brody claimed that he was in California to give a benefit concert and he’d been kidnapped and held prisoner in some house. He was forced to take drugs. They were trying to kill him. Brody had few details. He did not know where he had been held or who held him or why. He did not know anything about the concert—where it was to be held or what cause it would benefit. The police took the information and filed a report. The Ross police department had experience with the hippies and druggies who wandered north from Haight Ashbury, and it was obvious that Brody was tripping on something. Nevertheless, the police checked out his story, even driving by the house where Brody thought he had been held captive. The police dropped him back at Sumski’s house and filed a report that Brody’s kidnapping was unsupportable.
Four days later, Brody’s thoughts drifted again to kidnapping. He was certain someone was after him—the FBI or Secret Service. And the crowds, the money grubbers, grabbing him, stealing his guitar, his wedding ring. The crowds were ripping his clothes. He could feel their hands upon him. As his thoughts became more and more uncontrollable, he talked with Herman about Renée. She was missing. Herman tried to talk Brody into returning east but Brody was incoherent. Eventually, he promised to catch a flight home. Two hours later, Brody walked into the operations center at the San Francisco Airport and again reported that he had been kidnapped, claiming that he had been held captive for six or seven days and “injected with a large quantity of drugs.”
Deputy Sheriff Roger R. Johnson from San Mateo County responded to the call from the operations center. Brody repeated his claim that he had been kidnapped and drugged, for several days, if not a week. It was the Secret Service or the CIA or the FBI, perhaps Nixon. The Government was behind it. The Ross police were in on the cover up, Brody explained. Johnson tried to calm him, but Brody was frenetic. He bounced from topic to topic and had difficulty answering questions. He claimed he was the Messiah and had supernatural powers. He could do anything he wanted. But he felt pressure. His wife was missing and everyone wanted his money. It was the greed.
Johnson asked Brody for some identification but he had none. Nor did he have any money. Brody knew who he was, however. The Messiah. Johnson called for backup. When two deputies arrived, Brody told them to stay back—that he would melt their guns with his mind. He was placed in custody. There was some discussion about arresting him for filing a false police report, but Johnson decided instead to secure a 72-hour psychiatric detention order. In the application, Johnson stated that he believed Brody was a threat to himself or others and “appeared to be gravely mentally disabled and unable to care for himself.” Although Brody’s conversation with Johnson was disjointed, Johnson did hear the cries of a tormented man. Between Brody’s claims that he was the Messiah and had supernatural powers, Brody also said that the drugs had “blown his mind” and he needed a doctor. Brody was taken to Peninsula Hospital in Burlingame for a 72-hour watch. Within a few hours of his admission, his family arranged for his transfer to the Belmont Hills Neuropsychiatric Center. Soon thereafter, he was declared psychotic, though it is also possible that he was having a bad LSD trip.
Brody’s detention put him back in the news again. But he had company. On April 20, police official in Scarsdale announced that a 13-state alarm had been issued for Renée, who had disappeared without Brody’s knowing. When he left for California, he thought she had headed for her parents’ house. Her parents thought she was with Brody in California. Rick Herman advised the press that Renée was three-months pregnant and “definitely not unstable.” Some of the accounts of Brody’s arrest focused solely on his apprehension. Others focused on what many suspected a few months earlier: the insanity. Renée’s disappearance was sidebar. The New York Daily News titled the story: “White Coats Get Bountiful Brody; Wife is Missing.” The UPI and AP filed stories that were picked up by newspapers around the country and run under various titles. Sticking with the moniker that had been bestowed upon Brody earlier in the year, the Washington Post titled its short piece: “Oleo Heir in Mental Hospital.” Other headlines referred to Brody by name or as the giveaway heir. None of the articles attempted to delve into Brody’s illness, other than to suggest that he was upset about Renée’s leaving. Some commentators even dismissed the events as yet another publicity stunt. “It appears that this is another in a long line of stunts pulled by Brody,” one commentator wrote, “but it is nice to see that they aren’t making much headlines anymore.”
After Brody was declared psychotic by the psychiatrists at Belmont Hills, Nolan and Brody’s father flew west to retrieve him. Renée was found in Monterey, Mexico. She was safe. She had driven there with a girlfriend. Renée needed some time to think, and she needed to get away from New York. She and her friend got in the car and just started driving west. They drove fast and straight through the night. They parked on the side of the road and slept a few hours, then started driving again. They wanted to go somewhere warm. They kept driving until they reached the Pacific, where Renée hoped to find peace. She had tired of the whole scene in New York: the drugs, the alcohol, Brody’s crazy promises, the money grubbers, everything. She also wanted Brody to stay away from that scene. Some of his managers seemed more interested in keeping him high than managing him. She had a juvenile but romantic thought that her leaving would cause him to go after her. She was also confused because Brody, straight or high, had been acting more and more bizarrely: not sleeping, wandering around the house at night, imagining enemies. He’d been hearing voices. She attributed his behavior to the drugs.