The Bogus Butter Business
The press waited at JFK International Airport late Saturday afternoon. The story of the millionaire honeymooners was already on the UPI and AP wires, and the New York reporters were looking for a follow up. Two days earlier, January 8, 1970, Michael James Brody Jr., a tall, handsome young man, barely 21, with a big smile and long reddish-brown hair that fell over the corner of his right eye, walked into the Pan Am office in Montego Bay, Jamaica. He carried a guitar in one hand. His bride of five days, a petite brunette named Renée, clung to his side. She was model-like, thin with long straight dark hair parted in the middle, a soft face freckled by the sun, and green eyes, which were large and round. Brody told the ticket agent that he wanted to return to New York in style. In the style of giving, he said. The Boeing 747 had been in the news, and Brody wanted to charter one. The honeymooners had flown to the island in Economy Class, but that wouldn’t do for the return trip to the Big Apple. Brody wanted something bigger, the biggest he could get. Cost was no object. At first the agent thought that the request was a joke. Brody and his wife were too young, their hair too long, and they smelled of the beach and marijuana. The agent was ready to dismiss the request, but Brody dumped several handfuls of crumpled U.S. $50s and $100s on the counter and promised more. He brushed the hair out of his eye. He told the agent he was a millionaire and a genius.
The 747 wouldn’t be in service for another week, the agent had to explain, and would fly only the New York-London route. The largest commercial jet then in use was the 707, he said. After Brody plopped some more $100s on the counter, the agent decided he should consult his supervisor. He asked the couple to wait and excused himself. About ten minutes later, the agent returned with his supervisor in tow. Like the agent, the supervisor was wearing a light-blue sports jacket with a gold Pan Am logo patch on the breast pocket. Pan Am could redirect a 707 from Miami for the charter. It could be ready on Saturday. Brody calmly paid the price tag, $7,954, which was more than the average annual U.S. salary at the time and about 60 times the cost of two round trip Economy Class tickets. The 707 sat 140, the supervisor said. He joked that the Brodys could bring 138 friends if they wanted. They laughed, said no.
The Brodys had spent the week honeymooning at the Playboy Club resort. Michael had quickly gained the reputation as a big tipper among the staff, handing out U.S. dollars by the fistful to bellboys, cabbies and others. He gave $20 to a shopkeeper for helping with a small purchase and $40 to a man who helped locate a car rental agency. He had also been handing out cash as gifts and promising more. By his own account, he had spent or given away at least $10,000. By other accounts, he gave out $25,000 in tips or gifts during the week. He gave $5,000 to the athletic department at the University of the West Indies and pledged another $55,000, all to be used to build a track. By the time the young honeymooners walked into the Montego Bay airport for the charter flight home, they were celebrities. A large crowd of travelers and curiosity seekers had gathered in the passenger terminal. Pan Am officials waited. One held a bottle of champagne. Brody carried his guitar. He wore sunglasses and was dressed in the mod style: a navy blue sports coat and bellbottoms. He smiled and gave the peace sign when the cameras started flashing. Renée wore a blue jump suit and a choker. After signing autographs and standing for photographs with the Pan Am officials and many of the onlookers, the young couple held a short Q&A session in the VIP lounge with reporters from the local paper, the Daily Gleaner, and the major wire services. Michael had plans. Big plans, he said. He explained that he had inherited a fortune a few months earlier, when he turned 21. The fortune had been made in the margarine business, he said. He wanted to use it to promote peace. As he spoke, Renée smiled, said nothing to the reporters but occasionally whispered to her husband.
Between sips from a bottle of Red Stripe, Brody answered questions about his world view. “We are all gods in ourselves,” he said. God was everywhere and in everyone. He believed in reincarnation. He had no fear of death or dying because, after death, there was re-birth in a new form. “Sometimes I get the feeling that I am Christ reincarnated,” he said. He added that he might be the most intelligent and talented person in the world. The pace of his speech quickened with each pronouncement. He spoke of his abilities to hypnotize anyone within 30 seconds, think faster than any computer, and sing better than any singer. His records would outsell The Beatles, as soon as he made one. He’d been practicing some Jamaican songs. The reporters asked for a number, and he obliged, playing “Yellow Bird.” His voice was clear but unremarkable; his guitar playing was rudimentary. He struggled with the chords. He’d been playing only for a couple of months.
The trip from Montego Bay to JFK took a little over three hours and 40 minutes. The crew of six, including three stewardesses, had an easy hop, perhaps the easiest ever. “I wish every flight was like that,” one of the stewardesses would later tell a newspaper reporter. She had never worked on a flight for a “party of two.” After serving the in-flight meal (London broil with Cornish game hen, string beans, and champagne) to the honeymooners, there was not much to do, except to listen to Brody as he sang songs on his guitar. He sang “Yellow Bird,” but stumbled with the Bb chord. He was really into American Folk, he told the stewardesses. Bob Dylan, Joan Baez, Phil Ochs and Woody Guthrie and also Arlo. And rock, he liked that too. He liked all music. He’d been to Woodstock. He’d seen Country Joe McDonald and Creedence and Joe Cocker and The Grateful Dead and, of course, Jimi Hendrix. He wished he could play the guitar like Hendrix or Garcia or Dylan or anyone. He wanted to be on Ed Sullivan, just like The Beatles and The Rolling Stones. And Elvis.
He’d been working on Dylan’s “You Ain’t Goin’ Nowhere.” The Byrds made the song into a big hit on their 1968 Sweetheart of the Rodeo album. Joan Baez had also covered it in 1968 on her Any Day Now album. The song could be played with simple chords, G, C and A minor, which helped Brody. It was a sweet song about the dreariness of winter, and hope and love for the future. He sang with a slight Dylanesque twang:
Clouds so swift, Rain won’t lift
Gate won’t close, Railings froze
Get your mind off wintertime
You ain’t goin’ nowhere
Whoo-ee! Ride me high
Tomorrow’s the day
My bride’s gonna come
Oh, oh, are we gonna fly
Down in the easy chair!
He struggled through the rest, and the stewardesses applauded. He played another Dylan number but not as well as “You Ain’t Goin’ Nowhere.” He apologized, said he was just learning it. He was working on a few of his own songs but hadn’t written anything yet. He was going to be bigger than the Beatles, he told them.
The pilots let Brody sit in the co-pilot seat for a little while, where he told them he’d like to learn to fly because he planned to buy a jet, perhaps several. He told the pilots of his plans. Eventually, he returned to the passenger compartment. He slumped down next to Renée, who was sleepy. They folded up the arm rest so that they could snuggle. At some point, after more champagne and a few gin and tonics, Michael and Renée fell asleep, their heads touching. It had been a long week, but the nap was short. The wheels slapped the runway, and the jet’s engines kicked into reverse. The jet lurched, then slowed gradually. The pilot taxied it to Terminal 3, where the New York media stood ready in the fading afternoon light.
It was a perfect feel-good story, a respite from the winter and the dreadful world news. The bloody Biafra Civil War neared its end, and famine lurked. Haiti was in shambles, and tension in the Middle East was high. The conflict in Vietnam was raging again. The New Year’s truce had had not lasted more than a few hours before mortar barrages and firefights broke out south of Da Nang, wounding or killing dozens of American soldiers. In the days that followed, the North Vietnamese launched a series of major assaults against American forces. At home, inflation was running high. The economy was stagnant. The nation’s war-weariness deepened each day as more stories emerged about the My Lai massacre, with the Army announcing that it had brought additional charges against some soldiers—for rape, torture and murder. The FBI was hot on the trail of the murderers of Jock Yablonski and his family, gunned down in their beds on New Year’s Eve by assassins rumored to have been hired by a political rival. Stories about the Manson family were common: the police had made the first arrests in December, and Susan Atkins’ detailed account of the LaBianca and Tate murders had been published by the Los Angeles Times in mid-December. Life magazine carried a story of the Manson Family and Spahn Ranch in its December 19 issue, with the now famous photo of Charles Manson on the cover staring directly into the camera. An article that appeared shortly after the start of the new year in the Christian Science Monitor questioned whether Manson signaled the end of the “hippie era.” For many, the long-haired children of the Summer of Love or Woodstock could no longer be viewed with benign amusement. The hippies represented a boiling evil. But Brody, the hippie millionaire, offered an alternative. In contrast to Manson and his band of followers, Brody was a clean-cut, suburban hippie from a nice family with love, peace and philanthropy, not murder, in his heart.
The 707 taxied to a stop outside Terminal 3, a round building shaped like a flying saucer with a large overhang. The ground crew locked the mobile rolling staircase in place and opened the jet’s door. Michael and Renée stepped into the New York media limelight. At the top of the stairs, Brody gave the peace sign. He and Renée posed for photos. They slowly descended, pausing once or twice for photos. Behind them, one of the pilots carried Brody’s guitar. The stewardesses smiled and waved. On the tarmac, a battery of journalists, photographers and TV cameramen scurried for position. Brody posed for more photos. Renée stood by him, close and silent. At times, she put her arm around his waist and buried her head in his chest. Cameras flashed for what seemed like hours, and newspaper reporters pointed microphones from cassette recorders toward the young couple. A photographer asked Michael to pick Renée up in his arms like a husband carrying his bride over the threshold, and the young couple obliged. They posed for a few more staged photos and then walked to the terminal, the TV cameramen filming their every step.
Pan Am had set up an interviewing station in one of the conference rooms, with a small table and two chairs strategically positioned in front of a tapestry emblazoned with Pan Am logos and its slogan, Pan Am Makes the Going Great. The Brodys slid into the chairs behind the microphones and faced the cameras and reporters. National and local television stations and all of the major New York newspapers were represented, along with stringers from AP, UPI and Reuters.
“Where did you get your money?” a reporter asked. “From my grandfather,” Brody said, “John F. Jelke Jr.” Brody described again, as he had done to reporters in Montego Bay, about his inheritance when he turned 21 in October 1969. He had inherited $25,000,000, but money has a way of growing. He was good at investing. A “financial wizard,” he said. He had a system, and gave out a few stock tips.
Brody was asked why he had chartered the jet. “I first of all did it for publicity because I want to get well known because I’m going to give away, I think, 50 million dollars within the next year.” He sat on the edge of his seat and leaned into the microphone as he talked. His voice was strong and assertive. “I’m going to try and make some hit records and a few movies and set up a foundation like the Ford Foundation and give money to the poor. Basically my ultimate aim in life is to have 14 children, a big dog and a chicken farm up in Connecticut.”
“Well, I personally think that maybe I’ll be setting a new trend,” Brody said in response to a question about his future plans to help the poor. His voice was lucid and determined. “Like, I think that if people like Onassis or the Kennedys or some of these people use some of their money and give to the poor instead of foundations. If everybody just gave one million dollars.” He hesitated. “If every millionaire gave one million dollars to one foundation and said look, let’s really go into this and let’s get food to the poor.” Brody paused again for a second. “I don’t really just want to cure the problems of the United States, I want to try and cure the problems of the world.”
Someone asked Brody to confirm his full name. Michael James Brody Jr. he stated, then added a disclaimer of sort, with a smile. “I may not be Michael Brody. I could be anybody.” He talked quickly, pausing only to flick his long hair away from his eyes. “I could be from another planet. I belong to the church of the open sky and I believe in God.” There were questions about his childhood, college, his family, Renée. Some of his answers were cogent, others incoherent. He rambled and changed topics quickly. But he was always intense and passionate when he spoke. He articulated his plans again and again: the Foundation, helping the poor, a singing and movie career. He needed the publicity “to spread the spirit of giving in the world.” He and the other millionaires could save the world. But he also had a very specific political agenda. “I have a plan to end the war in Vietnam, the war in Biafra and the war in the Middle East. I have sent a telegram to J. Edgar Hoover to give me a security release to see the President.”
Throughout the press conference, Renée sat silently by her new husband, her green eyes fixed on him rather than the reporters. Brody did all the talking. When asked whether he and his new bride might need his fortune, Brody said, “Other people need money a lot more than I do.” Renée nodded in agreement. Love was all they needed.
Brody got the publicity he craved. Clips of the JFK news conference were played not only by WPIX and WNEW in New York, but also by NBC nationally. The stories were carefully cut, showing only Brody’s pronouncements that he wanted to aid the poor. Before there was a “sound bite,” the television stations knew how to edit creatively to broadcast solely the tidbits that would play well to the audience, and Brody’s statements about his plans for a charitable foundation played well. The BBC and Reuters picked up the edited piece and played it in Europe and elsewhere. Papers throughout the United States ran UPI and AP stories about the millionaire honeymooners. “Honeymoon Ends with $7,954 Plane Ride” one headline read. “A 707 Built for two” read another. Several headlines tried to tie the charter to its purpose. The New York Times article was entitled “Heir, 21, Hires a Jet to Proclaim: He wants to Aid Poor and Peace.” The Los Angeles Times headline stated “Millionaire Newlywed Charters 140-Seat Jet” and carried a subtitle, “Margarine Scion Tells Money Plans After Returning From Honeymoon In Jamaica.” The New York Daily News mixed assonance with alliteration: “Heir’s Up in Air to Air Plans.” A UPI photo of Michael and Renée in the aisle of the vacant cabin of the 707 was widely published, appearing on the front pages of many newspapers. Michael sat on an arm rest and Renée leaned on him with one hand on his shoulder. Behind them, the empty rows of seats were visible. The newlyweds were all alone. They were smiling.
Nearly all of articles referred to Brody as the heir to a margarine fortune. Within a few days, the papers would begin calling him “The Oleomargarine Heir.” Margarine was about 100 years old in 1970, and Brody’s family had been involved for generations in the Bogus Butter Business as oleo was often called. His family had made millions, and he felt obligated to do something with the fortune. His suggestion at JFK airport that every millionaire should give away some of his wealth was hardly novel. Eighty-one years earlier, Andrew Carnegie advocated that millionaires follow “The Gospel of Wealth” by distributing their wealth during their lifetimes. In his view, millionaires who died without administering their wealth for the public good during their lifetimes died “unwept, unhonored, and unsung.” “The man who dies thus rich dies disgraced,” was the phrase Carnegie used to refer to anyone who did not follow the Gospel he espoused. In contrast, a millionaire who adhered to the Gospel of Wealth and administered his fortune during his lifetime by giving it away for the general public good would bring “Peace on earth, among men Good-Will.”
Like Carnegie, Brody had formulated a plan to bring peace on earth and goodwill to mankind. When Carnegie formulated his Gospel of Wealth, he was generally considered the second richest man in America. John D. Rockefeller was considered the richest. Rockefeller had a penchant for handing out coins to strangers, nickels to children and dimes to adults. With the coins, particularly the nickels, Rockefeller distributed advice, such as fortunes are built by hard work and frugality. Brody wasn’t about to nickel and dime his fortune away. He had more ambitious plans. Five days after the Boeing 707 touched down at JFK, the newlyweds set off toward Times Square. Brody carried his 12-string Martin. Loose in his pockets and stuffed in his moccasins were $50s and $100s. He preferred the $100s, which were much easier to count.
In January 1970, New York City was experiencing rough times. It was seedy and dirty, particularly in Times Square, which was littered with porno movie houses, live peep shows and sex shops. Retail space was rapidly being converted to mini-theaters that catered to prurient interests of every type. Outside the XXX establishments, vagrants, beggars, street musicians, pimps and prostitutes, drunks and addicts loitered. Many New Yorkers called it Slime Square. It was the perfect place for Brody to begin his plan to save the world.
Brody started doling out cash here and there to those obviously in need. Handing out bill after bill, Brody became empowered. It was the look on the faces of the recipients that encouraged him. He picked up the giveaway pace and broadened his largesse. He lit a joint, and the marijuana fueled his spirit of giving. He saw everyone as needy, not just the obviously downtrodden. It was the common man and woman, the workers, who needed his help as well. Within the space of a few hours on Thursday morning, Brody parceled out between $5,000 and $10,000 in cash on the streets of New York City. He gave a $100 tip to a newsboy who sold him the morning paper. He gave another $100 to a man who opened a door for him. A heroin addict got $500, just to help him through the hard times. The addict swore he’d go straight. A taxi driver received $1,000 even though he had damaged Brody’s guitar while trying to load it into the trunk. A man with mortgage trouble pocketed $2,500. Brody gave $100 each to three barbers, none of whom cut his hair. At the Bachelors III bar/restaurant, once partially owned by New York Jets quarterback Joe Namath before he was ordered to sell his interest by football commissioner Pete Rozelle, Brody tipped the entire staff $1,500 because he liked the service. Later in the day, he handed out $100 bills to a group of children playing on a playground in south Harlem. Accounts of these events spread, and the Big Apple was soon full of rumors and false sightings of Brody. He was in Harlem, lower Manhattan, Queens, Brooklyn, all at once, giving out cash to bystanders, beggars, down-and-outers, cabbies and others. With each rumor, the gifts got bigger.
As Brody passed out the cash, the crowds following him grew. Newspaper, radio and television reporters were soon among the followers. Brody carried his guitar, and Renée walked next to him. He stopped and handed out cash, posed for photos and gave the peace sign, then continued dishing out money, as one paper phrased it, “like the Ford Foundation gone berserk.” The Pied Piper of Scarsdale, as another paper would later call Brody, even stopped once or twice to strum the guitar and sing to the train of followers. The gifts continued throughout the afternoon, a few $50s here, a couple of $100s there. Another handful of $50s. Sometime during the afternoon of January 15, Brody ran out of cash and started writing checks.