First come, first served
After one day of giving out money in the streets, Brody decided that his plan to usher in the Age of Aquarius—a world of peace and love—needed help, and there was no better place to start than in the Zodiac Club, a discothèque on First Avenue between 77th and 78th Streets in Manhattan’s Upper East Side. On Thursday afternoon, January 15, Michael and Renée held a news conference at the Club arranged by a trio of would-be managers Brody had hired. The leader of the group was Rick Herman, a beefy man from Yonkers in his late-20s who was trying to break into show business as an agent. Herman looked the part. He dressed in mod suits and wide-collar shirts and wore a diamond pinky ring on each hand and a gaudy Rolex on his left. He sported sunglasses even on cloudy days. His hair was short—the establishment look—but his sideburns were long and bushy. He drove a light blue 1970 convertible Cadillac Coupe de Ville. His assistant, Peter Reynaud, was thin and small with a beaming smile. Like Herman, he wore his hair short with long sideburns. They told everyone they were in “personal management” and carried mobile radiophones, which were on the cutting edge of technology: each phone weighed close to ten pounds and was housed in an attaché case. When Herman read the article in the New York Sunday News about Brody’s plans to be a rock ‘n’ roll singer, Herman called Brody, then went to visit him. Within a few hours, and after a couple of joints and stories, Brody had hired him and Reynaud, and soon thereafter, Herman decided to bring Craig Nolan on board as a partner in the Brody venture because Nolan had some experience in the record business. Nolan had long scraggly hair and a thin mustache that curled around the corners of his lips. His face was drawn. He had a Seconal habit. He wasn’t as flashy or aggressive as Herman, and he had little experience. But Nolan also had grandiose plans for himself and thought Brody might be his ticket to the big time. When Brody said he wanted a press conference to make a big announcement, the three managers found the Zodiac Club and contacted the newspapers and television stations.
The club was crowded with money seekers and reporters. Brody played the guitar. Renée sat next to him, silently. “Peace is what I want,” Brody said. “When everyone is as rich as I am, I’ll go to a desert island and leave the world alone and make love to my wife.” Brody leaned over and kissed Renée. “And it’s legal,” he joked. “We’re married.” Renée laughed. They kissed again, and cameras clicked. He strummed the guitar during the press conference, periodically singing parts of the old standard, “He was a friend of mine”: “Cause I never had too much money/And I never been quite satisfied/And he was a friend of mine.” He was dressed in a white T-shirt and a leather vest with long fringe. Renée, similarly attired, swayed her head gently with the music. She smiled. He stopped and sang the verse again, this time omitting the “never” from the first line: “Cause I had too much money/And I never been quite satisfied.” He laughed at his own cleverness. He told everyone of his plans to give away all of his fortune. It was growing, of course, he said. He invested well. He was a genius. Investment was the key, if you knew what you were doing. He wanted other millionaires to join his effort, but he would not wait for them. He would give ALL of his fortune away, he said. In that way, he would bring peace to the world. “I want to make up for some of the trouble millionaires have caused,” he said. Brody paused, listened to requests from some onlookers, and wrote out a few checks.
“What would you do if I asked for $1,000?” Peter Simmons, a local television newspaper reporter from WNBC, asked, somewhat jokingly. He was just a few years older than Brody. His hair was short and neatly trimmed. He wore a sports coat with the NBC logo on the breast. His tie was thin and 1960s conservative.
“I’d write you one,” Brody said. A few seconds later, he scribbled a check and handed it to Simmons.
“How are you going to keep track of this?” Simmons said, holding the check in one hand and the microphone in the other. “I noticed that you didn’t write anything in your book.”
Brody shrugged. “I have so much money in the Scarsdale National Bank. I have a computerized mind. I know exactly how much money I have and how much I can giveaway. I can afford this.” He turned to answer another reporter’s question.
Later, Simmons told other reporters he would keep the check as a souvenir. The press conference continued, but it was clear that the reporters did not understand Brody or his message. The reporters, most middle class and middle aged, could not comprehend why a millionaire would give his money away. They repeatedly asked Brody’s intentions and the purpose of his generosity. But it was more than simply not understanding why a man would part with his fortune. The reporters also did not know what to make of Brody, a long hair hippie who spoke of peace, love and happiness.
During the news conference, Brody gave away $10,000, all in checks. But he also gave out his home telephone number in Scarsdale for anyone to call who needed money. He repeated the number several times to make certain the reporters got it right: (914) 723-3968. He added his address, 31 Paddington Road, Scarsdale, New York. He asked the newsmen to spread the word. They should give out his address and number. And he also said that he was opening an office at 1650 Broadway to handle requests. Suite 1409. Whoever wanted money just had to ask. Send letters, telegrams, call or just show up, he said. If you need money, I have it. Brody planned to give his oleo fortune away, all of it, to foundations and charities, and to the people directly. He’d give it away a dollar at a time if necessary. All 25 million. First come, first served.
When a man announces that he plans to give away $25 million, it makes headlines all over the world very quickly. Typical United States headlines read: “HEIR TO $25 MILLION HANDING IT ALL AWAY,” “Fortune To Be Given Away,” and “Youth giving away $25 million.” Many newspapers printed his address or telephone number. The Afro-American in Baltimore headlined the story, “Need An Easy $ Million or So? Just Phone 914-723-3968.” Elsewhere around the globe, the papers gushed. The Argus in Cape Town, South Africa, titled its front page story, “HIPPY’S “MILLIONS TO GIVE AWAY.” The Herald, from Melbourne, Australia, enticed readers with “$25m.—and he’s giving it all away.” Similar headlines appeared throughout Europe and Asia. With the announcement and the publicity, a curious thing happened. Brody’s fortune started to creep up in value. Several papers, including the New York Times, put the fortune at $26 million, and one stated it was $27 million. On the street, rumors spread, increasing the value to 30 million, 40 million, perhaps 50 or more. No one questioned the size of the fortune, and no one seemed to care. Brody had money and was giving it away. Following Brody’s news conference at the Zodiac Club, newspaper offices, television and radio stations and other media outlets were flooded with calls seeking information about how to contact the oleo heir. He had become a worldwide sensation within hours.
Although Brody had given his phone number and address to the press, not all papers published that information. Even when the information was disseminated, rumor and hearsay outpaced the news. Many had heard of the story from someone who had heard from someone who had heard something: for a few, all that was known was that somewhere there was a Michael Brody who was giving out money. United Press International reported the next day that its lines were deluged with calls seeking information on how to contact Brody. The story detailed a sampling of the calls.
“They say he’s got money and is giving it away,” a housewife from Denver, Colorado, told UPI. “I’ve got four children and my husband isn’t working.”
“I’m sorry I called you collect, but I’m broke and I’m trying to get money,” a trade school student explained. “I’m single and my parents are living, but they’re having a hard time. So am I—I need some money and I don’t have a job.”
“I deliver drugs and hospital supplies,” said a caller from San Francisco. “I’m planning on getting married pretty soon, but my job is quite unsuitable for marriage. The overall income is not good. I want to get a sum of money to put in the bank and live off the interest from it.”
A New Yorker who described himself as a vestryman for a local Episcopal Church wanted a donation for the church. “Any amount would be acceptable.”
Media outlets around the country received similar calls. The Brody frenzy was not confined to the United States. After French National Television and Radio Monte Carlo broadcast short pieces on the giveaway promise, callers flooded their switchboards trying to get information on how to contact Brody. In America, Michael Brodys all across the country were bombarded with telephone calls from claimants seeking the Michael Brody. Besides the namesakes, many others were besieged by callers looking for the generous millionaire.
A young couple, Bob and Sandra Gruetzner of Palestine, Texas, a small town 100 or so miles southeast of Fort Worth, were contemplating asking for a new telephone number. Just a year or two older than Brody and Renée, the Gruetzners had been besieged with calls. Their telephone number differed by two digits from Brody’s (one in the area code and one in the number). The requests for money came from all across the country. All of the callers apparently had dialed Brody’s correct number, which confused the Gruetzners. They spoke to their telephone company several times. The telephone company representatives thought that a malfunction in a switching station somewhere was directing the calls to Palestine. The phone company couldn’t locate the malfunction, and the calls kept coming. There were station-to-station calls, person-to-person calls, and even a few attempts to make a collect call (which the Gruetzners politely declined to accept). The Gruetzners answered over fifty calls the first day, and they kept coming the next day.
Melvin Babroff, a 28-year old furniture salesman, and his wife, Jeri, had the misfortune of having a home telephone number that was identical to the number Brody had given to the public except for the area code. Babroff had a New York City area code. Brody had a Scarsdale area code. The public, especially outside the Tri-State area, had not picked up on the difference. Babroff had been fielding or avoiding telephone calls from around the country since January 15, when Brody announced his plans to give away his fortune. The calls came at all hours and from all places. The callers wanted one thing. Money.
“We’ve had calls from poor people, rich people, girls with sexy voices. They all have stories,” Babroff told the press. “We try to explain they have the wrong number, but a lot of them don’t believe us.” He was tired and fed up. Some of the callers tried to call collect. Others wanted to be reimbursed for the expense of the call when they heard from Babroff that he was not Brody. Babroff contacted the newspapers for help. “We’re getting pretty sick of the whole thing,” he explained. “We’re going to leave our phone off the hook.” He was contemplating asking the phone company for a new number.
And, within hours of the Zodiac Club press conference, claimants started lining up at Brody’s Broadway office. The queues reminded many reporters of the bread lines of the Great Depression, where the unemployed and downtrodden, with haggard faces and tattered clothes stood one after another for a handout. Those looking for a handout from Brody included the needy but also many other types: hippies and druggies, blue collar workers, clergy, musicians, housewives, dreamers and schemers. They were young and old, and of many races and backgrounds. And those in line waiting to make their plea to Brody could potentially receive much more than a simple piece of bread. One paper recognized that potential, dubbing the queue “the Bread and Butter Line” not recognizing the irony given the origin of Brody’s fortune.