Filmmaker Melissa Robin Glassman was sorting through her boss’s storage locker a decade ago when she found something that piqued her curiosity—a dozen boxes of unopened letters, all marked in January 1970 and the same addressed to the person.
That man was Michael James Brody Jr., a prodigious millionaire heir to the American margarine fortune who made international headlines 52 years ago when he promised to give his money to ordinary people who needed it.
Thousands wrote heartfelt letters to Brody, hoping to get a piece of his fortune. But the story took a sad turn, and most of the letters still remain unopened.
Glassman said, “The more I read them, the more … it was the ghost-like feeling that I was evoking these voices. Not in a scary way, but in a really beautiful way.” as it happens Guest host Helen Mann.
“These voices that stuck in the 1970’s, and all their wishes and their hopes and dreams and their wishes and desires, etc., were finally being recognized, even though I couldn’t help them the way they intended . Letters for help. But I felt that somehow I was at least accepting of those people, and it was magical enough.”
Those letters, the people who wrote them, and their intended recipients, are now the subject of a new documentary, dear mr brodyCo-produced by Glassman and directed by Keith Maitland, now streaming on Discovery+.
Big Promise of a Young Millionaire
According to the New York Times, the saga begins in January 1970, when 21-year-old Brody and his new bride were returning home from their honeymoon in Jamaica. In an effortlessly romantic gesture, he bought every seat on the plane so he and his wife could go home – just two of them.
When the young couple landed, they were greeted by reporters, and Brody announced that he would give away his $25 million American legacy to spread love and “fix the world’s problems”. He gave his home address and phone number and asked people to contact him.
Yes, they wanted money to help with their situations. But I think on a deeper level, there’s a sense of wanting to hear someone’s suffering.–Melissa Robin Glassman, co-creator of Dear Mr. Brody
Brody – margarine magnate John F. Jelke’s grandson – became a celebrity overnight. News outlets around the world covered his generous pledge, dubbing him a “hippie millionaire”. he appeared on The Ed Sullivan Show and played a Bob Dylan cover on a 12-string guitar.
Glassman said, “People showed up to his house, and letters were poured in, and everyone just wanted, you know, a piece of what he was offering. And it escalated into such 10-day madness.” ”
But it soon became clear that Brody could not live up to his promise. People sent more letters than at the post office, and while some did receive money, the checks of many young heirs bounced.
His legacy, it turned out, was in a trust fund, and according to the filmmakers, he could only access so much at a time. He later told the New York Times that he promised “while going out on drugs”.
The story faded from the limelight and Brody’s life took a tragic turn. He spent the next three years battling addiction and mental illness, which culminated by suicide in 1973 at the age of 24.
over 100,000 letters
It is not clear how many letters people sent. Some stayed with Brody’s family. Others were destroyed by the post office. And some of Glassman’s former boss, Hollywood producer Edward R. captured by the pressman American Psycho And crow fame.
Pressman had acquired the letter one day in hopes of making a feature film about Brody, but it was never fully finished. Glassman decided that a better use would be a documentary—not just about Brody, but about the people who wrote him.
He said that reading his letters became a sad ritual for the crew.
“We used to sit and read letters together all the way, because what we found was that there were so many that were too overwhelming, and having each other’s support really helped us go through it together. Grief,” he said.
What really stood out, she said, were people who didn’t want any money for themselves.
A woman asks Brody to help her neighbor whose house was burnt down. A 14-year-old girl asked him to donate Easter seals, as the charity ran the school her deaf brother attended.
“It’s most inspiring to me,” Glassman said. “And then also those letters that just say: Thank you for admitting to me what I’m going through, and it made me sit and think about what matters to me and what’s important to me.”
Glassman said the film crew took the issue of privacy seriously, both legally and ethically. He consulted lawyers before opening unread mail. If a letter writer told Brody not to share his story publicly, he respected it.
Then came the hard work of getting in touch with the letter writers, or in some cases, members of their surviving family, many of whom appear in the film.
“We’ve struggled a little bit to reach some people whose letters are, you know, very intimate and talk about things that we don’t think they’d like to reconnect with,” Glassman said.
“But I think, in the end, we realized that these people had taken the time to reach out to Michael Brody and … to acknowledge and accept what they were going through and to know that they were not alone. And yes, they wanted money to help them in their circumstances. But I think on a deeper level, there’s a sense of someone listening to their adversities.”
Between those in Pressman’s collection and those held by Brody’s family, Glassman estimates there are at least 100,000 letters in total—but she says there may be more they don’t know about.
After completing the film, Pressman donated most of the letters, approximately 30,000, to the Special Collections library of Columbia University.
“It was really important for us early on, to find a place that would take the letters because we didn’t want them to go back to the storage unit for another 50 years,” Glassman said.
Written by Sheena Goodyear. Interview with Melissa Robin Glassman, produced by Morgan Passy.