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A millionaire wanted to give away his money. 'Dear Mr. Brody' shows how it went awry

SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

1970, the dawning of the Age of Aquarius, peace, love, rock 'n' roll. And a 21-year-old Michael Brody, heir to a fortune made by oleomargarine, pledges to give his $25 million inheritance away.

(SOUNDBITE OF DOCUMENTARY, "DEAR MR. BRODY")

MICHAEL BRODY: Well, I personally think that maybe I'll be setting a new trend. Like, I think if people like Onassis or the Kennedys or some of these people use some of their money and give to the poor, and if everybody just gave $1 million, if every millionaire gave $1 million to one foundation and said, look; let's really go into this...

SIMON: Michael Brody wrote a few checks, scattered hundred dollar bills into crowds. He went on "The Ed Sullivan Show," opened for the Grateful Dead, offered to finance an end to the war in Vietnam, and invited people to send him letters from all over the world, into which they poured their fondest dreams and most desperate needs. But his fame soon curdled, and then he died within three years after being hospitalized for mental health issues. The story of his brief celebrity and the appeal sent to him are told in Keith Maitland's new documentary, "Dear Mr. Brody." And Keith Maitland joins us from Austin. Thanks so much for being with us.

KEITH MAITLAND: Thank you, Scott.

SIMON: As we learn in this film, most of the letters sent to Michael, he never read, never even opened.

MAITLAND: That's right. The story has been more than 50 years in the making in a lot of ways, but for the letters at the heart of our storytelling, most of these stories are just seeing the light of day now as we're opening them.

SIMON: Yeah. And give us some idea the range of stories. And they're all postmarked, I guess, January 1970.

MAITLAND: That's right. Well, you know, Michael Brody said to the world, if you need money, I want to help. Just tell me what you'll do with it, and I'll send you a check. And so the stories range literally every facet of want, desire and need you can imagine. The ones that spoke to us are the personal stories, are the very wonderful, almost diary-like entries that paint a picture of what life was like for the letter writer and, you know, as a whole, what life was like in the world at that time.

SIMON: Lots of people send pictures of children. People have trouble paying their hospital bills. There's stories of love and loss, addiction. The mother and daughter both wrote, not knowing the other one had.

MAITLAND: It's pretty incredible. And, you know, our producer, Melissa Robin Glassman, who discovered these letters in the storage locker in Los Angeles, she started seeing, as she opened the letters, the stories you just laid out. She saw a letter from a little girl who had never had a winter coat. She asked for $5. We saw stories from parents whose children were in college and were in debt. We saw parents whose sons were in Vietnam. There were letters from hippies looking to buy land out West to start a commune. There were letters from entrepreneurs and artists and filmmakers looking for a chance to begin their professional lives. Every human fate you can imagine is represented in some way in these letters.

SIMON: Yeah. It was a little uncomfortable for me, I've got to tell you, to see these families. And it was hard for me not to feel some - well, maybe I'm not entitled, but some anger that Michael Brody had invited them to pour out their souls and then the letters weren't even opened.

MAITLAND: I mean, I think that's a fair reaction. But I take a different tack. I take a look at what Michael Brody intended when he made this big offer. And I look at what befell him as reality came crashing down and swirled all around him. I think that he offered hope to the world and unfortunately was not able to follow through on that offer. But I don't get the sense that most people who wrote letters truly believed that he was their only option or that they would really - you know, would really find this pot of gold at the end of Brody's rainbow.

SIMON: The feel-good story began to sour astonishingly quickly, didn't it?

MAITLAND: Everything in the story moved fast. Michael and Renee were literally the first instance...

SIMON: Renee was Michael's wife. yeah.

MAITLAND: Yeah. Michael and Renee Brody, they were the first instant celebrities of the 1970s. And at that moment in history, there's a reckoning that's coming. You know, the 1960s were so turbulent. They offered so much desire for change. The generation gap, you know, and the gap between the haves and the have nots were all kind of churning all at this exact moment. And then here comes Michael Brody, who says, let's start anew; let's start fresh. People seized on it. They jumped on it. And, yes, it moved fast.

SIMON: But within days, he was raising his middle finger at crowds and saying people were trying to kill him. What were the pressures that began to work on him? What went wrong?

MAITLAND: People who start off with a good intention of wanting to spread money around to help often find it overwhelming. There's just so much want. There's so much need. And people are so desperate at that moment in time and in every moment in time that I'm not surprised that Brody was overwhelmed walking down the street. You know, he gave out his home address. He gave out his home phone number. So when it came to a head as quickly as it did, I think that's human nature unfolding. You know, nobody was there to pump the brakes and say, let's break this thing down. Let's be logical. Let's call the lawyers and the accountants and do things, you know, the right way.

SIMON: To a degree that would have been buying into the system he didn't want any part of, right?

MAITLAND: That's right. Yeah.

SIMON: He seemed to have an odd idea of how much money he really had, too.

MAITLAND: Yeah, it's a real cavalcade of numbers. You know, it starts at 25 million and quickly becomes 50 million, 100 million, a billion, a trillion. You know, as Andy Janquitto, the author of the manuscript, "The Oleomargarine Heir," says in the film, Michael was not very good with numbers. And then we do see an unraveling that occurs that is only exacerbated by drugs, only exacerbated by the crush of the crowds and the pressure of the media relationship that he cultivated very quickly.

SIMON: I guess we should get specific, too, about the drugs. It was PCP.

MAITLAND: Yeah, it's really the introduction of PCP that changes Michael's view of himself and changes, you know, really the way the story goes.

SIMON: All these years later, why make a film about this man and this episode? What does it say about our lives today, do you think?

MAITLAND: Well, you know, I don't know that we would have made a film about Michael if it weren't for the letters. I mean, actually, I do know that we wouldn't have made a film just about Michael if it weren't for the letters.

SIMON: You made the film, after all. You're in a position to say that, yeah.

MAITLAND: Yeah, that's right. The human condition is just laid bare in very personal missives. But it wasn't just that this is a story of something that happened 50 years ago. I can't think of a single letter that I read that couldn't apply to the world I live in today. And knowing that there's that much want and need, knowing that people are living in that much desperation, it's a reminder that the world as we know it is still desperately in need of change.

SIMON: Keith Maitland is director of the documentary "Dear Mr. Brody," now streaming on Discovery Plus. Thank you so much for being with us.

MAITLAND: Thank you, Scott. It's my honor.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.