Every once in a while, with any luck, a writer obtains miraculous access to a life story almost too good to believe: too epic, too hilarious, too sad, too illustrative of the weft and weave of American history to be the life of one mere fallible human being. Michael Jackson was such a subject, I guess. His life thwarted the received mythos of gender and class, of race and sexuality and fame and hubris and the perils of entertainment. And it illustrated, finally, the howling, lonesome hole at the lonely center of fame.
What’s more fascinating, though, is to come across a life both gloriously outragious and inexplicably forgotten. The life of Dr. John Brinkley is such a one. Have you ever heard of him? I hadn’t, until my editor brought him to my attention this June. She told me that two local men, Thomas Nyman and Kevin Parman, a couple accomplished and prominent in musical and theatrical arts, have written a musical about a Depression-era, mega-celebrity doctor who’d also instituted the storied border-blaster radio stations made world-famous by Wolfman Jack and American Graffiti. Brinkley electrified the nation, fell from grace (or was short on grace to begin with, depending on whose acount you read), then up and died, leaving behind a bizarre, tragicomic, and quintessentially American legacy.
“Have you ever heard of Dr. Brinkley?” I asked various members of my parents’ generation.
“The goat-gland man!?” they’d answered. “How have you not heard of him?”
Yes, the goat-gland man.
Here are some bare, though disputed, facts. John Romulus Brinkley was born in 1885 (or maybe 1888) and grew up a poor-as-dirt Appalachian boy who, Thomas Nyman tells me, “never even wore a pair of shoes till he was 12.” But Brinkley proved a go-getter, acquiring in short order two families, a handful of lawsuits, two by-mail diplomas, and a dubious degree from Kansas’s Eclectic Medical University. He and his second wife, Minnie (who, according to some accounts, was an actual, non-“eclectic” M.D. in her own right), went on to establish a quasi-medical practice in small-town Kansas, where they were heralded for their tireless and brave treatment of the 1918 flu epidemic.
At the time of his earliest medical practice in the first decades of the 20th century, endocrinology was still in its infancy. Serendipitously for Brinkley, radio, too, was just peeping over the horizon of mass culture. Brinkley ingeniously combined the two to forge his colorful empire. He came to the fore of American pop consciousness during the ’20s by grafting goat testicles into the scroti of hopeful, erectile-challenged American men (including, in 1922, an employee of Harry Chandler, the owner of the Los Angeles Times). His practice of xenotransplantation, and of extolling the practice on Kansas’s first radio station (also owned by the good doctor) rendered him at once famous and infamous.
The American Medical Association came after him, particuarly that organization’s head, a Javert-like former clown performer (no, really) called Morris Fishbein. The Federal Radio Commission (the pre-FCC) pursued him for his radio-powered self-aggrandization, too. So the Brinkleys moved to Del Rio in far West Texas, where he built the first border-blaster radio station just across the Rio Grande. Brinkley’s medical advice and self-promotion, bracketed by evangelical homilies, the songs of “The Lonesome Cowboy,” and the astrological meanderings of the “Star Girl,” were received in tooth fillings and bedsprings, and as far away as Russia. It’s been reported that he further angered the U.S. government by offering his airwaves to Nazi sympathizers during World War II. He played on and played with the fears, dreams, possibilities, and neuroses of middle America.
His very American fortune, naturally, fed a very American proto-rock-star lifestyle. The Brinkleys built a legendary, estate, which proved a huge tourist attraction in the ’30s, and still stands today. Minnie Brinkley wore an ermine cape and bejeweled tiara to the opening of Gone With the Wind in Atlanta in 1938. The Brinkleys’ storied yacht was appropriated by the Feds (after, mind you, they sailed it to Europe in the ’30s and spent time as the honored guest of one Benito Mussolini) and used as the Presidential watercraft.
But the American judicial system finally denatured Brinkley’s dubious message of medical progress and media omnipotence. He was in effect legally declared a quack in a court proceeding initiated by Brinkley himself — a 1939 libel suit he brought against Morris Fishbein, which Brinkley lost. The stream of lawsuits that had followed Brinkley’s medical career from Kansas to West Texas became a tsunami. By 1942, not even yet 60, Brinkley was penniless and dead in San Antonio, felled by either cancer, a blood clot, or heart failure. The Brinkley fortune was quickly hidden, spent, and clandestinely distributed, and was all but gone by the late ’70s. Mrs. Brinkley was reduced to sleeping under her ermine cape when the mansion’s heat was turned off. And in a tragic denouement to the Brinkley saga, Johnny Boy, Brinkley’s son and heir, shot himself with a Luger pistol during a phone conversation with his mother. By the coming-of-age of my Texas generation, Brinkley was all but forgotten.
It’s an unwieldy story. One that, as I came to know it, unites the sprawling mythology of this early 20th-century “doctor” with the West Texas boyhoods of two artists, Nyman and Parman, who would bond through, among the more ordinary trappings of love, a deep synchronicity of shared mythology, whose lives were touched and transformed by the Brinkley epic, and who’ve made art out of it, together. Nyman and Parman met and fell in love 20 years ago — “He was my first date, really,” Kevin says, to which Thomas intones, “and he wasn’t a bit afraid of my corpus callosum,” that engine of communicative sensitivity between the hemispheres of the human brain which, as modern neurological science would have it, is largest in women and in gay men.
Nyman’s family is from Del Rio, and Kevin Parman’s is from Uvalde. Each boy spent time — without knowing each other — in the sprawling Brinkley manse, the Citizen Kane-esque pile of Mediterranean affectation and gorgeous ruin from where Brinkley transmitted chicanery and hope. The house and its grounds, like Dr. Brinkley himself, exude a fallen, Grey Gardens allure. Kevin Parman’s family — his father, particularly — acted as neighbors and extended family to the surviving Brinkleys (the Doctor died long before Kevin’s tenure in the territory), buying the widow Brinkley’s collection of Persian rugs and European antiquities, paying court to her, helping the Southern lady weather her widowhood. The Parmans even briefly considered adopting Angela, Brinkley’s granddaughter and the daughter of Johnny Boy, after the Brinkley heir’s suicide.
Johnny Boy’s suicide sets the opening scene of Roads Courageous, the work of musical theater that Nyman and Parman came to write together after purchasing and living in the Del Rio mansion for more than six years. Nyman was a Wall Street broker, and Parman an accomplished pianist when they moved to Del Rio from Manhattan. They undertook the house’s painstaking restoration while absorbing its mythos. I spent an evening with Thomas and Kevin in their office and apartment a couple of Fridays ago, where they vouchsafe literally hundreds of Brinkley artifacts, including original silver and china from the family yacht, photographs and periodicals about Brinkley’s controversial medical and radio practices, and original bottles of his patent medicine (!). They shared with me two numbers from Roads Courageous — works I feared might fall into the Christopher Guest Waiting for Guffman genre, but instead evoke the great musical moments of Sousa, Copland, and Sondheim, while attaining a startling and emotive originality that I truly look forward to seeing onstage.
At what point did y’all realize that the other of you were familiar with the Brinkley legacy?
Thomas Nyman: Fairly early on, though, you know, if you’re from West Texas, all those families are so interconected, it was really only just part of a larger …
TN: That’s right. And I knew, I always knew, that it was a really ambivalent `story` … you know, German friends of ours have a similar feeling about Hitler, really, this notion of “My God, how could people be so taken in by this person?” And, Brinkley, well, he killed people! The `grafting surgeries` resulted in people dying. And while I don’t want to underestimate the real, human cost of that — not at all — and while there was a moral ambiguity to his life’s work at the very least, and it is shameful … as an artist, I love him!
What is it about Dr. Brinkley that you love?
TN: I want to be very clear about this. And, frankly, Kevin voices this quite frequently in our work together … the question comes up: Did he believe in what he was doing? Did he believe that he was advancing the cause of science to improve the human condition? This is a truly ambivalent question. This is where at comes from, that uncertainty. Any work about him has to be, truly, an investigation.
At what point did you decide to make a musical about him?
TN: (laughs) That’s a long story.
Kevin Parman: Honestly, I was sort of over the Brinkley thing after we’d come from New York to Del Rio to San Antonio. We’d worked tirelessly on that house, we’d lived among the Brinkley artifacts, really, and then we decided to come back to `San Antonio`. I felt done with the whole thing.
TN: But let’s back up. Kevin and I had been living in New York City for quite a while, and the `Brinkley` house came up for sale. We bought it and moved back to West Texas …
Your New York friends must have thought you were crazy to move out to West Texas.
TN: Oh, yes!
And how did Del Rio receive you?
TN: Well, you know, there’s something very special about West Texas … But `Kevin` was adamant that we not be closeted, that we not be ashamed of who we are, and people were really very interested in what we were doing. Here we were …
KP: Two “gay boys” who were unashamed, who were very interested in the arts and social life, and who wanted to restore this interesting part of Texas history, and who had roots there. It wasn’t as though total outsiders had just shown up.
TN: Exactly. We were both familiar with the property and wanted it preserved. It really felt like a mission for us. It wasn’t like two New Yorkers just coming in for the exoticism or something.
It’s almost as though, if West Texas arranged gay marriages, y’all couldn’t be a better match.
TN: Yes, that’s true!
KP: Yes, our families are similar, though, of course …
TN: We’re not allowed to be married!
KP: But we’ve been together 20 years.
It must be wonderful, working together on this project.
TN: Well, I’ll tell you, it’s very special, ` in that` we’ve acquired a good number of artifacts, documents, furniture. … This dining-room table we’re sitting at is the very same one at which Dr. Brinkley recorded `his radio programs`, including “Medical Question Box.”
Tell me about that.
TN: Well, of course, this was somewhat after he `came under scrutiny` for his `goat-gland` procedures, so he wasn’t doing those as much, but instead had branched out into patent medicine ... and the genius was, he would use the radio programs. … He had a call-in show — and this was pioneering media — people would call in and say “I’m losing my hair, my side hurts,” and Dr. Brinkley would say, “Ah, yes, what you need is Brinkley’s Number 7 and Number 2,” and because he had this network of affiliated pharmacies, and would continually change the numbers on different `formulae` …
KP: The ingredients were never listed on the bottles, but the percent alcohol was. (chuckles)
TN: Yes, so people would go buy the medicines by number … and not only the callers would buy them, but anybody listening, across the country, `potentially` millions of people, would do the same. He was bringing in so many thousands of dollars per week, that the income was inestimable, really. And
because he’d number the formulae, and he would continually change the numbers, it was impossible for `competitors` to duplicate his remedies. If he was living now, he’d most likely be a televangelist.
So why isn’t that complete chicanery?
TN: This brings us back to the notion of whether or not he believed what he was doing was right. Listen, he ministered to hundreds of patients during the flu epidemic `of 1918`. And `Brinkley` was truly generous in regard to educational funding — he believed that every American child, every child, was due a good education. There are countless accounts of local schools `to which` he gifted thousands upon thousands of dollars for facilities, for faculty, for health care. He believed in universal health care! Whether or not he believed that the `specific medical recommendations` were beneficial, you know, that’s a huge question. I’m not sure we can answer it. It’s something Kevin and I talk about a lot.
KP: After we sold `the Brinkley mansion` and came back to San Antonio from what I like to call “Hell Rio,” I got tired of the Brinkley story. I was ready to move on. But Thomas described to me how it could be a theatrical experience …
TN: We’d lived together in Del Rio, and we’d gotten actually pretty involved in the arts, there.
KP: Inasmuch as there were any.
TN: He laughs, but really, in West Texas, unlike the South, people are very interested in anything new. I’ll tell you a story … after we’d been there fixing the place up for a while, some salesman came to our door saying, “Oooh, I just had to meet y’all!” And we said, “Why?” And he said, “I talked to a `neighbor` lady of y’alls, and I said, “Who lives in that big mansion down the road?” And she said, “Well, all I can tell you is, there’s two boys living there and only one car!” (laughs)
KP: But people were interested, and they got used to us.
TN: Anyway, we sold the house, we came back to San Antonio, and Kevin didn’t feel any more pull, any more juice, from the Brinkley story. But so I said to him, Kevin, listen to this: Say there’s Minnie, there, lost in the past, and the phone rings, and it’s Johnny Boy. And he’s asking for money, and she has to tell him, “There’s no more, we’ve gone though it all.” Because, you know, after the American Medical Association had declared him a quack, the family had to hide assets. … There were tens of thousands of dollars hidden with whatever far-flung, devious relatives, there were thousands of dollars of bills hidden in furniture after it became clear that `former patients` would be `bringing suit` …
KP: Angela told us that her father had ripped paintings to shreds looking for it, had destroyed artifacts.
TN: Oh, yes. Once a lady in San Antonio bought a fur `from the Brinkley estate` and found a brooch worth a quarter of milion dollars in its hem.
KP: So as he described the scene, I instinctively started to play `the piano`.
TN: And I described to him what it must have felt like, for this mother to tell her son that there was nothing left — and here was a man who’d gone to Yale, a photographer whose pictures had appeared in Life magazine — and he said to her, “I thought you’d want to hear this,” and then the shot of that Luger … and Kevin played as I was speaking, and what he played just brought up the little hairs on the back of my neck …
KP: I could picture it. I could feel it. I could never articulate it in the way that Thomas can ...
So is that how it came about? Kevin does the music, and Thomas the words?
TN: Well, except that there are songs that Kevin has wrtten the words for, too. We really just conceptualize the story.
It’s fascinating, how you’ve incorporated Brinkley’s work in a lot of diverse aspects of American culture: the mass media in the form of the “Medical Question Box” call-in show, his pioneering in radio, even the cosmological aspects.
TN: Yes, he broadcast “Star Girl” and the “Koran” — which was probably the only Arabic word they’d heard of — to bring in listeners interested in, well, anything metaphysical. Then there was the “Lonesome Cowboy” — all of whom are characters in Roads Courageous. The populist religious aspects, the medical aspects, music, it was all a part of what `Brinkley` did, and it’s all a part of our `musical`.
KP: America is surreal. We’re as exotic as anything.
TN: And what could be seen as pure evil we, instead, want to investigate as something Texan, American, a piece of history and art that has to do with masculinity, and history, and possibility, and comedy, and tragedy. They say that any American musical isn’t just a process of writing, but of rewriting.
KP: We’re ready for that.
GROSS ANATOMY DEPARTMENT... UH, WHAT DID HE DO WITH GOAT GLANDS, EXACTLY?
In the least invasive, and least lethal, of the goat-gland transplant operations, Dr. Brinkley would excise, either whole or in part, the testicle of a goat — goats being known for their randy natures (“Afternoon of a Faun,” anyone? ... And ever wonder where we get the adjective “horny?”) — and implant the matter into the scrotum of a human male who felt he was lacking in the organ department (much as with modern email come-ons, size, performance, and fertility were all said to be remedied). According to Brinkley lore, a heartbroken, childless, young Kansas farmer, while complaining to a young Dr. Brinkley about his, er, shortcomings, remarked that he wouldn’t have the same enthusiasm/fruitfulness problems if he were more like his goats.
“You don’t have the glands of a goat,” Brinkley is reported to have replied, and then … EUREKA!
Luckily for this young farmer, the procedure didn’t result in his death, but instead proved to have a sort of placebo effect (we guess), as Mrs. Kansas Farmer gave birth to “Billy,” a heathy baby boyo, some nine months later. `Ed. note: While it’s apparently true that a fortunate pregnancy coincidence boosted the doctor’s renown, the origin-story part of this tale should be taken with a big grain of salt.`
So, best-case scenario: As with the farmer, the men’s (and, later, women’s) bodies absorbed the foreign matter, which varied in size from the early, whole-goat-testicle experiments to what ultimately became just a teeny (and more readily absorbable) “sliver.”
Worst-case scenario? Well, Dr. Brinkley admitted to having signed at least 42 death certificates for adults who’d received the procedure, and who’d come to his clinic(s) completely healthy. Baaaaahh!
Still and all though, men and women remained willing to pay (inflation-adjusted, in today’s terms) upwards of $20,000 for the procedure, and Brinkley grew so famous for his billy innovations that for his (unsuccessful) bids for the Kansas governorship in the ’30s, he distributed small metal figurines of his cloven-hoofed friend, engraved, simply, FOR GOVERNOR.