by Evan Hughes
“Sea-Monkeys, do monkeys / Story of my life / Send three bucks to a comic book / Get a house, car and wife” — Liz Phair, “Gunshy”
In a 2002 interview with Erik Lobo of Planet X magazine, Harold von Braunhut comes across as the kind of charming old guy who might detain you in conversation a bit too long if you were volunteering at a home for the aged. An inventor and entrepreneur who brought us legions of wonderfully gimmicky toys before he died, at 77, in 2003, von Braunhut holds forth about times gone by, interrupted only when his cockatoo chews at the wire connecting his hearing aid to the telephone.
Von Braunhut was a short, balding man who had the accent that turns “beautiful” into “bee-YOO-dee-full,” and he often cast himself as the guy they all doubted until he showed ’em. In the interview he seems to delight in telling Lobo about his most famous and successful novelty item, Sea-Monkeys. These little critters, you may recall, carry with them the promise of “a BOWLFULL OF HAPPINESS — Instant PETS!” They’re supposed to arrive in the mail, spring to life in water, and soon start horsing around and making babies. According to von Braunhut, the problem with selling Sea-Monkeys early on, ya see, was that “nobody believed it!” He adds, “It’s a little bit like the story of the Wright brothers.”
The accounts Von Braunhut gave of his adventures in American kitsch are consistently winning. Granted, he makes some claims that a skeptic is inclined to independently confirm. At some point in the years after he raced motorcycles as The Green Hornet, von Braunhut worked as a talent agent of sorts. He tells Planet X about a stunt performer he used to manage — the article has von Braunhut calling him “a fella by the name of Henry Lamore” — who would dive from a height of 40 feet into a kiddie pool filled with 12 inches of water. I began to lose faith while trying to verify this doozy, but it turns out that the Internet allows you to watch a man named Henri LaMothe still pulling off this feat at 71 years old, as an opening act for Evel Knievel.
As anyone sold by the Sea-Monkey ads could tell you, it was hard to say exactly where von Braunhut was walking on the terrain between truth, embellishment and con. That was his gift. He convinced us to look at the jazz hands and lose sight of the footwork. Von Braunhut’s inventions were not quite what they seemed to be. Neither was he.
If you so much as flipped through a single comic book sometime after 1962, von Braunhut’s ads might have gotten you curious about whether his doodads worked even approximately as advertised. For Sea-Monkeys, the ads portrayed a cheerful family of humanoid creatures bearing crowns of some sort and hanging out by their underwater castle. Mom had blond hair. The fine print said something about “caricatures,” but never mind — the bigger type spun a magical tale of pets that would be “like a pack of friendly trained seals” if you followed the directions. Von Braunhut wrote the copy himself, for at least the first couple decades.
Ads for another von Braunhut invention, the X-Ray Specs (not to be confused with the English punk band X-Ray Spex), promised the power to see through obstacles and showed a guy grinning at a woman in a dress. Again there were words like “illusion” — the effect is created by feathers or grooves in the lenses, von Braunhut’s patents show — but that wasn’t where the average comic book reader focused his attention. In von Braunhut’s most impressive marketing coup, he peddled “Invisible Goldfish.” The kit included a glass bowl, a handbook and fish food. That was it. He said they sold out. There was a 100 percent guarantee that the buyer would never see the fish, and I’m 100 percent sure that guarantee never failed. The greatest trick the Invisible Goldfish ever pulled was convincing the world they existed.
How did we fall for von Braunhut’s copy, even as children? It’s hard to remember a prior state of innocence once you’ve come to understand what salesmanship is. When it came to X-Ray Specs, if you were savvy enough to be suspicious, you were also savvy enough to understand that there were naughty secrets your parents didn’t want you to know — maybe this was one of them? Hey, maybe it was worth a buck to find out.
In a lot of cases, von Braunhut’s claims were sort of true. Sea-Monkeys are a variant of brine shrimp, which are harvested for use as fish food and begin their life as cysts that can last for years in a kind of suspended animation if kept in dry conditions. Von Braunhut’s creatures come in packets, looking like white powder. With proper care, Sea-Monkeys can grow to be visible and pretty neat, even if they bear no resemblance to the illustration. Watch them dancing around to Chopin.
Von Braunhut said that he brought us Sea-Monkeys because of his love of the natural world and the animal kingdom. The Safeway near von Braunhut’s home in Bryans Road, Maryland, would set aside expired bread for von Braunhut and his wife, Yolanda, a considerably younger, chatty brunette, as one former store employee I contacted remembers. The couple would sometimes buy two or three cartloads of the bread at a time. They were feeding animals at their 70-acre property, which they called the Montrose Wildlife Conservation.
Legions of children enchanted by Sea-Monkey lore have seen disappointed to see their smelly little specks die in a matter of days; but others have made obsessive websites and written books about their ongoing Sea-Monkey love. Sea-Monkey eggs went to space with John Glenn in 1998 and came back still good to go. The creatures inspired a (bizarre) short-lived live-action series for kids on CBS in the early ’90s, and they were featured on “South Park” and in a Pixies song. Michael Birnbaum’s Empire Pictures bought the film rights to Sea-Monkeys in 2006 to develop an animated movie.
Von Braunhut was a wellspring of ideas, and some of his novelties relied less on inflated ad copy. He invented those dolls’ eyes that close on their own when the doll is laid down on its back. And he was the man behind the game Balderdash, which tests your ability to call baloney. (I won’t linger on the irony.) If you grew up in America and even dabbled with toys and games, going through the 195 patents that von Braunhut held is bound to bring a smile.
Until you see this one: “Spring whip defensive mechanism having means to permit disassembly thereof.” Don’t pull on this thread unless you want things to unravel.
The “spring whip defense mechanism” was brought to market as the Kiyoga Agent M5, a spring-loaded rigid whip that telescopes out of its handle with the press of a button. When von Braunhut was passing through security at LaGuardia Airport in 1979, his attaché case carrying six of these devices attracted attention, and he was arrested on illegal-weapons charges. He won a dismissal on the grounds that the Kiyoga Agent M5 was not a “bludgeon” and did not meet the criteria of any banned weapon. But the device was advertised as the answer “if you need a gun but can’t get a license,” because “its hornet’s nest of piano wire steel springs inflict excruciating agony on your assailant.” A courtroom demonstration showed that its effectiveness didn’t quite live up to the billing, which is hard to believe, I know.
But where was it advertised? One venue was the newsletter of the Aryan Nations, the anti-Semitic, white supremacist group. Its founder and then leader was Richard Girnt Butler, whom the Southern Poverty Law Center called “the hub of the wheel of racist revolution … the elder statesman of American hate.”
When Butler was under indictment for sedition in 1987 for allegedly plotting to overthrow the U.S. government, he sent out a fundraising appeal. It included a brochure for the Kiyoga Agent M5 and stated that the “manufacturer has made a pledge of $25 to my defense fund for each one sold to Aryan Nations supporters.” (Butler and his codefendants were later acquitted by an Arkansas jury.) Speaking to the Spokane Spokesmen-Review in 1988, Butler described Harold von Braunhut as a longtime friend “who has supported us quite a few years.” And in fact Braunhut appeared frequently at the yearly Aryan World Congress at Butler’s “whites only” compound in Hayden Lake, Idaho, sometimes as the lighter of the burning cross, according to the Los Angeles Times.
An Assistant U.S. Attorney, Thomas M. Bauer, told the Washington Post that in a 1985 weapons case against a member of the Ku Klux Klan, Grand Dragon Dale R. Reusch, von Braunhut was prepared to testify that he had lent Reusch about $12,000 so he could buy 83 firearms. Bauer told the reporter that von Braunhut was “very pleasant and cooperative” and “brought some of his little toys along,” including Sea-Monkeys.
The general Aryan Nations view holds that Jewish people are directly descended from the devil. It seems clear that von Braunhut, who owned Nazi memorabilia and once said Hitler “just got bad press,” signed on to these beliefs. But one has to wonder what brought him to the point of nodding along when his friend Butler, for instance, described Jews as “the bacillus of the decomposition of our society.” Aryan Nations members might have been dismayed to hear that von Braunhut engaged a law firm called Friedman and Goodman early in his career. They might also have been puzzled that his name was listed on early patents as Harold N. Braunhut. The middle initial stands for Nathan. Harold von Braunhut was born and raised Jewish.
It’s not entirely clear why the Aryan Nations didn’t cast von Braunhut out after the Washington Post gave a thorough account of his Jewish origins in 1988. Von Braunhut said, “I will not make any statements whatsoever” on the topic when questioned for the article, then stopped returning calls. The article also reported that he was born in Manhattan and that he gave an address in (heavily Jewish) Brighton Beach, Brooklyn, when he briefly attended Columbia University. He lived in New York City into the mid-’80s. The Post reported that a Harold Braunhut paid for the upkeep of his parents’ graves at a Jewish cemetery in Long Island in 1979. Which is hard to square with the fact that von Braunhut was helping a Klansman buy 83 guns in 1980 at the latest.
Perhaps the Aryan Nations allowed von Braunhut to stay in the fold because Butler liked having a wealthy backer, as Floyd Cochran, a former spokesman of the group who later renounced it, has said. Von Braunhut made a lot of money from all those whimsical inventions that kept America laughing.
It also seems plausible that the Aryan Nations is the kind of organization that believes the Washington Post needs to stop telling lies and get the hell off my lawn. If there’s a massive conspiracy to bury the truth and subjugate white people, the Washington Post is definitely part of it.
Members of the Aryan Nations wanted to believe what they wanted to believe. For these hateful people, von Braunhut said all the right things, made the right contributions and got the same hard time from the media that they did. As for the, uh, rumors about his past, the Aryan Nations founder himself seemed to be looking the other way. “Sea-Monkeys, do monkeys / Story of my life.”
It’s tempting to think that von Braunhut’s biggest con was convincing himself to buy into preposterous and despicable ideas. Unfortunately for the world, however, that’s not so unusual. More extraordinary is this: Richard Girnt Butler, who preached that Jews were descended from Satan, had a man who was known to be born Jewish preside over his wife’s funeral in 1995. Harold von Braunhut had won Butler over. That’s what salesmen do.
Von Braunhut had the knack for making facts go away. Look at the hands, lose sight of the feet. The man made a lot of us believe that we could see through clothes, that smiling underwater pets would arrive in the mailbox. He made us believe in invisible goldfish.
Photo of actual sea monkey by you get the picture, used with permission.