Harold von Braunhut, who used comic book advertisements to sell whimsical mail-order inventions like Amazing Sea Monkeys, tiny shrimp that pop to life when water is added, died on Nov. 28 at his home in Indian Head, Md. He was 77.
His wife, Yolanda, said that he died after a fall but that the exact cause was not known.
Mr. von Braunhut was to quirky inventions what Barnum was to circuses. His X-Ray Specs, which advertisements said allowed wearers to see through flesh and clothing, are still selling after 50 years of guffaws. Hermit crabs as a pet? Thank Mr. von Braunhut for Crazy Crabs.
And yes, perhaps only this verbally snappy holder of 195 patents could have realized that what the world needed was Amazing Hair-Raising Monsters, which allow a child to add water to a card and watch hair grow on the previously bald pate of the monster depicted there.
But Mr. von Braunhut's pièce de résistance was Sea Monkeys — which come from dried-up lake bottoms, not the sea, and are not monkeys but brine shrimp. His extravagant claims for the crustaceans — for example, that they come back from the dead and that they can be trained and hypnotized — are convincing because they are sort of true. (The shrimp do follow light.)
Billions of shrimp have been sold, not to mention a Sea Monkey aphrodisiac and a wrist watch filled with swimming shrimp. There are Web sites for sea monkey fans; CBS briefly had a Sea Monkeys series on Saturday mornings; 400 million of them went into space with John Glenn in 1998; and, for the lazy, a new Sea Monkey video game allows a player to "virtually" care for a shrimp colony, lest the animals "virtually" die.
Mr. von Braunhut gravitated toward life's crazier edge, racing motorcycles as the Green Hornet and managing the career of a man who dived from 40 feet into a kiddie pool filled with 12 inches of water. He sold invisible goldfish by guaranteeing that owners would never see them.
In a radically different sphere, Mr. von Braunhut's hard right-wing beliefs drew notice. According to a 1996 Anti-Defamation League report, he belonged to the Ku Klux Klan and the Aryan Nations.
The Washington Post in 1988 published an article on him and his affiliations, adding that his relatives said he was Jewish. He himself repeatedly refused to discuss his beliefs on race or his own religious background with journalists, and in an interview on Thursday his wife declined to comment on the subject.
Harold Nathan Braunhut was born in Memphis on March 31, 1926, and grew up in New York City, where he lived until the mid-1980's, when he moved to Maryland and set up a wildlife conservation area.
He may have first noticed brine shrimp being sold in a pet store as fish food, or perhaps in a fisherman's bucket of live bait. In either case, the event occurred in 1957, by which time he had changed his name.
He learned that brine shrimp were a quirk of nature, surviving for years in suspended animation. In this state, they are powderlike and easily packaged. In 1960, he began advertising "Instant Life" in comic books.
In 1964 the animals became Sea Monkeys, because of their long tails. There were breeding improvements, and an ABC News commentator suggested in 1968 that the larger shrimp, now guaranteed to live two years, might be called sea apes.
The Los Angeles Times reported in 2000 that two distributors had canceled their licenses for Sea Monkeys because of discomfort about Mr. von Braunhut's views. The license is currently owned by Educational Insights of Rancho Dominguez, Calif.
George C. Artamian, president of the Sea Monkeys division of Educational Insights, said the earlier companies dropped the Sea Monkey license for business reasons, not the least being that Mr. von Braunhut was "not easy to work with." He said that when his company bought the license in 1995, Mr. von Braunhut promised to stop his public political activities, and that he believes Mr. von Braunhut did so.
Mr. von Braunhut was formerly married to Charlotte Braunhut of New York. He is survived by his wife, Yolanda Signorelli-von Braunhut; a son, Jonathan; a daughter, Jeanette LaMothe; and a brother, Gene.
And here's that Post article . . .
Copyright 1988 The Washington Post
April 25, 1988, Monday, Final Edition
SECTION: METRO; PAGE D1
LENGTH: 1933 words
HEADLINE: Contrasts of a Private Persona;
Md. Backer of Neo-Nazis Has Jewish Background, Sources Say
BYLINE: Eugene L. Meyer, Washington Post Staff Writer
Inventor Harold von Braunhut of Charles County, Md., has surfaced in recent months as an active supporter of the Aryan Nations, an anti-Semitic, white supremacist group.
Von Braunhut recently was reported to have pledged part of the proceeds of one of his inventions -- a spring-loaded, whiplike weapon known as the Kiyoga Agent M5 -- to the legal defense of Aryan Nations leader Richard G. Butler. Butler was acquitted April 6 of sedition charges at Fort Smith, Ark.
But strip away the public persona and another von Braunhut emerges. The 62-year-old supporter of neo-Nazi groups was born and raised in New York City as Harold Nathan Braunhut, a Jew, according to relatives and other sources.
Questioned recently about his Jewish background, von Braunhut said, "I will not make any statements whatsoever" unrelated to his present battle against a $ 2 billion development known as Riviera, proposed for a site adjoining his 70-acre Potomac River estate in Bryans Road, Md. Von Braunhut subsequently did not respond to phone calls and messages regarding this story.
"I'm not going to involve any of my activities -- political, religious, businesswise -- in the issues at hand," von Braunhut said in an earlier interview.
However, his other activities are well known to the leading organization that keeps track of extremist groups.
"We've long been monitoring Harold von Braunhut," said Irwin Suall, fact-finding director for the Anti-Defamation League of B'nai B'rith. "He's linked to some of the most extreme racist and anti-Semitic organizations in the country . . . . He has a reputation of being a generous contributor."
Von Braunhut's reputed generosity manifested itself in a fund-raising appeal in December from Butler, the Aryan Nations leader. Butler enclosed a Kiyoga brochure and said that the "manufacturer has made a pledge of $ 25 to my defense fund for each one sold to Aryan Nations supporters." He directed purchasers to write "AN" in small letters on the order form.
Butler plugged the item as "a fine article for self-protection (and all Whites are going to need all the protection they can get in the near future.)"
Photographs taken at a Charles County planning board hearing last month show von Braunhut wearing the Aryan Nations lapel pin.
Butler told the Spokane (Wash.) Spokesman-Review in January that von Braunhut was a longtime friend and a "member of the Aryan race who has supported us quite a few years." Butler was traveling and could not be reached for comment. The term "Aryan" is used by Nazis to mean a Caucasian of non-Jewish descent.
In an interview last month, von Braunhut said his family moved from Memphis to New York City in 1931. He said he moved to Charles County from Manhattan about four years ago in search of a tranquil, rural environment. "I escaped from New York," he said.
According to family members and the Anti- Defamation League's Suall, von Braunhut is Harold Nathan Braunhut, born March 31, 1926, in Manhattan. He is the son of Jeannette Cohen and Edward Braunhut, both Jewish. His mother's family was in the toy business. His father had a printing shop.
"I will not discuss anything with you," von Braunhut said in response to a reporter's questions about his family.
Von Braunhut is not the first person of Jewish background to become active in the anti-Semitic, neo-Nazi right.
In 1965, The New York Times disclosed the Jewish identity of Daniel Burros, a high-ranking Klansman and former American Nazi Party member who then shot himself to death. In 1978, Chicago Nazis rallied under the leadership of Frank Collin, the son of a Jewish concentration camp survivor. His family name had been Cohn.
Von Braunhut's first cousin, Herman J. Braunhut, a retired Yonkers, N.Y., high school social studies teacher who now lives in Deerfield Beach, Fla., recalled him and his family from years ago. "They were as religious as most other Jews," Herman Braunhut said. "I know they went [to synagogue] during the [Jewish] holidays . . . . I believe he was bar mitzvahed . . . . I probably was there."
He remembered that the cousin he knew as Harold Braunhut was "in the toy business" and "was always fooling with different kinds of gadgets."
Von Braunhut's father died Dec. 30, 1957, and his mother was killed in a car accident Jan. 7, 1960. Funeral services for his mother were conducted at a Jewish chapel on Fort Hamilton Parkway in Brooklyn.
The funeral home records include the phone number of von Braunhut's former wife, providing another link to him.
Both parents are buried at Wellwood, a Jewish cemetery at Pinelawn on Long Island. Wellwood records show that a Harold Braunhut paid a one-time fee of $ 1,296 in 1979 for the cemetery to provide perpetual care of the graves.
Von Braunhut's first wife, with whom he had a son, still lives in Queens, N.Y. She said she is in "occasional contact" with her former husband in Maryland and knows of his inventions and remarriage, but she said she was unaware of his other activities.
"I find this a little mind-blowing," she said when told of his anti-Semitic associations. "I would certainly not call him a left-wing Democrat, but this is incredible. This sort of shocks me."
Harold von Braunhut's brother was married in what the bride's sister recalled as a "big Jewish wedding," and their son was circumcised by a mohel, a religious official in the traditional Jewish ritual known as a bris.
Von Braunhut and his first wife were divorced in 1968, the former wife said. Some years later, he married his present wife, the former Yolanda Signorelli.
In an interview, the man known as Harold von Braunhut said he attended the City College of New York and Columbia University but did not obtain a degree.
Columbia records show a Harold Nathan Braunhut attending business school in 1945-46. The address he gave at the time was 2901 Ocean Pkwy., in the heavily Jewish Brighton Beach section of Brooklyn.
He said he served in the Merchant Marine, was a race car driver, got involved in "creative product design and development" and produced a television show.
His toy company maintained a sales office and display room at 200 Fifth Ave., the toy industry building that housed his mother's business. Callers to the New York office are referred to the Bryans Road, Md., phone number.
His best known invention may be the "Sea Monkeys," hybrid brine shrimp eggs that come to life when immersed in water.
His other products include "Balderdash," a bluffing game, and a "Mad Scientist Monster Lab." His patents for these and other inventions are in the name of Harold N. Braunhut. His earlier patents and registered trademarks give a New York address. Recent ones give Bryans Road.
It is the "Kiyoga Agent M5" self-defense weapon that has stirred the most controversy. Von Braunhut was arrested in 1979 on an illegal weapons charge in New York City for carrying the spring-coiled device. The charge was dismissed after a judge determined that the weapon did not require a license.
Thereafter, von Braunhut promoted the $ 59.95 item as perfect "if you need a gun but can't get a license." The product has been advertised in The Spotlight, the weekly publication of the right-wing Washington-based Liberty Lobby, and in the Aryan Nations newsletter, as part of Butler's fund raising.
Von Braunhut was listed among a group of "outstanding Aryan nationalist leaders" featured at a 1984 Aryan Nations Congress held at Hayden Lake, Idaho. His affiliation was listed on the program as "Imperial Order of the Black Eagle."
Von Braunhut was a leader of the Imperial Order of the Black Eagle, which operated in New York City in the early 1980s, according to the Anti-Defamation League. At meetings held at the Estonian House in Manhattan, speakers included the Rev. Robert Miles, a Fort Smith defendant, who spoke June 9, 1982. In advance, an Imperial Order newsletter billed Miles as "a famous opponent of the communist/zionist conspiracy . . . [who] is nationally known in 'rightist' political movements that reflect the highest aims and ideals of the White race."
Suall said the Imperial Order was more of a forum than an activist organization. He said the Anti- Defamation League was unaware of any activities of the Imperial Order since von Braunhut moved from Manhattan to Maryland.
In an interview in January with the Maryland Independent, a Waldorf newspaper, von Braunhut deflected questions about his political activities: "I'm not burning any crosses on my front lawn. I'm not holding secret Black Eagle meetings or racial meetings or KKK rallies. I'm not bringing any ideology to the area."
As the "committee spokesman" of SWORD (Save Wildlife. Oppose Riviera Development), von Braunhut has published ads in the local newspaper sounding apocalyptic themes, with references to "Judas goat business 'experts' " and rhetoric urging residents to "Join our struggle for God, Country and our American heritage of self-determination."
A "Harold Von Braun" was listed as speaking "on behalf of Rev. R. Butler, Aryan Nations" at a Washington Sheraton meeting Feb. 12 of people advocating repeal of the 14th Amendment, which granted to blacks as citizens equal protection of the laws. Robert Brock, a California black separatist who organized the program, said Butler, scheduled to stand trial then, recommended von Braunhut as his substitute. Brock said he called von Braunhut at his Maryland home.
At the meeting, Brock recalled in an interview, von Braunhut sat in the back, as if "he didn't want too much exposure. He was kind of a mysterious guy. He made his statement . . . in favor of the separation of the races . . . and he got out."
Also, von Braunhut was mentioned in an indictment of a top Ohio Klansman in 1985. Grand Dragon Dale R. Reusch was fined $ 5,000 and given three years' probation for violating federal gun laws. The indictment, which did not charge von Braunhut, said he financed Reusch's $ 11,954 purchase and took possession of the 83 automatic pistols, rifles and revolvers between November 1980 and December 1981.
Assistant U.S. Attorney Thomas M. Bauer, who prosecuted Reusch, said the defendant and von Braunhut were friends. He said von Braunhut was prepared to testify at the trial that he had lent Reusch the money for the purchase and then took possession of the guns to secure the loan. The trial was called off after Reusch pleaded guilty to one count of illegally transporting firearms across state lines.
"[Von Braunhut] was very cooperative and pleasant with us," Bauer said. "He brought some of his little toys along," including the Sea Monkeys.
Von Braunhut, who often dresses in black, said a close friend "prevailed on me to become ordained" in 1983 in what he described as "a small, ancient church" with no local congregation. "I'm a priest at large."
The Anti-Defamation League's Suall said rumors have circulated within the extreme right wing about von Braunhut's Jewish background. "But they felt he was a solid, dependable, extreme right-winger regardless . . . that he's one of them and can be trusted."
Indeed, among the pictures adorning the walls of his study in Charles County are a German war poster autographed in 1940 by Hermann Goering, an inscribed photograph of Benito Mussolini and a print of World War II German aircraft signed by the Luftwaffe's top four aces.
"I love the United States. I support the Constitution," von Braunhut said in an earlier interview. "I'm a very viable individual . . . . I'm not sinister at all."
Staff researcher Mary Louise White contributed to this report.
CORRECTION-DATE: April 27, 1988, Wednesday, Final Edition
In a Metro article Monday about Charles County inventor Harold von Braunhut, the origin and ownership of "Balderdash, the Hilarious Bluffing Game" was reported incorrectly. The trademark is held by Gameworks Creations Inc. of Toronto. Games Gang Ltd. of New York City holds exclusive manufacturing, marketing and distribution rights in the United States.