Marlon Brando: Brando's Island
Ten days of catching flies and counting grains of sand with Marlon Brandon on his Tahitian retreat - in happier times
Marlon Brando first saw Tahiti in 1960 when he arrived to shoot Mutiny on the Bounty, and after the South Pacific worked its magic on him he was never the same. He married his Bounty co-star, Tarita, and purchased a group of a dozen islands called Tetiaroa, where he built a retreat from the demands of Hollywood. Brando never spent more than six months at a time on his island, but Tarita raised their two children, Cheyenne and Teihotu, there and in Papeete. The actor tried to open the island up for tourism, but it was mostly for tax purposes-- after all, his whole point in buying Tetiaroa was to escape the cares of civilization. Still, a small hotel was eventually opened, and today it's possible for tourists to visit Brando's island.
It's unlikely they'll see Brando himself there, though-- he is embroiled in the court proceedings against his son, Christian, who has been accused of killing half-sister Cheyenne's lover, a Tahitian named Dag Drollet. At press time, Brando faced a terrible choice: whether to fly to Tahiti to be with his daughter Cheyenne, who has tried to commit suicide at least twice, and risk having his passport confiscated by the Tahitian government, or stay in Los Angeles to help his son fight the murder rap. Regardless of his decision, it's unlikely the island will ever be the same bucolic retreat for him that it was when writer Lawrence Grobel spent ten days there in 1978 to conduct an interview for Playboy. This is the unofficial Brando captured by Grobel in his journal--off the tape recorder and off the wall.
June 13: Day 1
I'm sitting next to Marlon Brando's wife Tarita, in the small twin engine plane that's taking us to Brando's Tahitian island. We're flying into thick gray clouds, and Tarita's frightened. She thinks we should turn back. Dick Johnson, Marlon's accountant, reassures her. "I called the island,'' he says. "It's not raining there."
Suddenly the sun is gone and rain pelts the plane's windows. Tarita clutches her 7-year-old daughter, Cheyenne. Below us is Tetiaroa: A dozen small flat islands, each covered with palm trees, arranged around a turquoise lagoon. We land on the airstrip of the only one of the islands that's occupied. The plane taxis the length of the island and stops a few yards from Marlon Brando's bungalow.
It isn't the beautiful South Sea landscape or the soft tropical air or the groves of coconut palms I notice first. It's the flies. I bat two or three away in the first few seconds.
Brando is waiting. He kisses Tarita on both cheeks, then comes to greet me. He is wearing an Indian cotton hooded shirt and pants, and with his graywhite hair, paunch, and wry, warm smile he has the appearance of an Indian holy man. He jokes about his outfit, which he says he wears because he is prone to sunstroke and must keep himself covered. He takes my bag and leads me to a thatched roof bungalow. Everything in the room is made from palm trees. Brando comments on my sandals which, he says, will not last because sand will get between my toes and the leather.
"You can tell a man's education by the spread of his toes,'' he says, making one of the seemingly random remarks that pepper his conversation. He puts his own bare feet on the windowsill. "If the toes are widespread, they grew up shoeless,'' he says, and then he proceeds to launch into a discourse on the nature of Tahitians. For two hours, he talks--of primitive tribes "looking through two thousand years of history with ballpoint pens through their noses,'' of the Untouchables in India, American blacks, Haitians, Africans, Japanese, Pakistanis, Polynesians.
He talks about his ambitions for his island. He'd like to build a school for the blind here and invite ocean-ographers to come and conduct experiments. He's had 40 scientists and a Japanese archaeologist check the land and he's had aerial photographs taken. But he's had to curtail the various projects because things tend to fall apart when he's gone. "You can't bring culture here, you have to adapt to theirs,'' he says, swiping at some flies, catching two in his hand. And Tahitians, he says, do not have goals or ambitions. "Nothing bothers them, if they have flies, they live with them. The flies breed in the fallen coconuts, and unless you go around picking up all the coconuts you can't get rid of them. But tell a Tahitian that and he doesn't believe it.''
Most people who come down here, he says, get bored after a few weeks. "When I first get here I'm like a discharged battery. It takes a few weeks to unwind, but eventually the island's slower rhythms sink in.'' He has stayed up to six months at one time. "When people come here to see me, they're usually all wound up, they talk fast, they've got projects, ideas, deals. And I sit here like a whale.''
A cool wind blows through the windows. The bungalow is close to the water's edge. Directly across the lagoon is another island. There are pigs on that one, he says. He'd like to bring over some wild animals--elephants, gorillas. But he's concerned they'd be neglected when he's gone.
I ask him about his children's education. He prefers to keep Teihotu and Cheyenne in Tahiti, where they can learn to enjoy life and nature. He doesn't approve of the peer pressure in America. "Teenagers are the most conformist of people. They are anything but radical. You've got to learn the right words, dress the right way.''
He asks if I'm hungry and we take a walk to his bungalow. He points out the plants growing in the sand in front of his door, which he says he waters with his urine. I notice the tall antenna in front of his hut, which he had built "out of rage because the phones are so bad." Inside there are two double beds, shelves of books and cassettes, a bottle of Rolaids, packages of grape Double Bubble sugarless gum. He shows me his ham radio, and sits down and twirls the dial. Foreign music and languages come over the radio. "That's China, their anthem... that's Mexico... that's Cuba.''
The flies continue to bother him. He slaps at one that lands on him, swipes at others that fly by. His hands are as fast as a lizard's tongue. "If you could take all the time you spend poised to catch flies and put it together you'd have a pretty neat vacation,'' he observes. Brando says he was once influenced by the jain philosophy, which holds that one shouldn't kill anything, not even a fly. He says it made sense for a while, until he thought it through--and realized how, with every breath you take, you're killing something.
Brando's accountant, Dick, the island foreman, William, and Tarita come by to discuss island business. I get up and Brando tells me to feel free to explore the island. "I'll come by later,'' he says. "We can watch the sun set. There's sometimes a touch of green just as it drops.''
Along the beach I watch hand-sized crabs crawling along the sand in their shells. Palm sprouts grow out of fallen coconuts. An abundance of coral, shells, black sea cucumbers lie at the bottom of the clear water. Lush clouds, blue sky, discarded radio batteries.
Dinner. Brando comes to get me. We are joined by Dick, Brando's secretary Caroline and her six-year-old daughter. The dining room has 20 tables, 19 of them empty. We eat meat, potatoes, fish, salad, ice cream, fruit, and cheese. Marlon says he's on a diet so he doesn't eat the bread. During dinner he tells a story of a woman in Hong Kong who brought her toy poodle to a restaurant and the waiter took it, cooked it, and fed it to her.
Later, Brando and I walk out on the short, narrow pier. He's full of assorted bits of arcane knowledge. He explains how transmitters work, how humpback whales can be heard singing for 500 miles. He picks off a small white flower from a tree and says, "Smell this. You can sometimes smell the island before you see it because of these.''
From a nearby bungalow, I hear the sound of television. Tarita and other Tahitians are watching. Brando prefers silence, but he's made the concession. TV brought the Twist to Tahiti in 20 minutes, he says.
June 14: Day 2
Brando is tied up with island business: developing tourism, building another house, supervising new construction of a reception area, having roofs rethatched. He's in conflict over tourists coming to his island. He's tired of having them snap pictures of him and at one point closed down the hotel and fired 35 people. But for tax purposes and because it's expensive to keep pouring money into the island he has reopened it for one- and two-day tours. Because there is a limited amount of water, tourism can never fully develop. "He'll always be losing money,'' Dick tells me.
In the evening Brando and I stretch out on the sand and talk for three hours, skipping from subject to subject. He talks about hustling, and says he's never promoted himself or his movies. Even a writer like Saul Bellow, he complains, goes on TV to hustle his work just like everybody else. Brando also speaks of poets he likes, Dylan Thomas and Kenneth Patchen, and quotes one of Patchen's small poems:
I bring up T.S. Eliot's "The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock'' and he says, "If the mermaids can't sing for me here, Christ, they never will.''
June 15: Day 3
"My favorite interview,'' Brando is saying, "was on television with Mrs. Arnold Palmer. The interviewer asked, 'Is there any special ritual that you go through before your husband plays?' She says, 'No.' 'Nothing at all?' 'Well, I kiss his balls.' The interviewer did a doubletake. 'You mean his golf balls, right?' 'Of course,' Mrs. Palmer said, 'what did you think I meant?' "
I was hoping this was a prelude to our sitting down with the tape recorder on, but Brando's got another day of island meetings before we can begin. "I'm not business oriented," he says. "I could have been a multimillionaire but then I would have had to have been that kind of a person, and I'm not." He adds that if Superman is as big a hit as they say it's going to be he'll make a lot of money because he's got a percentage. (According to Dick Johnson, when Brando finished shooting Superman, for which he was paid between $2 and $3 million, he returned to Tetiaroa and said to Dick, "Twelve days work, cash on the line, who's worth that kind of money?" "Nobody I know," Dick answered.)
Before dinner I join Brando at the bar. William, the island foreman, comes by and says he's been saving a very powerful palm wine for him to taste. It's been fermenting six months. Brando says to bring it and we both have a glass. He tells me he's had some really wild parties on the island. "Once, we got six kinds of drunk, it went all night. Tahitians can drink, party, fuck, sleep, drink, party, fuck all through the night. I can't do that. Once I'm drunk I'm out."
The one drink is enough for Brando. He goes into a rap about psychics, mediums and clairvoyants. They're mostly fakes, he says, but he believes in Peter Hurkos, who once came close to guessing what object Brando had carefully concealed inside a lucite box which he had wrapped in twine. It was an old nail from the original "Bounty" that a bald-headed man had given to him. Hurkos said that the object was weathered and had been given to Brando by a balding man. "I could have put anything into that box," Brando says. "A pig's knuckle, a fingernail."
After dinner we take a walk. There's a circle of light around the half moon. White birds dive into the water. The sky sparkles with stars and falling meteorites. He picks up a handful of sand. "There are probably more individual grains in two handfuls of sand than there are stars in the universe," he says.
As we talk I am distracted by what appears to be a white blur crossing over the lagoon. The second time it occurs I mention it to Brando, who jumps up like a shot. "Christ, why didn't you tell me? I can always talk." Once he and Tarita were lying on the sand and she saw something blue rise out of the sea and come down again. "I'm always looking for that sort of stuff," he says.
June 16: Day 4
We tape all afternoon, six hours. Brando's a bit pontifical at times but that's to be expected. He must have caught two dozen flies.
At dinner he is quiet. He breaks the silence with a question: "So what do you think's going to happen in Kananga?" Rhodesia might straighten itself out, he says, but South Africa is going to explode.
Afterwards, out on the pier, he watches the lagoon. "If you had a 34-foot aluminum straw and you were going to suck up Fanta, you could only get it thirty-three feet because that's all a vacuum pump can pump," he says.
Then he gets down on his belly and stares at the water. He's puzzled by changes in the current. He says he's never seen anything like it in the 15 years he's been visiting his island. He seems very concerned.
June 17: Day 5
"Another day in paradise," Brando says with a laugh at breakfast. He entertains Caroline's daughter by closing his eyes and swiping at a group of flies buzzing around the grapefruit. He asks her to guess how many he's caught. She says three. He flings them onto the floor and they count. Eight. While she is counting he catches another fly and pops it into his mouth. When she looks at him he opens his mouth and the fly comes out.
He spends the morning talking on his ham radio, using another name and never revealing his true identity. He talks with someone living underground conducting medical experiments at the South Pole. A man living 500 miles west of Miami tells him how lightning once went through his phone and burned his wife's nose. One transmission clears up a mystery. Brando finds out that there was an earthquake in Samoa last night--the changing current he observed on the pier was the effect of a tidal wave caused by the quake.
He leaves the radio, listens for a moment, says a plane is coming. I hear nothing for a minute, then the faint sound of an engine. Brando tells me he has very sensitive hearing. He's been to doctors about it because even the hitting of a spoon on a cup can irritate him. The doctors told him there was nothing wrong. "You hear what you want to hear,'' they said. "Maybe that's so," Marlon says now, "maybe it is psychological. Because sometimes I can't hear what people are saying. I can hear high-pitched noises and sounds, but I can't hear human voices."
The plane lands, bringing his son Teihotu and some friends. Tomorrow is Father's Day and they have come from Papeete, where they are still in school, to spend a few days. Brando and Tarita greet them, then he returns to his bungalow as Tarita sweeps the compound. "I never saw anybody work as hard as Tarita," he says. "All she does is work."
Towards evening I walk over to the bar and talk with George. I ask him if he knows who Marlon is. "An actor," George says. Is he aware that Brando's considered to be one of the world's greatest actors? "Auf, well, everybody's the greatest," George answers. "What I do, what he does, it's a business. He's an actor, I'm a bartender. People like me at what I do. I could be an actor."
June 18: Day 6
Although Brando's feeling under the weather we are going on a picnic to another island. On the catamaran he asks, "How fast do you think we're going?" We all guess. "22 miles per hour," he answers, explaining that the catamaran goes 12 mph and the wind is adding another ten. He knows this, he says, because there are still flies on the boat and "flies can fly up to 22 miles per hour."
A Tahitian who had trailed a line behind the catamaran hauls in a large fish. Then he removes the hook and chops the head. Brando is squeamish. "Isn't that horrible? But that's the nature of the beast. They don't want to eat corn flakes."
When we reach the other island, Brando asks 17-year-old Teihotu to carry him on his back. He doesn't want to get wet. Teihotu complies.
We gather wood and start a fire. Tarita and her crew go off to fish by the reef. Brando picks up a crab, plays with it, wedging a sliver of wood between the crab and its shell so he can examine it.
"Do you think you could make the Brooklyn Bridge out of all the bottle caps in the world?" he asks. When I say yes, he says, "Boy, you're sure of that one, aren't you?"
Someone wants a Sprite, someone else a Fanta, but there is no bottle opener. Brando uses a Coke bottle to open the Fanta by pushing one cap under the other. But the wrong bottle opens and the Coke explodes all over his face and clothing. "Anybody want Coke?" he deadpans.
June 19: Day 7
Marlon comes by in the afternoon, a glob of suncream on his nose. It's hot, windless, and he calls to William to knock out three more windows in my bungalow so the air can circulate better. He picks up my telescope, looks through it, and says, "This is a ten-power." I ask him how he knew, and he talks about looking through it with one eye and opening the other eye and measuring the distance between both views. What he actually did was read on the telescope that it was ten-power.
As we walk back to his bungalow he says, "I bet Caroline you wouldn't say anything about this shit on my nose." "You won," I say.
That evening, another bet. Marlon says the dinner log was beaten, Caroline says it wasn't. The loser has to stand on a table and sing and dance. They ask me if the signal had been given, and I say yes. Marlon looks pleased and insists Caroline pay the bet. She seems embarrassed, but climbs onto a table and does a two-step while singing "Somewhere Over the Rainbow." After a few bars she gets down, but Marlon says, "No, you have to finish." She gets back onto the table.
I ask him if he loses many bets. "No, I don't," he answers. "I've been very lucky."
When Caroline drinks a Coke, Marlon says she shouldn't because it's too fattening. "It is not," she says. "There are only 80 calories in a six ounce glass." Marlon sees doubt in her eyes and jumps on her, claiming there are at least 200 calories. He wants to bet. She's game. He comes up with this: the loser has to sell used tires on the corner of Mulholland and Laurel Canyon in L.A., during rush hour. When Caroline wants something more immediate he comes up with the loser having to interrupt William seven times in one day while he is talking with someone else, saying, "William, there's no toilet paper."
William is supervising the cutting of new windows. He has been on the island for six years and has seen many changes, "some good, some bad." Projects get started, abandoned, contractors come and go. Has he ever seen any of Marlon's films? "Yes, The Godfather I liked." Does Marlon remind him of the Godfather? "Oh yes, yes he does. Sometimes." Does he ever talk to Brando about it? "No, he doesn't like to talk about movies. If you ever say anything he just changes the subject. But he's a good man to work for, I like him."
Eri, Marlon's cook, has also seen some of her boss's films. "Something in Mexico," she remembers. And "the movie with a trolley. A love story about a man and his wife and her sister. I liked that. He was very young then, slim." She's also seen an Elvis Presley movie once. "He was singing in Hawaii. He was very handsome." Can she distinguish between Brando and Elvis as actors? "Oh, they're both very nice," she says.
June 20: Day 8
From my window I see Caroline's daughter, clutching a walkie-talkie with both hands. She is being directed around the island by Brando, who sits in his bungalow. "Where are you now?" his voice asks. She shouts an answer. "Don't shout," he tells her, "it comes out garbled and I cannot tell you what to do." She whispers back, "I'm not at the turtle cage yet, Marlon."
In the evening Brando and I play chess. He's a bold player, and wins every game. "Nobody knows what makes a good chess player," he says. "It doesn't have to do with intelligence, it has to do with a sense of space. Architects usually make good chess players."
He tells a story about Humphrey Bogart, who he says played a sadistic game of chess. Bogie was once set up by some friends who watched him always beat one of the guys on the set. They "wired" the guy and brought in a chess master, who hid in a room above them with a pair of binoculars and told the guy how to move. As Bogie was losing he got so angry he upset the table and stormed out.
June 21: Day 9
There's a full moon, and after dinner we go night sailing. Caroline and her daughter wear bathing suits, Brando wears a yellow waterproof windbreaker with hood, rubber pants, and boots. Looks like something out of a chewing tobacco ad. After an hour something on the mast snaps and steering becomes difficult. We pull in.
Back at his bungalow, during our last taping session, Brando talks about women with big asses, which he prefers to women with small ones. "A woman with a small ass I treat almost as if she's paralytic."
He tells me stories about women in his past. There was one particularly memorable one who called him all the time when he lived in an apartment in Greenwich Village. She wouldn't tell him her name for six months, but said that she made her money by robbing people. She told him she and a friend were into cannibalism and they could take him to a place in New Jersey where they would eat him. That was sufficiently bizarre for him to at least find out who she was, so he told her to come by his place. When she did, he opened the door slightly with the chain in place, and told her to put both her hands through the door, where he grabbed them and then frisked her for a gun. When he let her in she took out a wad of bills and asked if he needed money. Brando said she was into a heavy Jesus trip and he was her Christ. She wanted to wash his feet. Brando agreed, and became aroused when she did. "I started feeling her body, undressing her, playing with her tits. She got all trembly, started shaking. I got excited and tried to fuck her. I don't remember if I did or not, if I got it in or not, because she was just shaking like a leaf."
Then she got real weird. She'd stand outside his door, wouldn't leave him alone. This went on for years. He talked about her to his shrink and got her to go see him too. The shrink said the girl had a "fixation complex" and if rejected she could get violent. Brando had a friend of his begin trailing her. Once she called him from a phone booth, and he told her he didn't want to see her anymore. The girl, according to his friend's report, started to pound the phone booth, breaking the glass, cutting herself up. Then she went to her apartment, took down all her Streetcar Named Desire posters, and burned them outside. She stood and stared at the rubble for a few hours.
Sometimes Brando gets a vague, distant look in his eyes and stares out at the sea. Questions go unanswered. He says he doesn't have any ambition left, doesn't want to do the major plays, act for the sake of acting. He doesn't feel he has to prove himself. As Orson Welles once said, you don't have to repeat yourself to show you can still do it. The fact that you've done it once is enough.
June 22: Day 10
The plane comes in the morning. Brando is still asleep. We had talked until 2 a.m. When I said goodnight he walked me to the door, polite, tired, a gracious host.
I fly to Tahiti with Tarita. She gives me a ride to my hotel. I ask her which she prefers, living on the island or in the city. "Here," she says, "in the city. He would like me to stay there. Once I stayed there two months. When he's not there it gets lonely. That's no kind of life."
I ask if she had any desire to be in more movies. "No," she says. Then, "Well, I would like, but he doesn't want me to. He wants me to stay home and raise the children."
At the hotel I kiss both her cheeks and say good-bye. Wondering if the mermaids will ever sing for Marlon Brando.
Lawrence Grobel, a frequent contributor to Movieline, wrote last month's cover story on Kim Basinger.