If I hadn’t been an actor, I’ve often thought I’d have become a con man and wound up in jail.”
So writes the iconic Marlon Brando in his 1994 autobiography, Brando: Songs My Mother Taught Me, co-written by Robert Lindsey. The smoldering star of A Streetcar Named Desire, On the Waterfront, The Godfather, and Last Tango in Paris, Brando redefined what it meant to be an actor and a star.
Yet the man behind the star is a much more slippery affair. Songs My Mother Taught Me reads in part as an apologia from a charming, brilliant, curious, deeply eccentric man who claims he used to be angry, used to be bad to women—without offering much proof of his professed transformation.
Brando refused to write about his wives or his eleven children, and uses pseudonyms for the romantic partners he does discuss—meaning that we don’t hear about his alleged relationships with the likes of Richard Pryor, Shelley Winters, Christian Marquand, and Ursula Andress. Though he can’t resist admitting to a quick affair with his friend Marilyn Monroe—whom he believes was murdered.
But then again, who knows what Brando really believed? As his longtime secretary told William J. Mann—author of the overly sympathetic but beautiful written biography The Contender: The Story of Marlon Brando—Brando was a “master manipulator” who “did not tell the truth if a lie would suffice.” It’s an assessment Brando would have agreed with. “I’m good at telling lies smoothly, giving an impression of things as they are not and making people think I’m sincere,” he writes. “A good con man can fool anybody, but the first person he fools is himself.”
Marlon Brando Jr. was born April 3, 1924, in Omaha, Nebraska. His parents were larger than life: the vivacious, beautiful bohemian Dorothy and Marlon Sr., a handsome, womanizing traveling salesman and “card-carrying prick” whose “blood consisted of compounds of alcohol, testosterone, adrenaline and anger.”
Brando viscerally described a gut-wrenching, neglected childhood centered around his beloved mother’s torturous alcoholism. Brando and his two older sisters would spend hours searching for their mother, who disappeared frequently during benders, only to return home to give family life another go. “Sometimes alcohol sent her into a crying jag,” he writes. “But initially it usually made her happy, giddy and full of mirth, and she might sit down at the piano and sing to herself, and we often joined in.”
Called “Bud” by his family, the sensitive, curious Brando was already acting out in kindergarten due to his unstable family life. “I was the bad boy of the class and had to sit under the teacher’s desk,” he recalls, “where my primary activity was staring up her dress.”
As the family moved around, ending up at a farm in Libertyville, Illinois, the increasingly angry, defiant Brando was left to his own devices. Obsessed with rhythm, he wanted to become a drummer, and became a self-proclaimed master of “pranks,” which he brags about with juvenile relish. After being fired as a teenage usher in a movie theater for refusing to wear a shirt under his hot jacket, he stuffed the air conditioning system with rotten broccoli and limburger cheese.
Fed up with the sixteen-year-old Brando’s bad attitude, his father sent him to his alma mater: the Shattuck Military Academy in Faribault, Minnesota. But Brando could not be tamed. “I did my best to tear the school apart and not get caught at it,” he writes, in what could be a manifesto for his life. “I wanted to destroy the place. I hated authority and did everything I could to defeat it by resisting it, subverting it, tricking it and outmaneuvering it.”
The Wild One
Expelled from military school, Brando ended up in New York, joining his sister in Greenwich Village. In 1943, he enrolled in the New School for Social Research and quickly became the school’s resident hot rebel. “He was laughing at all of us,” classmate Elaine Stritch told Mann. “I have a memory of him laughing at everything and everybody.”
But Brando, who admits to being deeply insecure and out of his depth, stopped laughing long enough to listen to the legendary drama teacher Stella Adler. He lovingly credits her with teaching him to act and welcoming him into her cultured, intellectual family. (He also brags about grabbing her breasts. That’s Marlon!)
According to Mann, Adler was the first to recognize Brando’s natural genius, pointing to an acting exercise where she asked students what a chicken would do if a nuclear bomb went off. Mann writes:
In 1944, Brando landed on Broadway in I Remember Mama. But he claims he didn’t take it seriously, a point he tediously reiterates throughout Songs My Mother Taught Me. “Acting, not prostitution, is the oldest profession in the world,” he writes. “Even apes act.”
In spite of—or perhaps because of—this inborn cynicism and disdain, Brando’s explosive talent and beauty powered him through. But his tolerance for bullshit was low, and he proudly recounts a cattle call on Broadway where he asked to say something from the stage. “I thought the situation utterly stupid and absurd,” he writes. “After a lengthy pause, I said: ‘Hickory, dickory, dock, the mouse ran up the clock. The clock struck one, the mouse ran down, hickory, dickory, dumb.’ I accentuated the word dumb.”
Cock of the Walk
“With women, I’ve had what you might call a Rolodex life,” Brando writes. “I enjoy identifying and pushing the right emotional buttons of women—which usually means making them feel that they are of value to me and offering them security for themselves and their children. The less likely I was to seduce a woman, the more I wanted to succeed.”
Throughout Songs My Mother Taught Me and The Contender, it feels like the reader is getting a masterclass in gaslighting by a messy, weird, emotionally troubled womanizer. Both books blame Brando’s mother for his abhorrent treatment of women and want to be perceived as enlightened merely for recognizing his problematic behavior.
As Mann notes, Brando seems to have enjoyed shocking his co-writer Lindsey with tales of his hundreds of conquests with whom he hadn’t “spent more than two minutes.” In one of the most disturbing anecdotes, Brando brags about sleeping with his mentally ill stalker, detailing their sexual encounter with relish. He also boasts of his delight in cuckolding men who displayed “overt masculinity” like his father- oftentimes his friends.
Brando’s refusal to discuss his wives or most of his serious girlfriends may seem like a gentlemanly gesture, but it also seems to be a form of self-protection. Case in point: he is totally mum on his tortured relationship with Rita Moreno, whom he met on the 1954 set of the film Desiree. “To say that he was a great lover,” Moreno writes in Rita Moreno: A Memoir, “sensual, generous, delightfully inventive — would be gravely understating what he did not only to my body, but for my soul.”
But Brando’s admitted inability to be monogamous and his manipulations made these pleasures a double-edged sword. During their eight-year romance, Brando was also sleeping with his first two wives, Anna Kashfi and Movita Castaneda, and his Tahitian partner Tarita Teriipaia. Moreno tried to retaliate with Dennis Hopper and Elvis Presley, but Brando was her “drug.” Madly in love, she was shattered when she discovered she was pregnant, and Brando immediately arranged for her to have an abortion.
In 1961, at the height of her success in West Side Story, a distraught Moreno took an overdose of pills at Brando’s house. She survived, and finally found the strength to leave. According to Mann, once it was over, Brando asked his secretary, “Can you believe she really thought I loved her?”
Rebel With a Cause
“Elia Kazan claimed I once told him, ‘Here I am, a balding middle-aged failure, and I feel like a fraud when I act. I’ve tried everything—fucking, drinking, work—and none of it means anything,’” Brando writes. “I don’t remember saying that, but I may have. With so much prejudice, racial discrimination, injustice, hatred, poverty, starvation and suffering in the world, making movies seemed increasingly silly and irrelevant, and I felt I had to do what I could to make things better.”
And that Brando most certainly did. Unlike most celebrities, Brando was an early advocate and activist for progressive causes who actually backed his talk with action. “I had never met any white man like Marlon,” his friend James Baldwin recalled, per Mann. “Totally unconventional and independent, a beautiful cat. Race truly meant nothing to him — he was contemptuous of anyone who discriminated in any way.”
As Brando entered what he called his “fuck you” years, he was everywhere: meeting with the Black Panthers and Native American activists, fighting the death penalty, and working as a roving ambassador for UNICEF.
But Brando’s most infamous action of resistance came in 1973, when he enlisted Sacheen Littlefeather to decline his Academy Award for The Godfather. In doing so, he helped highlight the plight of Indigenous people to a nation in denial, despite the industry crowd’s boos. “Those people were booing at me,” he recalled, per Mann. “They were booing because they thought, ‘This moment is sacrosanct, and you’re ruining our fantasy with intrusion of a little reality.’
Brando’s disdain for authority and pomposity often came out in the form of his beloved practical jokes. Once, when forced to sign a two-picture deal with Fox head Darryl Zanuck—whom he claims “bore a striking resemblance to Bugs Bunny”—he signed the contract in invisible ink. Of course, like most of his “jokes,” this simply caused an inconvenience to someone else—this time his harried agent.
He tells a mildly amusing story about loading down the stretcher he was carried on in The Godfather with weights, as his co-star huffed and puffed trying to lift him. But other “pranks” he brags about—like pretending he was going to jump out the window at a party in NYC, sending his friends into a panic—are just plain cruel.
However, sometimes Brando’s attempts to subvert absurd machismo are delightfully satisfactory. While shooting 1990’s The Freshman in Little Italy, Brando recalls that he was summoned to see Mafia boss John Gotti at his club. There he found Gotti surrounded by his goons. Brando decided to perform a magic trick:
The room turned silent and menacing. “Suddenly I realized what everyone was thinking: had I tried to make a fool out of the boss in front of his crew?” Brando writes. “Apparently no one thought it was funny. ‘Thanks a lot, Mr. Gotti,’ I said after an awkward pause. ‘It was nice to talk to you,’ and I left without saying anything except good-bye.”
On an Island
If Brando accomplishes anything in his memoir, it is to reinforce his opinion that fame is stupid, weird, and destructive. “Fame has been the bane of my life. I have been forced to live a false life,” he writes. “All the people I know, with the exception of a handful, have been affected by my fame …People don’t relate to you as the person you are, but to a myth they believe you are, and the myth is always wrong.”
The curse of fame came to visit the Brandos in 1990, when a family tragedy became an international scandal. On May 16, 1990, Brando’s eldest son, Christian, shot his pregnant sister Cheyenne’s boyfriend, Dag Drollet, at his father’s house on Mulholland Drive. According to Christian, who suffered from drug dependency, his schizophrenic sister claimed Drollet had beat her.
The subsequent trial became a media sensation. On the stand, a distraught Brando, overweight and bowed by grief, still flashed his wry contrarian spirit. When asked to swear in, Brando replied, “I will not swear on God, because I don’t believe in the conventional sense and in this nonsense. What I will swear on is my children and my grandchildren.”
Brando says not a word about the shooting, or much of anything about his children in Songs My Mother Taught Me. But according to Mann, after Christian’s manslaughter conviction and Cheyenne’s death by suicide in 1995, it was his large brood of children and his beloved private island of Tetiaroa in Tahiti that gave Brando some form of contentment until his death on July 1, 2004.
“This book, an outpouring of what was long contained, has been my declaration of liberty,” Brando writes in the final pages of Songs My Mother Taught Me. “I finally feel free and don’t give a damn anymore what people think about me. At seventy, I’m also having more fun than ever before. The smallest details bring me joy—building or inventing something, being with my children or playing with my dog, Tim, laughing with my friends or watching an ant crawl on his way in my bathroom…. I can finally be the child I never had a chance to be.”
One can only hope that was true.