Last Tango on Brando Island

Four years after his death, the ghost of the 20th century’s most iconic actor continues to haunt his island sanctuary, a place of history, beauty, debauchery, and family tragedy. Inside the twisted legacy and strange future of a paradise lost. By Julian Sancton

Overrun with tropical weeds, the airstrip on Tetiaroa—Marlon Brando’s private island in the South Pacific—is barely detectable from the sky. It was shut down in 2004, the year the actor died. Now it can only accommodate a helicopter. From above, the atoll, which consists of 13 white-sand islets encircled by a coral reef, shimmers like a turquoise amulet. Once the retreat of Tahitian royalty, it became the island kingdom of one of the 20th century’s most enigmatic figures.

On the ground a Polynesian man dressed like an L.A. gangbanger waits for us to land. He is sitting in a wheelbarrow, a peculiar but fitting throne for the new king of Tetiaroa. At 45, Teihotu Brando, Marlon’s third-born son, has his father’s noble profile and a hint of his generous waistline. Teihotu lives on the remote island alone with his wife and the youngest of their three children, surviving on the fish he spears, the fruit he picks, and whatever pro­visions his occasional visitors can bring from Tahiti, 30 miles away.

The first to disembark from the helicopter is Dick Bailey, a Louisiana-born developer who is about to build a controversial five-star “eco hotel” called The Brando on Tetiaroa, employing Teihotu as its caretaker. Teihotu embraces him as a friend. Bailey has brought a bag of essentials that includes bread, fresh produce, and a Nintendo Wii, which Teihotu will plug into a generator, the only power source on the island. He packs the provisions into the wheelbarrow and navigates his way to a ramshackle cabin, the former staff quarters of the hotel his father had built decades ago and which has since fallen to ruin. The clearing around it is littered with lawn toys and coconut shells, which serve as food bowls for a dozen scrawny cats.

“Welcome to paradise,” he says, rolling a cigarette. At first glance Tetiaroa indeed appears to have all the elements of a postcard Eden: the white sand, the coconut trees, the briny breeze, the limpid lagoon with schools of fish winding through mazes of coral.

But within its jungle—aside from rats, swamps, and swarms of mosquitoes and parasites—looms the tormented ghost of Marlon Brando. Like Charles Foster Kane’s “Rosebud,” Tetiaroa remains the key to understanding the late, great actor—a metaphor for his ravaged beauty and shattered dreams. And in the years since Brando’s death, it has become the battleground for an epic struggle over his legacy.

When Brando bought the island, in 1966, he was at the height of a fame he never wanted, hailed as the finest actor of his generation but quickly becoming its most eccentric. On Tetiaroa, among his native children (including Teihotu and his younger sister Cheyenne), Brando transformed into a benevolent Dr. Moreau, concocting experiments he dreamed would save the world, most of which would remain castles in the sand. Brando had wanted to die on Tetiaroa, sitting under a coconut tree. But he never returned to the island after 1990, when a series of events—beginning with the conviction of his son Christian (from Brando’s first wife, Anna Kashfi) for the killing of Cheyenne’s Tahitian boyfriend and culminating in Cheyenne’s suicide five years later—associated Tetiaroa, once his only sanctuary, with unspeakable tragedy.

Brando’s final will made no mention of Tetiaroa. Two weeks before his death, the bedridden Brando signed a codicil appointing new executors to his estate: Hollywood producer Mike Medavoy, accountant Larry Dressler (who is Medavoy’s brother-in-law and had reportedly never met Brando), and Avra Douglas, a former friend of Cheyenne’s. In 2004 the new estate sold an interest to develop the island to Dick Bailey, a local luxury hotel developer who had worked with Brando on plans for a luxury eco hotel on Tetiaroa, applying some of Brando’s wackier ecological concepts. “[Brando] had conversations with literally hundreds of investors and hoteliers,” says David Seeley, a lawyer for the estate. “The furthest he ever got was with Bailey.” After years of administrative and legal delays, construction is set to begin this month. If it happens, it will be the first successful project on an island full of pipe dreams—but it has outraged those who believe it violates Brando’s wishes.

The abrupt transfer of Brando’s estate triggered a slew of lawsuits, notably from the two dismissed executors: Alice Marchak, now 88, who had been Brando’s secretary for half a century; and Jo An Corrales, his longtime friend and business manager. “The people who knew him the best knew what he wanted, and he certainly didn’t want a big hotel project,” says Bernard Judge, the architect of that first small hotel on the island. Judge also sued the estate, not for money but for the right to build a house on Tetiaroa on a lease Brando had purportedly granted him.

“Suddenly everyone knows what Marlon wanted,” says Bailey. “What I know is that the estate wants the hotel, and the beneficiaries want it,” he says, referring to Brando’s nine surviving children, who would each see a portion of the hotel’s profits. (Bailey has granted each of Brando’s children the right to live on the island should they choose to.) Marchak, who knew Brando well and is a beneficiary herself, says, “The children didn’t know anything about Marlon’s finances. When they make statements that this is what their father wanted, I just have to laugh.”

“This is a ship of fools, the whole deal,” says Peter Manso, who wrote the authoritative biography of Brando. “There ain’t too many heroes in this story, and it’s a terribly sad one.”

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Teihotu knows that being a Brando will make him part of the draw of the new hotel—a living relic of Old Hollywood tucked away in the heart of darkness. “I’m not sure what my role at this hotel will be, but I think I’m already doing it,” he says. Though he lives in the shadow of his father’s legend, he knows a tranquillity Brando could only dream of. “This is my rolling chair,” he says, pointing to his motorboat, “and this is my office.” He sweeps his hand across the placid lagoon, protected from the crashing open sea by a ring of coral. Much of his job currently consists of keeping poachers at bay, mostly by throwing stones, since Bailey’s company, Tahiti Beachcomber, has no legal rights over the water. As far as the poachers are concerned, Teihotu says, the lagoon is one big barrel to shoot fish in. “When I was 10 years old,” he says, “you could catch fish with a knife, just slashing the water. Today you have to take the boat out with a spear and throw it.”

It certainly doesn’t seem like stocks are depleted. A needlefish flits along on its tail fins as if walking on water, and an entire school of mullet spring through the air. There are sharks, too, but they rarely attack.

There is a small satellite dish on the island, but Teihotu only turns on the TV to stop it from corroding. In addition to spearfishing, he works out by pummeling a makeshift punching bag made from a sand-filled burlap sack. His old man taught him how to spar, passing on the moves he learned playing washed-up boxer Terry Malloy in On the Waterfront.

Teihotu spends the rest of his time exploring the atoll, some corners of which are still a mystery to him. No surprise: It comprises 1,400 acres of untamed land. His father believed that there are remains of encampments from the British sailors who, in 1787, overtook the HMS Bounty, threw the captain overboard, and set off with a group of Tahitian women in search of an island paradise where they could hide from the English crown. “They say the Spanish buried treasure here,” adds Tei­hotu, “but I haven’t found anything.”

The first Europeans on Tetiaroa found the vestiges of a pagan sex cult. The Arioi Society, as it was called, had been a sort of traveling circus that worshiped the phallic deity ‘Oro’ with explicit dances, raging orgies, and the occasional human sacrifice. After the cult was disbanded, Tetiaroa remained a vacation resort of the Tahitian royal family. It was acquired in the early 1900s by a Canadian dentist named Dr. Walter Williams, who made his fortune treating rotten Polynesian teeth. King Pomare V, a hard-drinking playboy, gave Tetiaroa to Williams as payment of a dental bill. When Williams set foot on Tetiaroa, the island was teeming with rats—thousands of them. He decided the best way to get rid of them was to bring in all the stray cats from Papeete, the Tahitian capital. They all but eradicated the rodents, but then they, too, multiplied. When they ran out of food, they began to eat each other in a kind of feline Lord of the Flies. Since then there have always been packs of feral cats roaming Tetiaroa.

English novelist Somerset Maugham, drawn to the mythical sensuality of French Polynesia like painter Paul Gauguin and Herman Melville before him, once spent two blissful weeks on Tetiaroa. Besides the cats, he was shocked to find a mysterious recluse snarling from a distance. This, Williams told him, was a leper who’d lived there for years.

When the good dentist died in 1937 his daughter, Madame Duran, inherited the atoll. She lost her sight shortly after and, according to lore, would fire a rifle—blindly—at anyone she heard approaching. She was living alone on Tetiaroa in 1961 when Brando caught his first glimpse of the island from atop one of Tahiti’s tallest mountains. By that time even she, blind and totally isolated, had heard of Marlon Brando.

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In 1960 Brando had already won an Oscar and been nominated for four more. He had been set to star that year in two competing epics. One was Lawrence of Arabia, but, as he told one producer, “I’ll be damned if I’ll spend two years of my life on some fucking camel.” The other was a remake of Mutiny on the Bounty, in which he’d play the role of Fletcher Christian, the dashing first mate who fell in love with the Tahitian lifestyle and spearheaded the mutiny. The prospect of six months shooting in the South Seas island won out.

The Mutiny shoot is still considered one of the most disastrous in Hollywood history. Six months turned into nearly a year and a half, and MGM lost exorbitant amounts of money thanks in no small part to Brando’s prima donna antics, script demands, and frequent no-shows. “He was a bit unwilling to learn his lines,” says Tim Seely, the film’s sole surviving principal cast member. Seely recalls one particularly frustrating scene in which Brando’s character was supposed to be saying goodbye to his love interest, played by a local dancer named Tarita Teriipaia. “In the end they had to put little pieces of paper with his lines on her forehead. They were shooting over her shoulder.”

Despite the difficulties, the shoot wasn’t all hardships; in fact it quickly turned into a hedonistic free-for-all, with the star as a kind of local sex god. During breaks in shooting—and fucking—Brando explored Tahiti, a place he’d been fascinated by since flipping through old National Geographic magazines as a boy. It was on one of these excursions that he first spotted Tetiaroa as a sliver on the horizon. Well after the movie had wrapped, he couldn’t get the sight out of his mind. He returned to Tahiti and hired a fisherman to take him to Tetiaroa.

Blind old Madame Duran was prepared to sell the remote paradise to Brando for $200,000 on the condition that he not cut down any of the indigenous tow trees. Brando vowed then he would always keep the island in as natural a state as possible.

In his first trip to his new hideaway, with a keg of beer and some Tahitian friends in tow, Brando’s dinghy crashed on the surrounding reef, and wave after wave scraped him across the coral, washing him up bloodied on the sand. Soon after he purchased the island, Brando fixed up the house of the old leper, who’d long since died. It was the first of his many pet projects on Tetiaroa, most of which he would never complete.

The one woman immune to Brando’s charms during the filming of Mutiny was his costar, the beautiful 19-year-old Tarita. “The less likely I was to seduce a woman,” Brando wrote in his 1995 memoir, Songs My Mother Taught Me, “the more I wanted to succeed.” He never respected things that came easily to him, whether it was talent, Oscars, or women. Tarita also came to represent the myth of the unspoiled, noble savage and the purity of Polynesian life. And so he pursued her.

Brando eventually wore down Tarita’s defenses through dogged insistence, and Tarita fell deeply in love. He wanted her to give him a Tahitian child, and within a year of Mutiny’s release, she gave birth to Teihotu in Papeete. Seven years later, though they were no longer sleeping together, Brando wanted Tarita to bear him a second Tahitian child, and in 1970 Cheyenne was born by artificial insemination.

Teihotu became Cheyenne’s protector from the moment she was born. As Tarita writes in her memoir, “He is constantly at her side to support her, holding out his arms, opening doors for her. Twenty years later, when Cheyenne would become ill, Teihotu would be the only one to have influence over her, the only one she would listen to, and to whom she would sometimes cry for help.”

In 1971 Brando hired an architect, Bernard Judge, to build a small hotel on Tetiaroa to offset the severe toll the island took on Brando’s continually troubled finances. Using primarily local wood and leaves, Judge erected 13 modest thatched fares (huts in the local style). Much of the hotel’s handiwork over the years was done by Brando himself, along with his first-born son, Christian, whom Brando had reportedly stranded on Tetiaroa for extended periods of time to keep him from L.A.’s excesses. “Probably the two of them enjoyed their closest relationship while building Tetiaroa,” says biographer Manso.

Brando relished his role as a Tahitian patriarch, ambling along the beach in traditional Polynesian sarongs. In 1977 Tarita had a child from another relationship, whom Brando adopted and treated as a daughter. He later adopted Raiatua, Tarita’s niece, as well. “He was like my dad,” says Raiatua, speaking in French. “He’d make fun of us because he spoke fluent Tahitian and we didn’t.” The Tahitian staff, recalls one guest, called him le patron, the boss: “They just about licked Marlon’s shoe.”

To Brando’s chagrin, Tetiaroa became a destination for pilgrimages, with tourists clamoring to catch a glimpse of the actor. They hardly ever did, though now and again his celebrity friends made cameo appear­ances. Quincy Jones once stayed for a month to meditate. And hotel patrons were surprised to see Robert De Niro, a guest of Brando’s in the late 1980s, amuse himself by waiting tables one night.

Increasingly, Brando viewed his island as a refuge from a preying public and a brutal industry. In the decade following Mutiny, word of Brando’s behavior had made him an unhirable liability. He appeared in one humdrum project after the next until, in 1972, The Godfather catapulted him back onto the A list and earned him his second Academy Award. Though he still belittled his profession, Brando could once again command exorbitant salaries, often for what amounted to cameo roles, such as in Superman, or in Apocalypse Now, where he played the half-crazed leader of a native jungle cult, a dark reflection of his Tahitian fiefdom. He would funnel much of his earnings into pet projects for Tetiaroa. “He once told me he was not an actor any longer,” says his longtime friend and mistress Ellen Adler. “He was an inventor.” (Brando has only one patent to his name: a mechanism to tighten drumheads.)

Brando’s designs for Tetiaroa ranged from quirky—like a floating picnic table on the lagoon—to grand: He conceived of the island as a lab in which he could solve the world’s ecological problems. He used his fame to invite scientists like Stewart Brand and Jacques Cousteau to Tetiaroa as advisors. He contemplated raising lobsters, pearls, sea turtles. He was especially passionate about aquaculture, the idea of harvesting crops in seawater, which could then go on to feed the Third World.

“He wanted to make it energy-independent,” says alternative energy expert Jay Baldwin, who spent a month studying Tetiaroa in the 1970s. “His ideas changed every day,” recalls Teihotu. Most of his projects, however, were abandoned as he moved on to the next one. He built a group of thatched classrooms in the jungle in the hopes that students from around the world would come to his “university” to learn about Polynesia. Teihotu and Cheyenne would be its only students.As a teenager, Teihotu was reserved, distant, and resentful of his father’s absences. Concerned by his increasing drug use, Brando decided to send Teihotu to a hotel management school in Hawaii, where he could learn a useful trade, namely massage therapy.

Cheyenne dreamed of following him to America and pursuing modeling in Los Angeles, at her father’s side. In the meantime she had taken up with Dag Drollet, one of Teihotu’s friends and the scion of a prominent Tahitian family. The two soon lapsed into drugs as well. More alarmingly, Cheyenne began terrorizing those closest to her with random bursts of brutal violence, early symptoms of debilitating schizophrenia.

In 1989, following one of her fits, Cheyenne’s car veered off the highway in Tahiti, tumbled down a ravine, and crashed into a tree. Surgeons managed to fix her broken jaw and reconstitute her torn ear, but Cheyenne’s modeling days were over, and her mental illness worsened.

Less than a year later, believing that Drollet was beating the pregnant Cheyenne, Christian Brando shot him through the head at Brando’s house on Mulholland Drive in Los Angeles. Brando tried to give Drollet mouth-to-mouth, but it was too late.

The media frenzy that followed shattered Marlon Brando’s bubble of isolation, with reporters and paparazzi stationed outside his house 24/7. Christian was sentenced to 10 years for voluntary manslaughter; he served six. Dag’s heartbroken father, Jacques-Denis Drollet, threatened to have Brando arrested if he ever set foot in Tahiti again. He never did.

Cheyenne returned to Tahiti during the trial, where she gave birth to Dag’s son, Tuki, raised largely by Tarita as the increasingly unstable Cheyenne was interned at a hospital. (Tuki, 18, is now the face of Versace menswear.) Over the next four years, Cheyenne attempted suicide on several occasions, but Tarita was always there to save her. It was a cruelty of fate that Teihotu was ultimately the one to find his beloved sister, hanging in her bedroom at their mother’s house in Tahiti.

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Marlon Brando nearly collapsed on the set of Scary Movie 2 in 2001, and until his death he remained mostly bedridden and hooked up to oxygen, his once gorgeous physique bloated and grotesque.

In Brando’s absence, the tiny hotel he’d built with his own hands fell into disrepair and its debts piled up. After his family called him for help, Brando consulted developer Dick Bailey, who had moved to Tahiti in the 1980s with his Polynesian wife. Bailey, who has the weathered good looks of a Hollywood stunt man, had just acquired the Tahiti InterContinental Hotel outside Papeete and transformed it into a world-class resort. Brando eventually invited Bailey to his home on Mulholland Drive to discuss a larger project. According to Bailey, a common vision emerged for a new hotel. Jo An Corrales, however, claims Brando would routinely meet with developers just to pick their brains and estimate how much his island was worth. Nevertheless, in 2002, Brando signed a building permit application allegedly based upon Bailey’s early concepts.

Marlon Brando died of lung failure on July 1, 2004, and half his ashes were scattered over his island. “If I have my way,” he wrote in his autobiography, “Tetiaroa will remain forever a place that reminds Tahitians of who they are and what they were centuries ago.” In a will written in 1982, Brando expressed the wish that his island “go to my children and their issue…so that this property, to a large extent, will be owned by Polynesians in the future.” But the will he wrote 20 years later made no mention of Tetiaora.

In the end neither would happen. Two weeks before his death, suffering from pulmonary fibrosis and liver damage (as well as a lifelong dyslexia that required him to have many documents read aloud to him), Brando signed a codicil to his will, appointing three new executors. According to a 2006 lawsuit by his former housekeeper, Angela Borlaza, who allegedly wasn’t allowed in the room, the only people present at the time were Larry Dressler, Dressler’s lawyer, and Brando’s Spanish-speaking handyman. The new executors would sell an interest in Tetiaroa to Dick Bailey’s company for $2 million, plus $100,000 in rent and $450,000 a year to use the Brando name. According to Jo An Corrales and Alice Marchak, Brando had previously turned down offers of up to $60 million for the island. The most recent suit against the estate, filed by Deborah Brando—Christian’s ex-wife—alleges that Brando’s signature was a forgery. David Seeley, a lawyer for the estate, calls it “absurd…a frivolous lawsuit.”

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Back on Tetiaroa, Dick Bailey struggles to unfold a blueprint in the wind, then lays it out on the sand. In addition to the 40-bungalow hotel and houses for the beneficiaries, Bailey plans to build a research lab as well as residential lots. “We need to have some semipermanent residents,” he says, “to help support the infrastructure.” I ask if Tahitians will live there. “If they have enough money,” he says plainly. The developer says he is pursuing Brando’s dreams of an ecological utopia, with plans to make use of wind and solar power as well as biofuels derived from coconuts. “[Brando] would be rolling in his grave if he knew it was to be called ‘The Brando,’” says Bernard Judge. There is also opposition among local activists, who fear that construction would scare away the delicate fauna and damage ancient cultural landmarks.

“I’m not saying that everything we’re doing would be what he wanted,” concedes Bailey. “He was a dreamer.”

What it comes down to, in the end, is conflicting interpretations of the desires of an inscrutable man. “People didn’t know Marlon,” says Marchak, his longtime secretary. “There’s too much that was hidden.”

Barring obstacles from either the U.S. courts or the Tahitian government, construction on The Brando is set to begin this month. Archaeologists were dispatched this year to help move marae—traditional Tahitian temples—out of the bulldozers’ path. By government decree, religious experts have to ensure that ghosts no longer linger in them.

Even though Tarita, now 66, was specifically omitted from Brando’s will, she hopes to return to the island permanently. Raiatua says she will come with her. “We grew up on this island,” she says. “My mom lived all those years there, since she was 18 years old and left her family to be at Marlon’s side. When he bought the atoll, she became invested in it.”

Teihotu returned to Tetiaroa from Los Angeles, where he worked as a masseur, in 2002. He has no plans to leave. “If I didn’t have Tetiaroa in my life, I don’t know what I’d do. I’d be in L.A. County Jail.” One of Brando’s final unfinished projects was a TV series about Tahiti. In the outline he wrote for the pilot, he asks, “Why would a man born in Nebraska and raised in the Middle West decide that the best place to raise a family and while away the years of his life was on a pinch of land peeking out of the immensity of the Pacific Ocean?” Only a legend of Brando’s stature could purchase a private island on the other side of the world for the privilege of just being a man. The passions he left on Tetiaroa ran deeper than anything he left on-screen, and they’re sure to be unleashed, in one form or another, as bulldozers start kicking up sand.