Courting Brando

With the publication of a new biography of Marlon Brando, Harold Evans recalls the surreal dinners and the moonlight swims he endured to extract a memoir from the legendary actor.

Courtesy Everett Collection

Reading Stefan Kanfer’s excellent new biography of Marlon Brando, Somebody (Knopf), reminds me of one adventure that isn’t there: my own trying to secure Brando’s memoir for Random House during my time as president and publisher.

I was one of any number of New York supplicants who trekked to Los Angeles in February 1991 to persuade the reclusive 66-year-old star that their imprint was the only one capable of doing justice to his life story. Before I flew to L.A., I’d been warned by others that Brando had contempt for anyone suggesting he was an acting genius. In his eyes, acting was a commonplace skill, and the whole admiring East Coast establishment was populated by phonies. He proved it to himself, I heard, by inviting publishers to show their enthusiasm by going down on their knees in front of him. I was ready for that: I was going to tell him that declining to kneel was not a mark of disrespect but recognition of physics. A skiing injury, I’d say, meant I’d never be able to get up again and he’d have a problem disposing of the body.

Brando’s go-between, the elegant producer-director George Englund, had said we’d meet for an hour at Brando’s house on Mulholland Drive at 7 pm, but not eat. As Englund put it, “Marlon has a girth problem."

"He gripped me with his Don Corleone eyes, small but extraordinarily clear.”

I was to press a button on a post and the iron gates would swing open. They didn’t. I fretted by the side of the ridiculously long limo the hotel had ordered for the afternoon, and was about to depart when a familiar voice wafted out of the bushes followed by the 300-lb pound bulk of the Godfather, wearing a leather jacket, a red silk square stuffed in the top of his open white shirt, and his hair tied up in a short ponytail. Englund was behind, the beanpole Laurel to Brando’s Hardy. Brando announced we were going straight to Valentine’s for dinner, climbed into my limo, and promptly locked out Englund. When I opened the door, Brando leaned over and playfully goosed the startled Englund’s genitals.

The restaurant was full. “You watch,” said Brando, who made it a policy never to book ahead. “They’ll shove someone out for us.” (They did of course, Brando speaking to the owner in fluent French; nearby, diners whispered loudly that he was behaving like the Godfather. “Fuck ‘em” was Brando’s smiling response).

To curry favor, I mentioned—knowing Native Americans were his passion—that I once lived on a Navajo reservation and published the prizewinning author of Spirit of Crazy Horse, Peter Matthiessen. I expected an immediate paean of praise for Matthiessen and didn’t get it. Instead Brando stared hard at me. "What I tell you here—look me in the eye!—is between us. Look me in the eye! It’s between us…(pause)…Matthiessen is CIA.” I told him I knew Matthiessen well and found that ridiculous.

"CIA!” insisted Brando. “I went to see him at his home and we talked and I said goodbye in the drive. And then I had an instinct. Don't know why I wanted to say something else to him and went back and he’d gone. I had the temerity to open the door of his house and went into magazines and things in the house. He's CIA.” .

Brando was unquestionably suspicious of anything that moved. He was sometimes also right. Fourteen years later in the book just now published about George Plimpton and the Paris Review, I was stunned to find Matthiessen shamefacedly admitting that in his youth he had indeed been recruited by the CIA. (Later, Brando asked me to get his own records from the CIA and FBI.)

In between the servings of salmon, which Brando didn’t touch, I kept trying to get the talk back to the book I’d come to bid for—the great Brando memoir—but the star was a one-man detour artist. He had a habit of linking one thought and then another so that like someone who gets lost in a road system, you find yourself miles from where you began, wondering how the hell you got there. One of these side-turnings from the CIA and the Sioux found us talking about his admiration of the Jewish people, then Jonas Salk, the inventor of polio vaccine, which led somehow to a ramble about genetics and man and music.

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"I play the drums…” he said. Then abruptly: “What music would you like to die to, Evans?” I started to say I hadn’t given it a great deal of thought. He stopped me. "You’re looking at me. You’re an observant and sensitive man. I can see you weighing me.” He gripped me with his Don Corleone eyes, small but extraordinarily clear. "Look at me! You’re weighing me up, aren't you?"

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I’d not managed to get the talk to the point of my visit, his book, but I was now invited back to his house, presumably to continue the character interrogation which began in the limo.

"Where do you live, Evans?"

"New York."

"Is there good reason you live in that hateful place?"

At the driveway to his house at the top of Mullholland Drive, George Englund had trouble getting any answer to the buzzer on the gate. Brando got on the car phone to Jack Nicholson, Brando’s neighbor, who buzzed us in, and we headed up the hill straight into a high privet hedge. Just before we hit this obstacle, it swung open revealing itself as a camouflaged gate. Nicholson was eerily lit at the top of the next rise in a red, red shirt, Stephen King’s psycho Jack Torrance with a walking stick. He grinned in the moonlight: "How are yuh, Marlon?"

Marlon was not in a mood to talk. As soon as he’d coped with the bounding dogs at his Japanese style bungalow, he went into his den to "put on some music," leaving me in the living room. Nine months before, he’d rushed into the den on hearing a gunshot to find his drunken son Christian had killed Dag Drollet, the Tahitian boyfriend of the disturbed Cheyenne Brando, Christian’s half-sister. The murder, trial, and conviction were one of the topics I wanted to hear him talk about if I could only get him to the subject of the book. Eventually, when the living room was percolated by Mozart’s Requiem, I was able to ask: “Why do you want write a book at all, Mr. Brando?" A long pause, then: "I want to say ‘Who am I?’ I’m tired of being an artifact of fame. You saw tonight what happened. Years ago I’d stand in line and then the maitre d' would spot me, “Oh Mr. Brando, yes Mr. Brando we have a table for you.” I say, ‘I'll wait.’”

He went on. "No, Mr. Brando, come this way, Mr. Brando!” A comic imitation of a sycophantic head waiter took him over. "I’ve done nothing to deserve that."

I murmured the conventional things about his roles in film and theatre. Mistake!

"Acting! Acting! “he ranted. “We’re all of us constantly acting throughout our ordinary lives. What's so special about acting?” I lost him again in a long riff about Indians and bravery.

Ignoring whole tribes of warriors, I tried another tack to return to why I was there at all. "You'll find writing a book lonely. Are you ready for it?” Another mistake.

“Loneliness, you talk about loneliness!” he said. “I know loneliness. You know loneliness when you have a son awaiting sentencing, and an alcoholic mother. I've known loneliness all my life. ” He was angry but perhaps we were getting somewhere. I gently suggested that I'd love to see how this theme might be developed in the book.

"I’m not going to audition,” he interrupted.

“I know how to write an interesting story, get the people in. I know this is necessary.” Now he gave me another stare. “What you hear about me is nonsense. I don’t want to hurt anyone when I write. There are things I will not put in. I will not write about the night at the White House with John Kennedy when I could have fucked the first lady in the darkened kitchen, something I thought about when she became the widow in weeds.” (Jesus, could this be true? I did check and found that he’d been at dinner with Kennedys in the White House a few months before the assassination).

"Have you ever been close to death, Mr. Evans? “

It was 3 a.m. I’d had enough of death, Mozart, and Indians. I got up to go. In the moonlit garden as I stood by the limo, and there was menace again. Abruptly ending the handshakes, he said, "Let me see your handwriting. I must see your handwriting, Mr. Evans!”

I pulled out a diary. I scribbled a line. He could not see much in the light. "I need more!” I scribbled another line. He waved me off. I’d got nowhere but I hadn’t gone down on my knees. I told myself we’d bonded, and perhaps we had. A week later, Brando invited me back.

There was a phone call to my room at the Four Seasons from his secretary, Caroline. If I came down right away, she’d be in a convertible at the front. I saw the car and someone in a long blue Japanese kimono, but it was Brando in the kimono (also wearing brown fur snow boots). Caroline was at the wheel.

The house was much more beautiful than I’d appreciated that spooky first night: ornamented living room with busts and huge astro telescope, and around the corner a den with breathtaking views through the bamboos towards the valley. Japanese stepping stones marched across the lawns. Turkey sandwiches were delivered and four huge pots of frozen yogurt. “It’s not fattening”, he declared. There was a long exegesis on genetics, how we would live to be 125 or was it 124, how he controlled his blood pressure by thought. Mind over Matter.

Three of the giant yogurt cartons were now empty. Maybe in despair I ate the contents myself. We moved from his studio into his huge bedroom with a fireplace at one end roaring away; computers, tray with pills on it and a chess set; I sat on a low stool opposite him and we played. He didn’t mind losing, he said. He played well in an unschooled fashion. I won by forking his Queen. The next game I played loosely, not so much as deliberately to lose, but not to inflict too much pain. He won. A third? Why not? He surprised me. Checkmate, Evans!

Perhaps the first game was a sting. When he’d toppled my King, he was off on another subject. I had to persuade England’s future king, Prince Charles, to save the language of Shakespeare from pollution. I was carried away and risked reciting the lines from Julius Caesar, "Let me have men about me that are fat, sleek headed men and such of sleep o’ nights.” He responded with Mark Antony's funeral oration; “ LEND me your ears…” emphasis on the lend, not the ears. I tried Prince Harry at Agincourt. He changed the mood: "Shall I compare thee to a summer's day?" He was so gentle, making love to every syllable, just audible. He really loved the silky feel of the words as much as their import.

Caroline came in and we finally got down to the book. Suddenly the face that spoke the sonnets had stiffened. How much money could we get for the video to promote “the book?” Hooray, he was focusing at last. “We can get a lot,” he declared. "This is the year I set myself to make money”.

The afternoon had gone. "You like to swim? I have to do my business".

He disappeared. It was now dark outside. The pool was long with some kind of arches at one end. The staff of five or so people had vanished. There was no moon, it was dark. I wandered round looking for some kind of light for the pool. No go. I decided to plunge in anyway and cursed my rashness. There was some creature in the pool, a long thick snaky octopus and it wasn’t dead. It was moving! Christ, what's going on here, some creature from his Tahitian island adventures, some sick goddamn joke? I scrambled to the side and then there was a voice coming through the cool dark. It was Kurtz in Apocalypse Now, Marlon himself at the other end of the pool inflated like a swimming pool toy, doing something at the side with his octopus. He moved, it moved.

He lumbered over, trailing tubes and weights. It was some kind of underwater exercise machine. His arthritis, he told me, had been conquered by these weird maneuvers. We moved about—that's the word for it, not swimming—with L.A. lights below. The pool was a breathless ninety degrees the only sound was the chimes of the Japanese crystals. Not even Caroline was around. We were completely alone.

He suggested a sauna. In the hot room he was huge in his tent-like underpants. Eventually when I was about to expire, he went outside and dunked himself in the cold tub. "Come in. Slowly! Slowly,” he instructed. "Make every cell radiate warmth. Put your head in." It was hard. He was impervious to the temperature. He was the blubber seal and I was the stick insect.

In this unlikely posture, we talked of his son Christian. He recalled how his daughter Cheyenne screamed that horrible night (she took her own life four years later when she was 25). Brando said he could get Christian out of jail but didn’t want him out at the moment. “The discipline of prison is good for him. He was coked out. He tells me ‘Dad, don't bring me presents, it makes me a marked man’, says he is following prison routine to the letter because otherwise he’ll be sent to the Gladiators—the violent section of the prison where the menace is vile, unmentionable.” (Christian was sentenced to ten years, served five.)

It was midnight. He insisted on driving me back himself. "I thought the afternoon was going to be disagreeable," he declared, “but I enjoyed it." Next day on the phone we both enthused about our meeting. I did genuinely warm to him.

Two years passed. He found time to star in Christopher Columbus in Spain and rewrite parts of the script but he’d written only a few pages of Songs My Mother Taught Me, the title he’d invented. I had to threaten to cancel the contract, and meant it.

When the book was finally prised out of Brando with the patient help of the author and journalist Robert Lindsey, it had some good things in it (though nothing about his family). Most of all, I’d counted on Brando to promote and he’d committed to at least one blockbuster appearance. He vetoed an arrangement with Barbara Walters, a sure-fire venue. He rained down impossible ideas. “We’ll make our own film. I’ll come on as a woman and you interview me or maybe you should play the woman.” Englund, who’d behaved impeccably, dropped out of the wrangling. It cost us promotion timed to publication. Eventually, when I was in Europe at a book fair, Brando called me to say that over my objections he was going on Larry King. My certainty that it would be a disaster was not eased when Brando rattled on huskily to tell me he’d only just met King, and King had not read the book but he’d made him his new best friend.

We’d just scraped in to the New York Times bestseller list and with a good newsy interview—he coulda’ been a contender, coulda' been somebody in the bookstores—but King made the fatal mistake of asking about his interest in Native Americans, and from that he rambled on about the state of the planet and CO2, a dizzy pyramid of non-sequiters about everything except his own interesting life.

The runaround concluded with King and Brando exchanging lip kisses. For the book, I’d tried so hard to get it was the final kiss of death.

Harold Evans, author of two histories of America, is writing his memoir. Editor at large of The Week, he was editor of The Sunday Times from 1967-81 and The Times from 1981-82, founding editor of Conde Nast Traveler, and president of Random House Trade Group from 1990-97.