Marlon Brando's private Tahitian island became a symbol of the turmoil that marked the reclusive actor's final years. Not even his death has changed that.
Story, photos, & credit: Los Angeles Times, October 23, 2005- Matthew Heller
Marlon Brando spent the last few years of his life mostly cloistered in the master bedroom of his home on Mulholland Drive, the great actor reduced to an obese, distrustful and tormented recluse. But there was a place to which he could escape by simply closing his eyes. It was a place far away in the South Pacific, a 27-square-mile island called Tetiaroa that's protected by a coral reef, about 35 miles north of Tahiti. Brando could transport himself there—to the coconut trees swaying in the soft trade winds, to the azure waters lapping against the glistening white sand, to the rare red-throated frigate birds soaring into a cloudless sky.
"It was his little Zen heaven," recalls Scott Billups, a director of TV commercials who knew Brando for more than 30 years. "He could put himself in that space. It was just as good as being there."
Who hasn't imagined themselves freed from the stresses of modern life, communing constantly with nature in a tropical paradise? Who wouldn't want to be a latter-day Robinson Crusoe? But Brando, unlike most of us, didn't have to rely completely on his imagination. From 1966 until his death in July 2004 at the age of 80, he was the legal owner of Tetiaroa.
Before he went into seclusion, Brando made the eight-hour, 4,100-mile flight from Los Angeles to French Polynesia on many occasions, sometimes staying on Tetiaroa for months at a time. He delighted in life as an island owner, dozing on the beach, imitating the scuttle of hermit crabs, and even developing part of his domain as Hotel Tetiaroa Village, a modest resort featuring a few primitive, thatched-roof huts to which tourists were brought from Tahiti by air—the island's small airstrip being the only reliable access to the place.
"My mind is always soothed when I imagine myself sitting on my South Sea island at night," Brando wrote in his 1994 autobiography, "Songs My Mother Taught Me." Brando wanted to die on Tetiaroa, preferably "sitting under a coconut palm in a very special place on the island," as he put it to an employee. In a will he signed in 1982, he put Tetiaroa in a trust so it could be preserved for posterity. "If I have my way, Tetiaroa will remain forever a place that reminds Tahitians of who they are and what they were centuries ago," he wrote.
But Brando died far from any coconut palms in an intensive care unit at UCLA Medical Center. And less than a year later, acting on a revised will that included no specific provision for Tetiaroa, the executors of his estate sold an interest in the island for $2 million to Richard Bailey, a Tahiti-based hotel developer who had courted Brando without success for several years.
Bailey is taking over what seems more like a dystopia than a utopia. Brando, a massively flawed product of the Hollywood dream factory, couldn't insulate his fantasy island from the storms of his personal life—the failed marriages, the wrecked relationships and the troubled children—and the strains on his finances. He stopped going to Tetiaroa after his son Christian killed a Tahitian native in 1990, and by the time of his death, the resort he built was pretty much in ruins. But friends and former employees say the island is still the truest mirror of Brando's search for purity. And they're worried that Bailey is about to ruin it for everybody else.
Technically, Tetiaroa is not an island but an atoll of 13 islets—or, as the Polynesians call them, motus—surrounded by a lagoon that is separated from the ocean by the reef. From the air, the motus look like oddly shaped putting greens fringed with sand. In early 2004, aviation authorities shut down the airstrip, saying the length of the runway did not comply with safety regulations. Since then, Brando's resort has been closed and only his 42-year-old son Teihotu lives there, working for Bailey as Tetiaroa's caretaker.
Publishing tycoon Malcolm Forbes and fruit magnate David Murdock of Dole Food Co. are among those who have made a success out of owning remote tropical paradises. The former spent a fortune building homes for his employees on Laucala, the Fijian island he acquired in 1972; the latter forked out $400 million to build two resort hotels on Lanai, Hawaii, which he added to his empire in 1985.
Brando, for all his Hollywood stardom, could not begin to match their financial resources—or business savvy. "Marlon was a dreamer," says Jo An Corrales, the actor's former business manager.
Dick Bailey is, clearly, a businessman. He doesn't own any islands, but he knows the luxury resort business. A native of Lafayette, La., he moved with his wife, a Tahitian attorney, to Tahiti in 1985 and got a job with the island's tourism agency. In 1989, he became the local representative for IEI International, a Japanese real-estate firm that owned two resorts on Tahiti and another on Bora-Bora. When IEI hit financial troubles, Bailey bought the properties in 1998.
Through his company, Tahiti Beachcomber SA, he has invested some $50 million in refurbishing those properties. Another $65-million resort being constructed on Bora-Bora will feature, among other things, 80 villas built out over the island's lagoon and a spa where guests can relax in thermal and seawater baths. After the resort is finished in May 2006, Bailey will take on Brando's island. He envisions a Tetiaroa reserved strictly for the wealthy. For about $1,500 a night, they will stay at "The Brando," a luxury "eco-resort" consisting of 30 villas. Construction is expected to begin next year and cost as much as $40 million, and the resort could open for business in 2008.
Under the terms of a complex deal finalized in April, Bailey paid $2 million upfront to Brando's estate; the beneficiaries include nine of his surviving children. The estate has granted him a 60-year lease to develop Onetahi—the motu where Brando built his village—and part of Rimatuu, a neighboring motu. The area covered by the lease accounts for about 15% of the atoll's total 1,400-acre landmass.
Starting in 2012, the estate will receive $100,000 a year as rent and $400,000 a year or 4.75% of the new resort's gross revenues, whichever is greater, for allowing Bailey to use the Brando name. By 2065, when the 60-year deal expires, the gross value to the heirs should add up to at least $28.5 million. "We believe we got a very fair deal for the estate," says David J. Seeley, a Kirkland, Wash., lawyer who worked for Brando and is advising the estate. "We were not going to get any better deal."
It has not, however, gone down well with some who knew the actor. They see the proposed resort as a threat to the island's delicate ecosystem and to Brando's legacy. "The Brando," they lament, is something that its namesake would never have imagined, even in his most tortured dreams. "The estate broke a promise Marlon made to the Polynesian people," says Corrales.
True, Bailey's vision sounds far more like "Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous" than anything you would associate with the earthy authenticity of Brando's island. Wasn't his ideal to experience a South Sea island in as pure a way as possible? Wouldn't a Bailey resort on Tetiaroa be as incongruous as a Club Med in Siberia? But in a phone interview, Bailey repeatedly insists he is on the same page as Brando.
"The concept [for Tetiaroa] is very much in keeping with what Marlon wanted," he says. "It's environmentally sensitive, visually sensitive, architecturally sensitive."
Bailey says he absorbed Brando's vision during many discussions and meetings with him going back to 1999. They had a "stormy relationship," he admits, and Brando was "very ambivalent about what he wanted to do" with Tetiaroa. By that time, most of Tetiaroa's visitors were flying in from Tahiti on $300 day trips. But Bailey says that low value, high volume was not the way to go. "I told [Brando], 'What you really want is higher-paying [guests], less visitation. That is how to preserve the island,' " he recalls.
In 2002, Brando executed a will that appointed Corrales and his longtime secretary, Alice Marchak, as his executors—the previous will was out of date because, among other things, he had produced five more children during the previous 20 years. Both the executors had known him for decades and, says Corrales, they would never have allowed a luxury development on Tetiaroa. "He knew Alice and I would do what he wanted," she contends. But on June 18, 2004—just two weeks before his death—Brando removed them from the will and named three people to handle his estate: Avra Douglas, a friend of his daughter Rebecca; former Orion Pictures studio head Mike Medavoy; and accountant Larry Dressler, who is Medavoy's brother-in-law.
Brando gave no explanation for a change that effectively turned insiders into outsiders overnight. None of the new executors belong to the old guard of longtime Brando retainers; Medavoy never made a film with Brando. Some of the old-timers have questioned whether Brando was competent when he signed the codicil to the will. But Seeley says the codicil was a "well thought-out plan." Corrales had by then been fired from her management job, he notes, and the elderly Marchak wouldn't have been able to cope with the "enormous responsibilities" of the estate. Others say Medavoy was chosen because Brando knew he could handle complicated movie rights and other film-related issues for the estate.
After Brando died, Bailey, who already had applied for a building permit and spent about $300,000 on plans, was ahead of the curve. The three new executors picked his project after getting no proposals from anyone else. "Brando went really far with Bailey—the furthest he went with anybody," says Seeley.
At $1,500 a night, of course, "The Brando" will be out of reach of most Polynesian people, even though the country's per capita income is a relatively high $15,000. But Seeley says the estate "doesn't have the ability to give property away."
Both he and Bailey also stress that, however much Brando might have idealized Tetiaroa, things on the ground were quite different. Under his watch, paradise, if not lost, was tarnished. "There was a divergence between what Marlon wanted to do and what was actually done," Bailey says, phrasing it as diplomatically as possible. "To assert Tetiaroa is an absolutely pure and virgin island is not accurate."
Marlon Brando first spotted Tetiaroa in 1960 while scouting locations for the film "Mutiny on the Bounty," which was shot on Tahiti and neighboring Moorea. Once a summer residence of Tahitian royalty, the atoll then was owned by the heirs of a Canadian dentist, W. Johnston Williams. After filming finished, Brando hired a fisherman to ferry him there. It was "more gorgeous than anything I had anticipated," he marveled in "Songs."
Brando looked into buying the atoll, but the Williams family wasn't ready to sell. About four years later, they capitulated and, after obtaining government approval, he paid $200,000 for most of Tetiaroa in October 1966 and $70,000 for the remainder the following January. He promised Williams' daughter he would "preserve the island in its natural state as much as possible." The deal gave him the motus while the government retained ownership of the lagoon and the reef—as it does throughout French Polynesia to keep marine resources in the public domain.
The Omaha, Neb., native—who grew up mostly in a small Illinois town and, during a tumultuous childhood, got kicked out of several schools—truly had arrived. At the age of 42, Brando was a screen legend, he had fathered a son with a Tahitian beauty, Tarita Teriipaia, who played the lover of his character in "Mutiny"—and he was the new ruler of Tetiaroa.
"An uneducated Midwestern farm boy had what every man ever dreamed of—an exotic island unto himself," says Caroline Barrett, his former secretary and the mother of Brando's adopted daughter Petra.
In 1971, Brando hired Los Angeles architect Bernard Judge to draft a master plan to develop Tetiaroa in several stages. Initially, they would build 12 bungalows and an airstrip on Onetahi, a 192-acre motu in the southwest corner of the lagoon. Later would come a large hotel on Oroatena, a motu in the northeast corner. The ultimate goal, Judge wrote, was to establish a "self-supportive community, a blending of research and training, nutriculture, aquaculture and tourism within sound ecological constraints."
But Judge says things changed as he and Brando spent time together on Tetiaroa. "It didn't take a genius to figure out this was not the place for a large hotel," he explains. "It was just a little piece of heaven in the Pacific." The nature-loving Brando just "wanted it for his family and friends and the Tahitian people to appreciate nature," and he would never build anything on Oroatena.
On Onetahi, Judge, along with a bulldozer and seven Tahitian workers, chopped down coconut trees to clear the airstrip site and used materials from the trees to build the bungalows. So fragile is the lagoon's ecosystem that Brando decided not to make a passage through the barrier reef. "There are species in the lagoon that can't be found anywhere else," Judge says. As a result, boats would shuttle supplies to the atoll, dropping them off on the ocean side of the reef. Workers would then drag them over to the lagoon.
Hotel Tetiaroa Village opened for business with its dozen bungalows in March 1973. For up to $500, tourists could get a package deal of airfare to and from Tahiti on a local airline—Air Moorea—meals and one night in a bungalow. But the facilities appealed only to those, like Brando, who didn't mind going without running water or air conditioning, or being swarmed by sand gnats and mosquitoes. The diesel generators that supplied power were expensive to run and frequently broke down. "It was not the Hilton, I'll tell you," says Jay Baldwin, an alternative energy expert whom Brando invited to Tetiaroa. Its only recreational facility was a ping-pong table.
Customer service wasn't exactly top-notch, either. According to Peter Manso's biography "Brando," one dissatisfied day-tripper complained to Tarita, who was then managing the resort, saying she would tell Brando that "his island is not being run the way it should be." Tarita replied, "You know something? Marlon Brando doesn't give a [damn]."
Tetiaroa was for a time an idyllic refuge from Hollywood, a place where Brando could entertain friends and frolic with his children, who included son Teihotu and daughter Cheyenne from his relationship with Tarita. "I could open this up for tourism and make a million dollars, but why spoil it?" he told a writer for Playboy magazine in 1978. But even the high salaries he was commanding—he was paid $3 million for a minor role in the 1978 film "Superman"—did not cover his bills. And he couldn't find a way to make the atoll pay for itself; capital-intensive ideas such as a lobster farm came to nothing. Brando refused to enhance the attractions, even by adding a swimming pool. One Christmas, he had a jet-ski shipped to Tetiaroa for his children. But he complained it polluted the lagoon and disturbed the fish. After the machine broke down, he wouldn't allow any repairs, so it was left to rust in the sand.
In April 1983, a major hurricane extensively damaged the resort, flattening Brando's private bungalow, uprooting trees and strewing dead birds across the lagoon. After a professional manager took charge of Tetiaroa, Brando agreed to spend up to $750,000 on renovations. But the cash never materialized and the manager quit in frustration in 1988, writing Brando that he was "tired of being the keeper of the most exclusive slum in the South Pacific."
Speculating on the elderly Brando's thoughts and emotions may be a futile exercise. After all, in one of his last interviews, he kissed Larry King on the mouth and rambled on about Jews running Hollywood. But a death on Mulholland Drive may have changed his feelings toward Tetiaroa, or at least left emotional scars that tainted his Pacific paradise.
On the night of May 16, 1990, police found Dag Drollet, the Tahitian boyfriend of Cheyenne Brando, dead in the den of Marlon Brando's L.A. compound. Her half-brother Christian, drunk and distressed by Cheyenne's allegations that Drollet abused her, had shot him in the head. The case ended with Christian pleading guilty to manslaughter in January 1991 and an anguished Brando testifying in court that he and Christian's mother, actress Anna Kashfi, had failed him.
Drollet's father, a pillar of the cultural and political community in Tahiti, had never thought too much of Brando. After the homicide, he made it clear that Brando would not be welcome in the islands, threatening to have him arrested as an accomplice in Dag's death. In a final blow, Cheyenne ended her battle with mental illness by hanging herself in her mother's Tahiti home in 1995. Cheyenne's suicide "shattered [Brando], and he has been unable to stand on the place where it happened," George Englund, a movie producer and close friend of Brando, wrote in his memoir "The Way It's Never Been Done Before."
Isolated on Mulholland and battling increasing health problems, Brando, by then in his 70s, left some of the daily operations of Tetiaroa to Tarita, from whom he had split years before and who had no resort management experience, and their son Teihotu. He never returned to French Polynesia, even for a brief visit. "He put a lot of faith in Tarita," Judge says. "Had he gone there, he would have realized it was too much for her."
In his absence, the roofs and walls of the hotel bungalows, which should have been replaced every six years, fell apart; garbage, rather than being composted, stacked up where the tourists couldn't see it; and poachers raided the lagoon, depleting the stocks of fish. In 1998, Judge proposed renovating and adding to the resort, but Brando balked at the $10-million cost of the project. And the bills kept coming, with one key creditor, Air Moorea, complaining that it wasn't getting its share of the money from the tourist package deals. (By the time Brando died, he owed Air Moorea $460,000; repairs to bring the airstrip up to code would have cost him about $400,000.)
Brando owned Tetiaroa through a company called Frangipani SA. In his 1982 will that set up a Tetiaroa Trust, he declared it was his "express wish that the stock of any corporation [holding title to Tetiaroa] . . . or any leasehold . . . shall not be sold." He also wanted the property to "go to my children and their issue . . . many of whom are or will be Polynesian, so that this property, to a large extent, will be owned by Polynesians in the future."
He expressed similar sentiments in his autobiography and, according to Judge and others, never wavered from them. He turned down offers to buy Tetiaroa—even though he boasted it was worth $80 million. Several major hotel chains, including the Four Seasons, Regency, and Sofitel, approached him about a leasehold, but Brando didn't come close to making a deal.
Negotiations were just a game for Brando, close friends say, a way to stave off boredom, to play with suitors like marionettes. "Marlon would back out of one deal after the other, always wanting a bigger piece of the pie," recalls Barrett, Brando's former secretary. "If they offered him three slices, he demanded five—or more." He had, she adds, "no intention of leasing Tetiaroa to anyone, and certainly not to a hotel chain."
Two years before his death, in August 2002, Brando signed the new will and trust agreement that said nothing about Tetiaroa or a legacy to Polynesians. Instead, the atoll was lumped together with his other assets, and it was left up to executors Corrales and Marchak to distribute income from those assets to the beneficiaries. Maybe—with Tetiaroa now more of a financial and emotional albatross than it had ever been a utopian idyll—Brando was freeing his heirs to get some value out of it.
Attorney David Seeley, who has worked closely with Dick Bailey on the Beachcomber deal, insists that Brando did become more receptive to a luxury project on Tetiaroa. Those who say otherwise, he argues, "don't know what they're talking about. They don't know a lot of what happened in the last four or five years. Maybe his thoughts changed."
But Corrales says Brando trusted her and Marchak not to do anything that would conflict posthumously with his ideals. He did not provide for Tetiaroa, she contends, because "he knew it would be taken care of according to his wishes by individuals who knew him absolutely," who knew that he wanted "his birds, turtles, coconuts, palms, critters and so on to live free, to have a small oasis." Contrary to Seeley's assertion, Corrales says, the estate's responsibilities are not beyond the 85-year-old Marchak. She is "sharp as a tack."
Moreover, even if Brando did go further with Bailey than anyone else, his wishes did not include actually doing a project with him. In their discussions, Bailey admits, "We were very far apart on the gives and gets of any deal." Their relationship effectively ended after the French Polynesian government closed the Onetahi airstrip in January 2004. Brando believed Bailey had engineered the closure to pressure him into making a deal—which Bailey denies. "As if that was going to advance my cause," he says. "It would only make things worse."
Less than three months later, though, Brando fired Corrales, who says she was not popular among some of his family members because of her tight control of Brando's finances. (Corrales has sued the estate, alleging Brando wrongfully terminated and sexually harassed her. Seeley declined to comment on the firing, citing the litigation.) And then came that crucial, last-minute codicil to his will, 13 days before his death, appointing Medavoy, Dressler and Douglas as the new executors. The three of them have the same broad power as Corrales and Marchak would have had, and they exercised that power to decide the fate of Tetiaroa.
Discussing his "eco-resort," Bailey says he will follow Brando's wishes by not building any of the 30 villas over water where they could interfere with sea turtle habitats. "They'll be set back from the beach and invisible from the lagoon," he adds. The reef will remain intact, though he intends to build a platform on top of it to make the transportation of construction materials easier. Solar panels will produce power, a high-tech "micro-treatment" plant will handle sewage, and desalination technology will provide drinking water. All very expensive, but, says Bailey, all "in keeping with Marlon's vision."
Judge is willing to give Bailey some benefit of the doubt. The environmental measures are "pretty good solutions," he says. "It sounds like he's trying to do the right thing." But Bailey could build the world's most environmentally sensitive resort and still wouldn't satisfy the Brando cohorts, including Corrales, who claims "they are changing the island forever."
The old-timers certainly are not satisfied with the name Bailey has given his Tetiaroa development. "I was stunned to discover that the Beachcomber people are going to call it 'The Brando,' " says Barrett, who recalls that while Hotel Tetiaroa Village was still operating in the 1980s, its agent in Tahiti posted a sign at the inter-island airport. "Marlon Brando's Atoll of Tetiaroa—Book Here," the sign read.
"People were surprised to learn they could book a week's stay, or even a day's excursion," Barrett says. "Most assumed it was Marlon's private island and off-limits to the public." The sign drummed up "a lot of business." The problem, she continues, was that "when Marlon found out, he hit the roof. He made [the agent] take the sign down. Marlon didn't want any exploitation of his name, even if it meant less business."
Judge also thinks his old friend would have "hated" having any resort named for him. "He wanted people to go there for Tetiaroa," he says, "not because of some movie actor."