Christian Brando — A Hollywood Family Tragedy
Center of the Storm
Christian Brando, who was not named for his father's role as Fletcher Christian in Mutiny on the Bounty (the film came out three years after his birth) but for close friend Christian Marquand, was born shortly before his parents divorced in May 1959, and grew up shunting back and forth between his two parents, whose relationship was openly hostile and bilaterally abusive.
An inveterate womanizer, Brando met Anna Kashfi, an Indian actress whose real name was Joan O'Callaghan, in 1955 and the two became lovers. Kashfi had a brief film career with some of Hollywood's top names in such works as The Mountain with Spencer Tracy, Battle Hymn with Rock Hudson, and Cowboy starring Glenn Ford and Jack Lemmon. She became pregnant with Brando's child in 1957 and the two were wed in 1958. Christian, Marlon's first child, was born five months after the wedding, on Mother's Day. Brando later claimed he married her only because of the pregnancy, and continued his philandering ways despite his pregnant wife at home.
"When the Brandos quarreled, Anna displayed a 'frightening' rage," wrote Nellie Bly quoting a family friend in an unauthorized Brando biography. "Anna left baby Christian alone in her car parked on Wilshire Boulevard while she confronted Brando in his office, 'beating at him with her fists, in a frenzy of rage.'" One photograph of the couple caught her with an upraised hand about to slap her husband.
As Brando openly flouted his sexual conquests, Kashfi began using barbiturates and abusing alcohol. The marriage was doomed, but at the request of their respective studios, the two waited to divorce until they were both in between projects. The studios felt the publicity would have hurt their films. The result was that Christian was the subject of a protracted custody battle between Kashfi and Brando that did not end until Marlon won custody of his son at age 13.
The custody battle finished Kashfi's B-movie career and she was last heard of when she defended herself against Marlon's charges that she ruined her son's life. At that time, shortly before Christian's sentencing, Kashfi was living in a mobile home she shared with her cat and reportedly sat in the dark to save money and eked out a living as a cleaning woman.
As he was growing up in the Brando household, shuttling back and forth between Hollywood and Brando's private island near Tahiti, Christian was raised by an assortment of nannies and servants. He was a reluctant witness to his father's voracious sexual appetite and quirky ways. In an interview, Christian complained about the revolving door policy in Brando's home.
"The family kept changing shape," Christian once said. "I'd sit down at the breakfast table and say, 'Who are you?'"
In many ways, as the oldest child, Christian was expected to play the role Marlon, one of history's greatest actors, was unable to play — that of father. Christian was often expected to be the parent for some of Brando's other children and it was in this role that he developed a special relationship with his half-sister Cheyenne.
In a 1995 story about Cheyenne People magazine criticized Marlon Brando's parenting style. "In many ways it's hard to imagine Brando — the most extravagantly artistic of American actors; the uninhibited star of Last Tango in Paris — playing the role of an involved parent.
"Brando's neglect was extravagant, his love largely unexpressed. One casual friend, recalling phone conversations that would turn into three-hour monologues, wonders how emotionally available Brando would have been, even when he was around. 'I don't think it would be such a bargain having him as your father,' she says. 'He goes off on these major tangents. Just imagine if you were a three-year-old asking him about airplanes and hours later the kid would be screaming for him to stop.'"
Ability might have been lacking, but desire was not, others said.
"In his own clumsy, stupid, ego-driven way, Marlon wanted the best for his kids," said another unauthorized Brando biographer, Peter Manso. "But he is a very limited man, and I don't think he ever gave his kids free rein."
Brando himself told the press that fame and success played havoc with him and his family.
"This is a false world," he said. "It's been a struggle to try to preserve my sanity and sense of reality taken away by success. I have to fight hard to preserve that sense of reality so as to bring up my children."