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MARLON BRANDO, nicknamed Bud, was born on April 3, 1924, in Omaha, Nebraska. At the time much of the state was recovering from a grasshopper plague that had turned the sky green. Enormous humming clouds ate all the crops and left the fields and gardens brown and bare.
Brando was the only son of Dorothy ("Dodie") Pennebaker, a radiant, unconventional blonde of Irish heritage, and Marlon Brando, Sr., a salesman for Western Limestone products, who'd inherited a violent temper and martinet ways from his father, Eugene Brandeaux, of French Alsatian extraction. Senior changed his name to Brando shortly before he married Dodie on June 22, 1918. They had had a passionate courtship, starting in high school, and had written many love letters to each other when Senior was serving in the Army during World War I. Brando saved some of the letters but maintained that they did not move him.
Brando lived with his parents and his two older sisters, Jocelyn and Frances, in a comfortable wood-frame house at 3135 Mason. They were frequently visited by "Nana," their twice-married, independent-minded grandmother, who was known for her outspoken views on immigration and women's rights and as a master speed reader. Nana was also a devout Christian Scientist and a lay healer; in later years she would say she could speak with the dead. Often Nana spent hours with her daughter Dodie and her grandchildren, discussing history, religion, art, politics. "She inspired us," Jocelyn remembers, and Brando and his sisters needed inspiration.
Their father, Marlon Senior, was a moody, unpredictable man given to fierce rages, and they were terrified of him, although he was rarely with his family. He spent most of his time traveling all over Missouri and Iowa as a salesman. He was often seen in Chicago brothels and speakeasies; he had frequent affairs. When he returned home, he and Dodie would drink heavily and fight. It was Prohibition, so they brewed their beer in the kitchen.
In 1926, when Brando was two, he and his family moved with Nana to a bigger house at 1026 Third Street, and Dodie began filling the living room with bohemians and oddballs, as well as friends from the community theater, such as the Fonda family and the parents of Dorothy McGuire, the actress.
The atmosphere was relaxed and casual. Dodie often received people in bed, her quilt littered with magazines and crossword puzzles. Brando has told friends that his earliest memory was lying in bed with his mother, sharing a bowl of milk and crackers.
Although Dodie truly loved her children, she was seldom home. Housework bored her, and she was hopelessly stagestruck. Just before Brando was born, she'd joined the fledgling Omaha Community Playhouse, and she escaped there whenever she could, even attending rehearsals of shows she had no part in. She sat in on auditions and gave the young Henry Fonda his first job. Over the next four years she played many roles, from Eugene O'Neill's Anna Christie to Julie in Ferenc Molnár's Liliom. The local critic said of that performance: "Mrs. Brando is profoundly moving (especially in the death scene). Her reserve has the effect of numbing in sorrow," and another wrote, "Amazingly realistic."
With his mother away from the house so much, Brando began relying on the loving attention of his nurse, Ermeline, who was "Danish, but a touch of Indonesian blood gave her skin a slightly dark, smoky patina," as he writes in his autobiography. At night they would sleep together in the nude, and Brando, then age five, would wake up and look down at her body and fondle her breasts, and then he would crawl all over her. "She was all mine; she belonged to me and to me alone."
When he was seven, Ermi left him to get married, and Brando felt abandoned. He began to stutter. He was a fat-bellied little boy, serious and determined, with a penetrating stare and boundless energy. Jocelyn had to take him to kindergarten on a leash; otherwise he would have run away.
In 1930 Senior got a better job in Illinois as the general manager for the Calcium Carbonate Company, so the family moved to Evanston. Dodie agreed to the move, but she resented it; she had to leave the playhouse at the height of her success. Her drinking increased. She would say, "I'm the greatest actress not on the American stage." Senior was always away. Sometimes she would wander around their new house on Sheridan Square, crying. Then she would sit down at the piano and begin singing. Her children would sing with her.
"My mother knew every song that was ever written," Brando writes in his autobiography. He memorized as many of them as he could. Today he can still remember the lyrics of all those songs: Greek songs, Japanese songs, Irish songs, German songs, American songs-all the songs his mother ever taught him.
By the time he was eight, Bud Brando was the "star" of the neighborhood, mimicking people, climbing in and out of windows (something he would do for much of his life), swinging at the end of a rope while letting loose with a Johnny Weissmuller yell so piercing it could be heard for blocks. He was "a free spirit," a friend remembers, "a real individualist. Even as a little kid you knew he was going to do anything he set out to do. And he was a prankster. Like he'd pull the fire alarm and then race off and hide when the fire engines zoomed down the street."
At Lincoln School he was very popular. He and another sixth grader, Wally Cox-frail, bespectacled, and skinny-became inseparable. "Marlon thought Wally was a genius. Maybe he was," said Pat Cox, Wally's third wife. "He certainly was tremendously knowledgeable, an omnivorous reader. Even at the age of ten he knew about botany, the names of different butterflies and birds, and every wildflower in the world. He and Marlon would hike all over the place, talking a mile a minute." They loved to have contests: Who can eat faster? Who can hold his breath longer?
Wally's mother was a mystery writer. She also was an alcoholic, so Wally and his sister were often left to be cared for by near strangers whenever Mrs. Cox went off on a binge. Later she abandoned them for a lesbian lover. Soon Wally was dropping by the Brando house; he would stay for supper and then the night. "Wally became like a member of the family," Jocelyn says, and when he was tormented by classmates, Brando would protect him as he protected sick animals and bums. He once brought a bag lady home from off the street. She was in rags and seemed quite ill. Brando had a tantrum until Senior agreed to take the bag lady to a nearby hotel where she could recuperate in a clean bed.
By 1936 Senior's philandering had become so extreme that Dodie was beside herself. One night when he came home with lipstick smeared on his underpants, she started screaming and crying, and he took her into their bedroom and began beating her. Brando, age twelve, rushed into the bedroom and threatened to kill his father if he didn't stop. It was a scene that Brando later described to his friends over and over, and he would refer to his father's unpredictable nature: affectionate and sensitive one minute and livid with anger the next.
He was repelled by what he felt was his father's hypocrisy. Although Senior was raising his kids by the "Good Book," he was a relentless womanizer, and by forcing the family to move from Omaha, he'd ruined Dodie's life by depriving her of her career on the stage; he had no compassion for her huge despair.
Throughout his adolescence rage propelled Brando: rage against his father and fantasies of revenge. Decades later, in the 1980s, with the help of his therapist he would realize how his family had been an incubator of psychological violence, and that society had no way of controlling it or of stopping it because it was a private family matter, conducted behind closed doors.
For a while Dodie and the children went to California to live with her half sister, Betty Lindemeyer, and Nana. Brando and his sisters attended Lathrop Junior High School. A couple of times Henry Fonda visited and drove Dodie to Hollywood; he had never forgotten how she had given him his start. But she was drinking a lot and sometimes disappeared for days at a time.
Two years later, in 1938, the Brandos reconciled, and Senior bought an old farmhouse in Libertyville, Illinois, thirty-five miles outside Chicago. There was a barn and stables and acres of land. Brando loved the animals "because an animal's love is unconditional." He especially loved his dog, Dutchy, a Great Dane, and a cow named Violet. "I'd ride Violet out into the field and I'd put my arms around her and kiss her. Cows have very sweet breath because of the hay they eat."
But life was no better for Brando on the farm. Dodie hated housework and hated being so isolated in the country, and the place was often a mess. Brando was doing poorly in school. He'd stay in his room, listening to Gene Krupa records. He loved playing the drums, and he carried his drumsticks everywhere, beating out a frantic tat-tat on coffee tables and desktops. He drummed so much he'd forget to milk the cows or do his homework, and then his father would get after him, and they'd start yelling at each other on the porch. Dodie would say, "Can't you have a civilized discussion? Why can't you speak normally?" and she'd shoo them out into the backyard, where they'd continue to shout. Often Brando would simply run off.
He was starting to date. One of his first girlfriends, Carmelita Pope, remembers inviting him over for pasta; after they'd eaten, he would go out on the sunporch with her father, who was a lawyer, and ask him all sorts of questions. Brando was insatiably curious about everything. He was quite fat then, and Senior insisted he work out with barbells and bench presses until he transformed himself into the body beautiful.
He kept on playing the drums and founded a band called Keg Brando and His Kegliners. But his grades got worse. At school he excelled only in sports and in dramatics, especially pantomime. He failed all his other subjects and was held back a year. He was close to sixteen and still a sophomore. It was humiliating; he became a truant.
When his father found out, there were more violent shouting matches. Brando did not remind him that often instead of attending classes he went to Chicago to hunt for his mother, whom he usually found slumped in some bar passed out in her own vomit. One time he dragged her naked into a cab and brought her home; again Senior started to beat her, and again Brando managed to stop him.
In May 1941 Brando was expelled from Libertyville High for chronic misbehavior. His last prank had been pouring hydrosulfate into the blower at school so a rotten-egg smell pervaded the classrooms. He possessed a love of mischief other students found admirable.
Senior was hopping mad. After much deliberation he packed his son off to his alma mater, Shattuck Military Academy in Fairbault, Minnesota, where he had been an honor student. The same would not hold true for Brando; he had poor study habits, and his concentration span was short. He simply could not conform. He was sixteen then, startlingly handsome, with a Roman nose and a sensual mouth, and his taut, muscled body practically undulated when he moved, like a graceful tomcat on the prowl.
He was funny; he had no pretenses. He refused to kowtow to the school bullies, and he acted tough, often insolent. He would fight anyone who came on to him; he had a hair-trigger temper. He loved challenging authority and could not be controlled. Once he wrote "shit" on the blackboard and then lit a fuse doused in Vitalis, which contained alcohol, and poof! the word became indelible on the board. Another time he stole all the silver from the dining room so the cadets couldn't eat their breakfast; classes were delayed until the silver was found. The student body thought his pranks were audacious; he became very popular. (Brando says his favorite prank was his disabling of the school's bell. The noise so maddened him that one night he shimmied up to the bell tower and cut the clapper off, then buried it.)
He writes, "I had a great deal of satisfaction challenging authority successfully. I had no sense of emotional security. I didn't know later why I felt valueless or that I responded to worthlessness with hostility."
He has said he was encouraged by only one teacher, Duke Wagner, who taught him Shakespeare and the glory of language and who perceived his great natural gift for mimicry. Once Brando transformed himself into the gangster John Dillinger and had all the students squirming in their seats. On Thanksgiving in 1941 he performed in three one-act plays at Shattuck. The school newspaper wrote, "The new boy shows enormous talent."
However, his grades continued to be poor. Every week he wrote to his parents, asking them to believe in him and telling them over and over how much he loved them, hoping his words would persuade them to say they loved him. But Senior and Dodie never wrote him back or visited him in the two years he was at Shattuck.
The summer of 1942 Brando did not go home to Libertyville right away. Instead he rode the rails and lived in hobo camps, sitting by campfires with the drifters, eating mulligan stew, listening to their stories, how some were hiding out from police or irate wives. He learned their lingo and their sign language; a certain sign marked in chalk on a fence meant the neighbor down the road was hospitable.
Back on the farm, he and his mother had a disjointed conversation about his going into the theater later on when he'd finished high school. But he was thinking he might become a minister, he writes in his autobiography, "Not because I was a religious person, other than having an inexhaustible awe and reverence for nature, but because I thought it might give me more of a purpose in life." Actually he had no idea what he wanted to do.
Returning to Shattuck, he dyed his hair red. He made twelve visits to the infirmary (he faked a fever by holding the thermometer to a hot-water bottle). He was the school's reigning clown and rebel, loved and admired by everybody. That fall he won the lead role in Four on a Heath and was able to show off his remarkable ability to take on an accent (in this case, English). In the final scene of the play he hanged himself and did it so realistically that, after the curtain came down, the audience burst into frenzied applause and his performance was the talk of the school.
But he continued to flunk all his courses. He'd hide out in the study hall, reading National Geographic. One afternoon he came across some color photographs of the island of Tahiti, with its pure white sands and thick, rustling palms. And the expression on the Polynesian natives' faces-it was an expression he'd never seen: "happy, unmanaged faces," he wrote, open maps of contentment. He vowed he would go to Tahiti someday.
In May 1943 Brando was put on probation at Shattuck for talking back to an officer during maneuvers. It was considered insubordination, so he was confined to campus. But after a couple of hours he got bored and took off for downtown Fairbault. Of course, his absence was discovered. When he returned to the school, hours later, he was sent to his room, and the faculty met to decide his fate. He was promptly expelled.
Brando recalls that it was a shock. He wandered from room to room in a daze, saying good-bye to all his friends. When he reached Duke Wagner's office, the teacher reassured him that everything would be all right and that the world would hear from him someday. Brando has said that he will never forget those words; no one had ever expressed confidence in him before. Then Wagner hugged him tightly, and Brando found himself sobbing uncontrollably in the teacher's arms.
He took the train home almost immediately. His parents seemed bitterly disappointed in him.
Meanwhile, at Shattuck, the entire student body was up in arms about his expulsion, feeling it was both extreme and unfair. Eventually the students went on strike and stayed on strike until the faculty agreed that he be reinstated. The principal then wrote to Brando, inviting him to complete his studies and be graduated the following year. But he hated the military academy so much he refused to go back. He never graduated from high school, but for years he kept the cadets' letter of support framed in the bedroom of his home in Beverly Hills. He has always felt embarrassed by his lack of education.
For the next six weeks after leaving Shattuck, Brando dug ditches for the Tile Drainage Company. His father had arranged the job for him, and he loathed every minute of it, although he did enjoy earning money on his own. But home life on the farm was lonely. His sister Frances was in New York, trying to be a painter, and Jocelyn was there too; she'd already appeared in one Broadway play. By fall Brando had decided to join them. He'd visited Frannie in New York briefly the previous Christmas and had written her afterward that he wanted to live there.
He might even try acting, he thought. His father's response was to scoff, "The theater? That's for faggots! It's not man's work." Then he added that Brando could never be a success anyway: "Take a look in the mirror and tell me if anyone would want to see a yokel like you on the stage!" Hearing the contempt in Senior's voice, knowing he had no faith in him, made Brando want all the more to excel at something to prove himself. But at what?
—From Marlon Brando: A Penguin Lives Biography by Patricia Bosworth (c) September 2001, Viking Press, a division of Penguin Putnam, used by permission.
Posted September 10, 2001