As old friends, those who remain conscious and breathing know, in my extreme youth, say, sixteen, I was in love with the then incredibly beautiful, gifted and brilliant Marlon Brando. I had the indescribable (though I tried) joy of spending some weeks with him in Falmouth, Massachussetts, at the playhouse there, where he was directing a Summer Stock mounting ofArms and the Man, starring himself, and all his buddies, whom he was very good about trying to pay back, both for their friendship and as recompense for his enormous stardom, which he considered, I believe, completely out of proportion, as he, too, was to become.I first met him, as intimates know, my being unable to stop telling the story, because Janice Mars, one of his close friends and cast-off loves, as all his loves were eventually, some faster than others, wanted to do a song of mine, as most cabaret entertainers (including Lena Horne) who heard it, did. It was called SEX, was pretty witty, kind of Cole Porter manqué, Let's Do It updated and made more suggestive. Eventually it was stolen by a number of performers, including the bitch who sang Goldfinger, Shirley Bassey, who, when I went backstage at Ciro's to tell her it was my song, asked her how she'd gotten it, and when she intended to pay me, said Rose Hardaway had learned it in Paris when I sang it at the Mars Club. Rose came to see me almost every night in Paris,-- I thought she was my first fan. "Hoh-ney," she said to me, "everybody in this business going to cheat you and lie to you; but I'm telling you the truth: I'm stealing your song." I thought she was kidding. But it turned out she had done it at the Apollo, where the arranger who did it stole it from her, and gave it to Shirley. She told me it would cost more to sue than I could hope to recover, and as I was twenty at the time, I didn't have the guts to challenge her.
But a few years before that, when I was truly young, Janice had invited me in to New York from college to meet "someone." As the elevator went up in the Carnegie Hall apartment building, I had no idea who it was. But when the doors opened and I heard a garbled, rooftop-y cry of "Eyyyyyy, Janice," I knew. That I could say hello to him over the hoofbeats that were in my chest was a miracle of the moment. When she told him I had a song she wanted, he said "Sing it to me, Kid." Throwing her backwards across his lap in a great leather armchair, picking invisible hairs from her chest as I sang, he listened, beating the bongos that he saw south of her collarbone as an accompaniment.I tell this in all its detail, because it remains so vivid, with so many memories eluding me at this time, I figure I better get it all down. When I finished singing, my heart now in my ears, I heard him say: "Not bad. Not bad. Tell me about yourself, Kid." So I gave him as much history as I had, ending with "And I go to Bryn Mawr," at which point he Katharine Hepburned up and said: "EUuuuuw. Ba-ryn Mawahr."That summer, Janice invited me to come to Falmouth, where she was going to be among the cast of cast-offs and people he really trusted for a summer stock production. As I wrote in one of my novels, I think, or maybe it was a piece never published, he always took care of the women he destroyed.So there I was rooming with the great (maybe the greatest) actress Maureen Stapleton, Janice's best friend, and a lifetime buddy of Marlon's, who was appearing in a production of Three Men on a Horse with Sam Jaffe onstage at night, while Marlon rehearsed his troop during the day. Also in the night time show was Wally Cox, the diminutive, very smart once Mr. Peepers, Marlon's best friend from their 'boyhood' a word they both used to describe it, in Libertyville, Illinois. I was a very fat teenager, and there, in his presence, at long wooden tables where we served ourselves breakfast, I would manage a few blueberries I could barely swallow for love of him. And he would grin at me and say "You finally on a diet, kid?" And Maureen would say, "Shut up, Natural Beauty," which he was. Stella Adler or maybe it was Mady Christians once said it was a good thing he broke his nose or he would have been pretty as a girl.I followed him obsessively during his rise, becoming close friends with Josanne Mariani, his first official fiancee, she who had been nanny for the children of the Strasbergs, his mentors. Josanne was in Hollywood-- I'm not sure how she got there, but I have to guess she had followed him there, understandably spiritually broken by his abandonment. She became my friend when I got to LA, where I vampired her, as writers will, and put his cruel rejection, which I witnessed,when she knocked on his door, pleading for admission into my first novel, NAKED IN BABYLON, where he was the fictional (sort of) hero, Jason Stone.I visited her again in the south of France, where her stepfather was a fisherman, stayed in their home, peed for the first time into a hole, standing in tile footprints. I went through the tiny town with her, trying not to notice, though that's what writers do, as the populace of Bandol, eyes cast down, pretending not to stare, murmuring, doubtless in excellent French, that there does the cast-off fiancee of the Great Marlon Brando. Later he introduced her to a fellow actor in The Young Lions, and she married him. Then I lost track of her. I hope she is still alive, and has had a happy life.But as for Brando, I pretty much let go of him, even mentally, along the way, though I kept up through his very nice friend, the actor Sam Gilman, who liked me, which his wife said was very unusual,-- Sam didn't like many women, she told me. Sam took me to a party at Marlon's house a lot of years later, by which time he was already starting to be unrecognizable. I had seen him, of course, at the Chessman execution outside San Quentin, when I was a student protestor along with Ken Kesey, I was simply amused-- for all the gravity of the situation, a man being executed when his crimes were much less than he had become through self-education in prison-- by Brando's trying to find a way to relieve himself in the Bay without the press taking a picture. There was a cart selling Hershey bars and Love Nests, and a loudspeaker promising that Shirley MacLaine and Steve Allen were on their way there from Sacremento, where they were appealing to the governor. Stanley Kubrick wanted to make the whole scene, which I wrote about when Stanley and I were first friends, into a movie-- mostly I think because he was pissed off at Brando for firing him off a movie. But that was the last I had seen my once Giant Fixation. There had been, for sure, no sentimental interludes, no sights of him I could make seem romantic, even with my fevered imagination.
When I married Don, who genuinely loved me, and was quietly jealous of anyone in whom I had ever or might ever have the least interest, but dealt with it, wily charmer that he was, by making whoever it was his friend, he knew my history with Marlon, such as it was. So there was a sad satisfaction as we walked up the then beautiful pathway to the Hotel Bel-Air and he said "There's your great love: he's turned into Sydney Greenstreet." And so Marlon had, enormous, unrecognizable, the expanse of his back taking up a huge portion of the garden, blocking the view of what was once as beautiful a man, talent included, as had ever walked the boards. Over the phone, I kept up my friendship with Janice, who had moved to New Mexico, and she told me Marlon had salvaged an album she'd made that he'd found in his desk,and would make it available, because she was a great singer. He'd told her he intended to live to a hundred and five. "Why?" she'd asked him. "Out of curiosity," he said.
Of course he didn't make it. He died at eighty-two. I went to the exhibition of his effects for auction, a year or so after his death in New York, saw Alec Baldwin checking it out reverentially, probably never having been in love with anything but his talent. I wondered at the impeccability and extent of Marlon's note-taking, the sorting, the collecting. The wonder finally passed last night, when I saw one of his last movies, and considered it probably just another facet of his compulsive behavior To my sorrow, when I couldn't fall asleep, I watched the movie he made with the young Jonny Depp, where he played the psychiatrist, and saw the gigantic mountain of loss of control that he had become.
I grieved so hard I had to take sleeping pills-- not something I like or want to do- because I couldn't shake the sadness. Everybody has to die, so I didn't sorrow over his being dead. I sorrowed over what he had become. Or failed to become, because he couldn't get hold of himself.Not that I would have done any better, trying to grab on. But at least I would have tried to remind him of who he was, or at least, who he seemed to be, for those of us who imagined an actor could be as brilliant as the parts he played. I ran into Wally Cox at a dinner party in Hollywood, some years after Falmouth, not having seen him again in all the years. I enthused, as was still then my way, about Marlon, who hadn't at the time yet morphed into the awful distortion of himself, raved on about his gifts, his surprising intellect, what he meant to all the actors who came after. And Wally said "Thank you, thank you, thank you, thank you, thank you. I have to say that because Marlon never will."Wally died the next day, suddenly. So I always considered it a gift from the Universe that I got to see him again, and we had that wonderful exchange. I'm just sorry I never got to speak my piece to Marlon, though I don't know what I would have said, and am sure whatever it was he wouldn't have listened.I went to the ophthalmologist this morning for a painful problem I've been having with my eyelid, and it turned out there was a stone in my tear duct. A gathering of tears I've never shed, I wouldn't be surprised. I wonder if the words you've never spoken calcify somewhere inside and turn to stone even before you do. I wonder if there is a surgeon of the soul who can cut it loose.