REVIEW by Chris Moss

NWR Issue r33

Brando’s Bride : The incredibly true story of Anna Kashfi and her marriage to one of Hollywood's greatest stars

by Sarah Broughton

Cover of Brando's Bride by Sarah Broughton

Marlon Brando is one of those movie heartthrobs we don’t quite get anymore – and I mean ‘get’ in both senses of the word. Odd-looking, with his sly eyes and stocky build, he was not classically handsome. His acting was moodily mannered and it could be argued that as much as he possessed raw thespian talent, he got very lucky with casting (his association with Tennessee Williams was a crucial early boost). The deterioration of his voice/delivery as his career tapered off to a Superman, cameo made him an object of derision. Recent questions around how much Brando knew in advance about the humiliation of Marie Schneider during a simulated rape scene on the set of Last Tango in Paris hardly add to the supposed enigma, and his status as the last of the ‘Golden Age’ movie icons is probably due for revision, as is so much else that has come out of that macho, bullying, freakish factory of illusions that is Hollywood.

Does any of this deter from the interest of Sarah Broughton’s Brando’s Bride? Not really, because this story, about an alleged Indian princess – Anna Kashfi, who married Brando in 1957, and turned out to be a working-class Cardiff girl – is itself a deconstruction of Marlon Brando. It’s also a portrait of a period of decline, when both the British Empire and Hollywood were fizzling out and the Cold War was having a chilling effect on Los Angeles’ creative industries. But it is primarily an attempt to correct the unjust caricature of Kashfi promulgated by the press, previous biographers and her family.

To date, there are approximately fifty books about [Brando], all of them perpetuating the myth that Anna Kashfi, his first wife, lied about her background, fooled Brando and betrayed her parents. I say myth because I know the truth.

The bare facts, in summary, are that Anna Kashfi was born Joan O’Callaghan in Darjeeling, where her father, William, worked for the Indian State Railways. Like many Anglo-Indians, William and his wife, Phoebe, decided to relocate to the UK following Indian Independence. They arrived from Bombay aboard the SS Ranchi in 1948 (Cliff Richard’s mother was also on the vessel), just three months after the Windrush, disembarking at Tilbury near London. They travelled to Ogmore-by-Sea in the Vale of Glamorgan (Phoebe had heard of the town via a soldier in India), briefly spending time there before settling in Cardiff.

Broughton goes into some detail about the lineage of both William and Phoebe. Hollywood and the British tabloid press were obsessed with the question as to whether Brando’s bride was ‘Welsh or Injun’. Biographers, loath to undertake original research, perpetuated a story that Kashfi was English or Welsh or even Anglo-French ‘with tenuous claims to an Indian mystique’ in order to substantiate the slanderous claims that she had seduced Brando with her pseudo-exotic charms. Hollywood fixer Howard Strickling was hired to concoct a story that she was fully Indian and that her mother, Devi Kashfi, had remarried when ‘Anna’ was sixteen.

The truth, Broughton, sustains, is that both Phoebe and William were born into railway families already rooted in india and that there was ‘undoubtedly, “Indian blood” in both William and Phoebe, although they either didn’t know it, or chose not to recognise it.’

Kashfi did, however, perhaps because it helped explain her own rags-to-riches story. As a young woman, she took jobs at a Cardiff butcher’s and a café at Porthcawl. A move to London landed her a position modelling furs on Regent Street, and, subsequently, saris. From there, a train to Paris and a meeting with movie people changed the course of her life. She was beautiful, which was a great help, but she was also ambitious and had some acting ability. One of the chief objects of the book is to show how Kashfi’s marriage and questions about her roots obscured her identity as a female actress in an industry beset by racism and sexism.

When she met Brando, in October 1955, Kashfi had just spent a month in the French Alps making her debut as a ‘mute Hindu’ in The Mountain (her name was changed from then on), in which Spencer Tracy was the star. Marlon Brando, by contrast, was a veteran of eight films, had already won an Oscar for his performance in On the Waterfront and had proven he was a cut above your average Tinsel Town male totty with a successful run on Broadway.

When they married, she was twenty-three. He was ten years her senior. None of their parents were at the wedding. Friends were mustered at the last minute. No honeymoon had been planned. Brando had done all he could to keep the press, whom he despised, in the dark. Brando’s father and Marlon’s close friend/henchman, Walter Seltzer, shared the view Kashfi was a ‘blatant gold digger’. Kashfi was – reportedly – pregnant, and Brando was being an honourable man insofar as he was going ahead with the shotgun wedding; during their engagement he had continued to have relationships with other women. A bouquet of lilies was flown in to appease the jittery bride.

Needless to say, such dysfunctional beginnings did not bode well. The second half of Brando’s Bride is tell-all about the unravelling marriage and how Kashfi’s acting career imploded as she was driven to drugs, alcohol and an eventual suicide attempt. She was put on trial for assault and battery against Brandon and lost custody of their child, Christian (who later went to prison for manslaughter).

Broughton is a very good writer, her prose muscular and assertive. Los Angeles ‘reeked of oranges and exhaust fumes’. She notes an ‘unsettling severity’ in the couple’s wedding photographs. The author had direct contact with Anna Kashfi, who died in August 2015, and while she doesn’t let the personal contact prejudice her analyses, the narrative bears the stamp of careful interviewing. The book comes with footnotes, family tree and a handy guide to place names.

There is so much rumour and dissembling in this story that gaps remain. Broughton never managed to unearth precisely how Kashfi got to Paris and that role in a Spencer Tracy movie, for instance. Kashfi’s own unreliable narratives over the years deeply complicate any claims to a final version of events. But the omissions and obfuscation don’t detract from the book’s sociological value. As much as a biography, Brando’s Bride is a cool dissection of an era. The famous Hollywood sign was only a year older than Brando. His monstrous personality was a byproduct of its allure, while Kashfi’s troubled life reveals the price paid by those who step incautiously into the fake plastic world of the big studios.

Chris Moss is a travel writer and journalist.

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