BOOK OF THE WEEK
by Sarah Broughton (Parthian Books £10, 271pp)
Marlon Brando was the biggest Hollywood star of the 20th century, winning his first Academy Award for 1954’s On The Waterfront.
He had previously been nominated for films including A Streetcar Named Desire, in which his hulking Stanley Kowalski, dressed in a torn white vest, remains an icon of brutish male power.
Brando would go on to further acclaim as Don Corleone in The Godfather and Colonel Kurtz in Apocalypse Now. In today’s terms, he was like Tom Cruise, Leonardo DiCaprio and Matt Damon rolled into one: massive charisma.
On October 11, 1957, Brando, then 33, who’d always had a taste for Oriental and Asian girls with ‘lustrous eyes, an olive complexion, and a reticent, almost virginal manner’, married Anna Kashfi, ‘a 23-year-old actress from Darjeeling’.
On 11 October 1957, Hollywood actor Marlon Brando married Anna Kashfi (pictured), ‘a 23-year-old actress from Darjeeling.’
Except, as the Press disclosed the next morning, he’d done no such thing. Anna Kashfi was really Joan Mary O’Callaghan from Cardiff, a former cashier in a butcher’s shop, where she’d been ‘surrounded by sausages’.
As soon as news of the wedding broke, the British Press investigated the background of the mysterious Kashfi.
After rapidly discovering she was, in fact, an O’Callaghan, journalists headed to Cardiff to doorstep her family.
Her father, William O’Callaghan, said categorically when interviewed: ‘There is no Indian blood in my family… I can assure you she is absolutely English and has no Indian blood in her whatsoever.’
But, as the press would declare the next morning, the actor’s new bride was not who he thought (Pictured: Marlon Brando)
As Sarah Broughton says in this ultimately tragic study: ‘The newspapers implied that Anna was a liar and Brando a fool.’ The ‘most famous movie star in the world’ never forgave his bride for the humiliation and they divorced in 1959.
The couple remained locked in combat, however, as, on her wedding day, Anna was pregnant. Christian Brando was born seven months later, in May 1958, and his parents were always in and out of court, fighting for custody.
It is a tale, we are informed, about ‘the denial and manufacturing of identities’ — for, when Broughton started to dig around in the background, she discovered nothing was cut and dried.
The O’Callaghans, despite living in South Wales, had indeed come from India — Anna/Joan and her parents had only arrived in England for the very first time in 1948, after independence.
The family had been settled in the sub-continent for many generations, at least since 1797, latterly working on the railways. Anna (or Joan) was born in Calcutta in 1934.
Also on the ship bringing them to Tilbury were a family called the Webbs — eight-year-old Harry Webb later changed his name to Cliff Richard.
Anna Kashfi was really Joan Mary O’Callaghan from Cardiff, a former cashier in a butcher’s shop (Pictured: Anna/Joan and Marlon)
What we have to bear in mind, says Broughton, are the racist attitudes of Britain in those days, the Empire in fast decline. To be white was to be superior and having what was offensively called ‘a touch of the tar brush’ in one’s ancestry was something to conceal and deny.
Yet, as Anna said, with every appearance of innocence as she looked in the mirror: ‘Why would I come out like this?’
Her mother, Phoebe Shrieves, had been born in West Bengal. Though records are now lost, it is perfectly possible that a great-grandparent was Indian. William O’Callaghan, in his turn, insisted he was English and born in London. In fact, he was born in Calcutta and, if anything, was Irish.
Joan (or Anna), ‘beautiful, charming, graceful, winsome’, spent her teenage years in Cardiff, on the same street where poet R. S. Thomas grew up. Her father worked in the sanitaryware factory where Shirley Bassey was employed ‘wrapping pee pots in brown paper’.
Joan went to St Joseph’s Convent School, was a butcher’s assistant and then went to London to model saris.
The ‘most famous movie star in the world’ never forgave his bride for the humiliation and they divorced in 1959 (Pictured, the couple’s wedding certificate)
She was spotted by a Paramount talent scout and cast in a film with Spencer Tracy being shot in the French Alps in August 1955 — a small role as a Hindu princess. ‘Her skin is like beige ivory,’ it was reported.
‘She has limpid, enormous brown eyes.’ She’d been in Los Angeles less than a month when, in November 1955, she dated Brando, who was given her telephone number by the Paramount publicist.
The studio biography handed to the media and disseminated by the gossip columnists Louella Parsons and Hedda Hopper, was a tissue of fantasy — and it was for this fantasy that Brando fell.
To build Anna up as ‘India’s answer to Grace Kelly’, the Press release boasted of her skills in French, Italian, Spanish, German, Hindi and three other Indian dialects. She ‘loves to model in clay, paint, sketch and redecorate’. Her father was listed as ‘Devi Kashfi’, a civil engineer, and her mother as ‘Selma Ghose’.
‘All this,’ says Broughton, was ‘entirely fictional.’ Devi was later ‘killed off’, conveniently shot in New Delhi, to explain his non-appearance at the Brando nuptials.
Of course, it is the Hollywood tradition to reinvent yourself. Half-Spanish Margarita Carmen Cansino became Rita Hayworth; Frances Ethel Gumm transformed herself into Judy Garland; and tough guy John Wayne was once Marion Morrison. Boris Karloff was Billy Pratt.
The couple remained locked in combat, as, on her wedding day, Anna was pregnant
Few were genuinely whom they pretended to be — but Anna, a young girl swept off her feet, kept augmenting the fictions, sometimes even hinting that she came from Bangkok or China.
She certainly never returned to, or mentioned, South Wales — and, when she met Richard Burton, she pretended she didn’t understand what the word ‘Welsh’ referred to.
Brando had a point when he said: ‘I really can’t talk to Anna. She’s so emotional, so immature.’ Theirs was a volatile relationship, ‘characterised by infidelity, suspicion and a magnetic physical attraction’. There was a lot of slapping, whacking, biting — mostly inflicted by her on him — it was ‘all tears and hysteria’.
Anna complained of Brando early on as, ‘after making love, he could vanish without a word’. He was evidently only after one thing.
They were married because Anna became pregnant. Anna wanted a Buddhist wedding, Brando a Zen ceremony. They settled for an Episcopalian service at Brando’s aunt’s home in Los Angeles.
Parents on both sides were noticeably absent.
There was no honeymoon as such. The bored, sullen groom shot cans in the yard.
Brando’s Bride by Sarah Broughton (Parthian Books £10, 271pp)
Brando continued seeing Rita Moreno and wanted to be a bachelor at weekends, ‘no questions asked’. After Christian’s birth, Anna started drinking and taking barbiturates. Any domestic relationship they might have had was over before it had begun.
The ‘truth’ about the Cardiff connection ‘dimmed her charm’ for Brando . . . ‘his interest rapidly flagged’.
But if he’d wanted to find someone to blame, whoever composed the Paramount Press release is the chief culprit.
Anna appeared in a few films with Rock Hudson, Glenn Ford, Dean Martin and Jack Lemmon, where she portrayed Hindus, Koreans and Mexicans. She was demonstrably a very minor actress — while Brando had won an Oscar. Nevertheless, she tyrannised him.
‘She was probably the most beautiful woman I’ve ever known, but she came close to being as negative a person as I have met in my life,’ said Brando.
Christian was the embodiment of crazy rage. By his teens, he was addicted to booze and drugs. In 1990, he shot dead his half-sister’s boyfriend. Brando put up $2 million bail. It was a sleazy tabloid scandal. Christian died four years after his father, aged 49, of pneumonia.
Broughton tracked down Anna, who went on to marry a piped-music salesman and ended up in poverty in a caravan. Interview material laces through the text. She died in 2015, aged 80. ‘She is what happens when life chews you up and spits you out as far as it can.’
There will not be a better written, more understanding and forensically researched biography published this year.