The Price of Celebrity
In July of 2006, waye will celebrate Marlon Brando’s last curtain call. He died on July 1, 2004 of pulmonary fibrosis, after several years of poor health.
Lauded by many as America’s finest actor, he is probably best remembered for his role as The Godfather. However, this was but one of many stellar performances. I remember the twenty-six year old Marlon, who was Broadway's newest and brightest star in the 1950s, getting rave reviews for his performance in Tennessee William's A Streetcar Named Desire.
In that era, with his career on the ascent, his sense of humor reflecting a sharp intellect, and his body honed to perfection, Marlon was the object of many women’s fantasies, but he was obviously in love with my attractive Cherokee friend, Doe. I couldn't understand why she steadfastly refused his repeated proposals of marriage.
Since I had just married, Marlon knew that I wanted my friend to enjoy that same happiness. He enlisted my support in convincing Doe to marry him, but Doe was firm in her conviction. "That's not the life I want," she insisted.
"You don't want a life of luxury with a super star who adores you? You could have everything you want. You could go anywhere or do anything."
Doe was adamant. She knew what she wanted, and Marlon couldn't give it to her.
"What do you want?" I asked, puzzled. I knew she loved Marlon, and it was obvious he loved her.
She answered with the quiet dignity of her Native American heritage. "I want a marriage that will last until the day I die. I want a husband who will be there when the children and I need him. I want companionship. I want to live in one house, in one place, my whole life. I want a husband who comes home at six o'clock, eats the dinner that I've prepared for him, and spends the evening with me, not on a Broadway stage. I can't have the life I want with Marlon."
Doe knew what she wanted, and she was right, Marlon couldn't give it to her. I never broached the subject again.
A few weeks later, Doe, Marlon and my husband Al and I were in our car on Eighth Avenue in front of Madison Square Garden, deciding how to spend the time between Marlon's matinee and his evening performance. When Madison Square Garden disgorged its matinee crowd, a woman spotted Marlon in our car.
"It's Marlon Brando! There's Marlon Brando!" she screamed, pointing at him.
Marlon leaped to lock the doors before any of the rest of us reacted. He put his arms around Doe, protecting her, as the mob swarmed over the car, trying to wrench open the locked doors. They crawled on the hood and the trunk to peer in the windows. The car rocked and seemed about to be overturned.
"Marlon Brando! It's Marlon Brando!" the crowd chanted, crushing each other in their frenzy to touch him.
We were trapped in the car, cowing in fear, no escape possible. I had never before experienced the terror of celebrity. The intensity of the crowd’s excitement was horrifying.
Not only were we in danger, but cars around us were damaged and pedestrians were trampled. The crowd clawing to reach Marlon was one cohesive mass of humanity, blindly injuring itself.
Whistles and sirens joined the cacophony. Soon police on horseback rode into the crowd, swinging nightsticks, forcing the crowd back. They opened a lane so we could drive forward.
Marlon relaxed his hold on Doe, laughed shakily, and attempted a feeble joke. "Ah, yes, such is the price of celebrity."
I glanced at Doe. Tears glistened in her beautiful brown eyes. She loved Marlon, but she would never share his life.
When Doe wriggled free of Marlon's protective arms, he looked down at her and smiled sadly. This was what his life would be. He was set on his course. In that instant I think he realized that Doe would not walk beside him.
We saw Marlon less frequently after that. He looked at Doe differently now. The hope, the happiness, the expectancy, was replaced by a sad, calm acceptance.
When Marlon was in The Polyclinic Hospital, Doe and I helped him pass the long hours while he recovered. When he got out, the four of us went to his favorite restaurant in Chinatown for dinner. We joined him occasionally between performances for a snack at Sam's on Broadway, but it was obvious to all of us that the Eighth Avenue crowd had wrecked more than our car.
Doe and Marlon drifted apart gradually, and Doe found solace with a man who wanted the same things she did. Marlon began dating others.
Soon, Marlon was replaced in our foursome by Doe's new date, a tall, angular, quiet man, who grew to love Doe for her dignity, her compassion, and her generosity. They married and settled into a quiet suburban lifestyle. Shortly after their first anniversary a baby arrived.
Marlon, who was always eager for news of Doe, smiled resignedly when I told him about the baby. It was obvious that his thoughts were drifting to what might have been. He sent flowers to Doe, and a layette that would have been appropriate for a royal heir apparent. Some thought this was out of character for Marlon, but I thought it quite characteristic of the small town boy, new to celebrity, who had loved and lost the finest woman any of us had ever known.
Marlon stopped asking about Doe and began accepting room keys that were tossed on the stage at every performance. Few knew the reason for Marlon's change of personality. Some attributed it to his sudden rise to stardom, but Doe and Al and I understood the reason for his madness.
The years have proven my beautiful Cherokee friend right. She was the only one of us who foresaw just how prohibitive the price of celebrity would be for Marlon Brando, an icon who no longer walks among us.
(Barbara Anton, writer & playwright, lives in Sarasota, FL).