the childhood of marlon brando -- 6/30/17

Today's selection -- from Somebody: The Reckless Life and Remarkable Career of Marlon Brando by Stefan Kanfer. The middle-American childhood of future movie superstar Marlon Brando, Jr., who was known to his family as Bud:

"Outwardly all was lyrical [in the Brando family]. Three children -- two pretty sisters and their robust younger brother -- played in the large front yard; the backdrop was a capacious wood-shingled house redolent of fresh-cut hay, wild flowers, and smoke from a wood­burning stove. In the next decade Andy Hardy movies would take place in just such an environment.

Marlon, Frances and Jocelyn 1930

"But there was a secondary aroma, and it revealed what no passerby could sense. 'When my mother drank,' recalled Marlon, 'her breath had a sweetness to it I lack the vocabulary to describe.' A furtive alco­holic, she took frequent hits from a bottle she called her 'change-of­-life' medicine. Dodie -- Dorothy Pennebaker Brando -- began to spend longer and longer periods with that vessel until, Marlon noted in his memoir, 'the anguish that her drinking produced was that she pre­ferred getting drunk to caring for us.'

" 'Us' referred to Marlon senior and his children. Frances (known to the family as Frannie), Jocelyn (Tiddy), and Marlon junior (Bud). Dodie had reasons for allowing her husband to fend for himself. Wrote his namesake, 'It was an era when a traveling salesman slipped five dol­lars to a bellboy, who would return with a pint of whisky and a hooker. My pop was such a man.' ...

"For Marlon senior, ... money was not a prob­lem; a peddler of products for contractors and architects, the paterfa­milias earned more than enough to maintain his family in solid middle-class comfort. Affection, however, was in short supply. He would return home to shower Dodie with gifts, then journey back to a life of one-night stands. There were presents for the kids as well, but precious little concern. Marlon senior continually denigrated his namesake; he mocked the boy's behavior, his way of speaking, his posture. Hugs were only dispensed on birthdays or at Christmastime; Junior couldn't recall a single compliment from his father from kin­dergarten through adolescence. As a result the child sought attention elsewhere -- mainly at school, where he made a habit of flouting authority, and getting punished for it. Senior's ominous moods and black silences were harder for his daughters to deal with. ...

"When Bud was six, the Calcium Carbonate Corporation offered his father a new job as sales manager. Employment opportunities were few in 1930, the first full year of the Depression. Marlon senior seized the day, even though it meant relocation to Evanston, Illinois. His wife was not so happy with the decision; she still clung to the fading illusion of herself as a stage star. and Evanston had no playhouse and few non­-conformists.

Marlon aged eight with mother Dodie in 1932

"Dodie struggled to get her bearings in the new neighborhood. Melancholia settled in like an old acquaintance who had come for a weekend visit and refused to go away. ... Meantime, the neighbors whispered that Mrs. Brando was the kind of woman who saw the glass as half full. That was because she had drunk the other half.

"The rumors were cruel, and they were accurate. Too many afternoons Dodie disappeared into an alcohol-saturated haze, unreachable by her children. Frannie and Tiddy were on the cusp of adolescence and found new friends at the tony Lincoln School. Bud attended the same institution, but retreated into his own fantasies. The most obses­sive of these concerned the family housekeeper, a young woman of Danish and Indonesian descent called Ermi. During the day he played card games with her; at night the two often slept in the same bed. She was nude, he remembered -- though this might have been a boy's wish­ful dream -- and a sound sleeper. On his part the attachment was all­-consuming; to her it was of no importance whatever. In fact, she never bothered to tell him that she was about to be married. The house­keeper merely informed him one day that she was leaving on a trip and would return soon.

"It took several weeks for Bud to realize that Ermi was not coming back. The night he realized she was gone forever, he experienced a foretaste of death. 'I felt abandoned,' he said almost five decades later. 'My mother had long ago deserted me for her bottle; now Ermi was gone, too.' "



Stefan Kanfer


Somebody: The Reckless Life and Remarkable Career of Marlon Brando




Copyright 2008 by Stefan Kanfer


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