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Trouble in Paradise

Marlon Brando's private Tahitian island became a symbol of the turmoil that marked the reclusive actor's final years. Not even his death has changed that.

October 23, 2005|Matthew Heller | Matthew Heller's last story for the magazine was about well-compensated activists for the disabled.

Marlon Brando spent the last few years of his life mostly cloistered in the master bedroom of his home on Mulholland Drive, the great actor reduced to an obese, distrustful and tormented recluse. But there was a place to which he could escape by simply closing his eyes. It was a place far away in the South Pacific, a 27-square-mile island called Tetiaroa that's protected by a coral reef, about 35 miles north of Tahiti. Brando could transport himself there--to the coconut trees swaying in the soft trade winds, to the azure waters lapping against the glistening white sand, to the rare red-throated frigate birds soaring into a cloudless sky.

"It was his little Zen heaven," recalls Scott Billups, a director of TV commercials who knew Brando for more than 30 years. "He could put himself in that space. It was just as good as being there."

Who hasn't imagined themselves freed from the stresses of modern life, communing constantly with nature in a tropical paradise? Who wouldn't want to be a latter-day Robinson Crusoe? But Brando, unlike most of us, didn't have to rely completely on his imagination. From 1966 until his death in July 2004 at the age of 80, he was the legal owner of Tetiaroa.

Before he went into seclusion, Brando made the eight-hour, 4,100-mile flight from Los Angeles to French Polynesia on many occasions, sometimes staying on Tetiaroa for months at a time. He delighted in life as an island owner, dozing on the beach, imitating the scuttle of hermit crabs, and even developing part of his domain as Hotel Tetiaroa Village, a modest resort featuring a few primitive, thatched-roof huts to which tourists were brought from Tahiti by air--the island's small airstrip being the only reliable access to the place.

"My mind is always soothed when I imagine myself sitting on my South Sea island at night," Brando wrote in his 1994 autobiography, "Songs My Mother Taught Me." Brando wanted to die on Tetiaroa, preferably "sitting under a coconut palm in a very special place on the island," as he put it to an employee. In a will he signed in 1982, he put Tetiaroa in a trust so it could be preserved for posterity. "If I have my way, Tetiaroa will remain forever a place that reminds Tahitians of who they are and what they were centuries ago," he wrote.

But Brando died far from any coconut palms in an intensive care unit at UCLA Medical Center. And less than a year later, acting on a revised will that included no specific provision for Tetiaroa, the executors of his estate sold an interest in the island for $2 million to Richard Bailey, a Tahiti-based hotel developer who had courted Brando without success for several years.

Bailey is taking over what seems more like a dystopia than a utopia. Brando, a massively flawed product of the Hollywood dream factory, couldn't insulate his fantasy island from the storms of his personal life--the failed marriages, the wrecked relationships and the troubled children--and the strains on his finances. He stopped going to Tetiaroa after his son Christian killed a Tahitian native in 1990, and by the time of his death, the resort he built was pretty much in ruins. But friends and former employees say the island is still the truest mirror of Brando's search for purity. And they're worried that Bailey is about to ruin it for everybody else.

Technically, Tetiaroa is not an island but an atoll of 13 islets--or, as the Polynesians call them, motus--surrounded by a lagoon that is separated from the ocean by the reef. From the air, the motus look like oddly shaped putting greens fringed with sand. In early 2004, aviation authorities shut down the airstrip, saying the length of the runway did not comply with safety regulations. Since then, Brando's resort has been closed and only his 42-year-old son Teihotu lives there, working for Bailey as Tetiaroa's caretaker.

Publishing tycoon Malcolm Forbes and fruit magnate David Murdock of Dole Food Co. are among those who have made a success out of owning remote tropical paradises. The former spent a fortune building homes for his employees on Laucala, the Fijian island he acquired in 1972; the latter forked out $400 million to build two resort hotels on Lanai, Hawaii, which he added to his empire in 1985.

Brando, for all his Hollywood stardom, could not begin to match their financial resources--or business savvy. "Marlon was a dreamer," says Jo An Corrales, the actor's former business manager.

Dick Bailey is, clearly, a businessman. He doesn't own any islands, but he knows the luxury resort business. A native of Lafayette, La., he moved with his wife, a Tahitian attorney, to Tahiti in 1985 and got a job with the island's tourism agency. In 1989, he became the local representative for IEI International, a Japanese real-estate firm that owned two resorts on Tahiti and another on Bora-Bora. When IEI hit financial troubles, Bailey bought the properties in 1998.

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