Easily one of the best researched and elegantly expressed books to appear in Wales this year, ‘Brando’s Bride’ also benefits from having at its heart a Hollywood tale with lush, glitzy and dollar strewn romance countermanded by a drug and booze-fuelled tragedy.
As if that wasn’t enough it’s also a rags-to-riches tale as Anna Kashfi, an utterly beautiful actress who claimed to be an Indian princess, wowed Marlon Brando and married him.
That might have been story enough were it not for the cavalcade of exposés that followed the wedding, revealing that Kashfi’s parents came not from India but rather from the studiedly unexotic suburb of Gabalfa in Cardiff.
Her parents, William O’Callaghan and his wife Phoebe had been part of the exodus of Anglo-Indians who had left the new country after it had gained independence, travelling here on the S. S. Ranchi in 1948, sailing into Tilbury Docks and a new life. This took them to Ogmore-by-Sea and latterly to Cardiff, where their daughter received part of her education.
Initially, the Irish-sounding Joan O’Callaghan had some lucky breaks in life, the first being cast as a “Hindu girl” in a film called ‘The Mountain’ starring Spencer Tracy and subsequently being picked up by the impossibly powerful studio system in Hollywood. Name changes were almost de rigeur for aspiring actors, so Tulle Ellice Finklea became Cyd Charisse, Frances Ethel Gumm duly became Judy Garland and Margarita Carmen Cansino was rebaptised Rita Hayworth.
But name-changing was only one of the necessary transformations: studio publicity chiefs would create biographies to match, with the far-fetched often replacing any facts. Kashfi would not only be the first Indian actress to be signed in Hollywood but would also be marketed as the ‘Grace Kelly of India.’
To complete the package she was given fictional parents complete with Indian names to accompany her 7 year contract with the mighty MGM studios. The studio invested heavily in its proteges and guarded their reputations with a vengeance.
One of the serious strengths of this read-avidly-in-a-single-sitting biography is the historical detail about the politics of race in Kashfi’s day, from the travesty of justice which led to Somali-born sailor Mahmoud Mattan becoming the last person to be hanged in Cardiff through the British Nationality Act to the pernicious Hollywood bias against Jews.
We are given useful and telling vignettes of people such as Pushpa Kapila, the first woman from South Asia to graduate from Cardiff Universty not to mention other actresses like Kashfi who entered ‘Valley of the Dolls.’ This best-selling novel by Jacqueline Susann, indeed the best selling book in the world in the late 1960s, describes the entertainment industry of southern California. The book is, according to Sarah Broughton “a paean to the young women like herself who dared to dream that a career in show business offered them an escape route from who they were but then found themselves washed up, rinsed out and left to hang.”
Had Susann needed an extra character to add to her troubled trio of Anne Welles, Neeley O’Hara and Jennifer North she might easily have been added Kashfi, being herself halfway to being a fictional creation.
Anna Kashfi was only twenty three when she married Brando, a wedding prompted in part by her being pregnant. The post-wedding furore about her real identity which filled up the front pages of papers such as the ‘New York Times,’ the ‘Oakland Tribune’ and the ‘Tucson Daily Citizen’ would certainly unsettle her new husband, who was notoriously publicity-shy and pretty soon he was back to his philandering ways.
Brando would eventually marry three times and have eleven acknowledged children, not always with a wife of his. Marlon and Anna’s son Christian became the subject of protracted, brutal and brutalising custody battles which ultimately saw him removed from his mother’s care after she’d irresponsibly left him with a group of strangers in Mexico, having given them $10,000 to hide him from his father.
Brando himself found Christian huddled under blankets in the desert after flying to the US from France where he was filming ‘Last Tango in Paris.’ It would bring to an end a thirteen-year long custody battle which had cost a lot of money and caused a lot of emotional pain.
Drink and drugs then played their parts in her dissolution, not least the new pill and comforter called Miltown that was all the rage in the US, soon to be followed by drugs such as Benzedrine which hooked Elvis Presley and scrambled the brains of British Prime Minister Anthony eden and probably played a part in the monumental botch that was the Suez Crisis. Anna had plenty of crises of her own and of the most testing moments in Kashfi’s life came when her son was convicted of murder.
So the woman Sarah Broughton finally tracked down in a ramshackle home near San Diego had been through life’s mangle as well as the crushing machine that is the Hollywood star-maker. She was in Broughton’s words ‘almost entirely forgotten’ and ‘is what happens when life chews you up and spits you out as far as you can, and you can’t die.’
Kashfi indeed lived a longer life than many of her fellow actors and fortuitously she did find brief happiness in a second marriage but also lived long enough to find herself living in a trailer park, being sued by her son’s ex-girlfriend and living with a rat in the kitchen.
This was far removed from her earlier life where she acted alongside some of the biggest stars and married one of them. Rags to riches and then back almost to rags again. A story both political and personal.
Broughton has given us these stories and more in a fine detective story in which she explores the tissue of truths and the thin web of lies that made up Kashfi’s biography.
We may never know why she chose one pedigree over another, Indian over Anglo Indian, Indian over Welsh but this book suggests that the choice wasn’t always hers to make.