Aled Smith reviews the new book from Sarah Broughton which tells the fascinating and little-known story of a Hollywood legend and the Welsh girl that captured his heart, in Brando’s Bride.
Marlon Brando played iconic roles in prominent films which reflected and shaped 20th century American culture and society. His was a movie career started in the early 1950s, under the supervisory eye of the Hollywood Studio System, as Stanley Kowalski in A Streetcar Named Desire, and that decades later moved on into a New Age Hollywood full of innovative young directors and writers, playing such seminal parts as Don Corleone in The Godfather, and Colonel Walter Kurtz in Apocalypse Now. So, it’s true, the world knows of the dazzling film star and the name of Marlon Brando, but what about his first wife Anna Kashfi? Who exactly was she?
When the Big Star’s burning eyes first caught sight of a beautiful young woman at the Paramount Studios in 1955 he certainly didn’t know who she was either, and apparently asked, “Who’s that good-looking broad in the red sari?” Was she truly the Indian princess from Calcutta which both she and the Dream Factory claimed she was? Or was she actually a Welsh girl from Cardiff, who had worked behind a till in the local butcher’s shop? It didn’t matter. It was only two years later before Brando married her. But who she really was did matter. And Sarah Broughton in her intriguing biography Brando’s Bride investigates the reasons as to why it mattered, where the real identity of Anna Kashfi lay, and why it had alternated over the years.
Anna Kashfi, aged twenty-one, had appeared in LA as if from nowhere. By the time Brando met her, she’d been given a seven year film contract with MGM and had just finished her first movie. She played a non-speaking Hindu part opposite Spencer Tracy, and was promoted by the Studio as the Indian Grace Kelly. Two years later she’d become pregnant with Brando’s child. Public pressure and American tabloid news coverage was intense. Interracial marriage was big news in those days and the young couple were hounded by gossip columnists who salivated over their ‘forbidden love’. It was difficult enough for the couple but what actually caused their separation was news splashed across the Atlantic from a man in Cardiff who worked in a factory. Straight after their shotgun wedding, William O’Callaghan had claimed to the British press that there was ‘no Indian blood in her.’ The young starlet was his daughter, Joan. It was a fact. Brando, the Oscar winning Superstar, was furious. He’d been lied to. His wife was not Indian. She was Welsh.
Divorce was fairly immediate. Scandalous newspaper articles proposed Kashfi was simply a dark-eyed Welsh ‘gold-digger’, who’d accepted a false nationality to essentially trick Brando through her knowledge of his taste for ‘exotic women’. Physical and verbal violence ensued between the battling pair for years afterwards. Kashfi received divorce money from Brando and initially secured custody of their child. Brando was big and simply got bigger, his regal appetite for food and women made him a legend. He married three times and had eleven children. All the while, an embittered Kashfi’s career fell apart. Courtroom fights continued over the custody of their son for decades, and Brando, unsurprisingly, had the better coverage and control over the headlines, whilst Kashfi was more often portrayed in a darker light. Although she actually lived on longer than their son Christian Devi, and Brando himself, she withered away and led an enraged life. And it was her broken relationship with Brando which seemed to be what fuelled her subsequent love affair with alcohol and drugs.
There are a lot of plot lines in Broughton’s book. It’s a fascinating tale that examines in detail the life of Anna Kashfi and her familial heritage, one which stretches back to India under the British Empire and on into a drug-crazed lifestyle during the ‘sixties and ‘seventies in America. From Wales to Hollywood. From suicide attempts, to murder, and imprisonment. There is so much in the story it could easily be fiction. It’s not. At least not what comes to us from Sarah’s Broughton’s detailed and meticulous research. The fiction in the actual history is, in part, what came from the Studio publicity department, for it was standard practice to change a name, a race, or even the religious faith of an actor in Golden Era Hollywood. Their fabricated ‘mini-bio’ of Joan O’Callaghan was readily offered and accepted by her, though angrily opposed by her dismissed and disgusted parents who always claimed to the international press it was a lie, whilst covering up their own lies about exactly who they were themselves.
Anna Kashfi was indeed Joan O’Callaghan, and she was born in India, the daughter of a couple who came to Britain from India in 1948 and then lived in Cardiff for the rest of their lives. They weren’t Welsh. They themselves were born in India, too, and had been living there as had their own parents and grand-parents since the late 18th century. They were considered to be ‘Anglo-Indians’ – a privileged community which held a higher working status within the transformative state railway systems that had been developed under British colonial rule. When India gained its independence in 1947, these communities were forced out. The O’Callaghans were part of a sub-stratum of Indian society that had been ejected from their homeland into a cold post-war Britain.
Brando’s Bride gives us a tantalising tale, some of which remains a mystery. The speculative suggestion in Broughton’s book is that there probably was Indian blood somewhere in the O’Callaghan family’s history which possibly came from the unlisted marriage of a Victorian British soldier to an Indian woman. In Britain it wasn’t until 1968 that the Race Relations Act came into full force, and in 1948 it certainly wouldn’t have been uncommon to see a sign pasted on a pub door, or hanging in the window of rented accommodation stating: No Blacks, No Dogs, No Irish. The reason, perhaps, as to why the parents of Joan O’Callaghan always denied any actual Indian or Irish blood in their bodies and stated they were English and born in London.
It’s the last chapter of the book which was the most enthralling section, as Broughton in 2009 investigating the truths and lies in this wild story met up with Anna Kashfi. And it’s here that we’re given a brief glimpse and description of the decaying world of an old lady who lived alone in a dreary trailer park, under a blistering hot San Diego sun, amongst the shards of a shattered dream.
Brando’s Bride is available now from Parthian.