Brando’s Lost Tetiaroa Island

The opening of a new ecohotel on the elusive actor’s Tahitian hideaway marks the end of the strangest chapter of his life.

When I arrived at Tahiti’s Faa’a International Airport, in the capital city of Papeete, my first impressions were more or less in line with my preconceptions about tropical vacation destinations. Even then, at the crack of dawn on a typical March morning, the humidity was such that my T-shirt was soaked with sweat. There was an abundance of ukulele music, semi-authentic tiki lamps and pasty white tourists from Jimmy Buffett Nation.

And then came the rain. It poured for two solid days, in sheets, accompanied by wind swells that churned the sea and bent the palm trees. The rain was so relentless and the sky so convulsive that the short flight to Tetiaroa, Marlon Brando’s private island and the site of a new five-star ecolodge that bears his name, was delayed indefinitely. “I like to be optimistic,” said Silvio Bion, The Brando’s general manager. “But I’m sorry.”

By day three, having scoured every last tiki shop in Papeete, I was a prisoner of my hotel room. I squinted out at the ocean, cursing Brando and wondering what kind of fool would visit, let alone build, a $2,500-a-night ecolodge—one fueled by coconut oil, seawater and sunshine—on some godforsaken blip in the South Pacific.

I’ve since come to regret those words.

When the greatest actor of his generation first laid eyes on Tetiaroa, in 1960, he was not in what you might call the island spirit. Brando was only 36 at the time, but years of psychic and familial strife were taking their toll. His first marriage, to actress Anna Kashfi, had ended a year earlier; his second marriage, to actress Movita Castaneda, was already on the rocks.

In the meantime, Brando’s relationship with Hollywood was growing strained. The brutishly charismatic life force who’d already been nominated for five Oscars and won one, for On the Waterfront, seemed increasingly adrift. His latest film, a western called One-Eyed Jacks, had been a creative and commercial disappointment, thanks in part to delays and expenditures caused by the film’s director: Marlon Brando.

Hairline receding, heartache mounting, patience dwindling, Brando was damn near desperate to get as far away from Hollywood as possible. Such was his angst that he rejected one very golden ticket—the lead in Lawrence of Arabia, because he couldn’t stomach spending “two years of my life on some fucking camel”—in favor of a production filmed in the far-flung idyll of Tahiti.

Mutiny on the Bounty turned out to be Brando’s most brilliant mistake. From the very beginning, the production became a kind of meta incarnation of the true-life mutiny on which the film was based. Fittingly, Brando played Fletcher Christian, the rebellious sailor who defied the ship’s captain, took charge of the ship and returned to Tahiti, where he’d fallen for a local woman.

That the production was a flaming shipwreck—the Waterworld of its day—was not the fault of any single person. Producers, actors, writers—they endlessly bickered about the script, the ship, the weather; at one point, MGM essentially shoved director Carol Reed overboard and replaced him with another guy (Lewis Milestone). Once the whole nightmare was over, after two years at sea and the loss of millions in budget overruns, nobody agreed on anything, except for this: The worst part was Brando.

This marked the official start of The Bad Marlon Period, in which the actor came off as a petulant, pretentious lout who phoned in his performances and bit the hand that fed him. In this film, as in others that followed, he undermined directors, flubbed lines and missed call times. He alienated everyone around him. And he couldn’t have cared less. Because he was in love.

Brando pulled a Fletcher Christian. For starters, he fell for a lovely Tahitian woman, Tarita Teriipia, an actress who played his love interest in the film (and who also happened to be 19 years old). He also fell for the Tahitian people—a generally easygoing lot who evinced scant interest in Hollywood celebrity. Tahitians, he’d say, were among the only people on earth who rarely, if ever, requested his autograph or pitched him movie ideas.

While the film’s cast and crew cursed his name, Brando went native. He wore silk sarongs and ventured around Polynesia. But his true come-to-Jesus moment occurred while riding a dinghy to an atoll that seemed more accessible than it actually was. To reach the white-sand beaches of Tetiaroa required the dinghy to assay an inhospitable and occasionally treacherous coral reef that encircles the atoll, as if insulating it from the outside world.

Then, as now, Tetiaroa was a sight unlike any other in Polynesia. Amid the natural splendor—1,200 acres of pristine exotica, including a neon-green lagoon, endless coconut trees and a small army of sea turtles—sat crumbled remnants of Tetiaroa’s storied past.

Centuries ago, the first humans to set foot on the atoll turned the place into a kind of ancient Fantasy Island, replete with pagan orgies and taboo rituals. Later, in the 18th century, Tetiaroa was visited first by Captain James Cook and then by his second-in-command William Bligh, the deposed leader of the HMS Bounty. Mostly, though, the atoll was to Tahitian royalty as St. Barths is to vacationing Russian plutocrats.

So it made a certain kind of sense when, in 1966, the atoll was purchased by Hollywood royalty (albeit after a rather awkward period in which Tetiaroa was owned by a rich Canadian dentist). Brando paid $270,000 for the whole place, which he viewed in spiritual terms. It would be, in addition to his second home, the place where his ashes would one day be scattered.

More than anything, he endeavored to bring Tetiaroa back to the future. He’d clean up the messes past owners had left behind while simultaneously protecting and preserving the atoll’s natural glory. “If I have my way,” he said, “Tetiaroa will remain forever a place that reminds Tahitians of who they are and what they were centuries ago.”

Brando preached this gospel to pretty much everyone he knew. This included Mike Medavoy, a famed Hollywood executive who, during his stewardship of three movie studios (Orion, TriStar and United Artists), produced a raft of classics, among them Annie Hall, Raging Bull, Network, Amadeus and The Silence of the Lambs. Medavoy and Brando grew friendly while collaborating on Apocalypse Now and The Missouri Breaks.

“Tetiaroa was Marlon’s way to get away from all the things you and I do every single day in Hollywood—talking to people, constantly moving,” Medavoy said. “I always remember the e-mail he sent when I was given a star on Hollywood Boulevard. I called him up, and I said, ‘Marlon, they’ve asked me to get a couple of my friends to write a nice letter about me.’ And he wrote me a letter that read: ‘I’m going to be laying on a beach in Tetiaroa. I’m going to be looking at the stars and thinking about all the birds shitting on your star. You don’t need a star to tell you who you are.’”

Medavoy hastened to note that Brando wasn’t the antisocial hermit he was reputed to be. Among Brando’s pet projects on Tetiaroa was the construction of a (very) modest, ecofriendly lodge. “He had people come over,” recalled Medavoy, whom Brando named an executor of his estate. “I know a lot of people who went there. I talked to Robert De Niro. He spent a few weeks there. I talked to Quincy Jones. He spent time there.”

Ultimately, the lodge was as long on good intentions as it was short on amenities and functionality; in a tropical outpost as humid and buggy as this one could be—think Biloxi in August—only so many visitors tolerated a lack of air-conditioning. So, in an effort to conceptualize a hotel that would be cool in both senses of the word, Brando pored over academic journals and books on the environment and consulted experts like John Craven, Ph.D., the former chief scientist for the Navy Special Projects Office. “I want to build a resort that’s 100 percent self-sufficient on renewable energy,” he told prospective investors. This was in the late ’90s, when “renewable energy” was a term used exclusively by residents of Los Angeles; Berkeley, California; and Vermont.

“Impossible,” replied Richard Bailey, the president and CEO of a noted hotel group called Pacific Beachcomber.

On an island with virtually no infrastructure—no electricity, no water system—Bailey said, “The power required for cooling is too great.”

“Oh,” Brando said, “it’s possible.”

Three days into my rain-slogged stay in Papeete, the clouds above the Pacific were angry and volatile. And so was I.

One of Bailey’s deputies, a cheerfully efficient Frenchman named Laurent Darcy, repeatedly informed me that our pilot was prohibited from lifting off with such limited visibility—especially given that the only plane available was a single-engine prop that Darcy described as “rather compact.”

Darcy took me to meet Bailey, a trim and fit fellow who, like pretty much everyone involved with The Brando, looks as if he just stepped out of a travel brochure. Bailey, who operates six hotels and resorts in Polynesia, struck me as the kind of corporate player Brando would have instinctively mistrusted. And my hunch was right.

“Dirty capitalist,” Brando called him.

“Crazy actor,” Bailey replied.

For five years, the two men endeavored to join Bailey’s pragmatism with Brando’s idealism. Brando, who was obsessed with octagons, wanted the hotel designed accordingly. “Um,” Bailey explained, “an octagon is hard to furnish.”

Brando, Bailey said, had another concept that was ultimately back-burnered: “He had this idea that he could create a floating platform that would be like a bar out in the lagoon that he would rig with kites or parasails. And he would anchor this to the bottom of the lagoon with some slack in the lines. And these kites would lift the bar out of the water.”

Increasingly, though, the two men found common ground, especially once Bailey came to appreciate that Brando, despite his “weird” obsession with renewable energy, was crazy like a fox. By the mid-2000s, green technology had advanced to the degree that air-conditioning could indeed be fueled by seawater. Bailey had accomplished the same at a resort in Bora Bora.

“Brando was really excited about that,” Bailey said. “He wanted to come down and celebrate. Unfortunately, he wasn’t able to make it.”

This period coincided with the actor’s worsening personal travails—none greater than the tragedy that befell Brando’s eldest son, Christian, and Brando’s Tahitian-born daughter, Cheyenne. In 1990, Christian fatally shot Cheyenne’s boyfriend, Dag Drollet, the son of a Papeete notable, during a boozy domestic dispute at their father’s mansion in Beverly Hills. Christian went to prison; Cheyenne later committed suicide.

Their father died on July 1, 2004—ten years, to the day, before The Brando will open its doors.

We must go now,” Darcy told me. It was early the next morning, during a rare break in the weather. “Fingers crossed.” Within minutes, six of us squeezed inside a wee puddle jumper and commenced the 25-minute flight to Tetiaroa. The plane, as it buzzed out over the Pacific, headed straight toward and through a thick cumulus cloud that stretched all the way down to the sea; spray coated the windshield, making it hard to see anything but mist.

Then, just as quickly, we emerged into brilliant sunlight that revealed, ahead, what looked like a psychedelic oil spill. This was Tetiaroa. Thanks to its coral reefs, which create a protective outer shelf, Tetiaroa sits amid a vast, shallow lagoon that glows electric turquoise when hit by sunlight.

Our pilot banked sharply before making a somewhat harrowing landing on a modest airstrip on the atoll’s main islet. Alighting from the plane, we moved past a series of construction sites. More than 200 workers—Tahitians, all—were putting the finishing touches on buildings and roads. Some of the guys had been there since the beginning. A typical Bailey project in Bora Bora takes about 28 months; this one took 40. That’s what happens when you have to build everything—water systems, electrical wiring, waste management—from scratch.

Arriving guests will never see the tow trucks or workers’ dorms; instead, they will be escorted down a flower-laden road leading to a kind of village center dotted with blondish wooden buildings that answer the question: What happens when you marry Tahitian traditional with Danish modernism? You get some pretty damn cool “huts,” starting with a two-story concierge center. Like many other buildings there, this one features pillars rendered from the trunks of aito trees. Because the aito is not native to Tetiaroa—Brando planted them in order to conceal the landing strip—Bailey’s design repurposed them, in order to make room for other indigenous flora.

Darcy led me along a winding ramp that brought us to the money shot, which arrived in the form of a sprawling indoor-outdoor expanse known as Bob’s Bar; it’s named after the ramshackle drinking hole at Brando’s original lodge. “Actually, he called it Dirty Old Bob’s Bar,” Bailey told me. “But that seemed a bit much.”

The outdoor patio, which includes a series of private ramps and sitting areas, offers panoramic views of…pretty much the entire South Pacific, including Tahiti. This is the spot at which guests will take and post the most selfies, in order to express their material dominance over everyone else. Already I resent them.

Just up the road stands a structure that resembles a ship’s hull. This is the resort’s fine-dining restaurant; its executive chef is Guy Martin, whose portfolio includes Le Grand Véfour, a Parisian restaurant with two Michelin stars. Alternatively, there’s a more casual place called the Beachfront. Both will serve primarily local Polynesian fare—much of it grown on Tetiaroa. Because The Brando is all-inclusive, guests can eat wherever, whenever. “On the other hand,” Darcy said, “we expect that many of our guests will want room service.”

The Brando has honeymoon written all over it. Each of its 35 villas is a temple of privacy, shielded by dense walls of foliage. Inside one of the 1,033-square-foot one-bedroom spaces, you’ll find a plush sitting area with a vaguely Malibu sensibility. To the right you’ll find a bedroom with a king-size bed from which you can see clear to the Pacific; the bathroom has twin plantation-style sinks and an outdoor tub. Step outside onto the back patio and there’s your own little plunge pool. Take a few more steps and suddenly you’re standing on what is, for all practical purposes, your own private beach. At no point will the neighboring villas be visible to you: Per Brando’s directions, the beach remains wholly free of commercial development. The lagoon feels like your lagoon.

Most importantly: The air-conditioning is perfect. This is no small accomplishment; in fact, Darcy seemed most excited when showing off the resort’s renewable-energy processes: solar panels, zinc-bromine flow batteries, a biofuel thermal power station and, last but not least, Sea Water Air Conditioning. Basically, the resort ran a large pipeline out into the ocean; it sucks in cold seawater, which is then transformed into a coolant. The process is as simple as it is spectacular.

And yet. Even as I beheld the eco-splendor, part of me couldn’t help but wonder if the whole green thing was just shtick—a branding strategy to rope in rich vacationistas who want to feel like they’re making a difference.

I felt better once Darcy showed me a large “ecostation” that houses two new labs, one indoor, one outdoor, that serve as a kind of think tank for scientists and students devoted to preserving and studying the atoll’s biodiversity. There I came across a marine biologist studying the coral reefs; in the background, a group of schoolkids were getting lessons in conservation. Already the ecostation has developed relationships with three U.S. colleges. It was the brainchild of Brando himself.

For years the resort was the subject of heated debate and haggling; at times some of Brando’s own children were up in arms. The resort wasn’t built until everyone got a piece of the action.

Perhaps the most persuasive Tahitian I met that week was an attorney named Hinano Bagnis. She runs the Tetiaroa Society, a nonprofit devoted to sustainable development. Bagnis does this in part because of the impact Brando made on both her and the atoll. She met Brando back in the ’70s, when she was just one of the local kids he loved to play with.

“I’m not really interested in the Hollywood part,” Bagnis said. “The man was a visionary. He brought the Smithsonian here around the early ’80s to research and protect [Tetiaroa].” As for the resort, she said, “The commercial part doesn’t bother me, because it’s the vision of Brando. Preservation is hard. The government doesn’t have much money. A hotel can bring some money and help the preservation. It’s worth it.”

Ultimately, though, the one person who could best assess The Brando’s merits didn’t live long enough to see it. So we’ll just have to take Bailey’s word for it when he said: “I’ve felt Marlon looking over my shoulder every step of the way. Hardly a single decision was made without weighing how it fit with his vision—not just out of respect for him, but because he really did understand what was the good thing to do on his island. We’re very much trying to realize that vision. I think it’s a great vision.” The Brando starts at $2,500 a night for up to two people, with a minimum of three nights; to book, go to