We Had Marlon Brando’s Island Utopia to Ourselves


“I’m not leaving you, Mr. Christian, not ever. Go to the dirtiest little corner of the world and I’ll be there, right behind you, with a rope in my hand.”

—Mutiny on the Bounty, 1962

In the Tahitian language, Tetiaroa means “standing on the ocean horizon.” For centuries, families from the ruling clans of Tahiti came here to get away and relax, and sometimes to fatten up their soon to be married daughters. These royals brought black volcanic rocks from other islands, some of which were used to construct stone temples, called marae, in which to conduct their rituals. Archaeologists have identified more than 90 sites of interest on Tetiaroa’s motu and found evidence of Polynesians residing in the area as far back as 900 A.D.

Frank Murphy’s wife, Hinano Teavai-Murphy, is the cultural director of the Tetiaroa Society and an expert on Polynesian history and ethnobotany. (She was an adviser to the Disney animated musical hit Moana.) To hear her tell it, Tetiaroa was the Hyannis Port of Tahitian aristocracy—a place of seasonal retreat, where chiefs and their families came to solidify their alliances through ceremonies, games, and archery contests. “I get emotional about Tetiaroa,” she says. “It has a special energy. My ancestors came here to find inspiration, to be one with the ocean and the sky and the gods.”

Throughout most of the 1800s, Tetiaroa was controlled by the ruling Pomare dynasty of Tahiti, but in 1904, that family bequeathed most of the atoll to a wealthy Canadian dentist, Walter Johnston Williams, who turned parts of it into a coconut plantation. In the early 1960s, the island’s only inhabitants were an elderly woman named Marjorie Doran and a friend who helped her. A direct descendant of Williams, Doran lived with 40 dogs and cats in a modest house of coral and cement, and as the story goes, she sometimes confronted visitors with the report of her .22 rifle.

It was in 1960, while working on a remake of Mutiny on the Bounty, that Marlon Brando first learned about Tetiaroa. He was cast in the role of Fletcher Christian, the master’s mate aboard the Bounty who led the mutiny against Bligh. On a day off, Brando climbed one of Tahiti’s highest peaks and spotted Tetiaroa shimmering on the ocean horizon to the north. He hired a fisherman to take him out to the island and caught Doran on a good day. He found that the half-blind proprietress had devised a system for ambulating around the property, holding on to a network of wires strung between trees. Some months later, he returned and asked her if she was interested in selling the atoll. She wasn’t. But a few years later, facing health problems, Doran changed her mind. Tetiaroa was Brando’s for the low price of $270,000.

While shooting Mutiny on the Bounty, Brando had fallen in love with the actress Tarita Teriipaia, who played his inamorata in the film. Teriipaia was born on the French Polynesian island of Bora Bora, and when filming began was only 18—to Brando’s 36. After having two kids, the couple separated in 1972. Through the late 1960s and into the 1970s, Brando mostly used Tetiaroa as a personal escape hatch. For weeks at a time, he’d fish and swim and drink. He liked to wear a battered straw hat and a flowing sarong. He’d lie down on the sand at night and stare at the Southern Cross, or sit in his hut for hours at a time, gazing through the shell curtains at the changing colors of the lagoon. 

“Dad liked everything that lived on this island,” his son Teihotu told a filmmaker in 2016. “We did a lot of stargazing on the beach, we sailed on the full moon. A lot of not talking. Just looking. At this place, you have all the answers.” (Teihotu lives on Tahiti and Moorea, and remains quietly involved in the development of the atoll.)

Brando eventually built a small resort, which Teriipaia ran for a time. Consulting with people as diverse as Jacques Cousteau and counterculture figure Stewart Brand, publisher of the Whole Earth Catalog, Brando considered scores of projects—like establishing a lobster farm. He set up a program to save the atoll’s threatened population of turtles and founded a marine academy called the University of the Sea, the seed of the eco-station that’s on Tetiaroa today.

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