Although I decided not to make another long-term commitment to the stage, I was glad to get back to New York after the filming of Streetcar. I lived in an apartment at Sixth Avenue and Fifty-seventh Street near Carnegie Hall and dropped in from time to time at the Actors Studio to meet girls. One of them was Marilyn Monroe, who was being exploited by Lee Strasberg. I had first met her briefly shortly after the war and bumped into her again-literally-at a party in New York. While the other people at the party drank and danced, she sat by herself almost unnoticed in a corner, playing the piano. I was talking to someone with a drink in my hand, having a good time, when someone tapped me on the shoulder; I spun around quickly and hit her with a sharp elbow to the head. It was a solid knock and I knew it must have hurt.
“Oh, my God,” I said, “I’m sorry. I’m really sorry. It was an accident.”
Marilyn looked me in the face and said, “There are no accidents.”
She meant it to be funny and I laughed. I sat down beside her and said, “Let me show you how to play a piano. You can’t play worth a damn.”
I did my best for a few bars; then we chatted, and thereafter I called her from time to time. Finally one night I phoned her and said, “I want to come over and see you right now, and if you can’t give me a good reason why I shouldn’t -maybe you just don’t want me to- tell me now.”
She invited me over, and it wasn’t long before every soldier’s dream came true.
Marilyn was a sensitive, misunderstood person, much more perceptive than was generally assumed. She had been beaten down, but had a strong emotional intelligence- a keen intuition for the feelings of others, the most refined type of intelligence. After that first visit, we had an affair and saw each other intermittently until she died in 1962. She often called me and we would talk for hours, sometimes about how she was beginning to realize that Strasberg and other people were trying to use her. She was becoming a much healthier person emotionally. The last time we spoke was two or three days before she died. She called from her home in Los Angeles and invited me to come over for dinner that night. I said I had already made plans for the evening and couldn’t, but I promised to call the following week to set a date for dinner. She said, “Fine,” and that was it. It’s been speculated that she had a secret rendezvous with Robert Kennedy that week and was distraught because he wanted to end an affair between them. But she didn’t seem depressed to me, and I don’t think that if she was sleeping with him at the time she would have invited me over for dinner.
I’m pretty good at reading people’s moods and perceiving their feelings, and with Marilyn I didn’t sense any depression or clue of impending self-destruction during her call. That’s why I’m sure she didn’t commit suicide. If someone is terminally depressed, no matter how clever they may be or how expertly they try to conceal it, they will always give themselves away. I’ve always had an unquenchable curiosity about people, and I believe I would have sensed something was wrong if thoughts of suicide were anywhere near the surface of Marilyn’s mind. I would have known it. Maybe she died because of an accidental drug overdose, but I have always believed that she was murdered.
-Marlon Brando (Songs My Mother Taught Me)
Marlon Brando on his experience with James Dean, from his autobiography “Songs My Mother Taught Me”:
After we met on the set of East of Eden, Jimmy began calling for advice or to suggest a night out. We talked on the phone and ran into each other at parties, but never became close. I think he regarded me as a kind of older brother or mentor, and I suppose responded to him as if I was. I felt a kinship for him and was sorry for him. He was hypersensitive, and I could see in his eyes and in the way he moved and spoke that he had suffered a lot. He was tortured by insecurities, the origin of which I never determined, though he said he’d had a difficult childhood and a lot of problems with his father. I urged him to seek assistance, perhaps go into therapy. I have no idea whether he ever did, but I did know it can be hard for a troubled kid like him to have to live up to sudden fame and the ballyhoo Hollywood created around him. I saw it happen to Marilyn, and I also knew it from my own experience. In trying to copy me, I think Jimmy was only attempting to deal with these insecurities, but I told him it was a mistake. Once he showed up at a party and I saw him take off his jacket, roll it into a ball and throw it onto the floor. It struck me that he was imitating something I had done and I took him aside and said, “Don’t do that, Jimmy. Just hang your coat up like everybody else. You don’t have to throw your coat in the corner. It’s much easier to hang it up than pick it up off the floor.”
Another time, I told him I thought he was foolish to try to copy me as an actor. “Jimmy, you have to be who you are, not who I am. You mustn’t try to copy me. Emulate the best aspects of yourself.” I said it was a dead-end street to try to be somebody else. In retrospect, I realize it’s not unusual for people to borrow some else’s form until they find their own, and in time Jimmy did. He was still developing when I first met him, but by the time he made Giant, he was no longer trying to imitate me. He still had his insecurities, but he had become his own man. He was awfully good in that last picture, and people identified with his pain and made him a cult hero. We can only guess what kind of actor he would have become in another twenty years. I think he could have become a great one. Instead he died and was forever entombed in his myth.
Brando’s athleticism was critical to his acting talent; his physical strength and muscular control gave him extraordinary range on stage and screen. Dance lessons with Katherine Dunham when he was a young actor in Manhattan augmented a native flexibility. “He moved like a panther”, according to one fellow actor,and astonished people with his ability to imitate anything - even a cash register.