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ON A MELTINGLY HUMID AFTERNOON in Tahiti last week, the residents of Faa'a, an unremarkable little town with an airstrip, filed through a dusty courtyard into a tin-roofed church. The women wore white mourning dresses. Many of the men were in white shirts and black pants. They had come for the Protestant funeral service of Cheyenne Brando, their beautiful friend and neighbor, who at the age of 25 had hanged herself in her mother's house on Easter Sunday. And along with their traditional clothes, the people of Faa'a brought their strikingly un-Western—and some would say oddly romantic—ideas about death.

Yes, the daughter of actor Marlon Brando had been, as one friend said, "sometimes very sad." Her problems, everyone agreed, had only worsened since the day, nearly five years ago, when Cheyenne's half brother Christian shot and killed her fiancé, Dag Drollet, the handsome 26-year-old son of a prominent Tahitian politician turned bank president, in the den of the Brando home in Los Angeles. But after a Tahitian choir sang in memory of Cheyenne, Ingrid Drollet, a teacher on the nearby Austral Islands and Dag's eldest sister, said that her family felt that "Cheyenne had made something wonderful, beautiful—to die for love. It was like Romeo and Juliet." The mayor of the town, Oscar Temaru, agreed, calling the suicide "a beautiful gesture—she loves her boyfriend with no limits. She's young, and she tried many times to do it. She didn't succeed. But then she did."

Death may have brought an end to Cheyenne Brando's depression and drug use, but no one who knew the details of her life—or caught a glimpse of 4-year-old Tuki, her son by Drollet, wandering innocently among the mourners—could equate her suicide with success. At the funeral, Cheyenne's mother, Tarita, 53, the actress Marlon Brando had met while filming Mutiny on the Bounty in Tahiti in 1960, looked heartbreakingly like an international symbol for maternal grief: dark hair pulled back, her eyes fixed on the wooden casket. Earlier, Cheyenne's brother Tehotu, 31, tried to address the reporters who had flown in from the States, where Marlon Brando, though 71 and stunningly obese, was still drawing crowds with a new movie called Don Juan DeMarco. "I cannot speak now," said the sandal-clad Tehotu, "because I cannot think."

Indeed, few could comprehend the full measure of the tragedy. There are dysfunctional families, there are the hard cases who hurl insults at each other on daytime talk shows, and then there are the Brandos, a true house of pain. The actor has at least 11 children, ages 1 year to 36 years: five by his three wives (Anna Kashfi, Movita Castenada and Tarita Teriipia, all ex-actresses), three by his Guatemalan housekeeper Christina Ruiz and an additional three from other affairs. "The family kept changing shape," Christian Brando (the son of Kashfi) once said. "I'd sit down at the breakfast table and say, 'Who are you?' "

The Brandos couldn't come together for a family crisis if they wanted to. Christian, 36, who once called the family "a bunch of crazy drunks," is currently serving a 10-year sentence for voluntary manslaughter at California Men's Colony, a state prison in San Luis Obispo. The reclusive Marlon, meanwhile, received the news of Cheyenne's death like a paralyzing physical blow. When a member of his entourage called him with the sad news on Easter Sunday evening, he moaned, "Oh, God, no," and slumped to the floor. The doctor who was summoned advised against the 7½-hour flight to Tahiti.

Since then, a curtain of silence has descended over the sprawling, 12-room mansion on Mulholland Drive. "There's absolutely no word," says Brando's longtime friend and makeup artist Philip Rhodes, who worked with him on The Wild One and Don Juan. "The gates are up, and the signals don't get through. It's a terrible time; we'll just have to wait." Carroll O'Connor also tried without success to get a call through (Brando had called him with condolences last month, when O'Connor's son Hugh killed himself because of drug problems). Talk show host Larry King, Brando's new best friend since their interview last December, says that he too has been getting no response to the messages he leaves on the actor's answering machine. "When I talked to him a month ago," King says, "Marlon said that he didn't want to touch his strongest emotions anymore"—the nightmarish anguish he associated with Drollet's death. "He didn't want to reach that kind of pain again."

Now that he has, though, those who know his family are sincerely worried. "We want to keep Marlon alive," says agent Nan Robinson, who managed Christian during a brief period when he was trying to break into movies. "He tends to get very remorseful. When he loses even a dog, he cries for days. I can't imagine what it's like for him with his little girl gone."

This much we do know: In his deepest moment of grief, Brando and his onetime blood enemy, Jacques-Denis Drollet, the father of the slain Dag, agreed to bury Cheyenne next to her lover. Still, in many ways it's hard to imagine Brando—the most extravagantly artistic of American actors, the uninhibited star of Last Tango in Paris—playing the role of an involved parent.

"I tried to be a good father. I did the best I could," the actor said on the witness stand during Christian's 1991 sentencing hearing. Most of his children, in fact, manage to exist at a quiet remove from the headlines. Yet Brando's neglect was extravagant, his love largely unexpressed. One casual friend, recalling phone conversations that would turn into 3-hour monologues, wonders how emotionally available Brando would have been, even when he was around. "I don't think it would be such a bargain having him as your father," she says. "He goes off on these major tangents. Just imagine if you were a 3-year-old asking him about airplanes and hours later the kid would be screaming for him to stop." Alcoholism also runs in the family, as Brando made painfully clear in his 1994 autobiography. His mother, Dorothy, "cared more about drinking than caring for us," he wrote. And father Marlon Sr.'s blood "consisted of compounds of alcohol, testosterone, adrenaline and anger." More than anything, that could explain the long list of drug rehabs and mental hospitals that Cheyenne visited in Paris, San Francisco, Stockbridge, Mass., and Tahiti.

Peter Manso, who spent three weeks with Cheyenne while researching his 1994 biography Brando, says, "Cheyenne was like a wounded bird." Like her father, says Manso, she could display a quick wit and a wide-ranging knowledge. "She would make references to everything," he says, "from [jazz trumpeter] Chet Baker to Michelangelo." The author, who calls the father-daughter relationship "bizarre," remembers a time when "my wife and I took her out to dinner, and at one point she started visibly shaking." Simply being in a restaurant overwhelmed her.

Cheyenne didn't start life in such agony. Until she was a teenager, she bore her name proudly, even regally. "Nobody dared tell her anything because she was Cheyenne Brando," says former classmate Nathalie Degage. Cheyenne used to boast, "I am the most beautiful girl in Polynesia, the most intelligent and also the richest because of my father." Another old friend, Heipua Teuira, recalls that "she was glorious to be with." Degage agrees about the teenage Cheyenne. "She was always on the move," Degage says. "She loved to dance. She always had a lot of energy."

"And she was very proud of her father," adds Teuira, who also remembers Cheyenne from school. "She adored him. She kept a photo album with just pictures of him that she liked to show off. 'He is a beautiful man, my father.' "

But Cheyenne and brother Tehotu were not especially close to Brando, who would fly down and visit on weekends. As Brando noted in a 1976 interview: "I don't think I will let them go to the States. As Tahitians, they are too trusting. They would be destroyed in the pace of life in the States."

And, says Nan Robinson, Cheyenne was stunned when she eventually visited Los Angeles in 1986. "Her eyes got really big," she says. "Just before her 16th birthday she was in L.A. and expecting a nice gift. She had gone through the catalogs and finally decided to ask for a $250,000 necklace she'd found. Marlon rolled his eyes and didn't get it for her, of course."

In Cheyenne's mid-teens, though, something happened. Her relationship with her mother had always been good, and it survived the normal adolescent rebellion. "Sometimes they had arguments, but she loved her mother," says Albert Le Caill, who is now married to Dag Drollet's mother, Lisette. "You know, the generation problem." But Cheyenne's attitude toward her father changed dramatically—and permanently. "I have come to despise my father for the way he ignored me when I was a child," she said in 1990. "He came to the island maybe once a year but really didn't seem to care whether he saw me or not. He wanted us but he didn't want us."

Cheyenne's angry determination to show her father how much she needed him led to disaster. In 1989 she asked Brando if she could visit him in Toronto, where he was filming The Freshman with Matthew Broderick. Brando, who has always tried to steer his children away from anything to do with show business, flatly refused. In a fury (compounded by an argument she had with her then-new boyfriend Drollet), Cheyenne hopped in half brother Christian's Jeep, roared down a Tahitian road at 100 mph—and crashed into a ditch. The accident left her disfigured: Her jaw was broken, part of an ear was ripped off, and she was scarred below one eye. Her father immediately had her flown to Los Angeles, where she had extensive reconstructive and cosmetic surgery—with the elder Brando keeping a round-the-clock vigil by her bedside.

Although the surgery restored her looks as much as possible, the accident launched a wrenching cycle of depression, suicide attempts and institutionalization. And Drollet had begun to drift away—exasperated, his father later testified, by her jealous rages and drug use. He did agree to accompany her to Los Angeles in May of 1990, however, so she could undergo another round of psychiatric care.

It turned out to be a fatal visit. Christian, who spent a lot of time in Tahiti and had always been close to Cheyenne when they were children, testified in court that he got in an argument with Drollet over the latter's penchant for "slapping around" Cheyenne, then eight months pregnant. According to Christian, he struggled with Drollet and accidentally shot him in the face. Brando, who was home but in another room at the time, tried to give Drollet mouth-to-mouth resuscitation, then dialed 911. The actor eventually hired attorney Robert Shapiro, now a member of the O.J. Simpson defense team, to defend Christian, who pleaded guilty to a reduced charge of voluntary manslaughter.

With Drollet's death, Cheyenne's world began to unravel. "When I think of Dag," she said in 1993, "I want to be dead and be with him." Daniel Pardon, a Tahitian newspaperman, says, "She became very private, very depressed and very much reclusive. She only went out occasionally, around 4 or 5 in the afternoon. She would go to school to pick up her son."

Nor was she especially welcome in the country where her father cast so long and wide a shadow. "Afterwards, it was a shame," says Heipua Teuira. "This is a small island. People talk. Her friends were afraid of her. She had no more good friends after the drama."

As of two weeks ago, she also lacked the freedom to raise her son: a Tahitian judge ruled that because of her depression, Cheyenne's mother should retain custody of Tuki. Although she could see her son at virtually any time, some on the island believe the symbolic loss of the boy probably hastened her death.

Cheyenne, who lived alternately with her mother and brother in the family's compound in Punaauia, along the west coast of tranquil Tahiti, was in and out of the confines of the Vaiami mental hospital, eight miles away. She slipped away from the hospital Easter morning and visited with her family, outside in the sun, according to a neighbor. "She was here," explains the neighbor in halting English, "the son Tuki was here, and she was happy. All the family is happy. We stay on the beach, we talk, it's good."

Several hours later, though, a devastated Tehotu called the same neighbor over to the house. "It's too late," Tehotu said. "Come see." Left alone while her mother attended church and her brother went out on an errand, Cheyenne had rigged a rope to a beam in her bedroom ceiling, climbed onto a chair, put the noose around her neck and kicked away the support.

There had been many rehearsals for that moment. For years she had struggled with a drug habit that included LSD and Ecstasy (Tuki, at birth, was sent to detox)—and in 1990, when Christian was up for sentencing, Cheyenne tried to kill herself twice within several weeks, first with tranquilizers and then by hanging herself from a tree with a dog chain. Attorney William Kunstler, who initially handled Christian's defense, recalls that Marlon didn't keep sharp knives around the Mulholland Drive house for fear that she would harm herself.

In the past five years, she was led, as author Manso puts it, on that "worldwide tour of psychiatric hospitals." Her father was trying to find the right place for her, but some of the far-flung itinerary possibly was an attempt by the Brando family to keep her from having to testify at Christian's hearing. Yet even when she was finally extradited from France to Tahiti in 1992 in response to the Drollets' request for a hearing on the killing, her statements were so erratic that the judge instantly dismissed her as "mentally disabled."

A former classmate who attended the funeral thinks Cheyenne was mentally sound but crushed by the weight of who she was. "Everybody says Cheyenne was mad. She was not mad at all," says Heipua Teuira. "She was just depressed because of her name."

How much can the man who gave her that name be blamed for what has happened? "In his own clumsy, stupid, ego-driven way, Marlon wanted the best for his kids," says Manso. "But he is a very limited man, and I don't think he ever gave his kids free rein."

Ironically, Marlon Brando, who had become more reclusive than ever after Christian's sentencing, seemed finally to be reemerging, like an old tortoise poking out its head. He received almost reverent reviews for his light-comedic turn as Johnny Depp's psychiatrist, and Faye Dunaway's husband, in Don Juan DeMarco, his first film in three years. And he was apparently an unexpected delight to work with on the film. The sign on his trailer said, "Don't knock, come on in." On his last day of shooting, he bought Mai Tais all around and let members of the crew sit on his considerable lap for photos, which he then happily autographed.

Most important, perhaps, he was putting his relationship with Christian, whom he once called a "gun-to ting alcoholic," on a much better footing. In the past six months, says one friend, Brando regularly visited Christian in prison. He and Christian have talked about going on a Northwest fishing expedition when Christian is released—-possibly as early as January, for good behavior. One friend of Christian's thinks his life has been turned around by prison. "He has been taking adult education classes," says Deborah Presley. "Prison is the best thing that has happened to him."

Now, of course, Cheyenne's death has dealt both father and son a crippling blow. "It's terrible," says Marlon's old friend Angie Dickinson. "You just seem to get your life back together and get your smile back, and then it all comes crashing down again."

For Cheyenne, of course, the struggles have ended forever. On April 18 she was buried in a brown-and-gray granite vault in Papeete, Tahiti, on a high hill at one end of a long, arrowhead-shaped valley with acacia and mango trees. A priest intoned, in French, "God came to your rescue. Your soul is now in his hands."

TOM GLIATTO
TOM CUNNEFF and LYNDON STAMBLER in Tahiti and KRISTINA JOHNSON, DANELLE MORTON, KURT PITZER and JOYCE WAGNER in Los Angeles

  • Contributors:
  • Tom Cunneff,
  • Lyndon Stambler,
  • Kristina Johnson,
  • Danelle Morton,
  • Kurt Pitzer,
  • Joyce Wagner.