Marlon's Mana

The late Marlon Brando did more than star in the remake of Mutiny on the Bounty when he came to Tahiti in 1960. He fell in love with his beautiful Tahitian co-star, Tarita Terepaia, the 19-year-old daughter of a Bora Bora fisherman. At first Tarita reportedly wasn't attracted to the then-dashing actor, but his good looks and charm must have won out, for she later became his wife and the mother of two of his children.

Brando also fell for Tetiaroa, an atoll 42km (25 miles) north of Tahiti and Moorea. In the old days, this cluster of 12 flat islets surrounding an aquamarine lagoon was the playground of Tahiti's high chiefs, who frequently were joined by the Arioi, traveling bands of sexually explicit entertainers and practitioners of infanticide. High-ranking women would spend months doing a bit of makeover on Tetiaroa, resting in the shade to lighten their skin and gorging on starchy foods to broaden their girth. Men and women of a chiefly rank were said to possess the mystical power called mana by the ancient Polynesians, and the bigger the body, the more the mana.

For a time, a British dentist who married into the royal family owned Tetiaroa, but it was abandoned when Brando bought it in 1966. He turned one of his islets into a refuge for Tetiaroa's thousands of seabirds. He built a retreat for himself on a second islet and a small, rather rustic resort on a third.

Guests at the resort would seldom see the actor, on whose waistline Tetiaroa apparently worked its expansive magic. During the day, he would stay at home in the shade, playing with his radios and computers. At night, he would go fishing and lobstering.

A series of hurricanes almost blew his resort away in 1983, and Brando's relationship with Tahiti turned to human disaster a decade later when his son Christian -- by his first wife, actress Anna Kashfi -- shot and killed the boyfriend of his half-sister, Cheyenne, in Brando's Hollywood home. A year later, Cheyenne, then 25, hanged herself at Tarita's home on Tahiti. Brando did not attend her funeral; in fact, he never again returned to Tahiti.

Ex-wife Tarita operated the resort, mostly as a day-trip and weekend destination from Tahiti, until shortly before Brando's death in 2004. Richard Bailey, a long-time family friend and developer of the InterContinental Resort Tahiti and other hotels here, has announced plans to build an upmarket, environmentally friendly resort on Tetiaroa.

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