Sarah, You are very welcome to my WRITERS CHAT series. Many congratulations on the publication of your first non-fiction book, Brando’s Bride (Parthian Books: Cardigan, 2019). You’ve already had much success with your novel Other Useful Numbers and you’ve won numerous awards for your documentary productions.
I have to say I devoured Brando’s Bride and there are so many interesting stories and angles that it is impossible to cover them in our WRITERS CHAT so in my questioning I will concentrate on a few of the threads through Brando’s Bride.
Brando’s Bride is described on the cover (with such a great photo!) as “The incredibly true story of Anna Kashfi and her marriage to one of Hollywood’s greatest stars” and I think that really captures what this book is – a really incredible story that I also find incredible that nobody has taken the time, research and care to write it – until now!
Tell me a little about how you came to write Brando’s Bride. In particular I’m thinking of two very strong threads running through the book – how identity is formed and denied through either place or family – or both. Am I right in saying this story – for you – started with a personal connection to Anna Kashfi and Cardiff?
Hi Shauna, firstly thank-you so much for having me as a guest on your WRITERS CHAT – it’s great to be part of the series! So, yes, you’re right in asking about the personal connections to this story – although I had no idea when I started out that there would be more than one! I began researching the story of Anna Kashfi when I was looking for ideas for a BBC arts series called ‘On Show’. I worked for a company that was making documentaries in this slot and so was always looking for arts stories with a Welsh angle. We made documentaries about Tessie O’Shea and Tommy Cooper, for instance, and so I came across this woman who had left Cardiff for Hollywood in the 1950s and married Marlon Brando. She made four films and worked with Spencer Tracy, Rock Hudson, Jack Lemon and Nat King Cole – quite starry names for an unknown actress to find herself in the company of! But then her career abruptly ended; it turned out to be as brief as her marriage to Brando… I found the story fascinating – although it never made it into the TV documentary series. And I was familiar with the area in Cardiff that Kashfi and her family had lived in (not far from a friend’s house) and I kept wondering just how she’d got from that place all the way to Los Angeles – and how she’d met Brando!
Yes, it’s quite an incredible journey alright. You say several times in the book that Anna Kashfi was “both of her time and one of a kind” and that she was “a part of history and yet also extinguished from it.” Was part of your aim in writing this book to bring her – and her story – back into the folds of history and also popular culture? Did you see her as one of the forgotten women of history?
This is an area I’ve always been fascinated by! I’d written a film script about the Surrealist artist Claude Cahun, sadly as yet unmade, and a radio play about Sylvia Beach (who published Ulysses when no-one else would touch it) so there is definitely a theme going on here! I’ve always been interested in women who are seen as minor characters in history – yet their stories are significant – not least because they tell us something about the bigger picture.
Kashfi was very much one of these women. She is entirely dismissed by Brando biographers who regard her as a charlatan (I find it quite bizarre that, given her appearance, they made no attempt to investigate her story at all). Kashfi was very much part of the world of young women who went to Los Angeles in their thousands during the 1930s/40s and 50s trying to find work in the film industry. They were pretty invisible unless they made it as movie stars – which, of course, the vast majority didn’t. But she was also part of an almost entirely forgotten wave of Anglo-Indian immigrants who arrived in Britain after India gained her independence in 1947. Kashfi was unique in that she attempted to make it in Hollywood as a mixed-race actress at a time when Katharine Hepburn was doing ‘yellowface’ and Natalie Wood, an American of Russian descent, was playing a Puerto-Rican. Her ‘studio-bio’ enhanced her background – as they did with every contract player they were trying to turn into a star – which she was to pay a heavy price for. So one of my aims with this book was definitely to reclaim her in a sense; to place her story within the context of the times she rose to notoriety in. That is to say, we should look again at these stories and not just accept them at face value.
Yes, and that’s exactly what you’ve done in Brando’s Bride. Tell me about the research which must have been both exciting and, at times, difficult. Could you talk about the journey to find Kashfi and the interviews you conducted with her?
The research took a long time…. Partly because I started out (naively!) by believing what I read in the papers! By which I mean that it did not occur to me initially that the O’Callaghans might have been not entirely truthful in their statements about being born in London. But when I found out that they were not born in the UK it set me off on a different path and into trying to untangle the complicated and dense family backgrounds of the O’Callaghan & Shrieve families in India. I was certain from early on in the research that I wanted to meet Kashfi – if I could find her! I presumed she was still alive because a French Journalist had tracked her down and interviewed her a couple of years before I began looking. But obviously the article didn’t list her address or phone number so I really didn’t know how to begin to get that kind of information in a country as vast as America. In the end Karen Lee Street, who I met through the MPhil course at Glamorgan University, told me about a service you can pay for to locate people. So I paid my $20 and got a list of women with variations on the names Kashfi had used and worked out which one through her birth date. I wrote to her a couple of times and didn’t receive any reply so, as I needed to go to the Margaret Herrick Film Library in LA (a trip funded by my award from Literature Wales) to do some research I decided I would cold-call. I wasn’t happy about intruding on her life in that way so I wrote again saying I would call by at a specific time on a specific date so that at least she could just not answer the door if she didn’t want to meet me.
Until the day I turned up (which I talk about in detail in the book) I didn’t know whether she would be there or have any clue to what her circumstances were so it was a huge gamble. Luckily she was happy to meet me and to talk so I went back over the following three days and recorded our conversations. I still can’t quite believe it happened…. My intention was to go back the following year but time and money meant that I didn’t manage to organise it before she died five years later. In retrospect I don’t think I would have got more information about her life with Brando but I very much regret that I wasn’t able to ask her very detailed questions about her family background. I didn’t have a lot of information about that aspect of her life when I met her – part of the reason for going was to fill in the blanks – but it turned out that she knew very little herself about, as she put it, why she ‘turned out like that’ (she was referred to her racial background). Much later, after researching her ancestors in the British Library, I had knowledge about generations of her family and I’m sad that I didn’t get to share that with her. I think it might have focused her memories on anecdotes she heard as a child which might have been useful. But I’ll never know that now.
And that is just so sad, but at the same time, how wonderful that you had taken the time and energy and kindness to persist with your research and eventually meet Anna and she knew, at least, that a Welsh writer was interested in her real story…Much of the Anna Kashfi/ Joan O’Callaghan story of identity is intertwined with the times she lived through and places she lived in. She had to negotiate leaving India, growing up as a teen in Wales and then adapt to living and working in the Hollywood star system as part of her film career. Is it a surprise then that, both her family and her, as you say, “altered their story of themselves” and that she, “Joan O’Callaghan altered it again, and again.”
No, not a surprise when you understand something of the background to the family’s story. When you see it in the framework of the politics of the time and place them in the context of post-war British life, the fact they altered their story was both an act of survival and also extremely common amongst Anglo-Indians who emigrated to the UK at that time. For Kashfi this was then compounded by her career in 1950s Hollywood – a time when the studio system was still all-powerful and would-be movie stars routinely had their life stories rewritten to suit the image that the studio wanted to promote. So Anna Kashfi was ‘groomed’ as an ‘East Indian’ actress and ‘India’s answer to Grace Kelly’ and as such her biography had to fit that persona. She, as we know, happily embraced this persona and chose to identify with the Indian side of her mixed-race heritage. The unbelievable twist of fate that led to her parents denying their ancestry in order to protect their identity as white Catholics, living in an almost totally white (at that time) area of Cardiff, meant that it was their word against their daughter’s. The surprise really was that Kashfi was so castigated for embellishing her story when it was known to be a common practice in the entertainment business. Even Brando himself once pretended to have been born in Calcutta – a long time before he met Kashfi!
So, the reality of this is that we wouldn’t be having this chat had Kashfi not ended up in Hollywood and married Marlon Brando.
A number of things you say about the Kashfi/Brando relationship really struck me. On the one hand, as you outline in the brilliantly titled chapter “Lightening Hits”, their first date is reported by their chaperone as being “funny and romance-filled…each of them wanted so badly to seem right to the other” and on the other hand, we have reports of Brando’s “need” for Kashfi and that, as Kashfi herself recalls, “He rarely acknowledged the prefatory niceties of courtship. After making love he could vanish without a word.” This relationship as you say, from the beginning had something fated about it. Kashfi’s fate “feels inextricably, lethally, linked with his [Brando’s] from the very beginning.” Can you talk a little about the impression that Kashfi had of that relationship?
It’s hard to know now what she originally felt for him… did she fall madly in love? Why wouldn’t she? Brando, at that point in his life, was intelligent, good-looking, successful, funny, charming – and besotted with her. He also was her first serious romance (she was just 21 when she met him) and a hugely acclaimed, iconic film star – a key player in the city she had just moved to. I think she did fall in love and he with her. And I think her illness – she had TB and spent many months recuperating in hospital – then affected how their story played out. Although he was attentive – visiting her most evenings when he wasn’t away filming, he also maintained relationships with other women. By the time she was discharged he had proposed to her and, while that should have made her feel very secure, his continuing infidelities were painful for her. And then she became pregnant and so this flawed, volatile relationship which probably would and should have ended then became a whole different proposition with a tragic outcome for all concerned. However, when I interviewed Kashfi, decades after the events I’ve just described, she maintained that it wasn’t love on either side – but I think that was looking back through the prism of many horrible experiences that happened in her life as a direct result of her relationship with Brando. I choose to think that they began as two beautiful people who found each other and were delighted with that.
And that is a beautiful start to a tragic story. Given that so much of Kashfi’s story comes from invention, lies, truths and hidden truth, how did you negotiate the literature and stories about Kashfi that came from the Brando quarters and the press? In particular, how the press portrayed her first as such a beauty, then as a bitch and then as a crazy woman. I can’t help wondering if these impressions were symptomatic of how female actors were treated at the time. You cover this in the fascinating chapter “Valley of the Dolls” (the lives of Pier Angeli and Gia Scala, for example), and really, I can’t help thinking it’s a miracle Kashfi survived those years.
Interestingly, it was reading the ‘Brando biographies’ which first began to give me an insight into the collective antagonism (I can only really describe it as that) towards Kashfi which I found really quite strange. There was not only a generic dismissal of her claim to Indian heritage but, more importantly, a total lack of interest in whether there was any other side to the story. Which, of course, they would have discovered if they had looked into her background as I did. She was essentially framed as a (Welsh or possibly Irish) gold-digger – a white woman who had deceived Brando into thinking she was Indian by dressing up in a sari. And this story was repeated in various forms throughout every biography I looked at – and I read at least thirty! But not one of these biographies was authorised and not one of them had interviewed Brando himself. The only book Brando contributed to (his ‘autobiography’) didn’t mention Kashfi. And of course a lot of the stories that the biographies repeated were stories that had originally appeared in the press who mostly adopted a contemptuous attitude towards her.
And you are right in wondering if some of this was indicative of how female actors were treated then – and some might argue today as well. Elizabeth Taylor famously had horrendous things written about her pretty much from the Eddie Fisher period on. Kashfi was a very minor fish in the Hollywood pond, as were the women I write about in the ‘Valley of the Dolls’ chapter, and it appears that judgement could be made about them and fed into the popular press that they had no means of defending themselves against. Ironically two of the most vicious columnists in the film community were women – Hedda Hopper and Louella Parsons – and they wielded enormous and malign power over the lives and careers of actors in Hollywood for several decades. And they didn’t discriminate – attacking as many male stars they disapproved of as females. But to go back to Kashfi – her story has effectively been shaped for all these years by writers who didn’t bother to investigate her background and assumed that what they’d read in the press was true. I’ve written an alternative version; one in which her mixed-race identity is in no doubt and her place in history is acknowledged – at least by the readers of Brando’s Bride!
Oh I keep thinking of the term “fake news” as I hear your answer….!
Lastly, Sarah, some fun questions:
- Cardiff or Welsh countryside? Cardiff – as they say here ‘I loves the ‘Diff’!
- LA or NY? NY
- Book or film? Book
- Hollywood or Bollywood? Hollywood
- Tea or coffee? Tea
- What are you reading right now? My Name is Why by Lemn Sissay
Oh that book is an incredible read, Elizabeth Day has a most moving interview with Sissay on her How To Fail podcast – check it out. Once again, Sarah, thank you so much for your generosity of spirit with our Writers Chat and I wish you must continued – and deserved – success with Brando’s Bride.
Keep up to date by following Sarah on Twitter @sjbroughton124