Brando on Maureen Stapleton: Persistent Angel

There were few places of comfort or happiness to which Marlon Brando wished to return. "Swallowed swords" was the title he gave to the few memories of his childhood that he had not surrendered to activities that could drown them out or appetites that could smother them. While he had many happy memories of work, he could not and would not consider theatres or sound stages to be homes or havens or refuges.

The place he recalled as  the happiest was the apartment, cluttered and loud and wild, on West 52nd Street, where he lived--with Wally Cox, among others--in his earliest years in New York. "We were young and alive and stupid and generous," Brando told me, "and we believed that anything could happen: Opportunities and new friends were all around us. There was no fear--for our talents or for our persons--and we were, all of us, committed to something big."

Marian Seldes was one of the guests to this apartment, where there was some food, some wine, perpetual music (both from a phonograph and from the many clubs along the street, from which jazz wafted up to the skies), and everyone spoke of their music or their art or the scene on which they were working.

"I thought, for a very long time, that we were so silly and stupid," Brando said, "but I think we were ideal students, and I think we did good work. I think you need to have boundless confidence and you have to have unlimited support."

The unlimited support Brando most revered came from Maureen Stapleton, whom he remembers as round and sweet and possessed of a "magnificent heart, full and open and happily bleeding." Stapleton was the nurturing mother to many on West 52nd Street, but she was also a friend,  a dependable partner in any battle, personal or artistic.

"I will tell you this," Kim Stanley told me once. "I would lay down my life for Maureen Stapleton, and I know that I would for my children; I would have done it for my mother; but I do not pause when I say I would do it for Maureen, and I have always had to think about my commitment with the others."

Two shots, two angles, of Maureen and Marlon in The Fugitive Kind (1960).

Here is Brando on the woman he called his persistent angel.

Maureen always appears at the ideal time, so she is the angel we dream of, pray for, pine for, wait to see. People laugh at her and her ability--extraordinary ability--to find and secrete food on her person and that of her friends. Everyone knows that food is not safe around Maureen--it finds its way to her home. What no one seems to add to the stories, to the jokes, is that she shares her bounty, and the food often found its way to my home, to the homes of my friends. On the street once--we were walking and talking and arguing and laughing--a child was crying, and Maureen pulled a piece of cake,  wrapped in foil, from her purse. 'Where did you get that?' I asked. 'Jed Harris had an opening last night.' And that was that. Jed Harris opened a play, had an abundance of cake, and a crying child was calmed on the street by Maureen's gift. On that day, in that time, she was his angel.

You will hear the word implicit a lot with Maureen. People love her implicitly. Trust her implicitly. I feel the same way. I think the only dishonesty she commits is that which will protect someone she loves: She will lie to protect someone's feelings or reputation or dreams, and then she will cry for hours over her deception.

She deceives only out of kindness.

She is passionate yet gentle, and her anger has beneath it an overwhelming sweetness: She is angry for the right reasons at the right times. She risked her own career and livelihood defending actors who were deemed unemployable in that dark time of the blacklist. She did not care if she got hurt. It was unfathomable to her that she should work and get paid and eat and sleep easily while others were denied all of those things. It drove her crazy. The angriest I saw her was when she spoke of this injustice in that time.

She took her work very seriously, but she remained balanced about herself, and would only admit that she worked hard. She is still unaware of how brilliant an actress she is, and while she will stay up all night talking about the brilliance of others, I have never seen her allow more than a phrase or two of praise to land at her feet. She finds it unseemly.

You tell me that Tennessee used to lie on a bed with her and talk things out. I can see that. It might be one of the wisest things Tennessee ever did--to have and to keep a friendship with Maureen. I never got on a bed with her to talk things out, but I have watched the sun rise many a morning as we were still trying to figure out life and work and our own, battered hearts.

I can't be completely defeated in a world in which she lives.

Why is she so sweet? I've asked her. Tennessee asked her. I understand you've asked her. Well, things appear most vividly and consistently to those who most want them, and Maureen, that sweet, pudgy little girl from Troy, wants everyone to be happy. She grew up with abandoned women and sad hopes, but her job was to cheer everyone up, goad them into going to the movies, urge them to bake a cake and have a party. Atlas with an apron, you could call her: Holding up the world with some confiscated food, a huge heart, and a shoulder on which so many people have leaned and wept.

Talent is rare. Rarer still is kindness, patience, caring and doing. Maureen has it all.

To every query or concern, she would begin with 'You're so full of shit, but I love you.' Then she'd sit down, light a cigarette, look at me with those beautiful eyes, and talk, sometimes until sunrise, about how I might manage, improve, survive. 

Marlon Brando, Maureen, Tenn, and producer Richard Shepherd on the set of The Fugitive Kind.


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