It was the weirdest story that ever ran in The Washington Post.
At least it seemed that way to most of the journalists at the Post the morning it appeared in the paper’s glossy Sunday magazine on July 4th weekend, 1987.
“Last Tango in Tahiti” was a massive, 14,000-word extravaganza that told the tale of Mike Sager’s expensive and expansive search for the elusive movie star Marlon Brando. Covering more than 10,000 miles from D.C. to Tahiti to Hollywood and back, Sager dogged the trail of America’s actor-icon—but never actually interviewed him; their contact was limited to a brief sighting through binoculars on Mulholland Drive overlooking Brando’s mansion.
When the piece ran, the newsroom went bonkers: Sager failed, the newsie logic went. He never met Brando! He couldn’t score an interview so why write a story? What was the news here? Why had the magazine even published it? Why had they spent so much money to send this young reporter on a wild goose chase? The story was so vilified that many believed it was the beginning of the end for the tenure of the magazine’s hot-shot New York editor, Jay Lovinger.
Of course, in a less literal sense, Sager did find Marlon Brando. Not the person, but the ideal. By the time Sager went searching, Brando’s characters, his acting, and the stuff of his personal beliefs—from his tireless celebrity activism to his early public embrace of LGBTQ values—had become embedded in American culture, a notion that was far more telling than the figure of the strange, reclusive old man Brando had become.
While hunting for the great actor, Sager discovered an unforeseen byproduct: a new understanding of himself. Over time, the lessons learned hunting Marlon Brando would become the basis for a journalism career stretching over forty years.
Hunting Marlon Brando is an expanded book version of his original article. It now runs to almost 60,000 words. In it, as compared to the original, Sager tells a much more complete life story of Brando—both the man and the cultural icon. He also tells the story behind the story, which has become by now a piece of journalistic lore. As it turns out, Sager knew the risks from the beginning.
“What if I fly all that way, spend all that money… and come back with nothing?”
“If this goes wrong, I’ll be a laughingstock.”
For a time.
Among those who couldn’t see what they were seeing.
But there is sometimes justice in the universe: Despite the so-called Brando Debacle, which no doubt hastened his departure from the Post, editor Lovinger went on to become Managing Editor of Life magazine and later a legendary editor at ESPN The Magazine, not exactly demotions.
And the young Sager began getting assignments from hip New York magazines—Rolling Stone, GQ, Playboy, Esquire. Over a long career, he became one of the most distinctive, prolific and enduring journalistic voices of his generation, eventually winning a National Magazine Award, the Pulitzer Prize of magazine writing.
I once described Sager as “the Beat poet of American journalism.” The title is still apt. For decades, he has explored the beautiful and horrifying underbelly of American society with poignantly explicit portrayals of porn stars, swingers, druggies, movie stars, rockers and rappers, as well as stunning stories about obscure people whose lives were resonant with deep meaning—a 92-year-old man, an extraordinarily beautiful woman, a 650-pound man. He became a journalistic ethnographer of American life and his generation’s heir to the work of Gay Talese, Tom Wolfe and Hunter S. Thompson. His imposing body of work today is collected in a dozen books and eBooks, including the best sellers Scary Monsters and Super Freaks and Revenge of the Donut Boys.
As Kirkus Reviews once said: “Sager plays Virgil in the modern American Inferno.”
Pretty good company.
When the magazine story originally ran, I was a staff writer at the Post magazine. As Sager’s friend and former editor, seeing him face such hostility from our newsroom colleagues, I could only offer him this advice from Louis Armstrong: “Some people, if they don’t know, you can’t tell ’em.”
My first meeting with Sager had taken place a few years before Brando. I was visiting the Post newsroom, scuttling from one editor to the next, being interviewed for a possible job as an editor on the City staff. On my way out the door that day, I was led past a nattily dressed young man reclining deeply in his office chair, with his feet up on his desk, talking on the phone. I couldn’t help noticing he was wearing cowboy boots under his dress slacks. We met eyes and he raised a single eyebrow, gave me a quick half-smile. I raised an eyebrow back and kept walking.
A month later, I was assigned to be his editor.
Meaning that I really was there at the beginning.
Sager had been a copy boy and a cop reporter for a couple years before my arrival. Now he was a city reporter covering whatever news the Powers That Be sent his way on any given day. What Sager really wanted to be was a “feature writer,” the term we used in those days for a human-interest reporter whose stories were written with a literary bent.
Even as a 22-year-old among his more experienced elders in the newsroom, Sager quickly stood out, doing stories on paupers buried in the city’s Potter’s Field, a boy going off for his first weeks at college, a father and son taking a hunting trip together, autumn coming to a Virginia farmer’s fields. They were not complicated stories, but they also were not stories that told themselves, that any yeoman reporter could unravel and tell by following the standard prescriptions of the journalism craft. They required an eye and ear for humanity and a compassion for human failing and frailty.
As a novice reporter, undertaking each of those stories was a high-wire act for Sager. A few days on a farm was a lot of time away from the newsroom, a lot of salary invested in such a small thing. With this kind of story, you come back with a weak hit once or twice and the gig would be up fast. Sager had no weak hits. He worked constantly. And he read all of the work by the great masters of literary journalism he could get his hands on. He talked about it incessantly. Frequently he came to my home for dinner and we would bore my wife silly with our conversations about stories, writers, and ideas.
Despite all this, Sager did not become a real star at the Post. Instead of being moved, as he would have wished, to the paper’s more writerly Style section, he was consigned to a local bureau in the suburbs of Virginia. Between stories about city council meetings and waste plant issues, he continued to churn out little gems that would help define his later style, sometimes called literary anthropology—a father-daughter barbershop in a gentrifying town; a man who collected model trains; a janitor by day who became a disco king at night; a beautifully realized series about sailing on the Coast Guard’s tall ship Eagle with a crew of salts and green cadets. Yet Sager and the Post were never destined to align. He was smart and could write but he was not sophisticated in the way of the Post’s Ivy-league-leaning culture. An earnest kid who was definitely one of the odd ones out, he was increasingly out of sync with the paper’s button-down culture. Who knows why and how the smart people at so great an institution missed spotting this generational talent. But they did.
Sager held no rancor. The Post was filled with brilliant and ambitious people of conviction. Those convictions were simply not his convictions.
So Sager quit his job at America’s best and most exciting newspaper.
Two years later came “Last Tango in Tahiti.” Rewritten 34 years later, it is now titled Hunting Marlon Brando.
In so many ways, it was the story that set Mike Sager free.
CLICK HERE to purchase a copy of the book, or read an excerpt below.
HUNTING MARLON BRANDO by Mike Sager
From the start it sounded ridiculous: Go to Tahiti and find Marlon Brando.
I was sitting in the hot seat across the desk from the new editor of the Washington Post Magazine. It was a typical cubicle of a size befitting a section head, located in the far reaches of the newsroom, a one-acre expanse of gray industrial carpeting, spread across three different buildings, on the southwest corner of 15th and L Streets NW, only a few blocks from the White House in Washington, D.C.
This part of the territory was the domain of the Style section and other features departments of the paper. It was known as The Sandbox, a place where movies, food, culture, and fashion prevailed, and writers were left alone to ponder their existential questions and diddle words into melodious prose. Up the several steps into the main building, the more important business of the daily news held sway, presided over by historic figures like Bob Woodward and Ben Bradlee, two living legends who’d together engineered the fall of a crooked presidency, for starters.
The magazine’s editor was Jay Lovinger. He was new to the place, a big-time New York guy hired away from the world of glossy magazines I aspired to reach. Everyone said Lovinger was a genius—a sardonic Big Apple native with the distinctive accent common to the region. He wore a silk tie printed with the image of the Mona Lisa, a wry middle finger to the dress code at this august (and always self-important) newsgathering organization, where one was expected to be prepared at all times to be to be dispatched forthwith to interview the president of the United States or other dignitary.
The scene unfolding before me was fairly standard to magazine writers: I was smiling over-large and trying not to seem desperate as I pitched ideas for my next story, mostly gritty stuff that was becoming something of a specialty—a deep look at daily life in a heroin shooting gallery . . . in a run-down housing project . . . at a local gay club, situated just across the street from the headquarters of the Federal Bureau of Investigation, featuring female impersonators and lip-syncing contests every Saturday night.
Lovinger, meanwhile, was staring up at the ceiling. There were no windows in the room. There was nothing on his walls. The harsh fluorescent light glinted off the thick lenses of his glasses in a way that prevented me from seeing the expression in his eyes. He appeared to be counting the little holes in the tiles. Three years earlier, I’d left my full-time job, as a staff writer with the Post’s Metro Section, to try my hand at freelancing magazine stories. It was a grandiose plan. Everyone thought I was crazy. Leave the newspaper reporters everywhere aspire to join? Give up the golden handcuffs?
But I was only 27 at the time. The Post had been my first real job. I’d started at 21 as a copy boy, fresh off an abortive, three-week stint at Georgetown Law. Six years later, I’d upped and quit another prime opportunity, leaving my parents apoplectic and my colleagues shaking their heads in disbelief.
Thus far in my freelance career, I’d written some decent stories for a number of local and national magazines. I had a regular local column. I was making an adequate living. I was moving slowly toward my goal. Then the Post announced it was starting a glossy magazine of its own. When one of the sub-editors invited me to pitch, it felt like validation. I knew I was on the right path.
There was only one problem: When you’re freelance, nobody gives anything away. In order to get an assignment, I had to come up with a killer idea and sell them on it.
So now here I was, at my big meeting at the new Post magazine.
And this famous new editor, imported from New York, about whom everyone raved . . . was staring up at the ceiling. The Mona Lisa on his tie seemed to mock me with that smile of hers, as if to say: Is this all you've got, Sager?
I stopped talking and waited for a response. After a few beats, Lovinger sighed and took off his glasses, placed them on the desk between us. He sighed, rubbed his eyes, made some grunting noises, replaced his glasses.
At last he spoke. “Why don’t you go to Tahiti and find Marlon Brando?” The tone of his voice was so matter of fact; he could have been asking me to go to the cafeteria to fetch him a cup of coffee.
“F-Find Marlon Brando?” I stuttered. Is he shitting me?
“You know, on that island or whatever he has in the South Pacific. I’m pretty sure it’s near Tahiti.”
“Is Marlon Brando lost?” I asked.
Shrug. Palms up. What do I know?
“And what am I supposed to do when I find him?”
“You’ll know,” he said dismissively.
His face darkened. He made this Jewish kind of gesture, something my grandmother might have done. A fey wave of the hand, dismissal.
“Get out of here before I change my mind.”
I’m hacking through the jungle on the far side of motu Onetahi, the capital islet, as it were, of Teti’aroa.
In lieu of a machete, I’m beating back the brush with a strong length of driftwood. It’s sharp at one end like a sword. I figure if I run into feral pigs or other unexpected trouble, I’ll be able to use it to defend myself.
I have a backpack stocked with water, snacks, and the tools of my trade—two microcassette recorders, extra tapes, a 4 x 8 note pad, two pens. I’m slathered in bug spray and wrapped tight, head on a swivel, walking on the balls of my feet, stepping carefully, trying not to make too much noise. He’s close, real close. I can feel him sucking me in even as I feel him repelling me.
Before I’d come, of course, I’d read about Teti’aroa. I knew he owned the private atoll. I knew there were 13 different islands within the placid blue waters surrounded by a coral reef rising out of the sea like a security fence around a ritzy community. I had figured I would end up searching for him here. I’d even brainstormed scenarios for my penetration of the atoll and the defenses it was sure to have.
In one version, I hired a speedboat, swam ashore. I had my camera, tape recorder and extra tapes and batteries secured in the waterproof scuba bag I’d bought for this purpose at Hudson Trail Outfitters in Gaithersburg, Maryland. Upon making shore, I figured, I’d sit cross-legged on his beach in a saffron robe (also stored in the pouch), making him curious enough to come out to meet me.
Another plan looked more like a commando raid under a canopy of darkness—same speedboat, black clothes, a systematic search of the islands until I came upon him. When I bought the waterproof bag, I’d also considered buying one of those bad-ass survival knives they had for sale. (In those days you could put anything in your luggage.) For all I knew, when I found Marlon, he’d be living in a cave up a river with an army of stoned Polynesians guarding the landing with blowguns, like his character in Apocalypse Now. In the movie, before sending Martin Sheen on his mission up the river to find Marlon/Kurtz, the commanding general tells him: “You see, Captain Willard, things get confused out there. Power, ideals, morality . . . there’s conflict in every human heart between the rational and the irrational, between good and evil. Every man has got a breaking point. You and I do. Walter Kurtz has reached his. Very obviously he has gone insane.”
Now it is I who feel as if I’ve gone insane.
The jungle is all weirdness and sounds—a thick, primitive, evil-feeling place, everything lewdly fertile and engorged. Plants with eight-foot leaves, vines the thickness of arms, roots like legs. Birds and insects chirp and sing, a disharmonic symphony of percussive sound with the volume jacked. A pungent blend of mold, pollen, and plant rot makes my nose run. Sweat streams down my face. I spot a thick snake coiled on a limb of a tree and move past quickly, keeping my eyes glued to the serpent, like an armed robber easing his way out of a backroom poker game. Then something nearby hits the ground with a thud; my heart does a flip-flop. I drop to one knee, sweep the perimeter with my eyes. What the fuck was that?
I check the area in the direction of the sound, find a grove of coconut palms, the ground littered with fallen nuts in various states of decay. For a brief moment, in the dappled sunlight, the brown, hairy oblong spheres look like so many severed heads.
I was too young for Vietnam, but this is what it must have been like—chaotic, flarelit, and surreal, like Apocalypse Now—a mission through the steaming jungle, a quarry I cannot see, a reason that has become too confused to unravel or understand. Like war, like love, the desire within me is strong; it burns like the midday sun. There are no odds anymore. I’m on point, I’m close, I’m walking a path that leads through the days and weeks of my mission like a main circuit cable plugged straight into Marlon. I want him. I need him. It is my mission to locate him and I will.
This is my vow to myself: If he is here, I will find him.
And if he’s not here . . . I will find out where he is and go there . . . as soon as my two weeks on Teti’aroa are done. I mean, no sense wasting a good trip, right? I already pre-paid. Plus I’ll need time to figure out my next steps.
In any case, failure is not an option. The rest of my life, my career, everything I’ve worked for . . . is balanced on the fulcrum of Marlon.
I pull into Marlon’s driveway and stop in front of the ten-foot iron gate. Cyclone fencing continues into the treeline on either side. The sky is very blue today, washed clean by the seasonal winds. The razors on the concertina glint in the bright winter sunlight. A security camera on the fence informs me I’m under surveillance. There’s also a red sign that promises “Armed Response.”
I press both buttons on the intercom. There seems to be a camera inside there, too.
After a few moments, the box squawks: “Yes?”
“Package for Mr. Brando.” I wave toward the cameras, hello.
The gate begins to creak open.
“Drive slowly and take the left fork.”
The asphalt road reminds me a bit of the airstrip on Teti’aroa; weathered and patched. The road climbs upward through a densely wooded area. When I reach the fork, I follow directions. I figure the right fork leads to Nicholson’s place. I don’t know it now, but one day, decades hence, Nicholson will invite me to his house to conduct an interview for a cover story for Esquire. I’ll drive through this very gate and take the right fork. By then, Marlon will no longer be around.
The road peters out in front of a dense green hedgerow, at least twenty feet tall. I figure the plants are fake. They’re just too green and perfect to be real?
I sit a moment with my foot on the brake, trying to be patient, remembering to breathe. I look around and try to see what I can see, which is not much, hemmed in as I am on all sides by the forest. As I’m sitting there, a fault line appears in the hedgerow. The gap grows larger as the shrubs retreat to either side . . .
Revealing a gravel and asphalt parking area. I drive forward and kill the engine.
The compound is not at all grand, reminiscent of the one I found in Teti’aroa, a gathering of bungalows with a common area in between. Instead of coconut wood and woven fronds, the buildings have more conventional windows and are constructed of stucco.
A sign advises: “Stay in Car. Attack Dogs on Premises.”
Copyright (c) 2008, 2021 Mike Sager
CLICK HERE to purchase a copy of the book.