The strange collision of Bonny Bakley and Christian Brando

I wrote about the strange collision of Robert Blake and Bonny Bakley for Rolling Stone in 2002. During the course of my extensive research, I learned of her other, equally strange celebrity encounters, including the time she spent with Christian Brando, who has just passed away. Because of space considerations, this aspect of my story was cut from the piece. Some of it was told to me by Margerry Bakley, Bonny's sister, when I sat with her in a diner in Dover, New Jersey, a few days after 9/11 - an odd moment to be talking of such matters, but I had waited for months to meet with her, and had flown from LA to New York for the appointment, landing just a few hours before the towers were attacked and demons emerged from the hole in the ground, never to be hidden again. She would not be available again for some time.

So I drove across the George Washington bridge as soon as it reopened, past the newly positioned military patrols as bells were tolling at ground zero, for what was one of the most peculiar meetings I've had in my writing endeavors. I'm offering this excised part of my piece because I think it sheds some light on Christian Brando's sad life - his desperation and how he, and all of us, do what we can to connect somehow with our parents, whatever the path they have blazed. I'm also including some material about the Bakley and Brando families because it helps to explain what drove Bonny - herself a misled character - to seek out Brando, and what may have made him susceptible. For background, remember that Bonny Bakley always wanted to be famous. “To do that you have to know other famous people,” her best friend would tell me later on the phone from her home in Walls, Mississippi. “That’s how the stars do it.”

Also, bear in mind that this was written before Marlon Brando died. Herewith, part of the remaining Bakley chronicles, with some previously published material included to fill in the blanks:

Bakley would doggedly track down celebrity addresses, information about where they went and what time, and even what property they owned and how much it was worth. But there was madness in her method; she was the ultimate fan, a weird citizen imprinted from her very birth to need fame, to seek the famous, to win love and approval only by association with the famous. Her life would be complete if only she could stand in fame’s glare, or even its shadow – the wattage did not matter as much as proximity, closeness that would take away her pain and make her immortal. Bakley’s grandmother – who raised her from the age of eight through high school – would chow down on celebrity news long before People Magazine tied off the national arm and jammed us all with a needle full of poison.

“Granny was obsessed with tough guys,” Margerry recalled when asked about Bonny’s attraction to men who, some said, were prone to violence, such as Christian Brando and Jerry Lee Lewis. “She loved Bogart and Cagney. My mother liked all them guys too. She was into Elvis, not Bonny. She was the one who liked Gary Busey, not Bonny. And it was my grandmother who liked Robert Blake. Bonny never stalked him. When she met him, she didn’t even know who he was. She never watched ‘Baretta.’ Granny used to watch him when he was on Johnny Carson and tell Bonny how cute he was.”

Bakley’s mother was poor, physically abused as a child, and also starstruck. In her extreme desperation for motherlove, Bakley was more broken than most, willing to lie, cheat, and steal in the grubbiest of ways to get what she felt the world owed her. Like a lot of people without a moral compass, she had her own at times touching code. Nor was she selfish: much of the money that came her way she lavished on friends and family, some of whom were one step away from the gutter. But by the time she crossed the velvet rope that divides the populace from its immortals, entering a time warp that was supposed to confer special qualities, her life’s string had run out...When someone initiates an encounter with a policeman and gets killed in the process, law enforcement calls it “suicide by cop.” Bonny Bakley’s tangle with the famous was most assuredly a case of “suicide by backstage pass.”

Bonny Bakley was born on June 7, 1956 in Morristown, New Jersey to tree surgeon Edward and Marjorie Lois Hall Bakley. Margerry came along five years later. “My mother chose to marry a bum,” Margerry said, referring to her father. “I’m trying to get myself out of all this stuff but it’s hard.” She described her own history of two suicide attempts, a nervous breakdown, a marriage to a violent Colombian drug dealer, a bad check bust, a long bout with alcoholism, the difficulty of protecting her young son from child molesters, and salvation in the Catholic church – a wide-ranging, insightful, and well-spoken confession severely informed by a culture steeped in the broth of Oprah and punctuated by tears, cigarettes, and laughter. “My father drank all the time. My parents told us we were ugly. They made fun of us when we got out of the shower. They were always fighting. It used to make Bonny hyperventilate and she would pass out..."

By the time Bonny reached junior high, her father had been beaten to death by cops while living in a homeless shelter. She often fell asleep in class, or fantasized about becoming a movie star to get back at students who laughed at her for being poor. She dropped out of school and studied modeling at the Barbizon School in New Jersey and acting at the Actors Studio in New York in the early 70s. Bonny’s foray into that world was short-lived. According to Margerry, she was not very talented. The movie star thing might not work out. But the star thing could; at that time, for women like Bonny with vague desires and no social standing, there arrived on the scene a strange gift from the depths of Ohio – “Hustler.”

The signature piece of o.g. white trash Mac Daddy Larry Flynt, the magazine was Yukon Jack to Playboy’s Chivas Regal, featuring photo spreads of down-and-dirty women who would never get invited to Hef’s mansion. Bakley went gyno in the June, 1977 issue which published her picture in the oddly groundbreaking department called “Beaver Hunt.” Her debut on the newsstands came as a total surprise to her family. “My neighbors knocked on my door and asked if I was in ‘Hustler,’” her mother recalled. “Bonny and I look alike.”

After the “Hustler” picture was published, Bakley seemed to diversify, cranking the gig to another level. As a teen-ager, her mailing list was limited to a couple of regional sex rags; now she advertised nationally in men’s and swinger’s magazines under a variation of her own name as well as many various aliases, using a variety of pitches – “Hi, I’m Claire. I’m a nursing student. Can you help me get through school?”; “Hi, I’m Laura. I can make you feel good. If you send me a bus ticket, I’ll come right over”; “Are you a tit man?” and so on. She patterned herself after Donald Trump, not because he built his fortune on bad taste but simply because he worked hard and made buckets of dough, was living proof of the era’s predominant, not-so-secret password: “Greed is good.”

Soon, Bonny faced a problem: How could a single working girl manage such a burgeoning business alone? It was time to find a husband. She married her first cousin, a choice that no one – not even her family members – can fully explain. “I think my mother said he looked like a movie star but I’m not sure which one,” Margerry said. Her husband helped her with all the mail, picking it up at drops in various places and performing clerical tasks. By the time she was killed, the business had entered the cyber age; leaving out no chat room, she trolled the ranks of those with fibromyalgia and fans of German shepherds, and she maintained elaborate computer files on customers, including stats on how much they were worth and their preferred sexual tastes. Like a lot of computer workers, Bakley had carpal tunnel syndrome; towards the end of her life, she went to a mass for The Anointing of the Sick.

Behind all the trips to the post office, all the visits to justices of the peace, Bakley was laying a foundation in California. She bought a house in suburban Thousand Oaks and rented it, intending to move her and her family into it when she could support them all. “The plan was, some day we would all live together in California,” Margerry said. “Say what you will about how she made her money, but she really liked the guys who were paying her way. You were never allowed to make fun of them, they were her guys. One day, they would help us all get to the West coast.”

Of course, can the true fan come West, to Hollywood, without paying homage to The Godfather? As in Marlon Brando? Oddly, for all the public barriers, the penetration of his family was easy, it would seem. Strip away the grand stature of Marlon and the Brando family was not that far removed from Bakley's, with a history right out of a slouching double-wide at the Whispering Sands Trailer Park. After an explosive and highly publicized divorce between Marlon and actress Anna Kashfi, their son Christian had been shuttled back and forth between his parents for years, once allegedly kidnapped by Kashfi and hidden by thugs in a Mexican jungle to keep him away from his emotionally abusive father. As a grown-up, Christian labored under his father’s shadow, trying half-heartedly to succeed in Hollywood, as a producer and actor, but according to an US Magazine reporter falling in with a group of Laurel Canyon drifters known as the “down boys.” They crashed and partied with him at his big pad in the hills. He gave them food and money. Then one day he killed his sister Cheyenne’s fiancé when she told Christian he had been hitting her. (Later she killed herself and somewhere along the way, he said that perhaps his sister had exaggerated her claims).

When news of Christian’s murder trial swept the planet, Bakley took note. “We thought he was cute,” Margerry recalled. Bonny felt there was a connection. “With Christian,” Margerry said, “it was that his family was messed up and no one understood him.” Bonny sent him letters while he was behind bars. Having learned that he was into pornography, she made sure to include pictures. He read the letters and replied, unlike Robert Downey, Jr, whom Bakley was also approaching via the mail while he was in prison. When Brando got out of jail, he hooked up with Bakley. Inside Brando Land, and even amid the outer regions, hardly anyone would talk about the relationship. Those who did insisted on e-mail contact only and some preferred anonymity. That Bakley and Brando knew each other was confirmed twice. “Yes, they were together for a while,” said Christian’s ex-girlfriend, actress Laurene Landon, in an e-mail interview. “That’s all I can say.” A second source explained the sad hook-up this way: “Bakley gave Christian money for drugs.” In 1999, Bakley came to visit him in the played-out logging and fishing town of Kalama, Washington where he lived between bouts in rehab since his release from prison. “They spent a weekend in a motel,” the source said, “and she bought him new welding tools.”

In becoming involved with Bakley, Christian appeared to have taken his very cue from the old man – and then one-upped him, only to watch in horror as the whole thing collapsed in a strange echo of the murder he had committed, and wind up in rehab once again. In Marlon’s book, “Brando: Songs My Mother Taught Me,” he recounted an episode in which he agreed to have sex with an obsessed fan – as an experiment. It all started when she offered to wash Brando’s feet. "The penis has its own agenda," Brando wrote. Afterwards, he felt remorse, realizing that he “had just seduced a girl who thought I was Jesus.” So too had Christian accepted the advances of an adoring stranger; so too had Bakley paid homage to an icon - and not just any god, but the living son of The Godfather. But while Marlon seemed to have controlled his bizarre experiment, Christian did not. In fall of 1999, Bakley learned that she was pregnant. She told Christian the baby was his. “He was very happy,” both Margerry and another source said. “I think it gave him something to live for,” the source elaborated. “He liked the idea of becoming a father.”

When the baby was born on June 2, 2000, Bonny named her Christian Shannon Brando. “Christian picked out the name,” the source said, although undoubtedly Bakley approved - it proclaimed her celebrity nearness, as did the name of her third child, Jeri Lee. But the baby didn't belong to Christian; her real father was Robert Blake.

Every actor of Robert Blake’s generation stands in the shadow of Marlon Brando. “My dream part is Sky Masterson,” Robert Blake once told an interviewer. He was referring to the singing gangster that Brando played in the classic “Guys and Dolls,” the kind of grand role that Blake – even at his peak – was never offered. It’s not that he couldn’t have done it. He was as good an actor as his major contemporaries –Hoffman, Pacino, Newman, and in some ways even Brando. Alas, the closest he would ever get to Marlon and the innermost chamber of the Hollywood heart – publicly at least - was his association with Bonny Bakley.


More by Deanne Stillman:
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