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Centenary of a Hollywood actor

The unpublished photo of Marlon Brando on the Costa del Sol

The greatest actor in the history of film came to Malaga in 1957 on a flying visit about which little was known until now. Now SUR has tracked down the family who hosted him in Benalmádena and published the first (and only) photo of his break on the beach

Francisco Griñán

Málaga

Friday, 12 April 2024, 12:17

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It all started with a phone call in January. Although the story took place almost 67 years ago, when a Hollywood star with bleached blond hair came down the steps of a plane in Spain in 1957. The country was opening up to modernity and tourism as a way of softening the image of the regime, while preparing for the celebrations of the Virgen del Carmen. That was the Malaga that greeted a thirty-something Marlon Brando (1924-2004), dubbed the greatest actor in the history of cinema, an industry that marked the centenary of his birth last week.

The star of The Wild One and Julius Caesar first landed in Madrid but soon headed for the station in search of a 'streetcar named desire'. When he looked at the ticket he saw that it said 'expreso coche-cama Costa del Sol', the sleeper train to Malaga. According to the press, the actor had become a regular visitor to the holiday paradise of the time, Torremolinos. But the truth is that not only was he never seen again on the Costa, but his first and only visit went unrecorded. Not a single photo of him on the beach, nor an interview.

That was the mystery behind the call playwright and researcher Carlos Zamarriego made to SUR, putting the first questions on the table for this report in search of the truth behind the legend's mysterious visit. The answers were to be found in Finca La Verdad, the actor's desination in Benalmádena

Marlon Brando's flying visit in 1957

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Thursday 11 July

He flies to Madrid from Paris. The actor stays in the Velázquez hotel and attends a flamenco party until five in the morning.

Friday 12 July

After getting up late and beign unable to see his bullfighter "friend" Luis Miguel Dominguín, he took the night train to Malaga; several journalists saw him off.

Saturday 13 July

He arrives on the Costa del Sol at dawn. The press says that the actor went to Torremolinos, but he really went to Benalmádena, to the country estate of the Fiestas family, La Verdad.

Sunday 14 July

Brando stayed in a bungalow with private access to the beach. No photographs of the actor on the Costa del Sol were published, although Blanca Fiestas had her picture taken with the star guest staying on her family's estate.

Monday 15 July

His break ends, although it is not known how he returned to Madrid. There are reports that the Hollywood star briefly visited Granada, although there are no photographs to confirm this.

Tuesday 16 July

Brando flies from Barajas airport back to Paris to resume filming The Young Lions, in which he plays a Nazi soldier, hence his bleached blond hair on his visit to Spain.

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"The first piece of information already destroys a myth, as Brando did not stay in Torremolinos as all the chronicles said, but at La Verdad estate in Benalmádena," says Zamarriego, who was quick to link this residence with Malaga-born Jorge Fiestas (1928-1986), one of the great film journalists of Spain in the 60s and 70s, and co-owner of the legendary Sala Oliver, a meeting place for Madrid's show business world for decades. His parents were the owners of La Verdad, a luxurious seaside property with direct and exclusive access to the beach, where today the Sunset Beach Hotel is located. Back then, though, that corner of the Costa del Sol was almost virgin territory, impossible to identify with its current appearance.

La Verdad: located in Benalmádena, the property of the Fiestas family comprised of a complex of buildings and bungalows with access to a private beach that were rented out to exclusive guests, such as Brando.
La Verdad: located in Benalmádena, the property of the Fiestas family comprised of a complex of buildings and bungalows with access to a private beach that were rented out to exclusive guests, such as Brando. Archivo Aguirre Fiestas

We know the reason for the visit of the actor, who had already won an Oscar for On the Waterfront (1955), to Spain. The star was in France, shooting the film The Young Lions, in which he played a German officer, when he took advantage of a rainy break to take a few days off to travel to Spain. He flew to Madrid and then headed south, although apparently with no fixed destination, as he declared as soon as he got off the plane, where the press were waiting for him, surprised to see his name among the passengers on the Paris-Barajas flight.

"I'm going to Malaga or Seville for a rest. I will think about my itinerary later. For the moment, I think I should find a good beach," Brando announced, either out of indecision or in order not to give too many clues as to his intentions. But yes, he did end up at the seaside in Benalmádena. Although before that he went out on the town in Madrid and, the following day, Friday, he left for Malaga on a train, as reported by the press, who went to see him off on the platform, with plenty of photos and autographs. There was no sign of his reputation for being sullen and allergic to popularity. But from then on, the elusive megastar's trail was completely lost.

La Verdad, where Brando stayed, was bought by the Fiestas family from a hunter who had had her leg mauled by a lion

Compared to the dozens of photos of him in Madrid in little more than 24 hours, there is not a single image of Brando in Malaga. It was as if Tom Cruise came and went unnoticed. Neither SUR nor La Tarde tracked down illustrious visitor and the only information was a few lines from the Cifra agency, which said from hearsay that the star had dined in a "typical" restaurant and moved on to Torremolinos, "where many young people of both sexes asked him for autographs. Marlon Brando pleased them all." The strange thing is that if the actor made such a public visit, there is no trace of this meeting with the crowds. Why were there no photos? What role did Jorge Fiestas play in this visit? What did he do on the Costa del Sol?

The witness from the palm tree

Having reached a dead end, Carlos Zamarriego, publicist, playwright and biographer of the Benalmádena-based Hollywood actor Paul Lukas, called SUR to shed some light on Brando's mysterious visit. And the newspaper's archive revealed a clue. In an obituary, the surname Fiestas was mentioned, along with Lumbreras and Krauel. So a call to gallery owner and former vice-rector Tecla Lumbreras led to the businessman Carlos Krauel who, in turn, put us in touch with an old friend: Bernabé Fiestas Bonitz, brother of the journalist Jorge and eyewitness of Marlon Brando's visit to La Verdad. Eureka.

A resident of San Pedro de Alcántara for decades, Bernabé met us - Zamarriego also attended the meeting - at his country house on a very cold day, which did not prevent him from climbing to a height of four metres to prune a palm tree. "This is my gym," he says by way of greeting from the heights, at 87 years of age.

Bernabé Fiestas, the youngest of three brothers was witness to the visit of Marlon Brando, whom he recalls as being shorter than he looked on the screen.
Bernabé Fiestas, the youngest of three brothers was witness to the visit of Marlon Brando, whom he recalls as being shorter than he looked on the screen. JOSELE

Agile in both body and mind, the youngest of the Fiestas family did the maths to calculate that in that summer of 1957 he was 20 years old and remembered the imposing figure of the star of Viva Zapata! Although more for his fame and magnetism than for his presence. "When I stood next to him, I was surprised to be looking down a bit and I said to myself, 'wow, on the screen he looks much taller', although he was a strong guy. I haven't forgotten that," says Bernabé, who gives the key to how the actor ended up at La Verdad.

"It was our family estate, but my parents also built bungalows and apartments to rent and that's where Marlon Brando stayed," explains this businessman and motorbike enthusiast who says that, at that time, his journalist brother had not yet moved to Madrid to write about film, so he does not believe that Jorge Fiestas was responsible for that visit. In fact, the journalist's first film articles in SUR were in July 1958, a year after Brando's visit. "The [film star] he did bring home was Ava Gardner, who was also a very good friend of mine," he says, sitting on his sofa surrounded by family photos he has got out for the occasion.

He didn't have flamenco classes or wear flowery shirts: Brando was in long sleeves in July

In the few days that Brando stayed at La Verdad - between Saturday 13 and, probably, Monday 15 July - Bernabé recalls that they saw little of the Hollywood star as he came looking for privacy and the beach, something he found right outside his bungalow. He does not hesitate for a second to deny some of the information that was published at the time, reporting that his mother, Blanca Bonitz, taught flamenco to the young Marlon.

"That's a lie, my mother didn't like flamenco and didn't know how to dance because, although she was born in Malaga, her father was German and her mother French," says Bernabé Fiestas, who does confirm that his mother cooked for Brando, as the actor rarely left the estate. "She was good at cooking," adds the witness to the visit, who describes La Verdad as a refuge that had its own tennis court, private beach and abundant vegetation.

"When I was a child, I felt like Tarzan in the summers there," he says, using a film simile. And that, somewhere between exotic and wild, must have been how Brando himself felt, as the house was also decorated with elements of big game hunting.

"My father bought La Verdad from an English hunter who was also lame because a lion had mauled her leg and I remember crocodile trophies and things like that around the house," recalls Bernabé, who reveals that Brando let himself be photographed in La Verdad, with his sister Blanca Fiestas, who still keeps the snapshot in her house in El Limonar, Malaga. Probably the only image of the future star of The Godfather in Malaga.

In search of a photo

After leaving Bernabé with his palm trees - the Tarzan spirit still lives on in him - his memories of Brando in Malaga have cleared up some questions, clarified details and denied others, confirmed that the screen makes you look taller and, above all, have informed of the photo in Malaga and a contact to continue dusting off the puzzle of that much-talked-about Brando visit. That contact is Carlos Aguirre Fiestas, who opened the doors for us to visit his mother, Blanca, the 'partenaire' in the photo with Marlon. She was 22 years old at the time, a period to which she returns to reveal another unknown visit that confirmed La Verdad as a refuge for those who wanted to go unnoticed on the Costa del Sol in the 50s.

For 67 años, Blanca Fiestas has kept this image of her with Marlon Brando at La Verdad in the family album.
For 67 años, Blanca Fiestas has kept this image of her with Marlon Brando at La Verdad in the family album. Archivo Aguirre Fiestas

"Brando stayed in the same apartment where Prince Yusupov, Rasputin's assassin, had previously stayed," says the middle sibling of the Fiestas family, adding that her mother, Blanca Bonitz, managed the bungalows, although by then she had already separated from her father, chemist and businessman Bernabé Fiestas Contreras. Nevertheless, there was room for everyone on the family estate. And for VIP guests.

Normally allergic to photos, Marlon Brando agreed to pose with Blanca Fiestas, the daughter of his hosts en Benalmádena

That's where the Oscar-winning Marlon, who was looking for a rest and a beach after an intense shoot in France, came in. "He came with bleached blond hair because he was making a film in France - The Young Lions - in which he played a Nazi soldier," says Blanca Fiestas. He had not yet been baptised as the best actor in history, but it didn't take long for the young Blanca to feel "impressed" because the imposing Stanley Kowalski character she had watched torment Vivian Leigh in A Streetcar Named Desire at the Goya cinema was now in her home. "Jorge's love of cinema was catching," admits the middle of the three siblings, who agrees with Bernabé that Brando went out very little as in his apartment "he had everything" - several rooms, kitchen, bathroom, terrace - and her mother took him food.

Blanca Fiestas, who had her photo taken with Marlon Brando in Benalmádena.
Blanca Fiestas, who had her photo taken with Marlon Brando in Benalmádena. SUR

As to the flamenco classes attributed by the press to Blanca Bonitz, her daughter also makes a face of horror, although another character who passed through the family home in Benalmádena crosses her memory: "Ava Gardner really liked flamenco. After his first interview with her, my brother was ecstatic and they became very good friends," says the Fiestas' daughter, who remembers "perfectly the day" she met her idol.

"We were all sitting in the garden when Marlon came over to say hello," recalls Blanca, who doesn't remember the conversation or whether it was her parents, the star's hosts, who asked him to pose for a photo with her. "He didn't like it, but he said yes," says the triumphant co-star of this unpublished image taken by her then boyfriend and later husband, Fernando Aguirre. A portrait that she reveals for the first time for this report.

The Hollywood star stayed in the same bungalow as Prince Yusupov, the assassin of Rasputin

Despite having faded with time, the portrait retains a glorious black and white that shows a smiling, summery Blanca posing next to a Marlon Brando with a cordial expression, hands clasped (albeit cropped), blond hair for script requirements and, most surprisingly, a Stanley Kowalski-style tennis jersey unzipped to mid-chest, with long sleeves totally unsuitable for July in Malaga. Nothing like the alleged "flowery shirt bought in Sumatra" that, according to the Madrid press, he wore during his stay on the Costa. His outfit would set a trend today. The vegetation in the garden of La Verdad serves as a backdrop to this photo that is as much a family snap as it would be a fan's treasure. A portrait that, six decades later, is also a unique and historical record of a Costa del Sol that disappeared decades ago, a destination that was much more than Torremolinos, the resort where everything seemed to happen according to the outside world.

The epilogue of the visit is that Brando flew out of Barajas Airport to continue filming in France on Tuesday 16 July, so that the night before he could have taken the sleeper train back to Madrid. Unless he left that same Tuesday from Malaga Airport, with a stopover in the Spanish capital. There is no record of how he left. In any case, it was a hectic combination of trains and planes for barely three days on the beach, as Carlos Zamarriego points out when he reconstructs the timeline of this fleeting and enigmatic visit which, paradoxically, would remain engraved in the collective imagination of the Costa del Sol.

Back in France, the actor appeared in the headlines a few days later for a less fortunate incident: "Brando suffers burns and is admitted to hospital for treatment." The actor had had an accident making tea and ended up with first or maybe second degree burns, something the newspapers could not agree on. There's no doubt that, in his hospital bed, he was thinking about his break in Benalmádena. With or without flamenco classes.

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