Rita Moreno: 'I chose life over Brando'
‘West Side Story’ actress Rita Moreno spills the beans on her steamy but tragic affair with the film icon
She was the fiery Latina who lit up the movie screen with her sizzling portrayal of Anita in the 1962 musical West Side Story. But off the screen, and in the arms of her lover, Rita Moreno became a different person – vulnerable, emotionally unstable, and even at times suicidal – imprisoned in an abusive relationship with actor Marlon Brandon that very nearly became a fatal attraction.
"I remember how he spoke to me, how he played the drums, how he made love. . . and how I almost died from loving him," Moreno, now 81, writes in her new memoir, Rita Moreno.
"We were locked in the ultimate folie a deux, a crazy love that lasted for years, until one day I quite literally was forced out of a coma and had to choose life over him," Moreno writes.
The actress was just 22 when she met the screen legend in a make-up room on the set of Desiree, the 1954 movie in which he played Napoleon.
"Just meeting him that first day sent my body temperature skyrocketing as though I had been dropped into a very hot bath, and I went into a full-body blush," she writes. "It was the sort of rush that inspires poetry and songs."
The attraction was intense and mutual and the sex, according to the star, was like nothing she had ever experienced before.
"To say that he was a great lover – sensual, generous, delightfully inventive – would be gravely understating what he did not only to my body, but for my soul. Every aspect of being with Marlon was thrilling, because he was more engaged in the world than anyone else I'd ever known," she writes.
A voluptuous dark-haired beauty, Moreno could have had her pick of men but was utterly fixated on Brando, "addicted", she writes "to the challenge of winning him over and over again".
During their tumultuous eight years together, Brando married twice but was serially unfaithful to his wives and Moreno, constantly trying to fulfil his "insatiable sexual needs".
Moreno, in turn, tried to make him jealous, dating numerous high-profile men, including the ultimate 1950s god, Elvis Presley.
"I knew no one could possibly make Marlon Brando more jealous," she writes.
But despite having snagged the attention of the King, Moreno was shocked to discover that Presley had no interest in sex.
"My dates. . . nearly always concluded in a tender tussle on my living-room floor, with Elvis's pelvis in that famous gyration straining against his taut trousers. I could feel him thrust against my clothed body, and expected the next move. . . but it never came," she writes.
"Maybe Elvis was inhibited by inbred religious prohibitions or an Oedipal complex, or maybe he simply preferred the thrill of a denied release. Whatever put the brakes on the famous pelvis, it ground to a halt at a certain point and that was it."
Moreno's relationship with Presley died the day she realised that he reserved more passion for his beloved snacks – watching in disgust as he made love to a peanut butter, banana and bacon sandwich. She walked out the door and straight into the arms of Brando.
On another occasion, Moreno attracted the attention of a "very handsome red-headed gentleman" who was sitting in a hotel with his elegant wife.
"His hairline moved back an inch, as when a predatory animal spots his prey and paralyses it with 'that look'. It was obviously lust at first sight, and I remember thinking, 'Whooo, this guy don't waste no time!' I have no doubt that this man would have sent someone over to my table to escort me upstairs."
Weeks later, while leafing through a copy of Life magazine, Moreno came across a photograph of the man who had leered so provocatively at her – a young senator from Massachusetts named John F Kennedy.
Born in Puerto Rico as Ruby Dolores Alverio, Moreno moved to the Spanish Harlem ghetto in New York as a five-year-old and was snapped up as an Elizabeth Taylor lookalike by famed movie producer Louis Mayer just a decade later.
One of a small number of actors – and the only ever Hispanic actor – to receive an Emmy, Grammy, Oscar and a Tony, Moreno's career has far outlived that of her lovers. At 81, she still works, starring opposite Fran Drescher in the TV sitcom Happily Divorced.
But despite her numerous awards and memorable roles, her relationship with Brando – which takes up nearly a third of her book – remains her most enduring legacy.
Soon after her failed relationship with Presley, Moreno fell pregnant with Brando's child. The actress was crestfallen when Brando insisted she abort the baby, coolly arranging for a friend to pick her up after the illegal procedure.
"To my shock and horror, Marlon immediately arranged for an abortion," she says.
But in the aftermath of the abortion, Moreno began to bleed profusely, a result of a botched back-street procedure which left the dead foetus inside her body.
Brando's indifference to her plight was the final straw. Alone in his home the following day, she rifled through his medicine cabinet, found his sleeping pills and swallowed the lot.
"I went to bed to die. This wasn't a revenge suicide, but a consolation, an escape-from-pain death," she writes.
Discovered by chance by Brando's assistant, Moreno was again rushed to hospital, this time to have her stomach pumped. Released, she had a life or death decision to make: to stay with Brando or face the inevitable. Urged by her therapist, who begged both her and Brando to let each other go, Moreno chose life.
A blind date years later with a kindly cardiologist, Lenny Gordon, led to a happy marriage, which lasted until Gordon's death in 2010. Lenny, she once said, is "my rock, a nice Jewish doctor, but that's redundant".
In 1968, against her better judgment, Moreno took a role opposite Brando playing his lover in the movie, The Night of the Following Day.
In one scene, Moreno was required to slap her on-screen lover in the face. "As the synapses of my brain reconnected, old wounds, hurts, resentment, and disrespect coursed through my body," she writes. Moreno "went ballistic, insane, crazy", beating Brando wildly with her fists and screaming like a banshee.
But despite his cruelty and indifference towards her, Moreno discovered after the actor's death in 2004 that Brando cared more than she realised.
Despite a lifetime of cinematic accolades, Brando had just one piece of movie memorabilia in his Hollywood home – a framed poster that hung on the wall of his private office. In the poster, a still from their movie The Night of the Following Day, was a naked Moreno locked in a steamy embrace with Marlon Brando.