November 19, 1990 12:00 PM

Along Tahiti’s western coast, the craggy mountain peaks are carpeted in green and crowned by wispy clouds that float above the isle. The slopes below are ringed by sweet-smelling hibiscus and frangipani, as if the earth were wearing a fragrant robe. It is in this majestic paradise that Marlon Brando built a private retreat nearly 25 years ago, taking Tahitian actress Tarita Teriipia as his lover and wrapping their family in the island’s peaceful beauty. But today the Brandos are sheathed in ugliness. Back in L.A., Marlon has been awaiting the start of his 32-year-old son Christian’s murder trial. And now Tarita, 48—who sees Marlon infrequently these days—is keeping vigil outside a concrete-walled hospital room where their daughter, Cheyenne, 20, is recovering from an apparently suicidal drug overdose that slipped her into a coma for a day. “It is as if,” says a family friend, “Marlon has lost two children.”

Cheyenne’s tragic act is the latest episode in what the locals of this French protectorate are calling “l’ affaire Brando.” It began six months ago, when Cheyenne’s half brother Christian (son of actress Anna Kashfi) shot her Tahitian lover of three years, Dag Drollet, 26, inside Marlon’s home in the Santa Monica mountains. Cheyenne, then pregnant, left for Tahiti soon after the incident and gave birth in late June to son Tuki, presumed to be Drollet’s child.

By phone from L.A., Marlon, 66, has told the Tahitian daily La Dépêche that Cheyenne “simply took too much of the medications that were prescribed by her doctor.” But the editor-in-chief of the paper, Daniel Pardon, a family friend who is serving as the Brandos’ spokesman, claims, “She tried to commit suicide. It was not accidental. It was not two or three pills. It was a lot. Cheyenne took a cocktail of pills, antidepressants and such.”

Cheyenne was found by Tarita on Thursday morning, Nov. 1, in the Brando compound, in the affluent section of Tahiti referred to as the Gold Coast or Mini Beverly Hills. Tarita immediately took her to a local doctor, who called an ambulance to race Cheyenne to Mamao Hospital. According to Pardon, “Her heart was fibrillating. We thought she would die.” But her condition stabilized later that day, and the next morning she opened her eyes briefly and squeezed a nurse’s finger on request, signaling that she was out of the coma. By the following Tuesday, Cheyenne was alert and chatting with family members, but partial memory loss or other neurological impairment could take weeks to assess.

Unlike Christian, whose childhood was torn apart by high-pitched and highly publicized custody battles, Cheyenne grew up in the relative peace and simplicity of Tahiti. “I don’t think I will let them go to the States,” Marlon said in 1976 of Cheyenne and her brother, Teihotu. “As Tahitians, they are too trusting. They would be destroyed by the pace of life in the States.” Indeed, when Cheyenne finally visited the U.S. as a teen, she experienced a difficult cultural adjustment. “Marlon always wanted to be very protective of her,” says a source close to the family. “But it’s difficult to have an idol for your father. And it was hard for her, living the Tahitian way of life but also visiting him in Los Angeles. Neither she nor Christian ever wanted a Hollywood way of living.”

Family friends trace Cheyenne’s collapse back to August 1989, when her car swerved off a Tahitian road and she was hurled onto the surrounding rocks. To repair the injuries to her face, she underwent extensive and painful reconstructive surgery in L.A. Though she is still quite striking, friends speculate that she feels flawed. “Inside her flesh, there is plastic and metal,” Pardon explains. “In Tahiti, physical appearance is very important for a woman. We elect a Miss This or a Miss That every week.” Albert Lecaill, the shooting victim Drollet’s stepfather, says, “Before the accident she was a very nice girl. After the accident she became highly excitable.”

The shooting in May, which Christian claims occurred accidentally during a fight (allegedly sparked because Cheyenne said Drollet was beating her), obviously deepened her despair. It is rumored that Cheyenne had been using drugs, including cocaine. Pardon denies all charges of drug abuse but confirms that after Tuki’s birth Cheyenne was sent to Vaiame, a local psychiatric hospital, where she was given medication to treat her depression.

After Cheyenne’s intermittent visits to Vaiame over a period of two months, Pardon says, “Her problems were beginning to decrease,” and she began working as a booking agent for the resort on the nearby island of Tetiaroa, which her father owns. Ironically, it may have been her recent happiness that sent her to the emergency room. Says Pardon: “She had stopped taking her medication. She probably thought because she was feeling better, she didn’t need [the pills]. But you can’t stop taking them all at once.” As a result, he believes, she became “so anxious” that she attempted to take her own life.

Marlon, says Pardon, was ready to rush to his daughter’s side but was afraid to leave L.A. just as Christian’s trial was set to begin last week. In a voice that was “more than choking,” says Pardon, “he said, ‘If she is dying, I will come immediately, but if the doctors say she is better, I won’t.’ ” Because Cheyenne is herself a key element in the trial—in one statement given to L.A. police before she left, she said that the shooting was intentional—her continued absence from the country could hamper the prosecution. The L.A. district attorney’s office has managed to delay the trial while trying to bring her back to the U.S.

Meanwhile, the once-tranquil Tahiti is seeming more like paradise lost. The free-spirited residents, says Pardon, “are not used to dealing with the police, justice, medicine.” But for the unfortunate Brandos and their circle, those have become a fact of everyday life.

—Jeannie Park, Robin Micheli in Tahiti