Note: Here is another classic column from my Errol & Olivia blog, with the comments of readers embedded.
I was listening to a Beatles song called In My Life. It’s a John Lennon reminiscence (with contributions by Paul McCartney) that’s particularly bittersweet and acknowledged by Rolling Stone and others as one of the greatest popular songs ever. We all reach a point in our lives when it’s time to look back. I can’t imagine how John Lennon did it so brilliantly at age 25, but he did. Errol Flynn was nearly twice that age when he sat down and tried to assess his life through the exercise of writing an autobiography, My Wicked, Wicked Ways, which got so hopelessly bogged down that the would-be author needed to call in a ghostwriter.
The words had never come easily to Flynn, which makes his accomplishments as a writer all the more impressive. He generated a strong-selling book in the 1930s and another one in the 1940s. He wrote a couple screenplays, many articles for magazines, and even some op-ed pieces for newspapers. Flynn was so much the writer at heart that he wanted his tombstone to bear the inscription, “They read my stuff!” Imagine, then, the serving of humble pie he was force to accept by agreeing to bring in a hired pen to work on his stalled memoirs, a move insisted upon by publisher G. P. Putnam’s Sons of New York. That ghostwriter, Earl Conrad, chronicled this adventure in his book, Errol Flynn: a Memoir, detailing the hostility, both passive and aggressive, that marked Flynn’s approach to the writer-for-hire in his midst.
It’s hard to imagine that you’re reading my “stuff ” now without having ingested My Wicked, Wicked Ways at some point in the past. Over the years less and less credit is given to Flynn for the actual writing, but my research leads me to believe that he did write some of it himself and took an active interest in the crafting of every word because he was, after all, a bestselling author. For the dawn of 1960, this was one frank reminiscence that evoked days of drunken leading men, naked starlets, and uproarious Hollywood shenanigans. In the next sentence Flynn would turn introspective and wonder why. Why had his life taken such regrettable turns? Why hadn’t he become what he wanted? Why had friends let him down?
Which brings me back to John Lennon’s In My Life. Some years ago I had a collaborator in the production of feature video documentaries, Tom Wilson, who is also a musical expert. We’d sit and listen to music to use in our documentaries, and he taught me that “minor keys are sad.” In My Life is written in a minor key and is indeed sad, just as My Wicked, Wicked Ways is (in its fashion) written in a minor key and also very sad. Errol Flynn used the pages of his book to trace the course of an unorthodox life, taking liberties with the facts but also revealing ultimate truths about himself. And the truest of the truths may have been his affection for Olivia de Havilland. He gets around to it on page 208 and he doesn’t go into any detail, as if bringing up Olivia is just not something he wants to do. But he speaks from the heart, as a man who has finally grown up and is forced to look back on a time when he was in the presence of a great love but emotionally incapable of dealing with the flesh-and-blood human being so nearby on a daily basis. This verse by John Lennon mirrors the Flynn passage about de Havilland:
But of all these friends and lovers
There is no one compares with you
And these memories lose their meaning
When I think of love as something new
Though I know I’ll never lose affection
For people and things that went before
I know I’ll often stop and think about them
In my life I love you more
Errol did love Olivia more, and her feelings for him were strong as well, but their love didn’t lead to commitment and marriage. Instead, the association became for each a tragedy; a thing they dared look back on only with the most fleeting of glances.
All our lives have their share of sadness, failed relationships, and regrets. Here was Flynn revealing one of his regrets, just as John Lennon would bare his soul a few years later. I think it takes courage to do such a thing, because as far as Errol knew as he was creating his memoirs in 1958, Olivia was going to read this book, and he might have to deal with her directly as a consequence. It’s possible, probable even, that he was inspired to write the de Havilland passage after he had met up with her at that Hollywood party for The Proud Rebel as detailed in Errol & Olivia. What a horrible and unexpected turn of events that had been for him. But his writing about the Flynn-de Havilland association showed wisdom without ever veering into self-pity. I really do think that there was a fearlessness about Flynn in most things, including love and death, that has infused the legend.
I get the sense that there would have been kinship between Flynn and Lennon if they had met. Both struggled at times merely living their lives and being themselves, and both made their mark as individualists who were capable of remarkable bursts of self-reflection that became timeless works of art.
1. Would you believe I was listening to the Beatles, and then I find this?
What a haunting song; the regrets, sadness, and remembering what was and what could have been. That’s what the song suggests to me, and it’s so appropriate for the story of Errol and Olivia.
Looking back for them had to be bittersweet, and perhaps at times, very painful. But still, that unbroken bond, that very real connection.
Thank you for another great posting. Comment by Elle — July 24, 2011 @ 6:57pm
2. Oh wow — what a beautiful and moving entry. Mr. Matzen! Thank you for sharing this with us!
While I’m not really a Beatles fan, I don’t doubt John Lennon’s amazing talent for song writing, and I agree those particular lyrics you posted above do. ironically, seem to symbolize Errol’s true feelings for Olivia.
However, I have to say that when I read MWWW (which was prior to my reading your E&O book), I was surprised (and a bit disappointed) that Olivia is barely written about in the book… though, as you pointed out in this entry, when Errol did talk about Olivia, his true feelings for her were, for the most part, apparent. It just seemed odd to me that, if Errol loved her as much as we think he did, there would be that lack of writing about her in his own autobio. It made no sense to me at the time of reading the book, but now having read your blog entry on it, it makes more sense to me. I guess Errol didn’t want to be “gushing” about Olivia in a book that he was thinking she would read. It’s kinda sweet, and silly, and sad all at once. Ultimately, it’s such a shame that, as you stated, their love for each other became a kind of tragedy. But at least we know that today, in recent interviews, Olivia’s voiced her feelings of love and affection for Errol and continues to do so, more than half a century after his passing.
Comment by Rachel — July 25, 2011 @ 8:53 am
3. This was a beautifully written and thoughtful piece, in fact my favorite of all you’ve written here thus far. I feel as if you’ve read my thoughts, because I’ve often thought of the star-crossed, bittersweet love between Errol and Olivia when I hear the lyrics to the elegiac In My Life. With its semi-baroque sound complete with the delicate strains of a harpsichord threaded into the middle eight, it has a classical, poetic aura, which for me evokes Errol and Olivia.
I absolutely adore the Lennon/McCartney songbook and the remarkable yin/yang relationship between John and Paul that sparked the creation of those enduring works. In My Life is one of my favorite pieces of music, of any genre, and was the song I chose for the first dance between my husband and I at our wedding. It certainly does capture the musings of the journey of life, and all that we’ve seen and experienced, and what we’ve loved and lost. It is a lyrical teardrop.
Indeed, I think that if Errol had ever met John Lennon, he would have been intrigued and delighted. They were similar souls. Lennon also had a strong connection to the sea and ships, having grown up near the Mersey River in Liverpool, his wayward father a ships’s steward and his maternal grandfather a seaman. He claimed that one of his ancestors was a pirate. He was described by one of his art teachers as a man born without brakes because of his restless, quicksilver nature, and Thomas Hoving (then director of the Metropolitan Museum) once said that if Lennon were a painting, he’d hang him in the museum. He was the author of several best -selling books of nonsense verse much akin to that of Lewis Carroll, and Paul McCartney once stated that if John had lived he would have likely become a novelist, because it was a dream of his. He and Errol were both quite literate and loved the written word.
Like Errol, Lennon was fearless, but also wrestled inner demons. They were both iconoclasts. (Jeff Bridges claims to have used Lennon as his inspiration for his character in the film “Fearless.”) But unlike Errol. Lennon was not afraid to take the dare and risk his career for artistic freedom and love. Errol couldn’t quite make that leap.
And one other thing they had in common was they both fell in love with a woman from Tokyo. Comment by Bonnie — July 26, 2011 @ 10:20pm
4. Well, you’ve succeeded in giving me goosebumps. Bonnie. I wrote this piece and then sat there wondering if I was nuts for making such a connection.. .and here you are affirming that it’s not so strange after all. What a great quote, that John Lennon was “a man born without brakes,” which is something that could also easily have been said about Flynn.
Comment by Robert — July 27, 2011 @ 9:34 am
5. When I first read Wicked Ways, I also wondered why Flynn had said so little about de Havilland, but digging through all the correspondence and interviews led me to the conclusion that each was dedicated to protecting the privacy of the other before and since their last day of shooting together at Warner Bros, in September 1941. In short, Flynn didn’t talk about his feelings for de Havilland… because of his feelings for de Havilland.
Comment by Robert — July 27, 2011 @ 9:39 am
6. Thank you, Mr. Matzen, for making the above statement and clearing it up for me.. .now I understand it better.
It was just that, after having read MWWW through the first time, and not knowing what I know now, I was thinking that perhaps Errol hadn’t really loved Olivia as much as one was led to believe. But now I know that wasn’t the case at all, and it’s a relief.
In a way, it’s sweet and kinda romantic that they both wanted to protect each other’s privacy like that. I give them both kudos for that! Comment by Rachel — July 27, 2011 @ 2:36pm
7. Yes, the “born without brakes” description of Lennon is apropos for Flynn as well, which is why I included it here.
I agree with your conclusion that Olivia was not mentioned much in MWWW intentionally, because for Errol his feelings for her were a deeply personal matter. I sensed that from the first time I read the book. There is a strain of melancholy when he talks about her, particularly in a passage when he is describing collaboration with his Hollywood colleagues, and he goes from generalized discussion of friends and enemies, hates and loves and those you could work with and those you wanted to kill, and then leaps right into his frustration over Olivia and how it took them so long to understand each other. How he couldn’t have known that she was sick to death of playing “the girl” and that he couldn’t read her mind. And his frustration that she hadn’t known that he wanted to do something creative himself. The intensity of emotion that he still felt for Olivia was palpable even all those years later.
And in the other passages in which she is mentioned, he speaks of her with an air of lost love and regret. It is evocative of the song “In My Life”, which is why you are absolutely right on with the connection between the two.
Speaking of MWWW, I noticed that Errol sometimes created what I call ‘factional’ characters for his book, that were based on real people but embellished in order to disguise their true identity. For example, Dr. Hermann Erben became Koets in the book. I have often wondered if the woman he refers to as Amelia Holiphant in MWWW is really Olivia de Havilland with a fictional name that sounds somewhat similar to hers and the basic facts about her circumstances altered to disguise her true identity. In the book, Flynn talks about having a love affair with “Amelia” around the time he was building Mulholland Farm. I have read somewhere that biographers had tried to track down this woman (Amelia) but came up with nothing to suggest she ever existed. I’ve always been very suspicious that Amelia is in reality Olivia, with the name and facts changed to protect her privacy. I know that seems far out, but to me it’s plausible.
Comment by Bonnie — July 27, 2011 @ 9:15pm
8. I am just loving these posts! Such interesting takes on Errol/Olivia. I believe that Errol didn’t write too much of Olivia in MWWW because, sometimes, people want to keep deeply personal things private.
That’s interesting about “Amelia Holiphant” possibly being a private name for Olivia. It’s such an elaborate sounding name, and if it wasn’t Olivia or some other famous woman, why would the reader care? (don’t mean to sound mean, but really, why should they?) Very, very possible it could be a pseudonym. Well, that’s my take for now. Comment by Elle — July 28, 2011 @ 7:45pm