Babies and Bathwater

As you may know, I don’t approach biography like most writers. I like to tell the story of a life like a story, not as a series of chronological events. Maybe I’ll start a new wave of biography, who knows, but with co-author Mike Mazzone I told Errol Flynn’s story from the perspective of his home, Mulholland Farm. Then I surveyed the lives of Flynn and co-star Olivia de Havilland from the vantage point of their intersection at ages 25 and 18, respectively. I projected the story of Carole Lombard through the prism of the plane crash that killed her. Next, I hope to reveal James Stewart through the global stage of World War II.

So, yesterday I received an email concerning Mr. Flynn from a woman who recently, as she says, “became fascinated” with him and did a lot of reading. She doesn’t say specifically that she read either Errol Flynn Slept Here or Errol & Olivia, but she addressed the message to me because I was the most easily accessible of his biographers.

In the course of reading about Flynn she became turned off. Her distaste for the man is evident in her communication to me and centers around the fact that Flynn recruited men into slave labor among his 67 other odd jobs in the years after he left home and before he found England and acting. (Note: Errol had so many jobs because he was lousy at everything, including slave trading.) This episode in Flynn’s life rendered the man entirely unsympathetic, and this woman figured she would “start a fight” on my blog by stating her negative opinion of Errol Flynn.

Fireball: Carole Lombard and the Mystery of Flight 3 by Robert Matzen

Errol Flynn, age 21, in one of many failed jobs, this one running a copra plantation in the absolute fringes of the British Empire. Hollywood stardom was still four years away.

Here is Errol Flynn Psychology 101: His brainy father knocked up his histrionic mother and forced matrimony ensued. Mom was an aspiring gadfly who never, repeat never, forgave Errol for making an appearance in this world. She loathed her son from his first breath, and soon he was loathing himself, and forever seeking the two things she would never give him: love and approval. He began to act long before he found a stage or camera. He began to project a successful, attractive self to cover up the poisoned soul inside him. He always had anger close at hand and once in a while it would whip out of him snakelike and take down a bystander. David Niven’s classic line about Flynn, “You could count on Errol; he always let you down,” was funny in delivery but rooted in the pain of one friend experiencing another.

If ever there were a person damaged beyond repair by a parent, it was Errol Flynn. It was the wildest, one-in-a-million fluke that this human survived his early years in a remote corner of the world to become a world-famous actor in Hollywood. He not only engaged in the slave trade, he was involved in the shooting death of a native; he lied and stole his way to England in the globe-trotting course that he eventually led him to become the king of adventure films.

In my return email, I postulated to my correspondent that her opinion of Flynn would not cause a ruckus on this blog because my readership is sophisticated and would readily admit Flynn’s shortcomings. I, for one, have never been a hero worshipper of Flynn or anyone else, and I’ve stated publicly that if given the opportunity by some time warp or other, I wouldn’t want to hang around Flynn for long because of that cruel streak.

BUT.

There are two buts, actually.

  1. If one is going to use the slave labor argument to condemn Errol Flynn, then condemn the entire British Empire of several centuries along with him because Flynn was a British subject at a time when entire races were subjugated in the normal course of events. If you were a white Brit within the span of empire in 1925 you were one of the cool kids and God help anyone in your way. These days, there’s this tendency to look at historical events and people with 2014 sensibilities, which I find unrealistic and unfair, whether you’re talking about Thomas Jefferson or Errol Flynn.
  2. Flynn did some beautiful things in his life. He became a writer, a good writer. He aspired to be a writer instead of an actor, being of the opinion that one was far more noble than the other. He wasn’t thought to be a good actor but left behind performances that stand the test of time 60 and 75 years later. He could channel good guys and make people root for him, which means to me that he had good stuff inside him, residing in there with all the bad. The particular mix of good and bad in Flynn makes him, in my mind, one of the most compelling people of the twentieth century, even before you consider the fact that he entertained millions over the course of his career. I am not going to touch millions of people in a positive way through the course of my life. I doubt that this Errol Flynn critic will either. Whatever poison was in his soul, he gets credit for spreading a lot of good.

The writer concludes her email with, “I really just cannot understand why every biographer judges Flynn so generously.” I laughed at this one because my correspondent must have missed a volume called Errol Flynn: The Untold Story, the 1980 poison pill written by the late, unlamented biographical hack, Charles Higham. In this volume Higham listed Flynn’s shortcomings chapter and verse, some of it pure fabrication that was later proven so, but all of it a study in loathing of a biographer for his subject.

As for me, I would respond to the assertion that I’m too easy on Flynn this way: Why would I take the time to write a book about a person I disliked? I leave that to the Charles Highams of the world. I like to think that I bring to the table a natural curiosity to understand what made my subject tick. Who was he or she? Why was a particular course undertaken? What were the factors? What were the outcomes? I strive to present real people making real decisions and often, real mistakes. And, brother, Errol made his share like we all do, and then some.

Now you know what I think. I’m curious to get your thoughts on this subject.

13 comments

  1. The remarkable talent for living that Errol Flynn possessed, combined with his numerous and undeniable character flaws, makes him, in my opinion, one of the most fascinating figures of the 20th Century.

    To dismiss Flynn because of some of the unsavory aspects of his life would be every bit as unfair and inaccurate as would be proclaiming him a model to be emulated by others simply because of the impressiveness of his greatest film portrayals.

    Actor, author, sailor, true life adventurer, philosopher, brawler, boozer and womanizer, Flynn had the courage and fierce independence to live life, for the most part, on his own terms. At the peak of his fame there were few things this naturally rebellious individual enjoyed doing more than tweaking the noses of his Warner Bros. bosses over money or whatever, and either take off on his schooner or threaten to do so. How many would not envy the lifestyle of someone who had the opportunity (and balls) to do that?

    Yet Flynn, the enigma, the mercurial Jekyll/Hyde character, often baffling and exasperating to his friends and family, wrote in his autobiography of his own personality contradictions in a memorable diary entry reproduced there, making it apparent that he really didn’t understand himself any more than did those around him.

    In his wanderlust lifestyle he drifted away from many of his old friends. Yet there was still an affection for him expressed by many who had once enjoyed his company, frustrated as they may have been with him, at times, as evidenced in the comments of a Raoul Walsh or Ida Lupino, a David Niven or fellow hell raiser and roisterer Buster Wiles.

    As recently as just a couple of years ago, Olivia de Havilland was re-reading his autobiography, underlining passages in it as she still tried to more fully understand the man who had been her romantic film co-star in so many costume ventures. And a man who had meant much to the lady in her personal life, as well. After all these years, he haunts her still.

    That Flynn went down a slow path of self destructiveness, burning himself out far too soon, makes him a tragic figure, only adding to the continuing and countless analyses of his character. That he knew that he was going to die early (told so by his doctors) but never whimpered about it is a reflection of an innate courage that he possessed as a man.

    It’s a courage that inhabits his screen heroics, adding credibility them. That, combined with his physical attractiveness, charm and eloquence, along with an effectively understated acting style (critics be damned!) that does not date, still makes him one of the premiere adventure figures of the movies. That I strongly suspect he had the acting talent to have been more than an adventure figure on screen is part of the exasperating sense of unrealized potential that I see in Errol Flynn.

    1. Every so often you write something that I wish I had thought of, Tom. Describing Flynn in terms of Jekyll & Hyde is one such example and oh, so true. I’m hoping that Sarah, the woman who touched off the most recent posting, will join the conversation here for further exploration of this topic. We corresponded again today and the beginning of Earl Conrad’s Errol Flynn: A Memoir came to mind. The description of his first meeting with Flynn is something out of gothic horror, with the actor cruel and bullying toward the writer-for-hire. That is Mr. Hyde. Yet Earl went on to count Flynn as a friend–I know because Earl and I spent a lot of time talking about those days as ghostwriter of My Wicked, Wicked Ways. In fact, so many good people felt such heartbreak and loss at Errol’s passing that there must have been a fair amount of good in that Jekyll side of him.

      1. I don’t know much about Flynn yet, but I am a big John Barrymore fan . . . I am stunned at how alike they were. I know they were friends, Bundy Drive Boys and all that, but Errol and Jack seem like one person at times.

  2. “I am not going to touch millions of people in a positive way through the course of MY life.” C’mon, you’ve got to be halfway there by now! And heck, you’re still young yet! Write a couple more books, direct a couple more films, pretty soon you’ll be up to THREE million!

  3. Hello Everybody,

    This is so much fun. Thank you for inviting me!

    I could talk for way too long about Errol Flynn, which would be a mistake. So two things for now.

    1. I don’t think I dismissed him completely. I came to the conclusion that, taken as a whole, he was a sleazebag.

    He possessed exceptional intelligence and perceptiveness. Again and again in his autobiography he impressed me with his analysis of life and society. Therefore, I expected more of him in regards to his slave-trading activity. Not only did he not reject the tenets of British Superiority, he embraced them. He had a Chinese man prosecuted for not removing his hat in Flynn’s presence; he described with zest and pride how he tricked a chieftain into giving him his young men; and is portrayed by Conrad as someone who believed that there were “rulers and those who were meant to be ruled.”

    Flynn expressed remorse for selling men into slavery, but not much. I can’t forgive him for that even though he was embedded in the attitudes of his time and place. Flynn could see through so much of the b.s. of society; I wonder if he went along with this kind of b.s. because it suited his personality.

    And yet —

    2. I was watching a documentary called “Reclaiming the Blade”, about the history of European Martial Arts and their revival today. It contained a cool montage of swordfight scenes in movies from Douglas Fairbanks through Ang Lee and Quentin Tarantino. Flynn got loving treatment, as he deserved.

    I was rewinding and fastforwarding in slow motion to catch the transitions between scenes and I watched a second or two of Flynn in Captain Blood frame by frame. Seeing it this slowly revealed a complexity of expression on his face which isn’t visible in real time. I’ve don’t think I’ve seen such expressions on anyone’s face in my life.

    The intensity of joy, love, innocence, exuberance, hope, the beauty of being alive, a profound capacity for feeling and understanding, a yearning for connection, love, meaning — these are qualities I felt coming from Flynn in his movies which I wondered if I was projecting on to him. But after watching this scene, I don’t think I was projecting. I think they were there inside him.

    No wonder that he’s enriched so many people’s lives, and that we’re still trying to figure him out.

    Thanks again.

  4. Robert, because of your latest comment, I re-read Conrad’s memoir of Flynn.

    What I like about this warts-and-all book is the fact that it feels like an honest attempt by the author to profide a balanced portrait of the actor, and a genuine attempt to try to come to grips with his mercurial personality.

    I can’t say that I saw Flynn as ‘bullying” towards Conrad, as you did, if only because of the fact that the writer stood up for himself. Then, again, you spoke to Conrad, so perhaps you got that sense from him personally. Flynn’s humour, though (often his idea of being a prankster, as he studied the reaction of his target) did have an uncomforting aspect of cruelty to it, at times.

    There was one episode related by Conrad that particularly bothered me, and this has nothing to do with Flynn’s humour. It occured after the actor and the writer had visited “Boston House,” the actor’s Jamaican estate that was maintained by black servants and groundskeepers in his absence from it (which was most all the time).

    Conrad was present when Flynn contacted his attorney to inform him that he was going to close the house, and to let all the staff go (this was shortly after a visit there in which he didn’t provide a clue to any of the workers that anything was about to happen to them, all of them working on minimum wages).

    Part of Conrad’s recollection of the dialogue that he overheard from the actor could have been spoken by the cold blooded executive of a corporation today in charge of “downsizing” his work force.

    “Louise has been with you a long while, ever since you first arrived here.”

    “I know. She will have to go,” Flynn replied.

    “Where will they go?”

    “That is their problem.”

    “When do you wish this taken care of?”

    “Right away.”

    Then, at the last moment, Flynn thought of the pimento wine on his estate that he loved, and the ice that he loved with it. Thinking of the fact that he might visit the estate some time to sample the wine, he then asked the attorney to retain one of the men so that he could keep the ice box well stocked.

    Somehow I couldn’t help but think of Mel Brooks’s “It’s good to be the King” line when I read that, except that in Brooks’s case, it was funny.

    And, as a clear illustration of Flynn’s contradictory personality, Conrad recounts an incident in which he saw the actor crack a rock down hard on the head of a barking, potentially vicious dog leaping up behind a fence, enough to knock the dog out (maybe do worse than that) before the actor and writer then quickly ran away from the scene. And this was done by Flynn, a man who had loved dogs all his life.

    Now these are two incidents of some of the worst of the actor revealed in the book, and perhaps it’s unfair of me to emphasis only that. Because it’s also apparent that by the end of the book Conrad genuinely liked Flynn, exasperating as this man was who seemed to live at times by deliberately courting death.

    Flynn remains a fascinating contradictory puzzle, one that the actor himself clearly didn’t fully understand.

  5. Hi Sarah. Great of you to join into the conversation.

    And you quite beautifully captured the complexity of trying to analyze the character of Flynn, and the continuing puzzlement of trying to understand how a person who could so wonderfully personify the essence of the gallant romantic adventurer on screen (and surely much of that must be a reflection of the man himself) could, at the same time, have indulged in such unsavory behaviour during his youth as, for example, slave trading.

    Conrad wrote in his book that Flynn’s great grandfather on his mother’s side had also been a “blackbirder,” a euphemism for enforced labour recruitment. That doesn’t excuse Errol for doing the same thing, of course, but it does provide a reminder of his own family history, perhaps making it somehow seem more acceptable to a young man looking for methods of survival in a brutal wilderness occupied by Stone Age people.

    Few of us with our 2014 sensitivities know what it is like to scratch for survival in a variety of jobs in a primitive land like New Guinea where only the strongest survive. That period was the key formative one of Flynn’s life, having every bit as much of an impact upon his character as did his hostile relationship with his mother, and sense of abandonment, at times, by his parents.

    I’ll say this much for Flynn. In composing his autobiography with Earl Conrad he was honest enough to admit to much of his larcenous and downright illegal behaviour, fully knowing in doing so that he would be deemed wanting on the morality scale by many. Perhaps that was because his fierce independence was such that he didn’t much care what most others thought about him, so long as they were judging him by his true misdeeds (and not those invented by some journalist).

    That, as you pointed out, Flynn was a highly intelligent, even analytical man, who still made these often unsavory decisions in life, based on a looser sense of morality than many others have (a morality, again, largely formulated in the jungles of a hostile small island), is a source of disappointment to most admirers of him, of course. But he’s such a complex being, and I see so much in the way of positive virtues that he obviously possessed, making him so unique in so many ways, that it makes it impossible for me to merely dismiss him as a “sleazebag.”

    1. Hi Tom — thanks. I want to reply to you, but I have to think about it a bit.

      Robert, sorry. I should have mentioned that I read your book and enjoyed it hugely. Extremely interesting, with a new twist, and pics, and info, and even ghosts. Hard to top.

      The caption about the trial didn’t really upset me. It was just the last straw for me after having read several biographies, with the slave-trading,and Earl Conrad saying that “Errol never hurt anyone but himself”, and Jeff Meyers defending him even after printing Nora and Beverly’s accounts of rape, that sent me over the edge.

      No, I didn’t mean to single you out. I tried to find Jeff Meyers, but couldn’t. I’m sorry.

      1. On the contrary, Sarah, I’m glad you tracked me down and started quite the bit of soul-searching all ’round. And as I predicted, no one angrily rushed to Errol Flynn’s defense. There are other sites where that would be the outcome, but not at my little Algonquin Roundtable.

    2. Hi again, Tom. I want to reply to you even though I’m so tired I can’t think very clearly. But I don’t want to put it off any longer.

      We seem to agree more than we disagree. The difference being how much weight we give to Flynn’s immoral or maybe amoral behavior.

      I don’t think that characterizing him as a sleazebag, overall, is the same as “dismissing him as a ‘sleazebag.’ ” To me, it means that, after considering all his behavior, I think the “sleaziness” of his actions outweighs the many positive qualities he possessed. Maybe that’s the same thing as “dismissing him as a sleazebag”, but I don’t see it that way.

      Yes, he did have to find a way to survive in New Guinea. It’s not just a story of needing to survive, though. His quote in WWW was telling. Near the end of the book he says, (about the slave-trading) : “it just goes to show you what a hard and desperate man will do to survive and get on.”

      The key words here, to me, are “get on.” It was NOT just a matter of survival for him. He wanted to get rich. That was his goal from the beginning in going to New Guinea. Which brings up another point: he didn’t HAVE to go to New Guinea. He wasn’t just thrown there and had to find a way to survive. He went there because he didn’t like having regular jobs that paid a wage for actual, slogging, work. He preferred making a bundle by swindling people. He says as much in WWW. (Or maybe it was Earl Conrad repeating that idea in his memoir.) Anyway, he did say it.

      Another point to me is that blackbirding was made illegal in 1909 by the Australian government. This tells me that the practice was not a universally accepted cultural norm. The government at least recognized that it was wrong. Of course, popular opinion doesn’t change overnight, but the fact that it was illegal tells me that attitudes were changing. Flynn simply did not have to do it to survive.

      I can cut him more slack based on the idea that he was such a damaged person. On the other hand, I know of a lot of abused, damaged people who don’t resort to things as bad as slave-trading.

  6. After watching Dodge City last night on my new big screen TV and finding myself completely taken in again by Flynn’s charm and portrayal of someone intent on promoting justice and defending the innocent, I find myself fascinated with the discrepancy between who the actor was and the image he portrayed. On the one hand, a troubled, angry, selfish, and occasionally cruel man — on the other, a hero of devastating charm, tremendous courage, and a passion for justice. Also, I thought about our association as humans of the ideas of goodness with beauty. I remember watching The Dawn Patrol once with my father, and my father said, “You couldn’t believe that someone with such a face could do anything wrong.” In a couple of the extreme closeups last night, I felt the same way — willing to believe everything good, and if there was wrong anywhere, willing to forgive all. But beauty and goodness aren’t the same, nor is the role and the person who portrays it. Dismissing Flynn as a “sleazebag” is something I’m not capable of doing, but I need to remove the rose-colored glasses once the movie is over.

    1. I had much the same experience last evening with Dodge City, Rosemarie, thanks to the thought-provoking emails and comments of our new friend Sarah M. There was Wade Hatton fighting for truth, justice, and the American way as portrayed by a Tasmanian/Aussie not yet 30 years old when the cameras rolled and already quite the sinner. It didn’t add up and it doesn’t add up that this guy could channel this other guy. I thought about it a lot as Dodge City unspooled, just as you did. And like you, I found no answers. He’s the same enigma he always is; it’s only my perspective that’s liable to change as I live more and he doesn’t.

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