Errol Flynn dark side

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.