Errol & Olivia by Robert Matzen

Juicy 2: A Shot Across the Bow


Errol & Olivia by Robert Matzen

Olivia may seem to be at rest in this shot taken around the time of the Huston affair, but she never really was.

So where were we? Oh that’s right, in the middle of a love triangle between Errol Flynn, Olivia de Havilland, and John Huston. OdeH began it with Errol Flynn in 1941 after hot-blooded Frenchwoman Lili Damita had finally filed for divorce from in-like-Flynn. Livvie had told Errol point blank when he proposed to her in 1937 (big of him to propose while heavily married) that she wouldn’t do anything with him (think sex) while he was bound to Lili. Then nature took its course with Flynn and Damita over the next four years, leaving both Flynn and de Havilland at liberty during production of They Died with Their Boots On from July through September 1941. As much as Livvie would like you to believe that she and Errol didn’t do the horizontal tango, well, they were adults, beautiful, and known to be dating. She was going through a rough patch with her employer, Jack Warner, and Errol was an iconoclast and particularly supportive of her cause. Oh, and he had just seen completion of his bachelor pad up on Mulholland Drive, a place he had designed with pride as a sexual Mount Olympus. They were young, unattached co-workers who had been attracted to each other for years and now had their evenings free in a hideaway on top of a mountain. You do the math on that one.

Then something happened. Something bad. She found out something or he did something or she did something or she simply got too close and stared in the eye of the Flynn manbeast, but suddenly they were estranged at the beginning of 1942 as she began making her new picture with Bette Davis, In This Our Life. And then, as reported here last week, came the thunderbolt. Just after breaking up with Flynn she fell head over heels for John Huston and he for her. Well, no he didn’t. Huston was one of those bad boys you hear tell of. He loved ’em and left ’em, but by all accounts this guy could charm a gal right out of her panties and he did it all the time, right under the nose of his wife, Lesley. I’m telling you, John Huston, a not very handsome man with a nose that rambled all over his face, scored with the babes at all hours of the day. And who should be vulnerable rebound girl but OdeH when he began directing her in this new picture with Davis. (Note: As reported in Errol & Olivia, Livvie was a sucker for older authority figures, and Huston fit the bill to a T.)

Errol & Olivia by Robert Matzen

John Huston went to war and distinguished himself as a combat journalist, but it was also convenient to get away and let things cool off on the home front.

Scandal ensued because Livvie and John were bangin’ here, there, and everywhere, but Huston being Huston, he began to get a little uncomfortable falling under the scrutiny of a serious, highly intelligent, kinda nuts, powerhouse human like de Havilland, who suddenly had the idea they were soon to be Mr. and Mrs. So what did he do? He joined the army and got as far away as he could think to go, to the Aleutian Islands past Alaska proper, where there were no telephones, to make a documentary about the war being fought up there between the Americans and the Japanese. “I’m sorry, baby, I can’t call for two months. There aren’t any phones.”

Olivia de Havilland was a stand-up woman in 1942, and remains one today, a titan among humans, smart, funny, multi-talented. Did you know she can imitate a dog’s bark so well that she can converse with other dogs? Did you know she can sketch like a pro? She used to entertain cast and crew alike with these sidelights while, oh by the way, making enduring classic motion pictures and earning Academy Award nominations and statues.

As things always went with Mr. Huston, this lover was traded in for the next lover. Livvie and John went their separate ways, and she got a nice tour of the fiery pits of hell pining away for John Huston while she was blackballed from the motion picture industry by Jack L. Warner and then almost died of viral pneumonia while entertaining the troops on Fiji Island in 1944. It was rough for Livvie, while Huston didn’t miss a beat.

Errol & Olivia by Robert Matzen

Nora and Errol Flynn participate in the Victory ball not long after the memorable evening with John Huston.

CUT TO APRIL 29, 1945. There’s a party at the home of David and Irene Selznick, and Errol and wife Nora are invited, as is John Huston. Both Errol and John were three-fisted drinkers and half in the bag when they edged within earshot, and Flynn in his wisdom decided to fire a shot across Huston’s bow. Neither would ever dare repeat what he said at that critical moment, but the subject was whom-was-Livvie-with-and-when. I’m pulling my punches here, but Flynn didn’t when he stated it one drunk to another.

As reported in Errol & Olivia, Flynn’s shot-across-the-bow hit Huston right in the crotch, which is where John kept his ego. “That’s a lie,” he spat. “Even if it wasn’t a lie, only a sonofabitch would repeat it.”

I love Errol’s response. It’s so him: “Go fuck yourself.”

Bombed though they were, both knew not to wreck the home of David O. Selznick, so they took it outside to a gravel drive down at the bottom of Selznick’s garden, where two former real-life prizefighters practiced the sweet science on each other’s faces. Huston must have underestimated Flynn’s skill because with one straight left jab, Huston was down to his knees.

And here’s where we’ll leave the story until next time, when our little love triangle will reach its twelve-round conclusion.


Mission: Jimmy Stewart and the Fight for Europe by Robert Matzen

Coming in October: Mission: Jimmy Stewart and the Fight for Europe, with more tales of real-life Hollywood in the golden age, when truth was stranger than fiction.

Leslie and the Professor

Little-known fact: Joan Leslie got her start with a bit part in Garbo's Camille in 1936 at age 11.

Little-known fact: Joan Leslie got her start with a bit part in Garbo’s Camille in 1936 at age 11 under her real name, Jane Brodel.

Joan Leslie passed on last week at the age of 90. I met Joan only once for a brief conversation that I wish had been a whole lot less-brief given that her first picture under Warner Bros. contract was with Humphrey Bogart in High Sierra, and within two years she had appeared with Gary Cooper in Sgt. York (he won a Best Actor Oscar for it) and then with James Cagney in Yankee Doodle Dandy (he won a Best Actor Oscar for it as well). If you ask me, Joan Leslie helped these two legends win the big prize because she was that damn good.

How good was she? Well, when she played opposite Cooper she was 16 and he was 40, yet she was entirely credible as Coop’s girl. When she played opposite Cagney she was barely 17 and he was 42, but she was believable as his wife—the episodic storyline called for Joan to age 50 years as Mrs. George M. Cohan. In later scenes she was 17 playing 70, which for those times was kind of crazy. But the Oscars for her leading men in successive years don’t lie–this woman had talent. In fact she was a triple threat who could act, sing, and dance (with no less than Fred Astaire).

With Coop in Sgt. York at age 16 versus his 40. What a charmer as Gracie.

With Coop in Sgt. York at age 16 versus his 40. What a charmer as Gracie.

Errol Flynn Slept Here by Robert Matzen

Next year, with Cagney at age 17.

I get the feeling from the progression of her career and from speaking with her that Joan Leslie was a little too sane for Hollywood. One year after Olivia de Havilland took Jack L. Warner to court and gained freedom from her Warner Bros. contract, Leslie did the same thing. But while Livvie prospered from freedom and snagged two Best Actress Oscars in four years, Joan went to work for impoverished studios PRC and Eagle-Lion and ended up in obscurity. But it really didn’t matter to her so much because she married in 1950 and gave birth to twin girls soon thereafter. She made some minor pictures in the 1950s and did some TV all the way into the 1980s before calling it quits. By then, she had become a powerhouse in the fashion industry with her Joan Leslie line of women’s dresses.

Errol Flynn Slept Here by Robert Matzen

Just Errol’s type.

My meeting with Joan took place in 2008 while I was writing Errol Flynn Slept Here with Mike Mazzone. I asked for her recollections of Errol because they were under Warner contract at the same time in the 1940s. Boy did her eyes light up at the mention of the bad boy’s name. As related in EFSH, Joan wanted to meet Errol in the worst way, but since she was 15 when she signed and didn’t turn 18 until January 1943, the brass at Warner Bros. had to practically put her under guard to keep Flynn away. It was no secret he liked his women young; in fact, he was on trial for statutory rape when Joan finally did meet him. She had managed to give her handlers the slip at a party and felt a tap on her shoulder. She turned and there stood the king of adventure, smiling his dazzling, devilish smile. “Hi, I’m Errol Flynn,” he said and she told me that she sort of melted as she stood there. “Oh, I’ve been wanting to meet you for the longest time, Mr. Flynn!” she gushed. Encouragement was the last thing Flynn needed, but before he could deliver his next line, which presumably would have been something to the effect of, “How about we go someplace quiet where we can talk?” Joan’s bodyguards caught up with her and were, like, “No no no no no no,” and whisked her away to safety. I can imagine they used everything short of crucifixes and holy water to keep Flynn at bay during the rescue.

I asked Joan if they had met up again during their time at the studio, and she gave me a polite, enigmatic no. To this day I’m not sure if no really meant no.

Errol Flynn Slept Here by Robert Matzen

Now a free agent, Joan tried her hand at film noir with Repeat Performance.

A year and a half prior to her meeting with Flynn, Joan had nearly ended up as his co-star in They Died with Their Boots On. She was Hal Wallis’s backup plan for the role of Mrs. George Armstrong Custer if Olivia de Havilland wasn’t available to play the part. Mind you, Joan was all of 16 at the time, but considering her success in Sgt. York and Yankee Doodle, she would have done fine as Libby Custer. Not to mention the off-screen education she was sure to have received in the hands of Professor Errol Flynn.


Joan married Dr. William Caldwell in March 1950. The union would last 40 years until his death in 1990.