Hand color tinted photo of Errol Flynn from the 1938 movie, The Adventures of Robin Hood
Errol Leslie Flynn (20 June 1909 – 14 October 1959) was an Australian film actor, known for his romantic swashbuckler roles in Hollywood films and his flamboyant lifestyle.
Background and early life
Errol Flynn was born in Hobart, Tasmania, where his father, Theodore Thomson Flynn was a lecturer (1909), and professor (1911) of biology at the University of Tasmania (UTAS). His mother was born Lily Mary Young, however she dropped the first names ‘Lily Mary’ shortly after she was married, and changed her name to ‘Marelle’ instead. Flynn described his mother’s family as “seafaring folk,” and this appears to be where his life-long interest in ships and the sea originated. Despite Errol’s claims, the evidence indicates that he was not descended from any of the Bounty mutineers. Married at St John’s Church of England, Balmain North, Sydney, on 23 January, 1909, both of his parents were native-born Australians of Irish, English and Scottish descent, with convict links to Tasmania long before Errol’s birth. Flynn went to Sydney, New South Wales in 1926, attending Sydney Church of England Grammar School (Shore School) where he was the classmate of future Australian Prime Minister, John Gorton. He was expelled for fighting and, allegedly, having sex with a school laundress. He was also expelled from several other schools he attended in Tasmania. At the age of 20, he moved to New Guinea, where he bought a tobacco plantation, a business which failed. A copper mining venture in the hills near the Laloki Valley, behind the present national capital, Port Moresby, also failed.
In the early 1930s, Flynn left for the United Kingdom and, in 1933, snagged an acting job with the Northampton repertory company at the town’s Royal Theatre, where he worked for seven months. He also performed at the 1934 Malvern Festival and in Glasgow and London’s West End.
In 1933, he starred in the Australian film In the Wake of the Bounty, directed by Charles Chauvel, and in 1934 appeared in Murder at Monte Carlo, produced at the Warner Bros. Teddington Studios, UK. This latter film is now considered a lost film. During the filming of Murder at Monte Carlo, Flynn was discovered by a Warner Brothers executive, signed to a contract and immigrated to America as a contract actor. In 1942, Flynn became a naturalised citizen of the United States.
Flynn was an overnight sensation in his first starring role, Captain Blood (1935). Quickly typecast as a swashbuckler, he followed it with The Adventures of Robin Hood (1938), The Dawn Patrol (1938) with his close friend David Niven, Dodge City (1939), The Sea Hawk (1940) and Adventures of Don Juan (1948).
Trained in fencing by Bob Anderson, as featured in the film Reclaiming The Blade, Errol Flynn became noted for his fast-paced sword fights as seen in The Adventures of Robin Hood, The Sea Hawk and Captain Blood.
Flynn co-starred with Olivia de Havilland in eight films;
Captain Blood (1935)
The Charge of the Light Brigade (1936)
The Adventures of Robin Hood (1938)
Four’s a Crowd (1938)
Dodge City (1939)
The Private Lives of Elizabeth and Essex (1939)
Santa Fe Trail (1940), and
They Died with Their Boots On (1941)
While Flynn acknowledged his attraction to her, film historian Rudy Behlmer’s assertions that they were romantically involved during the filming of Robin Hood (see the Special Edition of Robin Hood on DVD, 2003) have been disputed by de Havilland. In an interview for Turner Classic Movies, she said that their relationship was platonic, mostly because Flynn was already married to Lili Damita. The Adventures of Robin Hood was Flynn’s first film in Technicolor.
During the shooting of The Private Lives of Elizabeth and Essex (1939), Flynn and co-star Bette Davis quarrelled off-screen, causing Davis to allegedly strike him harder than necessary while filming a scene. Although their relationship was always strained, Warner Bros. co-starred them twice. Their off-screen relationship was later resolved. A contract was even drawn up to lend them out for the roles of Rhett Butler and Scarlett O’Hara in Gone with the Wind, but that prospect failed to materialize.
Flynn was a member of the Hollywood Cricket Club with David Niven. His suave, debonair, and devil-may-care attitude toward both ladies and life has been immortalized in the English language by author Benjamin S. Johnson as, “Errolesque,” in his treatise on the subject, An Errolesque Philosophy on Life.
After America entered World War II, Flynn was often criticised for his failure to enlist while continuing to play war heroes in films. Flynn, in fact, had attempted to join every branch of the armed services, but was rejected for health reasons. The studios’ failure to counter the criticism was due to a desire to hide the state of Flynn’s health. Not only did he have an enlarged heart, which had already resulted in at least one heart attack, but he also suffered from tuberculosis, a painful back (for which he self-medicated with morphine and later, with heroin), and recurrent bouts of malaria which he had contracted in New Guinea.
By the 1950s, Flynn had become a parody of himself. Heavy alcohol and drug abuse left him prematurely aged and bloated, but he won acclaim as a drunken ne’er-do-well in The Sun Also Rises (1957), and as his idol John Barrymore in Too Much Too Soon (1958). His autobiography, My Wicked, Wicked Ways, was published shortly after his death and contains humorous anecdotes about Hollywood. According to one literary critic, the book “remains one of the most compelling and appalling autobiographies written by a Hollywood star, or anyone else for that matter”. Flynn wanted to call the book In Like Me, but the publisher refused. In 1984, CBS produced a television film based on Flynn’s autobiography, starring Duncan Regehr as Flynn.
Flynn starred in a 1956 anthology series The Errol Flynn Theatre that was filmed in England where he presented the episodes and sometimes appeared in them.
Flynn and Beverly Aadland met with Stanley Kubrick to discuss appearing together in Lolita. His adventure novel Showdown, was published in 1946. His first book, Beam Ends was published in 1937.
Private life, family and death
Flynn had a reputation for his womanizing, consumption of alcohol and brawling. His freewheeling, hedonistic lifestyle caught up with him in November 1942 when two under-age girls, Betty Hansen and Peggy Satterlee, accused him of statutory rape. A group was organized to support Flynn, named the American Boys’ Club for the Defense of Errol Flynn (ABCDEF); its members included William F. Buckley, Jr. The trial took place in January and February 1943, and Flynn was cleared of the charges. The incident served to increase his reputation as a ladies’ man, which led to the popular phrase “in like Flynn”, the phrase being later parodied in the James Coburn comedy spy film In Like Flint.
Marriages and family
Flynn was married three times: to actress Lili Damita from 1935 until 1942 (one son, Sean Flynn, born 1941, died Cambodia, 1971); to Nora Eddington from 1943 until 1949 (two daughters, Deirdre born 1945 and Rory born 1947); and to actress Patrice Wymore from 1950 until his death (one daughter, Arnella Roma, 1953-1998). In Hollywood he tended to refer to himself as Irish rather than Australian (his father Theodore Thomson Flynn had been a biologist and a professor at the Queen’s University of Belfast in Northern Ireland during the latter part of his career). Flynn lived with Wymore in Port Antonio, Jamaica in the 1950s. He was largely responsible for developing tourism to this area, and for a while owned the Titchfield Hotel which was decorated by the artist Olga Lehmann. He also popularised trips down rivers on bamboo rafts.
In the late 1950s Flynn met and courted the 15-year-old Beverly Aadland at the Hollywood Professional School, casting her in his final film, Cuban Rebel Girls (1959). According to Aadland, he planned to marry her and move to their new house in Jamaica, but during a trip together to Vancouver, British Columbia, he died of a heart attack.
His only son, Sean, an actor and later a noted war correspondent, disappeared in Cambodia in 1970 during the Vietnam War while working as a freelance photojournalist for Time magazine; he was presumed dead, etc. in 1971 by the Khmer Rouge. Officially declared dead in 1984, by his mother Lily and his only son, Randolph, now living in New York under a different name (Richmond Chandler, Chandler)and out of the spotlight, Sean’s remains have never been discovered. Sean’s life was recounted in Inherited Risk by Jeffrey Meyers (Simon & Schuster) and he is also mentioned on page 194 in the Colleagues section of Dispatches by Michael Herr. Flynn’s daughter Rory has one son, Sean Rio Flynn, named after her half-brother. He is an actor. Rory Flynn has written a book about her father entitled The Baron of Mulholland.
Flynn flew with Aadland to Vancouver on 9 October 1959, to lease his yacht Zaca to millionaire George Caldough. On 14 October, Caldough was driving Flynn to the airport when Flynn felt ill. He was taken to the apartment of Caldough’s friend, Dr. Grant Gould, uncle of pianist Glenn Gould. A party ensued, with Flynn regaling guests with stories and impressions. Feeling ill again, he announced “I shall return” and retired to a bedroom to rest. A half hour later Aadland checked in on him and discovered him unconscious. Flynn had suffered a heart attack. According to the Vancouver Sun (16 December 2006), “When Errol Flynn came to town in 1959 for a week-long binge that ended with him dying in a West End apartment, his local friends propped him up at the Hotel Georgia lounge so that everyone would see him.” The story is a myth; following Flynn’s death, his body was turned over to a coroner who performed an autopsy, and released his body to his next of kin.
Errol Flynn is interred in Forest Lawn Memorial Park Cemetery, in Glendale, California. He shares coffin space with six bottles of whiskey, a parting gift from his drinking buddies. Both of his parents survived him.
In 1961, mother Florence Aadland wrote The Big Love, a book detailing Flynn’s sexual relationship with her 15-year-old daughter, Beverly. It was later made into a play starring Tracey Ullman.
In 1980, author Charles Higham published a controversial biography, Errol Flynn: The Untold Story, in which he alleged that Flynn was a fascist sympathizer who spied for the Nazis before and during World War II. The book also alleged he was bisexual, and had affairs with several men including Tyrone Power, Howard Hughes and Truman Capote. That Flynn was bisexual was also claimed by David Bret in Errol Flynn: Satan’s Angel, although Bret denounced the Nazi claims.
He was previously accused of sympathising with Hitler based on his association with Dr Hermann Erben, an Austrian who served in the German military intelligence. Declassified files held by the CIA show that, in an intercepted letter in September 1933, Flynn wrote to Erben: “A slimy Jew is trying to cheat me . . . I do wish we could bring Hitler over here to teach these Isaacs a thing or two. The bastards have absolutely no business probity or honour whatsoever.”
Subsequent biographies — notably Tony Thomas’ Errol Flynn: The Spy Who Never Was (Citadel, 1990) and Buster Wiles’ My Days With Errol Flynn: The Autobiography of a Stuntman (Roundtable, 1988) — have rejected Higham’s claims as pure fabrication. Flynn’s political leanings, say these biographies, appear to have been leftist: he was a supporter of the Spanish Republic in the Spanish Civil War and of the Cuban Revolution, even narrating a documentary titled Cuban Story shortly before his death. Flynn defended his visit to Cuba in an appearance on a Canadian Broadcasting Company television game show early in 1959. According to his autobiography, he considered Castro a close personal friend and drinking partner.