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Wednesday, June 24, 2009

Errol Flynn: First of the Hellraisers

Here's my piece from the Daily Express to commemorate the centenary of one of the all-time greats from the Golden Age of Hollywood- Errol Flynn. A man from Down Under, who, so they say, was pretty big Down Under too, if you get my meaning. Flynn was a man whose life was even more remarkable - and adventurous than any of his films. Above you can see Flynn taking part in the quiz show 'What's My Line' (video Norbert R33).

If you're looking for some good summer beach reading, then I can heartily recommend Flynn's autobiography, 'My Wicked Wicked Ways', which was completed shortly before his death in 1959. It's easily the most entertaining showbiz autobiography of all time, and also, for my money, the best written. What a shame that neither the BBC nor ITV saw fit to commemorate Flynn's centenary by showing some of his great swashbuckling films.

HE WAS once described as "probably the greatest symbol of masculinity and virility developed in the modern age".

Errol Flynn - born 100 years ago this week - found fame with his portrayals of swashbuckling heroes such as Robin Hood and Captain Blood yet his real life was even more adventurous than any of his films.

The original serial womanising, heavy-drinking, drug-taking hellraiser packed more into his 50 years than most would do in several lifetimes.

Born in Hobart, Tasmania, Flynn worked as a gold prospector in New Guinea before fleeing after being accused of murdering a native. He dodged bullets and bombs as a reporter in the Spanish Civil War; he was a skilled yachtsman; he relished brawling; he was a drinking partner of Fidel Castro; and there were also allegations that he was a Nazi spy.

Yet it is for his incredible sexual exploits that Flynn will most be remembered. He had, in the words of biographer David Bret, "a quite staggering appetite" for sex.

"I know if I touch the arm of a girl or woman who fires me I have got to go as far √łas she will let me, " he confessed. "In like Flynn" became a popular saying.

His obsession with sex was probably a reaction to his mother - whom he detested - trying to drill into him her belief that sex was "disgusting" and "dirty".

Flynn decided to have sex whenever he could and with whomever he fancied. He was 12 when he lost his virginity to his parents' maid, who was promptly dismissed.

From his early days Flynn was set upon a hedonistic approach to life.

"I believe I'm going to front the essentials of life to see if I can learn what it has to teach and, above all, not to discover when I come to die that I have not lived," he wrote in his journal at the age of 23.

But his sexual career could very nearly have come to a premature end when he was knifed by an irate rickshaw boy in Colombo, Ceylon. The knife narrowly missed emasculating him.

After becoming established in Hollywood Flynn soon assembled a coterie of close pals who joined in with his sexual adventures.

One was the young British actor David Niven, a co-member of the Hollywood Cricket Club.

The pair rented a house where they shared lovers, sometimes several in one night. Flynn was still married to his first wife at the time and would leave the orgies about twice a week to visit her.

Later Flynn and Niven shared another bachelor pad in Malibu, nicknamed "Cirrhosis-by-the-Sea" on account of the huge amounts of alcohol consumed.

Flynn also held sex, alcohol and cocainefuelled parties on his boat. Women would be shared between Flynn, the crew and friends.

His home at Mulholland Farm in the Hollywood Hills, where he moved in 1941, was designed with his favourite pastime in mind.

The bathroom was full of aphrodisiac potions. His bedroom had a huge circular mirror on the ceiling above the bed, as did the main guest room.

But what Flynn's guests didn't know was that the mirror was two-way so Flynn and his pals could enjoy watching their activities in the room above.

According to David Bret, Flynn's sexual conquests included men.

Bret claims one male lover was actor Ross Alexander, who played his sidekick in Captain Blood.

Another was Tyrone Power, who is said to have fallen passionately in love with Flynn but the affair floundered because for Flynn the relationship was purely physical.

Yet his alleged bisexuality was hotly disputed by his surviving wives and friends.

One actress who did not end up in his bed was Olivia De Havilland, his co-star in eight films.

This week the 92-year-old admitted she and Flynn did fall in love but "his circumstances at the time prevented the relationship from going further".

Flynn's shenanigans often landed him in trouble.

In 1942, in a case that stunned America, two underaged girls accused him of statutory rape. Robin Hood Accused Of Rape was one headline but Flynn was acquitted at trial.

"Rape to me meant picking up a chair and hitting some young lady over the head with it and having your wicked way.
I hadn't done any of those things, " he wrote.

Flynn's war record was also controversial. In a 1980 biography it was claimed he was a Nazi sympathiser who had spied for Germany while reporting on the Spanish Civil War and that he had wanted to enlist the IRA's support for the Axis cause.

The case rested on Flynn's close association with Austrian fascist Dr Herman Erben but no concrete evidence to support the claims has ever emerged.

On the contrary, in 2000 it was revealed that the Home Office possessed documents detailing how the actor offered to help Britain's security services.

Flynn had been keen to join up to fight in the war for the Allies but was ruled out on health grounds.

Even though still in his early 30s his hard-living had taken a heavy toll.

In 1941 he collapsed in an elevator and a specialist gave him only five years to live, telling him his heart and lungs were irreparably damaged. But Flynn refused to change his ways.

For a period in the early Forties he became addicted to opium, believing the drug would heighten his sexual pleasures.

In 1943 he married wife No2, redhead Nora Eddington, 20, who ran the tobacco kiosk at the Los Angeles courthouse and who had caught Flynn's eye when he had been on trial.

Flynn had no intention of becoming a faithful husband. He installed his wife - and new child - into a home of their own so he could continue his sexual adventures unhindered.

FLYNN explained: "This was the only way I would be married to anybody. Separate house, separate lives, separate people. The Christian concept of monogamy is to me nothing more than a travesty of human nature. It doesn't work, never will."

Flynn revelled in his reputation for being the world's most famous womaniser.

Co-star Robert Douglas recalled going to Flynn's dressing room and seeing the star naked in his armchair, with one woman on top of him and another waiting for her turn.

When Flynn's father visited Hollywood for the first time and turned up unannounced at his dressing room he was shocked to see his son making love to a naked young woman against the wall.

Yet Flynn's womanising and film success did not seem to bring lasting contentment.

"I could have anything money could buy. Yet I found that at the top of the world there was nothing. I was sitting at the pinnacle with no mountain under me".

As he approached his half-century Flynn was a physical wreck.

Bloated and overweight he was unrecognisable from the slim young actor. But there was still some adventure to come.

In 1959 Flynn travelled to Cuba to make a film on its revolution and befriended rebel leader Fidel Castro. "He will rank in history with some of the greats, " he predicted.

Even in his final years Flynn, now living in Jamaica, was still addicted to sex.

He embarked on a relationship with a 15-year-old blonde called Beverley Aadland, whom he called his Wood Nymph. He started writing his "'kiss and tell" autobiography My Wicked Wicked Ways (Flynn had wanted to call it In Like Me but the publisher refused).

His co-writer Earl Conrad was shocked that the actor would get pimps to supply him with under-aged native girls.
He would go upstairs for five to 10 minutes with them, then return to carry on with the writing.

Flynn died of a heart attack in October 1959 just four months after his 50th birthday.

True to form he was buried with six bottles of whisky in his coffin. Shortly before his death Conrad asked Flynn if he had any regrets. "Just the one, sport - that I never learned to play the piano".

Flynn was a man who lived the life he had set out to lead from an early age and accepted the consequences with magnanimity. There have been lots of Hollywood hellraisers but there was only one Errol Flynn.


Mrs. R said...

That business about Power is completely false.

In "No More Tomorrows" by Mai Zetterling, she spends a lot of time on her relationship with Tyrone Power, with whom she lived for several years. She was on the set of "The Sun Also Rises." Power told her that Flynn was okay when he wasn't drunk - which she never got to see. He also told her that Flynn's biggest problem in life was that he couldn't keep his hands off of underage girls.

Zetterling goes into some detail about Power and sex as does his assistant, Nora Sayre, in her book "On the Wing." While it's entirely possible (in fact likely) that he and his second wife indulged in threesomes, and it's also likely he had affairs with men, he never had an emotional relationship with a man, only with women.

Madam Miaow said...

Flynn was still married to his first wife at the time and would leave the orgies about twice a week to visit her.

I like a man who gets his priorities right.

Mrs R, Bob Monkhouse told an anecdote about how when he was a young greenhorn in showbiz he visited Power and was shocked to find himself invited into the bathroom where the star was taking a bath. Power leerily welcomed him to join him but Bob declined. I wonder if he did it with a stiff upper lip?

neil craig said...

"He was 12 when he lost his virginity to his parents' maid, who was promptly dismissed."

How things change. Nowdays she would either be arrested or able to sue for unfair dismissal. I'm not sure if the description "nanny state" is approriate in the circumstances.

Roland Hulme said...

Brilliant article, Neil. Great stuff.

Anonymous said...

So many women will just do anything to deny that a man can enjoy other men as much or more than a woman.

Anonymous said...

Yes, Virginia, Hollywood marriages are for the sake of publicity. Tyrone Power's nickname was "Miss Roundheels" because he could not refuse a man. He had a long-term relationship with Cesar Romero. Many of today's stars are in that same category. Wake up and drink the coffee.

Anonymous said...

Wait a minute. What do you mean, the First? Hollywood people have been raising hell since the 1920s! Didn't you know?

Anonymous said...

What a man,Mr Flynn...always thought him and Olivia deHavilland were the screen's most handsome couple,would not have worked out if the two got together offscreen,she demanded fidelity and well,we all know the story about Mr Flynn's adventures,sad but thanks for all their great films together.

May said...

Thank you for commemorate the one-of-kind and larger than life Errol Flynn. It is hard to know the beauty God created to be so self-destructive. It is harder to realize this talented actor has long been underrated and this delightful adventurer has been overlooked. I agreed his autobiography should be read by any one who wants to know what a fascinating figure this brightest star of 1930s and 1940s was.