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The Wicked, Wicked Ways of Errol Flynn

I particularly detest books that begin something like, “Ah, there was joy and happiness in the quaint Tasmanian home of Professor Flynn when the first bellowings of lusty little Errol were heard…”  So if you are interested, let’s get down to the meat of the matter.

So begins My Wicked, Wicked Ways, the jaw-dropping 1959 autobiography by Errol FlynnPosthumous autobiography, it turned out:  Flynn died at age 50 on a stranger’s bedroom floor in Canada before his finished book could be published.

At the time, Flynn was in the midst of something like a comeback, having been recalled to Hollywood to play a succession of dissipated drunks and lechers — roles Flynn admits he was suited for by type.  Before that he had been in exile in Europe after a series of legal hassles, bad business deals, feuds with studio heads, and a change in public tastes.

Photo of Robin Hood

And before THAT he was Hollywood’s handsomest star and its biggest scoundrel, the fun-loving natural who did his own stunts, the swashbuckler who thrilled audiences in Captain Blood and The Adventures of Robin Hood, and the womanizer whose lust for young women led to a 1943 statutory rape trial that Flynn survived only by the skin of his teeth and the dimple of his chin.

The release of the latest Robin Hood film (in which Russell Crowe turns the jolly scalawag into a morose mercenary) seemed like a good time to read up on Errol Flynn, whose 1938 Robin Hood has been the gold standard for years.  So last month I picked up My Wicked, Wicked Ways from Cincinnati’s always-magnificent Mercantile Library.

The hardcover binding is nearly worn out — a heavily-read book, though the last checkout stamp in the front reads “Sep 30 ’76.”  The title is Flynn’s winking quote from an old ditty:

“Come, all you young men with your wicked wicked ways,
Sow your wild wild oats in your younger days…”

Flynn starts out with a tale on himself at age 44 — getting suckered and bankrupted by Italian financiers after he had quit his contract with Warner Brothers Studios and sunk a half-million dollars into his own independent production of William Tell.  While dealing with the lost half-million, Flynn finds out that his business manager, recently dead of a heart attack, has been swindling him for years. (“Tell Errol I am sorry” were the manager’s last words.)  Flynn is well and truly broke.

Not for the first time, either. With this latter-day crash out of the way, Flynn takes the story back to his headstrong youth.  He was born in Tasmania and he was a devil from the start, getting kicked out of a succession of schools in Australia and England before running off to New Guinea at 18 to seek his fortune in the gold fields.

The stories Flynn tells in the next part of the book are more astonishing than even anything that follows in Hollywood.  He flops in the gold fields, runs plantations, captains cargo boats without knowing how to sail, works as a government sanitation officer (until getting sacked for loafing), gambles, hops freight trains, nearly starves, cheats at cock fighting, and seduces his way through woman after woman, most of them falling into one of two categories: beautiful young native girls, or beautiful young brides with husbands who aren’t too alert (although a few have guns).

Flynn also works for awhile on a sheep ranch in Australia, where he describes this astonishing technique for castration:

I was the newest man and had to begin at the bottom — the bottom of the sheep itself — literally.  I was one of four men in a line, an assembly belt for sheep shearing. The first man took the young hogget, as a young lamb was called, and he had to “dag” him; that is, he must get rid of the bluebottle flies and all the accumulated excreta around the tail.  This he did by holding the sheep in his left hand, and his right hand went in and “dagged” the sheep.  He grabbed a handful of the sheep’s [excrement], tossed it aside, and passed the sheep on to the man next to him.

The next man was me.

All I had to do was stick my face into this gruesome mess and bite off the young sheep’s testicles.  Dag a hogget. I had good teeth. I put my nose into this awful-smelling mess, my teeth solidly around the balls of the six-month-old sheep, and took a bite while I held him upside down.  My nose was in fur and ordure.  I bit and spat out the product into a pile of what they called prairie oysters.

…The sheep never let out a bleat.  You bit, you spat out something like a couple of olives, and passed it on. Every day I had my proportion of oysters. The bluebottle flies swarmed all over me.”

Eventually Flynn leaves the ranch on the run, not because of the work but because the rancher catches him in bed with the rancher’s daughter.  He also speaks frankly of working as a slaver of sorts in New Guinea: getting paid handsomely to trick young native men into working in the gold fields, where they are typically worked to death.  It’s a dark and terribly cruel story; Flynn seems to feel a bit of remorse, but not much. All in the run of business, old son!

During this stretch in his early 20s, out of the blue, a movie director sees Flynn working on a ship and hires him to come to Tahiti to play Fletcher Christian in a film about the mutiny on The Bounty.  It’s a clear harbinger of things to come, and yet after the film is done it takes another three or four years of wandering for Flynn to make it to America, begin his acting career, and become ERROL FLYNN.

But make it to Hollywood he finally does, and after a few small bit parts, his high-flying turn in Captain Blood (1935) makes him an instant success.

Alas, among his Hollywood tales Flynn has almost nothing to say about the 1938 filming of Robin Hood, barely mentioning it during a discussion of doing his own action scenes:

In The Adventures of Robin Hood I did all my own stunts. Dammit, I said to myself, I am not going to be a phony. The reason in back of it was that I had fear and I had to go out and meet my own fear. If I am afraid to do something I move in on it and try to tangle with it and lick it.

Later on I got wise to this business. As I lost interest in the vehicles I was cast in, I let the stunt men take over. Especially if there was swordplay.

Flynn is funny on the perils of doing stunts with other actors (“Anthony Quinn ran a sword through my doublet and I nearly lost an eye, and Tony felt worse about it than I did”), the perils of outré bars in Paris (“this left me at the table with several bulldykes, each one looking like a sparring partner for Sugar Ray Robinson”) and the perils of being stalked by paparazzi when headed for a riverboat assignation with a married girlfriend (“I caught this joker about twenty yards from the gangplank and pulled an old Aussie trick on him, stamping on his feet while I pushed him.”)

Photo of Errol Flynn

Errol Flynn in a publicity shot from the early 1950s.

And yes, the women.  Half the book is about women, and Flynn (thrice married) is blunt on the topic: “I have never married. I have been tied up with women in one legal situation after another called marriage, but they somehow break up.”

The great villain of Flynn’s book is his hot-blooded first wife, Lili, whom Flynn accuses repeatedly of draining him dry with lawsuits and alimony payments. Also, of cracking him over the head with a full Champagne bottle while they were still “happily” married, after which a reeling Flynn slugs her in the mouth before passing out. Jolly times!

Flynn also admits (more or less) to the charge of statutory rape with two different teenage girls, arguing that 1) he didn’t know they were under 18, 2) they were star-chasers, and 3) he didn’t know it was a crime anyway.  (“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 these things.”)

Maybe not, but rape was still the charge in the infamous 1943 trial that nearly put Flynn in jail for 20 years. The trial goes on for weeks, heavily covered by the newspapers, and in the middle of it, astonishingly, Flynn begins eyeing a teenage redhead who sells cigarettes in the courthouse lobby. He then invites her up to his house on the sly while the trial is still going on. Flynn doesn’t seem to think that’s too out of the ordinary.  “I carefully checked her age. She was eighteen, safe ground. Her name, it turned out, was Nora Eddington.  What I didn’t know was that her father was Captain Jack Eddington of the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Office.”

No matter! None of this would fly today, of course, but back then Flynn was acquitted, and Nora later became his second wife. (That marriage doesn’t work out so well, either.)

After the trial, Flynn posted this “neatly printed notice” on the door of his house:

LADIES: Kindly be prepared to produce your birth certificate and driver’s license and any other identification marks.

After which one of his pals scrawled, “Preferably on your thigh.”

The trial was a scare but turned out not so badly, according to Flynn: “I expected to be an object of ridicule, but the opposite surprisingly happened. My box-office appeal went up, and with one or two box-office successes I was completely restored in the Hollywood community.”  The episode also sparked the bawdy phrase “In like Flynn,” as the old scalawag himself notes with a certain pride.

Eventually the 1950s arrive, the studio system changes, Flynn falls out with Jack Warner, loses his shirt on the never-finished William Tell, and ends up living on his boat in Spain, doing little but swimming and drinking a bottle of vodka a day.  Then he makes his Hollywood comeback, writes this book, and dies.

It’s quite a tale.

Errol Flynn is a swell storyteller, and his flashes of frank talk give you the urge to believe everything he says.  It’s probably not wise. For instance, Flynn conveniently forgets to mention that while writing the book he was traveling the world with a 16-year-old girl he had started chasing when she was 15. Flynn was married at the time, of course, but in this book that hardly counts for anything.  The girlfriend, Beverly Fisher, died earlier this year and told her story to People magazine in 1988. (Read that interview for a full blast of Flynn-related nuttiness.)

Fisher was with Errol Flynn when he died in Vancouver while giving his sore back a break on the floor of the home of a friend of a friend.  She later married but remained Flynn’s ’til the end, a fact which even her husband admitted: “Ronald Fisher said his wife never stopped loving Flynn and told him once that ‘if [Flynn] was still around, I’d be with him.'”

Flynn’s death certificate listed his causes of death: “myocardial infarction, coronary thrombosis, coronary atherosclerosis, liver degeneration, liver sclerosis and diverticulosis of the colon.” A triumphant total breakdown! Flynn would have had it no other way.

Late in My Wicked, Wicked Ways, Flynn sums up:

“In brief, I like people. I like to enjoy the thrill of living every day, every hour of the day, for we are here only this once, and let’s feel the wind while we may.”

If you like biographies, Hollywood, or womanizing, here’s a remarkable read. Whatever his morals, Flynn felt the wind while he could.

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