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In Like Flynn

Errol Flynn: The Untold Story

by Charles Higham
Doubleday, 370 pp., $12.95

Stamped across Errol Flynn’s face on the cover of Errol Flynn: The Untold Story is a large red swastika. Inside, the author Charles Higham is visited by Flynn’s ghost, who congratulates him for slashing through a curtain of lies. “You know what?” says Flynn’s ghost in the prologue. “I don’t give a God damn. Where I am, there are no politics, no sex, no death, no contraband, no theft, no greed—though I’ve got to admit there are one hell of a lot of Nazis.” So even before the evidence has been spread upon the table, Errol Flynn is convicted of treason and sentenced to spend eternity swashbuckling in the company of Nazi ghouls.

To Higham, Flynn is a Nietzschean monster, embodying “the triumph of the senses over reason, of self-indulgence over sanity, of chaos over order.” Higham stresses that he has a personal stake in bringing Flynn before the tribunal of history. “I am partly Jewish; my childhood home was bombed by the Germans in World War II; I risked my life firefighting on a school rooftop as a boy of eleven in the Blitz.” Brave lad!

Higham’s séances and war reminiscences serve a sly purpose, however. Having churned out show-biz bios of Cecil B. DeMille, Ava Gardner, Katharine Hepburn, Charles Laughton, and Marlene Dietrich, Higham doesn’t want the reader to think that Errol Flynn is merely another waxwork for his Hollywood museum. By turning himself into a Nazi-hunter, Higham makes this book seem a stern, righteous quest, a one-man Judgment at Nuremberg. Errol Flynn: The Untold Story is a hack’s bold bid for respectability.

Though Higham seems to resent Flynn’s manly vigor (he snipes at him like a kid hiding behind a hedge with a slingshot), Flynn dominates the early chapters of the book with his rude, rapacious energy. Born in Australia in 1909, Flynn was a sassy terror who loved to box and swim and chase skirts.

He became fascinated with the daughter of the laundress, and found various places around the school to consummate his interest in her. Finally, he discovered an ideal spot: the coal pile in the cellar.

Late one night, he met the girl at the coal pile and they lay on top of it, energetically making love. It gave way beneath them and they rolled all the way to the bottom, becoming completely covered with coal dust in the process.

As they lay there coughing and sneezing, they heard a footstep on the stairs. A flashlight cast an arc through the darkness. The school nurse stood there, speechless with horror at the sight of the two naked black bodies on the floor. She rushed to the head teacher and got him out of bed. When she told him the name of the male culprit he said: “I’m not surprised. He just stole the slush fund for the tennis team.”

Slapstick episodes like these have the gritty flavor of Roderick Random, tossing us into a world of loose morals and narrow escapes. For a brief spell the book is an exotic picaresque: lepers stagger through the jungle; horses gallop by with rockets stuffed in their bums, sparks shooting beneath their tails; and in a small New Britain village, twenty-two-year-old Flynn meets a man in khaki gear and thick glasses who (claims Higham) forever twists his life—Dr. Hermann Friedrich Erben.

In a photograph reproduced between pages 86 and 87, Dr. Erben—bearded, bespectacled—is shown clutching a pair of tiny Rhesus monkeys. He looks like the sort of stuffy academic crank Groucho Marx made sport of in Horse Feathers, but he was purportedly “one of the most important and ingenious Nazi agents of the twentieth century” (nineteenth-century Nazi agents being too clumsy to cut the snuff). Relying on declassified intelligence reports Higham traces Erben’s career from his membership in the Nazi Party in 1922 to his espionage missions in Spain, Panama, New York. Even by Higham’s own account, Erben was a bellicose loudmouth who kept blowing his own cover. Traveling on the freighter West Mahwah in 1936-37, Erben contemptuously wiped his hands on the American flag and wore a Hitler mustache to advertise his loyalty to the Reich. Three years later, he was ejected from a Civilian Conservation Corps camp in Fort Moultrie, South Carolina, for being such a conspicuous admirer of Adolf Hitler. “As he departed, he remarked to someone in the camp that ‘there is so little to spy on here it isn’t worth staying.’ “

Not a man of stealth and quiet insinuation, this Dr. Erben, and everyone within earshot seems to have pegged him for a Nazi symp as soon as he began to spout. So how did he elude capture? Higham’s thesis: Erben’s good friend Errol Flynn interceded with Mrs. Roosevelt, who in turn put pressure on J. Edgar Hoover to stop the harassment. United by a loathing of Jews and a longing for adventure, Flynn and Erben collaborated to serve the Nazi cause through espionage—or so Higham argues. Does he make his case? Not convincingly. Even though Flynn’s 1937 autobiographical novel Beam Ends was banned in Nazi Germany, Flynn does seem to have trafficked in anti-Semitic abuse harmonious with the attitudes of the Nazi hierarchy. Michael Freedland writes in The Two Lives of Errol Flynn: “With a crowd of male cronies surrounded by a mount of empty brandy bottles, he let off steam about a gentleman who was always one kind of bastard or another, but invariably a Jewish one. ‘Jew’ became a term of abuse as vitriolic from his lips as any of his other expletives.” And Erben is certainly the sort of lying rogue who would appeal to a lying rogue like Flynn.

But boneheaded friendships and boneheaded Jew-baiting don’t necessarily make one a traitor. A lot of actors and directors in Hollywood felt thwarted by the whims of Jewish producers, expressing their frustrations through anti-Semitic cracks. Even a tartly entertaining Hollywood novel like Carroll and Garrett Graham’s Queer People (1930) unsettles some readers with its satirical jabs at studio bosses named Moe Fishbein, Jacob Schmalz, and Israel Hoffberger. True, Flynn’s trip to Spain with Erben in 1937 is a fishy venture, but Higham fails to persuade the reader (this reader, anyway) that they conspired to obtain “photographs, names and addresses” of German soldiers fighting for the Loyalists against Franco. Higham reports that Erben made “an astonishing confession” about this mission to the State Department’s Passport Division in 1938, and “astonishing” may indeed be an apt word. Erben was such a self-glorifying fraud that the “confession” could easily have been just another blast of hot air.

Higham’s other major find is even flimsier. He argues that Flynn’s 1941 film Dive Bomber featured footage of the San Diego Naval Base and the aircraft carrier Enterprise that was lethally useful to the Japanese. “Dive Bomber, with all of its graphic portrayal of secret installations and aircraft carrier decks, was shipped, as Errol undoubtedly hoped, direct to Japan.” Thomas Hoving, reporting in the ABC “newsmagazine” “20/20” on March 13, labels this charge “nonsense”: “[E]xamination of all available versions of the film, and of the film’s detailed production notes, has turned up no evidence to support the claim.” Evidence is indeed often difficult to come by in Errol Flynn: The Untold Story, not only because so many of the informants are conveniently dead,1 but because nothing is footnoted. Doubleday, which doesn’t hesitate to brand Errol Flynn as a Nazi traitor in its advertising, didn’t even bother to equip the book with an index.

Sex and betrayal are Higham’s twin themes. When not aiding the German war effort, Flynn was busy bedding down with the famous and the obscure, the straight and the bent. The funniest remark about Flynn’s sexual appetites comes not from the book but from the “20/20” broadcast: Jane Chesis, who worked as Flynn’s secretary in 1953, told Hoving, “I never knew what I’d find him with, a young girl, a young boy, or a tricycle, or what.” Having read a number of other books on Flynn’s life, including Flynn’s own rascally memoir My Wicked, Wicked Ways, I became rather bored following Flynn’s phallus once again from this nook to that cranny, yet some of Higham’s detours are, to put it kindly, diverting. As proof of Flynn’s bisexual tendencies, Higham cites the testimony of Truman Capote, who says that as a faun of eighteen he spent an amorous evening with Flynn in his Gramercy Park walk-up. “Years later, Marilyn Monroe asked Truman whether he enjoyed it. He shrugged. ‘If it hadn’t been Errol Flynn, I wouldn’t even have remembered it,’ he said.”

Well, now: Didn’t it occur to Higham that Capote, who counts Albert Camus and André Gide among his conquests, might be giving his leg a tug? In Gore Vidal’s review of Tennessee Williams’s Memoirs (NYR, February 5, 1976; reprinted in Matters of Fact and of Fiction), he writes, “That summer [1948] Capote arrived in Paris where Tennessee and I were staying at the Hôtel de l’Université…, and Capote would keep us entranced with mischievous fantasies about the great. Apparently, the very sight of him was enough to cause lifelong heterosexual men to tumble out of unsuspected closets. When Capote refused to surrender his virtue to the drunken Errol Flynn. ‘Errol threw all my suitcases out of the window of the Beverly Wilshire Hotel!’ ” So Capote did/didn’t sleep with Errol Flynn in Gramercy Park/Beverly Wilshire…of such conundrums squirrel-scholarship is made. Higham blithely accepts Capote’s testimony because he’s such a trusting soul; he believes everything he’s told, and generously shares his confidences with us. Along with Capote, Flynn’s male lovers supposedly include Tyrone Power and (the evidence is even iffier here) Howard Hughes. As the Famous Names parade like elephants across the page, you feel as if you’re trapped at some ghastly run-through of Ragtime II.

Plod, plod; plod. Once again Flynn’s trial for statutory rape is given the full treatment, once again racy anecdotes about John Barrymore and The Adventures of Don Juan are dutifully trotted out. Speculation is piled upon speculation, and in its smearing of fact and fiction, in its willingness to entertain the most sordid possibilities,2 Errol Flynn dimly but unmistakably echoes Norman Mailer’s Marilyn. Just as Mailer added a postscript to the paperback edition of Marilyn bolstering his contention that Monroe was murdered, Higham has announced plans to add new material to his forthcoming paperback. In an interview published in the March 18 Washington Post, Higham said that he had new information linking Flynn’s Nazi past with a blackmail scheme concocted by Caryl Chessman’s cellmate. Caryl Chessman!—another name to add to the cast of Ragtime II. (Perhaps the final scene of Ragtime II should take place in purgatory, with Errol Flynn and Marilyn Monroe swapping stories about Truman Capote. “He said what?…”)

Mailer, happily, has other obsessions to pursue; the truly terrible thing about Charles Higham’s factoid-saga is that it threatens to go on and on and on. The book itself is a stagnant pool (scum above, brine below) with Higham dunking the reader under every time he struggles to the surface. Rape, murder, blow-jobs, bloody dildos, cockfights, hemorrhoids, alcoholism, syringes, slashed wrists, runaway tricycles—Errol Flynn: The Untold Story almost makes Kenneth Anger’s Hollywood Babylon seem like a work of distant innocence. It’s keyhole-peeping porn, written by a man whose mind has turned to pulp.

  1. 1

    One example. “My correspondent in London, Roy Moseley, asked Willi Frischauer, authority on the subject of espionage and naval history, whether he knew that Flynn was a spy for Germany. Frischauer replied that he did and added, ‘Come and see me tomorrow. This is very dangerous territory….’ Next day, Frischauer was dead, apparently a suicide” (page 5).

  2. 2

    Page 288: “In a strange roman à clef, The Deal, [director William] Marshall described a horrifying episode in which Errol raped a girl with a dildo, leaving her to bleed to death in her apartment, during the shooting of the picture. Today, he asserts that this was a true story; that Errol only escaped the guillotine because of his outrageous lies and his great fame.” Higham doesn’t bother following up on Marshall’s gruesome accusation.

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