Errol Flynn: Satan's Angel
We have apparently sunk to a level in our culture where almost anything can get published. A case in point is David Bret's work of fiction, ERROL FLYNN: SATAN'S ANGEL. This book is so poorly researched, amateurishly written, and lackadaisically edited, it is amazing that any reputable publisher would have the nerve to charge for it.
Guest review by L. D. Hurst
At the outset, however, there is SOME good news. The writer eschews Charles Higham's theories that Flynn was a Nazi (although he provides no new research to defuse the charges - relying entirely on William Donati and Tony Thomas). Also, it might be said, Bret has a flair for drama - the book is never boring. And most of his descriptions of Flynn's films - with some reservations - are reasonably well done.
That, unfortunately, is all the good news to be found in this seemingly endless procession of blunders, distortions, and outright lies about Errol Flynn. Having rejected Higham's Nazi allegations, the author takes his readers firmly by the scruff of the neck and flings them from the frying pan of 1930's Germany straight into the fire of total sexual perversion. David Bret's goal is clear from the beginning: to portray Errol Flynn as a sick, conscienceless pedophile and sexual predator who used people of both sexes mercilessly to slake his insatiable, selfish thirst for more and more sexual gratification. The number of men (including young boys) the allegedly bisexual Flynn had affairs with in this book is mind-boggling: Ross Alexander, "William Meade" (i.e. Jack Budlong), William Lundigan, Edmund Goulding, Bruce Cabot, Helmut Dantine, Tyrone Power, Rory Calhoun, and on and on and on. (Strangely, Truman Capote is left out - an oversight?) Between them, Flynn and screenwriter George Oppenheimer are said to have had sex with the entire male fencing academy in the 1949 "Adventures of Don Juan" (p. 149)!
This, of course, is just the most recent installment in the disturbing trend that has been dominating popular culture now for two decades: the bringing down of our national icons, demonizing them, smearing them with as much vile and unsupportable innuendo as the market will allow. And why not? These people cannot complain from the grave. Hence distortion, defamation, and outright lies that serve further to incite media bias are routinely accepted as that norm.
A particularly profitable area within this smear-industry has involved the allegation of bisexuality. Cary Grant, Randolph Scott, Robert Taylor, and Barbara Stanwyck are just a few of the names well-known in this connection. But with David Bret's latest contribution to yellow journalism, we are given two new ones: David Niven and Basil Rathbone. According to Bret, Niven was a practicing bisexual, while Rathbone's "sexual preference" is said to have been men. Along these lines an especially lewd comment is made in connection with Rathbone and Flynn on the set of "The Adventures of Robin Hood" (p. 69). Such an ugly and unfounded besmirching of the memory of Hollywood's most memorable screen villain, its greatest Sherlock Holmes, and one of its finest gentlemen is unforgivable.
ERROL FLYNN: SATAN'S ANGEL is a hack-job. And, as with most hack-jobs, it provides little or no documentation. The length and content of its clumsily-constructed bibliography of 22 items (pp. 256-7) is nothing short of bizarre, and demonstrates the author's lack of acquaintance with sound methods of biographical research. Of the 22 items listed, for example, only 10 relate specifically to Flynn. These are the works of Gerry Connelly, Earl Conrad, J. V. Cottom, Flynn himself (MY WICKED, WICKED WAYS and a 1937 PHOTOPLAY article, "What Really Happened to Me in Spain"), Michael Freedland, Charles Higham, and Tony Thomas (Flynn, incidentally, is wrongly credited as the author of FROM A LIFE OF ADVENTURE: THE WRITINGS OF ERROL FLYNN - it should be Tony Thomas, the editor who collected and introduced the various pieces by Flynn). Missing are the names of John Hammond Moore, William Donati (whose appendix to Buster Wiles' MY DAYS WITH ERROL FLYNN is one of the most crucial but least read sources on Flynn), Buster Wiles himself, Raoul Walsh, Vincent Sherman, Peter Stackpole, Lionel Godfrey, Josef Fegerl, Peter Valenti, and Don Norman.
It would appear that the works of these writers were not as crucial to the author's research as were such critical pieces of investigation as Kenneth Anger's HOLLYWOOD BABYLON, PARTS 1 & 2, Hector Arce's THE SECRET LIFE OF TYRONE POWER, Axel Madsen's THE SEWING CIRCLE, David Quinlan's QUINLAN'S FILM STARS, Amy and Irving Wallace's THE INTIMATE SEX LIVES OF FAMOUS PEOPLE (listed incorrectly as THE SECRET SEX LIVES OF FAMOUS PEOPLE), Martin Greif's THE GAY BOOK OF DAYS, and Paul Roen's HIGH CAMP: A GAY GUIDE TO CAMP & CULT FILMS. All of these are included in the bibliography.
The author, furthermore, gives no evidence of having interviewed anybody from Flynn's family or those who worked with him in his films. Nor, would it appear, has he taken the trouble to consult the Warner Brothers' studio memos housed in the archives in New Jersey and Southern California. Had he done so, he could not have related many of the perversely outlandish incidents that he claims took place on the sets of Flynn's films.
The author as well of a highly sentimental biography, MARLENE DEITRICH: MY FRIEND, Bret appears to rely heavily in this book on unsubstantiated statements about Flynn that his friend made to him over a period of years. One continually looks in vain for documentation and/or corroboration of the author's claims, and wonders where all the quotes come from, including many verbatim and highly salacious comments attributed to Flynn and others about male and female body parts. Wholesale fabrications abound. The time and place of events are shifted to suit the author's whims. Page after page routinely record highly suspicious dialogue to which the author could not possibly have been privy. Many conversations look as if they were invented out of whole cloth.
Because of his Adonis-like appearance and swashbuckling panache, Errol Flynn has for decades been an object of gay fascination (see, for instance, Neil Bartlett, "The Voyeur's Revenge: A Gay's Obsession of Errol Flynn," SIGHT AND SOUND , Vol. 2 [September, 1992], p. 41). In David Bret's hodge-podge of truth and fantasy, clearly intended to cater to this market, facts - when they are encountered at all - are little more than conveniences to serve the greater purpose of providing an exercise in titillation and voyeurism. Will some men buy and read this claptrap about Flynn for reasons that have nothing to do with the man Flynn really was? Undoubtedly.
These should not be seen as comments borne out of any form of homophobia. They arise out of a desire to find the historical truth. Many people would like to know what really happened. Was Flynn straight or bisexual? Those looking for an answer to this legitimate question, sadly, will not find it in David Bret's travesty of Errol Flynn's life. The book is so staggeringly incompetent it is also difficult to imagine how the cause of tolerance for gays and bisexuals will in any way be helped by it.
The dust jacket describes Flynn as, among other things, "a pervert and a lecher," and warns the readers that its contents are "not for the faint-hearted." This should immediately alert the public to the writer's agenda - to pack the book with as much salacious and prurient material (real or imagined) as possible - obviously to sell copies. It should, however, have read, "not for the weak-stomached." That Flynn made a disgustingly crude joke about his wife's most private body part (p. 81), that he liked to turn his back on Michael Curtiz in front of the entire cast and "loudly break wind" (something, we are told, the young Olivia de Havilland "appreciated," p. 42), that he enjoyed masturbating in omelettes which he then served to his guests (p. 159), or that he used mortuary instruments for cutlery ("I feel just like a corpse. Let's go eat one!" - p. 168), is nauseating, and is clearly meant to nauseate. But the nausea attaches to the writer of this farrago, not to Flynn. The suspicion is created that the person responsible for ERROL FLYNN: SATAN'S ANGEL may be a rather sick person.
Errol Flynn is a complex subject - a challenge to the most formidable historian or biographer. Writing the story of this man's life would involve reconstructing not only an extremely convoluted man, but a whole period of 20th-century history. Within his short span of 50 years, Errol Flynn managed to contain with him the emerging history of three continents, the burgeoning of the twentieth-century's most successful art-form, and still-debated questions of international security.
Such a huge canvas would make even the bravest biographer hesitant to take on the task. Researching Flynn's life would involve considerable travelling, interviewing, and long hours of library research. It would not be something undertaken casually or in haste, in the expectation that it could be done in a year or less. Also, a life of such notoriety and controversy would have to involve the constant checking and re-checking of sources in order to avoid misstatements of fact. The public has no way of knowing precisely how much time went into the making of David Bret's ERROL FLYNN: SATAN'S ANGEL. But if the number of mistakes in the book is any gauge, it could not have been terribly long.
Even a partial list of Bret's factual errors is appalling:
Throughout this exercise in biographical fiction, the reader is continually bombarded with such cases of fabrication, exaggeration, and distortion.
Errol Flynn's mother's name was never "Lily Marelle Young" (p. 1). It was Lily MaryYoung. After her marriage, she dropped "Lily" and changed "Mary" to "Marelle," allegedly because it was more "exotic."
Errol was fined ten pounds for hitting a Chinaman who called him by his surname, not thirty (p. 9 - or has Bret adjusted for inflation?).
William Donati never interviewed Hermann Erben for ABC's "20/20" Program in 1980 (p.65). He went to Vienna and interviewed him independently, several months later. (Bret is also unaware that Donati's research is the basis of Tony Thomas' ERROL FLYNN: THE SPY WHO NEVER WAS - Donati did not come "to the same conclusion as Tony Thomas".)
The name of the man in MY WICKED, WICKED WAYS (p. 213; cf. Bret, p. 98-99, 123) who was fatally injured during a Civil War charge sequence in "They Died With Their Boots On" (NOT the "Little Big Horn" sequence, as erroneously claimed by Flynn, and followed by Bret), and identified in Bret's picture section as "the lover killed whilst making the film," was Jack Budlong, not "William Meade."
Lady Marion does not give Robin "encouraging glances" during the banquet hall sequence at the beginning of "The Adventures of Robin Hood" (p. 71).
Nora Eddington Black and Patrice Wymore Flynn will be surprised to learn that Flynn is survived by one wife and four daughters (page 225). (Although Bret's book was published in June of 2000, the author appears to be unaware that Arnella Flynn - the youngest of Flynn's three daughters - had died nearly two years prior).
Flynn's notorious two-way mirror was on the ceiling of the main guest bedroom, not Flynn's own bedroom, at Mulholland House (p. 153).
Cary Grant and Judy Garland did not rely on their "looks and physiques" rather than their talent (p. 140).
John Decker's body did not "explode" in the crematorium (p. 147).
The "borrowing" of John Barrymore's corpse from a funeral home (with the details added that the body was "unembalmed" and that Flynn "rushed into the garden screaming") is uncritically accepted as fact (p. 106 - cf. Buster Wiles' true account in MY DAYS WITH ERROL FLYNN, pp. 124ff).
Flynn never threatened to "slit his [Michael Curtiz's] throat" with a razor on the set of "Captain Blood" (p. 42).
The male lead in "King Solomon's Mines" is a white explorer, not a "white missionary" (p. 155).
Flynn's 1954 Last Will and Testament did not leave a "bequest" to Lili Damita or Nora Eddington (p. 223).
Flynn's food poisoning in Jamaica from spoiled meat was not "near-fatal" (p. 214).
There is no "rare," "original black-and-white footage from "The Adventures of Robin Hood" in Mark Massari's documentary "Portrait of a Swashbuckler" (p. 255). (The footage was taken from low-grade 16mm copies of the black-and-white 35mm version of the film released to theatres in the mid-50's.)
Betty Hansen and Peggy Satterlee were not "redoubtable character[s] well known in society circles" (p. 169).
- The last time Olivia de Havilland saw Flynn was at the Costumers Ball in 1957 - not at a party several weeks before his death in 1959 (p. 218f.).
Other examples of the book's fast-and-loose approach to the truth are the following:
1. According to Bret, Flynn did the leap down the stairway himself in the final duel to the death with Robert Douglas in "Adventures of Don Juan." Claims Bret: "And finally he confronts de Lorca in a duel ... culminating in an astonishing leap down a steep flight of steps (executed by Errol himself and not, as has been stated, by a stuntman" - p. 150, italics his). The film's director, Vincent Sherman, will be among those surprised to learn that Errol did the leap. Sherman, who was there, hired the six foot, four inch Jock Mahoney for the job (no other stuntman in Hollywood would touch it, including Buster Wiles). On this see Sherman's 1996 memoir STUDIO AFFAIRS (p. 167), of which Bret makes no mention. Had he read it, he might have been less willing to make such a silly, undocumented, and easily refutable claim.
These five examples are chosen at random; as stated, more fabrications, distortions and blunders could be cited. The reader, however, should by now be aware that anyone who wishes to learn about the life of Errol Flynn should steer clear of works like this, and go instead to Flynn's own account of his life in MY WICKED, WICKED WAYS.
2. A particular hash is made of Flynn's 1943 rape trial. According to Bret, Flynn testified on the witness stand that he could not have had sex with Peggy Satterlee because "entertainment was the last thing on his mind during this particular trip: not only had he been mourning the recent death of William Meade, but en route to Balboa his beloved dog, Arno, had gone overboard. One of the crew members from his yacht had already confirmed this, and that Errol had stayed at the helm of the Sirocco all the way back to Hollywood (p. 123, italics his)." This alleged statement of Flynn will puzzle anyone who knows the facts of his life.
The Satterlee "rape" trip took place Friday through Sunday, August 1 - 3, during a trip to Catalina Island. Arno drowned some time afterward. Errol could hardly have testified at the trial that he was mourning Arno during the Catalina voyage, since the dog was clearly on board during the entire trip - he is visible in a number of the pictures taken by veteran LIFE MAGAZINE photographer Peter Stackpole over that weekend (Charles Higham erroneously claimed that Arno was lost in June or July, and buried on August 1 - the day the Catalina trip began). Stackpole's pictures were later published in his book LIFE IN HOLLYWOOD, 1936-1952 - another crucial Flynn source missed by Bret. However, on p. 99, Bret seems to state that Arno was drowned in the middle of August - i.e. AFTER the Catalina trip - during a voyage to Balboa. That such an obvious discrepancy could escape the editors at Robson Books is remarkable.
Also, Flynn could hardly have been mourning "the recent death of William Meade" (i.e. Jack Budlong) during the August 1-3 Catalina trip. It is true Budlong was impaled during the "Boots" Gettysburg charge scene filmed on July 30, but he was taken to Cedars of Lebanon Hospital, where he lingered until August 5, when complications set in and he died - two days AFTER Flynn's return from Catalina Island. Here, speaking of the editors at Robson Books, Bret's own words (p. 35) might be quoted: "Again - no-one checked up on the facts."
3. In the book's picture section there is a photo of Errol with this strange caption: "Errol's favourite photograph - a self portrait naturally! - taken in 1945 but unseen until a French newspaper used it in an obituary (author's collection)." Favourite photograph? How Bret would know this is a mystery. In fact Flynn generally disliked studio photographs of himself. His favourite photo was taken by Peter Stackpole when they both climbed atop the mast of the "Sirocco" on Aug. 2 or 3, 1941. He kept it framed in his den at Mulholland House next to his signed photo of FDR. And was the photo Bret refers to "unseen until his obituary"? Actually, it appears on the cover of a French magazine in the early 50's. A "self portrait"? What? Errol held the camera? Those who take any of this at face value will probably believe as well Charles Higham's claim that there was only photo ever taken of Flynn with Jack Warner.
4. Flynn did not ask G. P. Putnam's Sons to replace Earl Conrad (p. 213) as his ghost-biographer. That was simply one of Errol's cruel jokes on Conrad - as Conrad clearly states.
5. William Donati will undoubtedly want to respond to Bret's vicious, unfounded claim that Buster Wiles was Flynn's "official pimp" who supplied him with "girls and young men" when Flynn was "unable to go looking for his own" (p. 127).
The number of misspellings of names similarly erodes all confidence in this author's skill in handling information:
And on and on. Even Errol's name is spelled Erroll (twice on p. 252) and "Flyn" (p. 82). An ordinary word like "wagon" is "waggon" (p. 98).
The name of Flynn's trial lawyer Jerry Giesler is misspelled "Geisler" 32 times.
"The Garden of Allah" is five times spelled "Garden of Alla" - apparently a confusion of the place with the first name of Russian actress Nazimova (p. 35).
The costume designer Orry-Kelly is repeatedly "Orry-Kerry" (pp. 84, 232-4, 269).
The last name of Flynn's legal counsel Justin ("Jud") Golenbock is spelled "Golenblock" (pp. 190, 222, 264).
Blanca Rosa Welter (Linda Christian) is "Bianca Rosa Welter" (p. 108).
Hermann Erben's first name is "Herman" (pp. 55, 62, 156).
S. Z. Sakall is "S. Z. Sakal" (pp. 137-8, 271 ).
The screenwriter Howard Koch (who co-wrote "Casablanca") is "Howard Kock" (!) (p. 236).
Peter Stackpole, one of the key witnesses at Flynn's rape trial, is "Peter Stackmore" (p. 120).
Award-winning cinematographer Tony Gaudio is "Tony Gaudlo" (p. 234-5).
Character actor G. P. Huntley Jr. (who played "Queen's Own Butler" in "They Died With Their Boots On") is "G. P. Hartley Jr." (p. 232).
"Mara Maru" is "Marau Maru" (p. 246).
L.A. District Attorney Burton Fitts is "Buron Fitts" (p. 113).
Owen Cathcart-Jones' name appears unhyphenated (p. 122).
Shirley Evans Hassau is "Shirley Evans Hassan" (pp. 130, 265).
Flynn's major domo Alex Pavlencko is "Alex Pavlenckov" (pp. 101, 130, 140, 269).
Peggy Satterlee's middle name - LaRue- is repeatedly spelled La Rue (pp. 123-4).
Charley Bell in "San Antonio" (played by John Litel) is "Charley Rell" (p. 138).
"Bushdinkel" is "Bushdinkell" (p. 244).
- Lynne Fontanne is "Lynne Fonatane" (263).
All of this leads to the conclusion that this book was done in haste - sloppily researched, carelessly written, and just as carelessly edited. The author's knowledge of the life of Errol Flynn can at best be described as superficial, at worst horrendous. Certainly such shoddiness in dealing with facts and details falls well below the standards of professionalism the public has come to expect from Robson Books.
With regard to Flynn's alleged bisexuality, Bret relies entirely on hearsay evidence from sources such as Marlene Deitrich and Tallulah Bankhead. He rejects and even ridicules those who deny it, including J. V. Cottom and Flynn's two surviving wives, Nora Eddington Black and Patrice Wymore Flynn. Bret, of course, knows that these women actually LIVED with Flynn, whereas he never met the actor. He foresees the objection, and lamely tries to counter it by quoting from a very late French radio interview given by Lili Damita just before her death in 1994, coyly implying (without actually saying so) that she supported Flynn's bisexuality. In the interview Damita is said to question how much time Nora Eddington Black and Patrice Wymore Flynn actually spent with Flynn, adding that "they knew absolutely nothing about Errol's love interests, what went off on his yachts and inside that big house, and they certainly knew nothing about what he did or didn't do in Spain because they weren't even there"
(p. 225, italics Bret's).
This needs to be looked at closely. What, for instance, did Damita mean by "that big house"? It certainly cannot apply to either 8946 Appian Way or 601 N. Linden. It is obviously refers to Mulholland House. But what Damita "knew" about Mulholland House and what went on there is strongly open to question. Although it was awarded to her by the courts, there is no evidence that she ever set foot in the place. And concerning Spain, was did she mean by, "they [Errol's other wives] weren't even there"? Was SHE?
Certainly Damita was with Flynn and Hermann F. Erben in Paris from March 20-24, 1937. After that, things become blurred. She appears to have gone back to London shortly before Flynn and Erben crossed the border into Barcelona on March 26 - cf. Josef Fegerl's ERROL FLYNN [AND] DR. HERMANN F. ERBEN: A FRIENDSHIP OF TWO ADVENTURERS, pp. 28-74. In his lengthy discussion of what Tony Thomas called "the Spanish fling," Charles Higham does not mention Damita as having been in Spain - the exaggerated news of Flynn's death, for instance, is said to have been wired to her in London. Thus her statement is very misleading, and Mr. Bret should have informed his readers accordingly - that is, if he was aware of it.
He might also have informed his readers that in her last years Lili Damita's mind was far from sound. Old age, the tragic loss of her only son Sean, and her prolonged, expensive, and finally fruitless attempts to locate him or his remains in Cambodia nearly unhinged her mind with grief. Those who interviewed her near the end have remarked that she made some very bizarre claims - such as insisting vehemently that Sean Flynn never appeared with his father Errol in an episode of "The Errol Flynn Theatre." She therefore cannot be viewed as a credible witness who had a strong grip on reality. Also, she was hardly a neutral party - someone with no axe to grind. To the end she had a score to settle with "Fleen" - the butt of her wrath for over 50 years.
Bret also does not mention that Hermann Erben vigorously denied Flynn's bisexuality to the end of his life. Erben, of course, might be as credible a witness as Damita. But Bret's silence in this case fuels the belief that he tends to leave out anything that might work against his highly skewed portrait of Flynn.
As stated, a number of other absurdities might be cited in this ill-conceived and poorly executed biography, but what is the point of going on? The book's quality - or lack of it - is evident. Bret's grasp of the facts of Errol Flynn's life, to put it moderately, leaves much to be disired. And anyone who would deliberately shift the time of Olivia de Havilland's last meeting with Flynn from 1957 to just days before his death in 1959, adding (again for dramatic effect?) that Flynn "gatecrashed" the party and held his hands over de Havilland's eyes, saying "Guess who?" (p. 218f.), has little journalistic integrity, and should not be trusted. (Even Charles Higham, who grossly exaggerates Flynn's disintegrated appearance while reporting the same incident in SISTERS: THE STORY OF OLIVIA DE HAVILLAND AND JOAN FONTAINE (p.109f.), correctly records that the meeting took place while de Havillland was filming "The Proud Rebel" in 1957.) Bret's smearing of the memory of Basil Rathbone is also especially harmful and despicable. The reputations of a great many other people will be sullied by this farrago, perhaps permanently. One can only imagine what Flynn's "four daughters" will think.
ERROL FLYNN: SATAN'S ANGEL is David Bret's twelfth biography. Those who read his other works, particularly MARELEN DIETRICH: MY FRIEND, might question whether Mr. Bret has the necessary control and critical tools to be an efficient chronicler of someone like Errol Flynn. Good biography requires patience, doggedness, emotional distance, brutal honesty, questioning instincts, and - above all - critical objectivity. All of these characteristics are especially necessary when attempting the difficult task of writing on a subject about which the author already feels strongly. Sadly, these characteristics are conspicuously absent in ERROL FLYNN: SATAN'S ANGEL. Flynn is too complex a subject, Bret is much too emotionally involved with him, too quick to rely on hearsay evidence, and much too slow to check - and double-check - his facts. Consequently, the final result has proved disastrous.
There is no doubt that Bret feels strongly about Errol Flynn. Having depicted him throughout the book as a grotesque "pervert and lecher," Bret concludes his account by informing his readers the degree to which he appreciates the great swashbuckler: Errol Flynn, so he claims, will "eternally be remembered as an essentially good man" (p. 225).
"An essentially good man?" Bret continues: "We, his admirers, should never regret what Errol was or some of the questionable things he did - only the sad fact that he died so young." How any author could expect readers who have endured 250 pages of this muck to come to the same conclusion is something to ponder. If Errol Flynn had been guilty of half of the things he is said to have done in this book, countries around the world would have been fully justified in barring him from their shores forever.
David Bret's ERROL FLYNN: SATAN'S ANGEL is, in short, biographical ineptitude at its worst, and it will be detested by all true admirers of Errol Flynn everywhere. It is a bizarre mixture of fact, innuendo, clouded judgement, and Highamesque propaganda and smear-fiction at its meanest. Mr. Bret, in fact, actually manages to "out-Higham" Higham- something many would have thought impossible.
Errol Flynn was certainly no "angel" - Satan's or otherwise. He was a tragically flawed but strangely compelling human being - "the living Ulysses," as Earl Conrad called him. He struggled with (and suffered from) his flaws throughout most of his life, not without leaving his fair share of human damage in the wake.
But does Flynn deserve this? The answer is clearly no. Whatever the case, he will continue to be fascinating to millions in the foreseeable future, long after David Bret and amateurish hacks like him have exhausted their fifteen minutes of journalistic fame.
The most appropriate verdict to be pronounced on this mess is provided by David Bret himself. Concerning Channel 4's documentary on Errol Flynn, "Secret Lives" (1996), he writes: "All in all, a dismal, totally unnecessary exercise . . . best consigned to the archives or the trash can!" (p. 254 )
No one could have put it any better.
- Robson Books (June 2000)
- ISBN: 1861053320
288 pages hardbound
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