What an astonishing life he led. We can be absolutely
sure of just a handful of facts. He was born in Hobart, Tasmania,
Australia on June 20, 1909 and died in Vancouver October 14, 1959.
He claimed to have been, in his life before film, a police constable,
sanitation engineer, treasure hunter, sheep castrator, shipmaster
for hire, fisherman and soldier. At age 24 he got into movies, acted
in 61 of them, and became a superstar in his seventh, the 1935 swashbuckler
Captain Blood, a role he got when the original star, Robert
Donat, was laid low by asthma.
Until the late 40s he stayed a big box office
attraction, in movies like Charge of the Light Brigade; Adventures
of Robin Hood; Dawn Patrol; Dodge City; Private
Lives of Elizabeth and Essex; The Sea Hawk; They Died
With Their Boots On; Objective, Burma! and a dozen others.
He was good at it, too. But then his life style off-screen began
to take over. Always known as a heavy drinker and smoker,
says movie historian Ephraim Katz, he was now beginning to
experiment with drugs. His movie face began to lose its fabled
Flynn was married three times, had countless liaisons, was accused
of statutory rape, but cleared. There seemed always to be a woman
on his arm. His success with women was, literally, legendary.
Flynns reputation took a severe battering
with the 1980 publication, long after his death, of a book by Charles
Higham that claimed, among other things, that Flynn had been a Nazi
spy, that he had conspired to assist in the assassination of King
George VI and Queen Elizabeth (later the Queen Mother) during their
1939 tour of Canada, that he was homosexual . . . and on and on.
That book and a later, equally scurrilous, one by David Bret painted
a portrait of a man who was infamy incarnate. Did he really
serve guests omelettes to which he added (in the words of General
Jack D. Ripper in Dr. Strangelove) his precious bodily
Well never know. Both books have been shown
to be riddled with inaccuracies, with truth and fantasy blended
into an indiscriminate mess. (The Nazi connection seems to have
been entirely concocted.) Part of the reason was Flynns own
personality. He said it himself once: You wonder, who's the
you? And who's the chap on the screen? I catch myself acting out
my life like a goddamn script.
Flynn, understandably, was continually plagued with
money problems. He picked up the phone in New York one fall day
in 1959 and called an old friend, stock promoter George Caldough,
in Vancouver. It happens that at the time Flynn called Caldough
was in a financial bind himself. As he later wrote in Weekend
Magazinea long, cheerful piece he wrote in prisonhe
was desperate for some new vision to bail me out and put my
company on an equitable footingbut what?
Flynns call gave him the answer. The actor
wanted to know if Caldough was still interested in buying his yacht,
the Zaca. (Caldough had admired the boat extravagantly.)
He was, and arranged to meet Flynn in Hollywood the following week.
Caldough had recently read about an American company that intended,
through public subscription of $1.9 million, to finance a deep-sea
treasure-hunting expedition off the coast of Spain. Caldough, his
brain churning, began thinking about the Zaca, with ERROL
FLYNN at the helm, searching for sunken Spanish gold. That would
raise one hell of a public subscription.
In a fever of excitement and speculation Caldough flew to Hollywood
and met Flynn.
He was shocked by the actors appearance. We
hadnt met in two years, but he had aged 20 . . . He followed
me to Vancouveraccompanied by his 17-year-old friend, Beverly
Aadlandafter about 10 days. If anything, his appearance had
deteriorated and he seemed to need help in just getting around.
But his personal charm was unabated . . .
Flynn, who revelled to some extent in his notoriety,
told reporters on his arrival in Vancouver that he hoped to star
in a film to be made of the Nabokov novel Lolita, with Aadland
to star as the nymphet. (Incidentally, according to
the birthdate for Beverly Aadland shown in the Internet Movie DatabaseSeptember
17, 1943she would have been just 16, not 17, when she arrived
here with Flynn. Aadland was certainly precocious. She once told
an interviewer that at age 12 her measurements were 34-28-34.) Flynn
was still married to actress Patrice Wymore at the time.
Flynn and Aadland stayed with the Caldough family
on Eyremount in British Properties for several days during that
October 1959 visit. He seemed to be happiest when reminiscing,
watching TV or talking to my children, Caldough wrote. Even
though his glory days were done, Flynns visit excited Vancouver
mightily. He was, in turn, delighted when Orpheum Theatre manager
Ivan Ackery went to great lengths to obtain and show a short film
Flynn had made about the Zaca in 1952, and phoned Ackery
to thank him.
Flynn was supposed to go to New York for a TV show, but his famed
disregard for time was in full flower. The Caldoughs half-heartedly
tried for three days to get him on the flight to New York, but they
kept missing it. There was always another party, more people to
entertain, more Hollywood stories to tell.
Finallyit was October 14, 1959Flynn said he really
did have to go and suggested they leave for the airport three hours
En route, Flynn began to experience severe pain in his back and
legs. Caldough, who was driving, veered off and headed for the West
End penthouse apartmentat 1310 Burnaby Streetof a friend,
Dr. Grant Gould. Astonishingly, not long after their arrival, a
few people materialized and another party began!
Flynn, who was standing against a wall to relieve the pain in his
back, regaled the group with stories of the Hollywood figures he
had known, especially John Barrymore and W.C. Fields (both, tellingly,
heavy drinkers). He was, apparently, a superb story teller. But
then he stopped and announced he was going to lie down for an hour
and then would take everyone out for dinner. He moved into the doctors
bedroom and lay down on the floor.
When Beverly Aadland looked in on him a little later to see how
he was, she found him trembling, his face blue. She could hardly
hear his heart. Her screams brought the doctor . . . but it was
already too late.
Al Gowan, a member of the inhalator squad (summoned
by one of the guests, Art Cameron, who was manager of the Sylvia
Hotel at the time), said Flynn was dead before we got there.
The man was a living skeleton. His liver was gone, his heart was
The death certificate, dated October 23, indicated myocardial infarction,
coronary thrombosis, coronary atherosclerosis, liver degeneration,
liver sclerosis and diverticulosis of the colon as the causes of
Flynns autobiography came out that same year.
It was titled My Wicked, Wicked Ways. They caught up with
him in Vancouver. He was 50.
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