|A still from my short film Errol Flynn's Pianist|
“Sensible people get the greater part of their own dying done during their own lifetime” – Samuel Butler
“If I had a genius for anything, it was a genius for living” so said Errol Flynn in his autobiography, ‘My Wicked, Wicked Ways’. This is what I believe is to be at the crux behind the man, Errol Flynn, who it was said, lived the life of at least ten men distilled into one (from 1909 until 1959) and remarkably so, he has achieved a somewhat posthumous genius for defying death, at least in spirit, not including the twenty odd bottles of now well aged whiskey his studio boss Jack Warner placed upon the swashbuckling actor’s cadaver (perhaps to alter the acronym R.I.P to Rest in Piss), but also by way of the many tireless jaunts writers have made to unravel what was “the genius of life” Errol so nobly prized.
What is a genius for living though? Not something tangible in its result other then what the self gains/pains from having achieved it. Luckily for Errol in a sense he was spotlighted through-out the world, as perhaps a model of success, excess and sex. The term ‘In like Flynn’ can now be found in the newer Oxford Dictionary as an Idiom. What Samuel Johnson (a literary brawler and creator of the dictionary) would have thought of that is for the clairvoyants to argue over. What does the phrase give as a definition however? “Seize an opportunity; be successful”, and at last perhaps Errol would have laughed at his achievement of exulting a phrase as bandied about as Walt Whitman’s “Carpe Diem” catch-cry, but it has been cleaned up the usual way perhaps to prevent school children from experimenting behind gym sheds, avoiding the sexual connotations, and excusing us from particularly awkward talks with puckered jawed teenagers. Interestingly enough the originality of the term ‘In like Flynn’ is debated as only being applied to Errol after it had been appropriated to American liberal John T. Flynn, many years before Errol made the big time. Really though, who knows about John T. Flynn, Errol however …
Errol Flynn had all the self-perplexity of Henry Miller, the brutal need for physical domination over his environment as Earnest Hemingway, and the endearment towards charm and wit as James Whistler. In a strange turn of events Errol never really mastered any of these facets, for he always had about him the truant schoolboy. Studies bored him, perhaps more so it was the educational institutions were not stimulating enough learning environments for someone who clearly understood that if it were true that the work of Dylan Thomas be heralded as genius, why was not Dylan’s excessive boozing and flirtatious mischievousness not also admired? Errol seemed to have cottoned on at a young age that adult was on the most part a misspelling of ‘a dolt’.
It’s not that Flynn did not lack motivation, he just lacked the patience to ignore the alluring myriad of all other temptations manifesting like Baudelaire’s Eros, Plutus, and Fame in the wake of his bountiful dreams, his attempts at making his ambitions realised often succeeded more by way of luck. It is simply a case of Alfred Jarry’s pataphysics, the law of exceptions to which Flynn belonged. Ambiguity is one entity that playfully begets chance because of the neutral state of the unknown. Errol was bustled into a modern mayhem from colonial Tasmania (nothing much has really changed) and tribal New Guinea. In one interview when asked of his background in Australia, besides from correcting the interviewer by alluding that he was not Australian “Tony, I am indeed actually Tasmanian” he answered, Errol stated that he could only believe the past his interviewer spoke of from having glanced at photos, and supposed them to be correct. In a nutshell he went from Lost Tasmanian (a Henry Miller term regarding Tasmanians at the Western Union Telegraph), truant schoolboy, street bum, petty thief, sanitation officer, coconut plantation chief, gold hunter, reparatory theatre thespian, writer, Hollywood star, in the blink of five decades. God knows why Merle Oberon pretended to be Tasmanian, no one believed Errol came from there (his publicist labeled him an Irish cop). Errol would offer you a cigar if you could guess where Tasmania was, as he said in one interview. In the same way that Oscar Wilde and James Joyce left Ireland, and Dylan Thomas said of Wales, “If Wales is the fatherland, then the fathers can have it”, Errol faced the same dilemma – Tasmania is an isolated spot, almost a country of its own or should be, a great place to grow up but wouldn’t want to bite into the wrong apple and get any funny ideas. The Idiom ‘Map of Tassie’ means vagina, yet until recently masturbation was still illegal there. If Tasmania were to have its own anthem, I’d sing it as “Tasmania was Van Diemen’s Land, now its Tasmania not Van Diemen’s Land why did Van Diemen’s Land get the works? That’s nobodies business but Ruperts”. I grew up there, I know what Errol went through, when someone on the mainland says I come from the country, they have no idea what country is, try next stop Antarctica.
Earl Conrad (the ghost writer of ‘My Wicked, Wicked Ways’) labeled Errol Flynn as the enigma, and as far as Errol stood in his spiritual musings, he was an enigma unto himself. He adopted a symbol of a square shaped question mark which he had his butler Alex sew onto the handkerchief pocket of all his jackets and it became the flag of his last ship, The Zaca. This symbol was created as an outcome from Errol’s drawn out statutory rape case that had him in the courts over two accusations that he had bedded two under-age girls against their consent. Of course the case was a complicated one; it had all the elements of money, fame, morals, and ethics thrown into a frenzy of legal proceedings. For Errol Flynn this experience in his life did nothing more then to confuse him even further about who he was or was supposed to be in the public eye. To be loved, hated, successful, unsuccessful, publicly and privately exposed for the name of which people perceived him to be; that of Errol Flynn. As casuistic procedures must end, Errol was found not guilty, but his heart would have remained somewhat shattered, it is all very well to get away with certain dubious incidents, as I’m sure he did, ones we may never ever find out about, but life imprisonment is a solemn future, one that if faced, is worn for the rest of ones life and not carried to one’s grave as the lascivious romantic craves.
Errol Flynn’s phallic reputation is something both spiritual and biological. Differing libido levels, conditioning, and psychological dispositions place us all in variable states of sexual alignment. Errol had garnered a masculine physique, and was considered handsome, combined with a wild carnal temperament and heightened charisma it is easy to see why he adopted sex as a reliable part of his personality – it was brought to him as a gift and also dished out as a reward for purely being charming. It can be also said that sex’s close relationship with the torrents of existence also compliments a paradoxically definitive evaporation of life; and death Errol taunted through sensory excitement. It wasn’t purely an act of physical thrill seeking as Errol was incredibly inspired by modes of creativity. The need to source thrills cerebrally as well as bodily was an effort he very much encouraged. His Van Gogh and Gauguin were the last items of real value to go at the final rupture of near and complete financial debt. Errol never painted himself but did co-run an art gallery with Hollywood painter John Decker, and I’m sure his many paintings of the town red did not go unappreciated.
Errol wasn’t absolute towards politics or religion in any depth, he wasn’t aligned to any groups (besides The Olympiads, a Hollywood crew where the only criteria for entry was that you had to be interesting in some way – W.C. Fields was also a member), he didn’t stand for anything in particular but his persona became legend. The last of the great sensualists, indulging purely in pleasure and suffering the pains that such an indulgence can only bring when there is lack of it or it is unattainable. As Marcellus Emants the Dutch author writes in his novel, ‘A Posthumous Confession’, “Enjoy pleasure and you have no contentment; be content and you have no pleasure”. Errol ended up in a position forever ‘yearning’ for something, and useful it might be to apply Dennis Potter’s observation from his novel ‘Hide and Seek’ that “The sacred and profane are both functions of the same impossible yearning”, the biography of Errol called ‘Satan’s Angel’ by David Bret although tabloid in effect at least captured some of the imagination behind Errol’s nature by way of its succinct title and sums up this notion of both the sacred and profane in Errol, “Profanation of holy things and carnal debauch” writes JK Huysmans, heralding to ideas of masochism and sadism, both of which to some who feel ethically thwarted by their own hypocrisy, those who might wrestle with it in their day to day lives might inwardly and externally experience. One such Errol incident of subverting common morals of the times was in receiving a letter from his father with advice of not sleeping with the native girls, because any white man who did would smell of them, Errol casually sent his father a telegram back which simply read, “Dad, I stink”.
Writer’s either wanted to scandalise or praise him, normalise or speculate, the one in the same man. As Errol said that he was a “contradiction inside contradiction”, I don’t believe he purposefully went out of his way to fictionalise his life, I think his topsy-turvy instinct towards the meaning of truth in an all too nonsensical world gave him credence to fuel his oratory with an indifference to honesty and facts; unless triggered by a desire to actually plunge the depths of his soul, and even then any accuracy was only functional to his moods and feelings at the time. It was only in reflection that one feels Errol could articulate some of his finer feelings truthfully, such as the diary entries inserted at the end of his autobiography, although too much reflection can turn even the most lymphatic soul into stone.
This is why I believe that so many biographies, documentaries, songs, films, telemovies and references have been made about him. Long after his death an unraveling process took place because everything that was admitted by Errol Flynn himself needed scrutiny by the world in order to satisfy its need to have the facts. Errol could easily be accepted as a near mythical character but because he was a real living human being with a propensity to exaggerate, the sensible people of this world thought he must be brought down to become of ‘mortal stuff’. That he must have moralistic criticism drawn from him, be analysed and researched, something Errol struggled to do himself, and also at the same time he must be put back up on the pedestal, the myth clearly separated from the truth. In Earl Conrad’s memoir of Errol he recalls having had the chance to view Errol’s famously large penis, quite ordinary in size wrote Earl, but then again maybe Mr Conrad sported a whopping penis, and proportion became distorted. Who knows, he certainly had a much bigger mustache then Errol.
“My Wicked, Wicked Ways” in my opinion is one of the first books to precedent the style of literature created by The Beat Generation, it had all the narrative pluck common in stream of consciousness writing only it was executed by Errol dictating to Earl Conrad with the aid of a recorder. It was then processed into some order and obviously Earl penned some of his own stylisations within the book. Without the censorship issues at the time, or if Errol knew he was going to be dead in a year, we might have had an even more risqué and scandalous book under our pillows. As a confession goes Errol didn’t hold back too much detailing aspects of his sex life or drug use, but always care was given to exposing truths that might have sent him to jail like possible sexual interactions with men. This idea is either championed or debated, but any highly sexual being is capable of dalliance with both sides of gender, they become purely ‘sexual’, neither straight nor gay – usually more so drunk and willing. A friend of mine once said, “It’s because I can operate both machinery”, disregarding homosexual affairs reportedly had with other famous actors, it wouldn’t be unusual for a man of Errol’s sexual caliber to have at least dabbled in group sex activities. The problem is that those who detest bi-sexuality from either side will always deny the other, or propagate their own. Another tough subject for exposition was Errol’s intravenous drug use, which we know he partook regularly, especially morphine which he became an addict. Errol even tried emulating Thomas de Quincey’s ‘Confessions of an English Opium-Eater’ but discovered, which is mostly true, that it is best to write about the experience afterwards and not whilst on the drug. Rarely do people write about sex whilst having it, and I think the same applies to narcotics.
Errol became friends during his Hollywood years with a mish-mash set, there was no distinction in the status of those who he surrounded himself with, such people as the fellow Australian tennis champion Freddie McEvoy, John Decker (artist), Bud Ernst (stuntman), Allen Hale (comic second player to straight role stars), John Barrymore (acclaimed Shakespearean actor and notorious drunkard), Paulette Goddard (once married to Charlie Chaplin), King Farouk (ex-Turkish aristocrat). There was nothing consistent or similar with his friends, they all came from disparate backgrounds, and perhaps represented the many guises of Flynn, sportsman, yachtsman, hunter, actor, scientist, libertine, mock aristocrat, writer … Errol never had a circle of other big stars amongst his associates. Perhaps because he never really felt a part of that world, being so well traveled that he was, it wasn’t that Hollywood was the pinnacle of places to reach, just a damn good spot to loiter with intent. So to with his brigand of chums, they were lively muses to help prop up a man who valued most the art of living.
Errol’s Delphic poise towards self-possession is resonant to such literary figments as JK Huysmans ‘Des Esseintes’, a man lusting after illusionary stimulation. Robert Baldick in the introduction to A’Rebours (Against Nature) characteristically describes the essence of Des Esseintes conceptually and specifically as “that vague longing for an elusive ideal which we used to call the Mal du Siecle; torn between desire and satiety, hope and disillusionment; painfully conscious that his pleasures are finite, his needs infinite”. It is a chimerical hope that prevents futileness but installs a neurosis for it as the same time. Errol projected his psyche upon the dreams of men and women and rebutted the void within by physically fictionalising the certitude of nature (human or geographical) through the consumption and conquering of the environment that surrounded him whether ersatz or veritable. The Hollywood studio system was as much a construct to him, and he could treat it as he wished, ultimately any place was as much the same except for the man who stood in it.
Errol spent much isolated time during his days in Papua New Guinea, having his father send him reading material, a heady mix of subjects and authors. It would have been an unguided tour of morality and mortality, he would have been left solitary to defend his own existence in the trial of purpose and pardoned on his own grounds, which set for him, like Des Esseintes, a presupposed notion of reality and the limits to which one can demand of the world to compliment one’s own modus operandi.
As a career, acting is one of the purest arts of artificiality, of transcending the self, actresses in the age of Voltaire, the French philosophical satirist, were refused burials and tossed onto muddy tombless graves because religious authorities believed their act of assuming the identity of somebody else constituted a vandalisation of the soul. It is hard to say if Errol actually ‘became’ his characters but he certainly wore the guise of them like donning a new suit but it was as much these characters we saw as it was also Errol Flynn. Indeed Errol Flynn was Robin Hood, Don Juan, Jim Corbett, Colonel Custer, Fletcher Christian but who was playing Errol Flynn playing these characters? In his later years it would Vodka and Orange playing a few, but uncredited.
Therefore when Errol turned to the sea it might be looked upon as the appropriate symbol of his untamed instincts, that enormous gulp, the prospect of losing oneself in it, the inebriating lure of its watery sheets; last drinks? Errol was at home at sea, his succession of yachts a relative skim throw to his father’s own sea expeditions for the cause of biology, Errol had the sea in his blood yet he was anchored to the studios with contracts and the need to stay moored to them to fight his continuous monetary debts.
Flynn triumphed as an individual, like many individuals he was multi-layered, and had his cake, which he also ate, but not without ensuing indigestion (amongst actual bodily complaints and ailments). He considered himself a contradiction, he was aware of his contradictory elements, and was as vocal about it as Henry Miller (another self decipherer), who also saw within himself riddled with contradiction. As trying as this may have been it allowed for Flynn to rebel even against himself, as actor and writer, the two books that he penned ‘Beam Ends’ and ‘Showdown’ (and the rumored ‘Cold Rice’ stage play) as well as the script for The Adventures of Captain Fabian (argued by some sources however in regards to Errol’s authorship status on the script), a feature film script ‘The White Raja’, including articles for various newspapers and magazines – meant that he was continuously malleable cerebrally – the use of drug and alcohol – a well known and effective relief for such discourse born well out of growing pains and into middle-aged mind aches, and physical pursuits as sports, adventuring and sex – a quick remedy for internally perspiring pontification.
Flynn made over sixty films, the list is impressive for someone who entered the entertainment industry yet proceeded to romance and adventure with the same proliferation as turning out dozens of film roles. In his short time as actor he made more then two films for every year he was active in the profession before dying of ‘aggregation’ but he was publicly flagged down by a massive heart attack at the age of fifty (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 death). The result although not so appalling in the scheme of things, such was Errol’s constitution, his verve and ‘lust for life’, he managed to booze away until the end of his days, and half a century of magnificent experiences, sensations, and legacies is fifty-times more then what an average person might achieve had they have lived to a hundred in reasonably good health.
If more driven or surrounded by the right circumstances Errol could have come out any number of ways, a wild unruly Rimbaud, a brooding James Dean, a decadent Byron – deprived of an early demise Errol revealed a portrait to the world like that similar to the one hidden in Dorian Gray’s attic of what it means to distill oneself in vices and debauch, adventure and brawling, a once Adonis like structure burning at both ends, to become charred by the blaze. So who in the end was Errol Flynn? He was local Vandemonian’s boy made good as actor in Hollywood who roamed the globe looking for his place, settling on sea and land alike. That is the simple answer. The more complicated answer is that where-as most people either exist or look for meaning, Errol chose to infuse the two, and through not pen, music or canvass, but through himself.
In an age where mediocrity (something Errol feared most, but perhaps he confused somewhat with his fear also of boredom) now rules by way of constructs of excitement and illusions towards utopias both collectively and individually, that drive generations to arrive at the same regulatory dependence on conservatism in their wrinkling years. On mass mainly, exceptions will always be had, and if generations can turn to wild cards to inspire their fiery youth, then they should in theory still be able to turn to the legacy of Errol’s deeds to learn how to avoid becoming mentally sterile. As Aldous Huxley said, “A majority of young people seem to develop mental arteriosclerosis forty years before they get the physical kind. Another question: why do some people remain open and elastic into extreme old age, whereas others become rigid and unproductive before they’re fifty?” Aldous puts it down possibly to being “a problem in biochemistry and adult education”. Errol never stopped living, he never ceased to create regardless of its critical value, and mention his name in any nursing home and you still get swoons.