"The magazine Confidential had been running stories about me ... I rankled ... I acknowledged my own peccadilloes, and if and when there are real incidents, I make no denial, no apology, and I even stand by them." - Errol Flynn, 1959
Errol Flynn is one of the more storied personalities in Hollywood history. Women swooned over him. Men desperately wanted to emulate him. He had no shortage of lovers and certainly no shortage of scandals. An inordinate amount of literature has been devoted to Flynn. Co-stars, ex-wives, stunt doubles, and even the coroner that tampered with his cold, lifeless venereal warts, have written at length about this celluloid Robin Hood. There is actually a book solely devoted to Flynn's not-so-humble abode, written by a guy who pulled a break n' enter in order to gain access.
The homes of Errol Flynn were notorious for their insouciant parties. Flynn shindigs were considered wild denizens of debauchery even by the standards of Hollywood’s gilded age. One of Flynn's closest friends was the equally dapper David Niven. The two had a lot in common. Both men came to Hollywood via the London stage and both were known for their suave demeanor. They battled each other for pencil moustache supremacy and shared a compulsive appetite for the opposite sex. Niven spoke reverently of Flynn as a "magnificent specimen of the rampant male."
Errol had an elaborate leather padded bar in his home staffed by a Russian exile that acted as the fulltime barkeep. The bald man serving drinks seemed surreal to some, like an Erich von Stroheim character come to life. Physically, the design of Flynn’s personal watering hole would have been at home on the set of The Old Dark House. The bar contained "a secret door as high as the bar and all the way to the floor." Robert Matzen and Mike Mazzone, two obsessive Flynnophiles who broke into the Mulholland home in the late eighties to scope it out for themselves, examined the secret passage. "It opens directly into a cramped triangular sitting room with a view through another two-way mirror into the women's bathroom ... Flynn's first voyeuristic device."
One-time singing cowboy Stuart Hamblen lived at the Mulholland Farm after Flynn’s death and decided to sell the house in the early seventies. Ron Wood of The Rolling Stones was one of its prospective buyers. "Errol had two-way mirrors [and] speaker systems in the ladies room," said Wood. "Not for security. Just that he was an A-1 voyeur." Matzen confirms Wood's statement. “I had heard about that from other sources as well,” he says. “What I believe happened was Flynn had his [film] studio guys wire it so that [he] and his friends could hear what was going on in there.”
In the early nineteen fifties, the biggest thorn in the major film studios' side was Confidential, the first of the sensationalist tabloid scandal rags. The publication regularly outed homosexual actors like Rock Hudson during an era when gay still meant happy. Confidential publisher Robert Harrison was constantly defending his magazine in court, battling an array of lawsuits for slander and defamation. Errol Flynn provided some titillating copy for Confidential when they ran a story about a two-way mirror Errol Flynn had installed above a bedroom in his home. The story was captivating fodder for film fans, but for Hollywood insiders it was old news. "Flynn's two-way mirror in the downstairs bedroom ... became the worst kept secret in Hollywood," explains Matzen. "Above the mirror was the attic, accessible through a crawlspace from one of the upstairs bedrooms … In the attic a trap door lifted up, revealing the see-through mirror." Robert Douglas was Flynn’s co-star in The Adventures of Don Juan. Douglas remembered peering through the two-way mirror in the late forties. The mirror, he said, "overlooked the fascinating bedroom... in which were a young couple, asleep... Flynn said, 'Watch this; it'll be fun.' We had out champagne; [he] pressed a button. The end right opposite the bed, a screen came up, which woke them both up. They both [jumped] up in bed; of course they were naked. He pressed another button, and onto the screen came a pornographic movie. They were so shocked; these two, they sat there and watched ... We went down to the bar and left them there." Another evening King Kong star Bruce Cabot fell victim to the two-way device. Steve Hayes, a veteran screenwriter and close friend of Flynn says that "Cabot was not amused ... Cabot was the first victim of the mirror. [Errol] told me that Bruce was furious and for a while it caused a rift in their friendship – but not for long since Bruce needed money and Flynn to help him get acting parts, so he quickly made up.”
March 1955. Errol slapped Confidential with a lawsuit. There was no mention of voyeur novelties in the actual legal filing. Instead, he took exception to the magazine’s inference that he had abandoned his bride on their wedding night, for the company of a prostitute. Flynn asked for one million dollars in damages. Eventually a settlement of fifteen thousand dollars was awarded. Errol later wrote in his autobiography, "I hasten to affirm the truth of [a] Confidential report that I had a mirror over my bed. The publication reported that it was a two-way mirror. You could be on the other side of that mirror, in a room above, and look down and see what was going on ... Alas, as they used to say when properties were broken in Victorian times - this was true. With the exception of once in the case of [Olympic bobsleigh champion] Freddie McEvoy, this gadget never got to be used ... It was a magic mirror all right, but when the word of this got out, nobody wanted to be caught in that annexe of the apartment." Steve Hayes explained, “Flynn’s best friend for years – Freddy McEvoy – was also a victim, but according to E.F. it didn’t bother him. He just laughed it off and said he hoped Errol learned a few tips about ‘fucking’ and making love to a woman … Freddy could get any woman he wanted, just like Errol, so he didn’t kow-tow to him at all.” Hedy Lamarr wrote in her autobiography, Ecstasy and Me, "I knew Errol's house well. Many of the bathrooms have peepholes or ceiling with squares of opaque glass through which you can't see out but someone can see in." Matzen, speaking over the phone from his Virginia home explained, “There were two viewing tubes, like reverse periscopes, on the second floor that looked down on the first. You could look down from the second floor to see who was coming in. He had another one down by the den.”
Flynn's life would always be embroiled in controversy. He went through two tedious statutory rape trials, brandished a weapon in the Spanish Civil War, enjoyed a drinking bout with Fidel Castro and struggled with a serious heroin addiction. Many of these experiences he denied or at least pleaded naïvety, but the not-so-secret mirrors and passageways that Flynn built into his home were a source of tacit pride. Robert Matzen summed it up simply. “He built a lot of views into the house so he could see what he wanted to see.”
Confidential, March 1955, May 1955
My Wicked, Wicked Ways by Errol Flynn (1959, GP Putnam)
Ecstasy and Me by Hedy Lamarr (1967, Fawcett)
Errol Flynn Slept Here by Michael Mazzone and Robert Matzen (2009, Good Knight)
Robert Matzen – Interview with Author – 6/13/10
Steve Hayes – Correspondence with Author – 6/13/10
The story of what happened with Errol Flynn's body and "the coroner that tampered with his cold, lifeless venereal warts" is well worth recounting. Flynn flew into Vancouver, British Columbia on October 9, 1959 to solidify the sale of his yacht, the Zaca, to a wealthy stooge named George Caldough. Errol was fifty years old and some Vancouver journalists described him as having "the body of an 80-year old man." Ruth Pinkus of the Vancouver Sun fancied herself a snide columnist in the Hedda Hopper tradition. She stood on the airport tarmac as Flynn descended the airplane staircase with teenage lover Beverly Aadland. As Flynn approached the hoards of microphones, Pinkus jumped in and contemptuously asked why he was always surrounded by young girls. Errol shot her a vicious look and explained, "Because they fuck so good."
Flynn had been feeling ill for several days. October 14, he was headed back to the airport, but asked Caldough and his wife to instead immediately find him a doctor. Caldough went to the Sylvia Hotel to get the house doctor Grant Gould, cousin of piano virtuoso Glenn Gould. They were told to bring Errol to the doctor's apartment at 1310 Burnaby Street. True to Flynn's character, he held court in the doctor's home, entertaining, doing impressions, and consuming a great deal of liquor - as did everyone else. He wasn't feeling much better, however, and complained of aggravating back pain. He went to lay flat on the floor of an adjoining room. Beverly Aadland went to check on him some twenty minutes later. He had turned blue. He couldn't speak. Dr. Gould attempted chest thrusts to no avail. An ambulance was called. Shortly before the paramedics arrived, Dr. Gould pronounced Errol Flynn dead.
Glen McDonald of Vancouver's coroner court remembers that he was "about to leave [the] office when the telephone rang ... I was looking forward to a gin and tonic ... It was the dispatcher from Metropolitan Ambulance ... 'Mac, we've got a beauty for you." McDonald has told the story many times. It is the thing of local legend, and no matter how emphatic the retelling, it is nearly impossible to convince someone of its validity. Easy to dismiss as urban legend, the conservative timbre of Coroner McDonald makes it far more difficult to doubt. "The Vancouver City Police report ... managed to spell the celluloid hero's name wrong ... The news media and everyone else were on the phone ... The calls were fast and furious by now ... Even the night janitor was talking to The New York Times ... [Flynn's] face was sallow and a bit puffy and he looked an awful lot older than fifty years. He looked worn out, wasted ... The autopsy concluded that the death was due to "myocardial infarction, coronary thrombosis, coronary atherosclerosis, fatty degeneration of the liver, portal cirrhosis of the liver and diverticulosis of the colon ... The belongings found on his person were itemized and bagged: eighty dollars, a credit card, cigarette lighter, a ring and a gold watch that was monogrammed." According to Buster Wiles, Flynn's stuntman, confidant, and the one who had to claim both his body and belongings, the lighter was engraved with a picture of a couple "in a 69 love embrace."
What followed next is something straight out of Ripley's Believe it or Not. "An observation [Chief Pathologist] Dr. Tom Harmon made startled me. It concerned a number of VD warts on the end of Flynn's penis. Tom seemed fascinated. 'Well, Tom,' I said, 'They may be of clinical interest to you as a medical man, but there's going to be another autopsy done down in Los Angeles. I really don't think these warts are material to the case. Unless you disagree.' 'Perhaps not ... But, look, I'm going to be lecturing at the Institute of Pathology and I just thought it might be of interest if I could remove these things and fix them in formaldehyde and use them as a visual aid.' 'No way!' I said. 'We're not going to do that. I don't want anything done that isn't relevant to the case because we're really in the limelight tonight. We're on the hot seat. How can we send Mr. Flynn back to his wife with part of his bloody endowment missing?' So I insisted on absolutely no change or variation of routine procedures ... I left Doc Harmon and Errol Flynn alone in the autopsy room ... the telephones were still ringing like mad ... The night janitor had become an expert of evading questions ... Doc Harmon strolled casually into my office, 'Well, I've finished,' he said. Tom and I went back to the autopsy room and the first thing I noticed was that the VD warts had gone - vanished from the end of Mr. Flynn's penis. Then I spotted a jar of formaldehyde on a shelf that looked suspiciously like it might contain VD warts. It did.
"Oh, God! Tom had gone and done it. I sighed and asked the Doc, 'Did you have to remove those bloody warts ... Did Errol Flynn expire because he had warts on his dong?' Tom looked sheepish but we were both laughing at the utter silliness of the whole thing. 'Put them back,' I said, 'Right now!' Maybe the Doc had never seen warts of that enormity. Maybe he wanted a souvenir. I never did figure out why the temptation had been too great ... So the bloody warts were fished out of the formaldehyde jar and, using the good offices of scotch tape, Doc Harmon and I stuck them back where they belonged. Everything was back to normal. And I was relieved to learn later, talking with the Chief Coroner in Los Angeles, that a further autopsy was performed and the results concurred in every respect with what we had found. The scotch tape was never mentioned."
Backstage Vancouver by Greg Potter (2004, Harbour)
How Come I'm Dead by Glen McDonald (1985, Hancock House)