ERROL Flynn once said: ‘I like my whisky old, and my women young’ and the above photo, while not saying anything about his choice of whisky (a bottle of Courvoisier seems the tipple of choice), certainly says something about his taste in women, or should it be girls.
The picture of Flynn, from May 1959, was taken a month or so before his fiftieth birthday and he’s accompanied by his girlfriend, Beverly Aadland, who was still a few months from her 17th birthday the coming September. According to Beverly’s mother, a former showgirl called Florence and who wrote about Flynn and Aadland’s romance in a book called The Big Love, by the summer of 1959 they had already been together for a year.
Errol Flynn was born in Tasmania in 1909 but went to school from the age of fourteen to fifteen in Barnes in South West London. It was a very minor private school called The South West London College and has long disappeared. The building, however, still exists at numbers 99-101 Castelnau which is a road of Regency villas that lead up to the southern side of Hammersmith Bridge. After a particularly unhappy time in London (the culture shock must have been huge) Flynn returned to Australia in 1926 and was sent to the Sydney Church of England Grammar School. It wasn’t long before he was expelled, according to Flynn’s own account, for having sex with the school’s laundress. In 1933 he appeared as an amateur actor, albeit in the lead role as Christian Fletcher, in a cheap Australian film called In the Wake of the Bounty.
It was obvious to everyone, not least himself, that there was a lot to learn about acting and Flynn decided to sail back to England. After exaggerating and lying through his teeth about his limited acting experience, he appeared in repertory theatre in Northampton for several months (he is still remembered there and a cinema in the town is called the Errol Flynn Filmhouse). After a fight with a female stage manager that involved her falling down some stairs he was unsurprisingly dismissed. There weren’t many who could match his charm, however, and he was soon cast in the lead role in a film called Murder at Monte Carlo (now lost) which was being made at Teddington Studios. During the filming Warner Brothers were quick to contract him and Flynn emigrated to America as a studio actor. Incidentally Errol Flynn’s father, Theodore Flynn and noted Australian zoologist had also travelled from Tasmania to the UK, and was the Professor of Marine Biology at Queen’s University in Belfast from 1930 until 1948.
In Hollywood Flynn was almost an immediate sensation. He starred in Captain Blood in 1935 – just two years after his stumbling efforts in the Wake of the Bounty film. The same year he married the French actress Lili Damita. Flynn was quickly typecast as a swashbuckler but maybe the greatest swashbuckler of them all and with the help of the direction of Michael Curtiz Flynn became, undoubtedly, one of Hollywood’s biggest stars.
Errol Flynn & Lili Damita in 1935
In 1940, Flynn was at the height of his career and easily one of the most popular stars in America. His rise to the top was extraordinarily quick but so was his downfall. Flynn became an American citizen in 1942 which meant that he was eligible for the military draft. He attempted to join the armed services but was found to have several health problems. His heart was enlarged, with a murmur – in fact he had actually already suffered at least one heart attack; he had recurrent malaria (contracted in New Guinea before he became an actor), chronic back pain (for which he self-medicated with morphine and later, with heroin), lingering chronic tuberculosis and six separate STDs.
The man who was known throughout the world for his athletic roles and male physical perfection failed three medicals, one for the army, navy and airforce (it was later rumoured that the same doctor that Flynn tried to persuade to help him pass the medical was the same as Ronald Reagan used to help him to avoid active overseas service). Warner Brothers kept quiet about Flynn’s ineligibility for armed service afraid that it would ruin Flynn’s reputation as a romantic hero.
The public’s perception, however, was that Flynn was afraid to to enlist in the Armed Forces unlike many other Hollywood actors of service age. In 1943, a year after his divorce from Lili Damita, Flynn was taken to court accused of statutory rape by two underage girls, Betty Hansen and Peggy Satterlee. Amongst other stories the papers reported that Flynn had been calling the girls “J.B.” (jailbait) and “S.Q.Q.” (San Quentin Quail). Flynn was found innocent but it was rumoured that “nine housewives” in the jury had held a “private huddle” to convince the three hold-out votes, all men, to acquit. Although it seemed that Flynn had got away with it, in reality it was the beginning of the end of his career. During the trial he met 19 year old Nora Eddington who was working in the courtroom. They secretly married in Mexico in 1944 and had two children, Deidre and Rory before divorcing in 1949.
In 1950, at the age of 41, and like many other stars who became famous in the 1930s, Flynn was released from his Warner Brothers contract in 1950. After this rejection his descent, both financially and physically, was quick. Flynn, albeit with a worn and bloated face worked on early television shows but his Hollywood superstar days were over.
In 1957 while visiting a Hollywood studio he noticed a young blonde dancer called Beverly Aadland. In a People magazine interview from 1988 Aadland described meeting Flynn for the first time:
It was 1957, and I was 15 and working on the Warner Bros, lot as a dancer in a scene with Gene Kelly in Marjorie Morningstar (a film with a character played by a 46 year old Gene Kelly seducing an 18 year old Natalie Wood) when Orry-Kelly, the designer, came fluttering over from the next set saying that Errol Flynn wanted to meet me. I wasn’t very enthusiastic—I had met a lot of movie stars. I was taught to be very polite, so I went.
I met him in his dressing room, where his secretary was making coffee. No, I hadn’t heard about the statutory rape charges, about the teenage girls he had supposedly seduced. He asked me if I wanted to read for a play. I said I had to ask my mother, he said to use the phone. Errol said the reading would be at Huntington Hartford’s Hollywood estate, where he was staying. He said his secretary, his stuntman and his agent would be present, and also that he would like to take me to dinner. Mother finally said okay, that it would be a great opportunity.
I remember driving up to the estate; it was gorgeous. I read for the part, but the whole thing was a ruse—somebody else already had the part. Then we went to dinner at the Imperial Gardens—no shoes and hot saki. I didn’t drink, but I had a little hot saki that night. Back at the house, the others just disappeared. The scene was lovely—a great fire was roaring in the fireplace. There were thick bearskin rugs on the marble floors. Outside the lodge, deer would come to the great front window. The lighting was soft. Errol invited me down on the rug…
When Beverly’s mother Florence found out the couple were sleeping together Flynn managed to get her blessing by promising to sort out an acting career for her daughter. It was everything Florence wanted. It was rumoured that Flynn spoke to Stanley Kubrick about the film Lolita suggesting that both he and Aadland could play the relevant parts. Kubrick sensibly turned down the offer. Flynn then produced a short movie in Cuba in which Beverly could star called Cuban Rebel Girls. The film, on IMDB rates at 2.9/10, but that may very well be kind. It was a drama written and directed by Flynn about a group of young American volunteers helping in the fight against the Government of Fulgencio Batista, with an unhealthy and alcohol-ravaged Flynn appearing in a few scenes as a commentator and reporter.
A few months later, in October, Flynn and Aadland were in Canada where Flynn was hoping to sell his luxury yacht. Suddenly he felt unwell – it may have been a recurrence of his malaria but well could have been his extended colon or the heart disease he had lived with for years – and they arranged for him to visit a doctor at a house in Vancouver. The Doctor and his wife realising a famous former movie star was about to visit their home invited guests around to meet him. On the 16th October 1959 The Daily Mirror reported:
In the last hour of his life Errol Flynn gave his finest performance. Last night, while an audience of seven people in a doctor’s house at Vancouver, Canada, rocked with laughter, Errol leaned nonchalantly against a wall in the living-room, pantomiming his entire fantastic career.
Racked with pain, but with a grin on his face, Errol made merciless fun of himself and the whole Hollywood merry-go-round.
When he finished his show he went towards another room. At the door Errol turned, raised a finger and said: ‘I shall return.
Except he didn’t. Ten minutes later Aadland went to see if he was alright. He was already dead.
The Daily Mirror reported that a few hours later:
Beverly Aadland was found wandering in the streets of Vancover wearing only underclothes and a negligee. She appeared to be in a daze, and said: “I can’t understand why everyone is so upset about Errol Flynn. He’s at hospital, but is coming home in the morning”. She bent down to pat a dog, and said: ‘You’re lonely, too, aren’t you?”.
A few months later, in 1960 and back in Los Angeles, Beverly seemed to have forgotten Flynn, and was in a relationship with a young man called William Stanciu. Within a few weeks of seeing each other tragedy struck again when he was found unconscious in her apartment after being shot in the head. He died the next day in hospital on his 21st birthday. Although it was ruled an accident, Aadland`s story shifted all the time – initially she said it was suicide after Stanciu had told her to close her eyes but later she said that it was an unfortunate accident while they were playfully wrestling with each other.
Not long after Stanciu’s death Florence Aadland was arrested for public drunkenness and Beverly was sent to a juvenile centre. Florence was found guilty of contributing to Beverly’s delinquency and was sentenced to jail for two months. Florence complained to the court:
This could ruin her night club career! They can’t send my baby to Juvenile Hall! There’s no telling what she’ll learn from those nasty girls in there. I haven’t done anything — I’ll sue for false arrest!
Florence then scolded the press for reporting that she was 53. “I’m only 46,” she said. (She was actually 50.)
It was reported by the LA Times that the Authorities had concluded that Beverly was a $100 a night under-age prostitute who had been ‘intimate with adult males since the age of 12’. Florence, a former showgirl, denied that her actions hurt her daughter:
It’s these young Hollywood men. If only Errol Flynn was alive my little girl wouldn’t be in this mess.
Over the next few decades Beverly married twice and got divorced twice. Her final relationship was with a man called Ronald Fisher, a garage owner and auto-parts dealer. They married and Beverly became a housewife. Fisher said that it had been what she had wanted all her life.
In 2010, 50 years after two of her lovers had died so unexpectedly, Beverly Aadland, at the age of 67, died of diabetes and heart disease.
Not long before he died Errol Flynn was asked what he thought of his life:
I earned seven million dollars for brandishing a sword, riding a horse and screaming ‘Charge!’
I did not deserve it, but I certainly didn’t mind spending it. The public has always expected me to be a playboy and a decent chap never lets his public down.