Errol’s Affliction

23 Aug

Reached a sad conclusion recently after re-reading Earl Conrad’s ‘Errol Flynn – A Memoir.’ Almost hate to share it but here goes. I’d read the book 30 years ago as a young man and was fascinated by its behind the scenes look at the writing of My Wicked Wicked Ways, on which Earl Conrad collaborated with Errol the year before his death. More than any other source, it presents the true picture of Flynn, his genius for living, his many flaws, his peccadillos and quirks. Whereas ‘My Wicked…Ways’ was rousing and fascinating and wonderfully written, equal parts fact and fiction, the Conrad memoir really lays it out.

Fast forward 35 years during which time one of my avocations has been the study of psychopathy as well as  a concomitant ten year career as an investigative reporter. Re-reading Conrad’s memoir last week, it was perfectly clear that poor Errol was a  psychopath. There is no question. His behavior as described by Conrad is textbook, and would rank Errol high on the Hare Checklist, the accepted litmus test for diagnosing this condition. This is not to belittle Errol’s many talents and unique presence, but he was indeed a psychopath, an affliction that one is born with. There may be an inherited component, the jury is still out on this; it may stem from an under developed amygdala, a small gland in the brain that contributes to the development of one’s conscience and the ability to control one’s impulses. But Errol was one, in my opinion.

In some ways, believing this, makes me empathize with him (Flynn). One of the saddest observations made by Conrad in his book (beside the sheer sense of wanton self destruction exhibited by Errol) was that Errol was virtually friendless. This Conrad finds shocking, as I did, and Conrad liked Flynn and seems like a thoughtful and honest writer, so I believe him. Conrad observed that Flynn had countless fans and wannabe hangers-on and constant solicitations to invest in things or lend his name to organizations, but virtually no friends.

I know my observations are going to upset many Flynn fans. And these same observations don’t diminish Flynn the often brilliant actor, but at least for me, they explain a lot. I remember reading Conrad’s memoir for the first time in 1984 when I was an aspiring writer working at Omni magazine in NY. I was so taken with it that I contacted Mrs Conrad through her husband’s publisher -Earl had recently died- and as it happened she was visiting NYC. We met at the old Madison Pub on Madison Ave in the 80’s, and talked about Earl and Errol and I was pitching the idea of making a movie about the experience of writing the book. I remember how much she’d like Errol the few times they met, and recounted one story about having once owned a photo of Errol urinating on the side of the road in Cuba! I remember she was recovering from pneumonia and wanted to catch a cab to her hotel downtown, and so to save her money (since Madison headed uptown) I walked her through a snowstorm around the block to Lexington Ave so she could travel south (?) with the traffic. Which damn near killed her.



— TJR McDowell



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  1. David DeWitt

    August 24, 2019 at 12:38 pm

    Well, it was brave to make a controversial posting like this! I have to remind all and sundry that Flynn wrote an excellent piece about fear, and was known not for nothing as the Fearless Flynn, and yet he was afraid of madness, and afraid he would not live fully, perhaps, if he gave into every social norm. However, at the time he knew Conrad he was both a drug user (not many have friends who are not into the same thing, and therefore are somewhat secretive) and he also was in the company of an underage girl, was desperate for money much of the time and knew he was dying at the very end … add to this that his occupation kept him apart from ordinary mortals often and that his friends in the business were far off, unless he was working with them – this is why Flynn kept the same people working with him, it is friendship and a certain comfort level to work with the same people as many times as you can.

    In films, unless you are on a series, most of the people you work with all know you and you don’t know anybody! You come on a set prepared, do some camera rehearsal or work with the director a bit and then shoot the damned thing among a hundred strangers. In the studio days there was a sense of family, but when things went independent, you were largely on your own each time you did a project. Traveling, leaving family for large blocks of time, of course you are not going to get a lot of mail that is from chatty friends.

    Errol was loved in Jamaica but with his problems might have had a hard time just being himself even there, so there is going to be some kind of distance between him and others unless (just to show contradiction) you are lonely! So, you walk down to the pub or the favorite restaurant and suddenly are surrounded by “friends” and the curious and the gobsmacked … being quite social (if only out of boredom) Errol devised ways to entertain himself, horse races, river raft races, mouse races, etc., practical jokes, parties on the beach and felt he had to do at least one talked about thing per day or he was going to disappoint people, or just himself.

    Now, with a sense more of adventure than anything, he looks to have had a bit of larceny in his heart but never set out to do a well thought out crime. Rather, his letters show that he was defending himself against the crimes and shenanigans of others much of the time who tried to cheat him in various ways (William Marshall comes to mind …)

    So, my feeling is, that unless you have had the kind of life Flynn had, worldwide fame much of your life, and descend into drug use, and ill health, and a sense of wondering what the hell happened to everybody, what did it all mean, you can make observations like Conrad did and succeed in recording only the enigma, not in understanding the real core of the man, as Tony Thomas came close to doing …

    And finally, his letters and things he said to Nora and close pals toward the end and even his photos reveal something of how deeply he felt things, contradicting the idea that he felt no empathy for others or moral responsibility for his own actions. Errol Flynn was deeply flawed but I think hurt himself much more than he hurt others …

  2. Gentleman Tim

    August 24, 2019 at 1:44 pm

    I don’t know the size of Errol’s amygdala, TJR, but Errol did leave us extensive evidence regarding his philosophy of life. In March of 1939, for example, he published the article below. Thank you to Jack Marino for providing its transcription to me. He wrote similarly in MWWW about how he was going to confront life head-on, “drive it into a corner”, and refuse to die without having really lived.

    By Errol Flynn

    Nobody can afford to be afraid.

    All my life I’ve fought fear because I believe it is the only real menace to a man’s hopes and peace of mind. There are ways around every obstacle – but not around fear. We must meet that head-on, or spend our lives retreating. If fear gets us on the run, everything in life is futile.

    That’s why I believe in taking chances. If fear warns us against something we want to do, we should ignore that warning and plunge ahead. Just to defy fear, if for no other reason.

    Experience has not taught me that it is always best to take chances, but l would rather suffer the consequences of mistakes than letting fear handcuff me. To me, the only real defeat is giving in to fear.

    Fear is all around us. It is as natural to us as love. Only fools never know fear. Many times it has laid its hand on my shoulder and slithered its finger up my spine. I’m not ashamed of being afraid, but I wince at the thought of staying afraid. To sense fear is no disgrace. The bravest men I’ve ever known had to whistle to keep from running. The shame and the folly lie in not fighting fear.

    When I talk of a man’s obligation to fight fear, it’s only fair to admit that I have an advantage. I’m a fatalist. That helps a lot. When you believe fate has your schedule all made out, and that disaster won’t strike until your number comes up, you have terror whipped.

    But terror is only fear’s tom-tom. Its deadliest thrusts are dealt with in silence. Fear can work miracles with little things – like putting you ill at ease among strangers, making you afraid to speak your mind, kidding you into avoiding unpleasantness, and making a mental and moral coward out of you in a hundred different ways.

    Personally, I think there is only one way we can control our own lives and become “creators of circumstances” instead of “creatures of circumstances.” That is to refuse to be afraid to do the things we want to do: to refuse to be pushed around until we have nothing to do with steering our own lives.

    Unless we fight fear we must give in to conventions, and live according to the pattern. If we submit to fear by sacrificing our courage in exchange for security, we are regimented until we have no individualities.

    To me, that condition is absolutely abhorrent. I want to be an individual, with a hand on the tiller of my life. I’d rather steer into breakers than be towed into stale backwaters. I’d rather be an independent, free-thinking pauper than a fear-and-convention-bound millionaire.

    We should fight fear so we can stand against the present-day trend toward paternalism, and not degenerate into living in platoons and being deprived of every liberty.

    If we believe in individualism and self-respect, we should fight fear and dare consequences. By refusing to surrender to fear we can prevent our minds from being made up for us in mass formation. The loss of liberty is too great a price to pay for security, which, in the end, exists only when we win it for ourselves.

    We should make a business of having the courage of our convictions. We should make a business of this, just as we make a business of training for a profession or business career. Fighting fear is the most vital business in our lives.

    Fear, and fear alone has made the people of the dictator-dominated countries the pitiful slaves they are. Fear to act for themselves, fear to speak for themselves, fear to think for themselves, I believe we should grimly determine to go after what we want, no matter what the cost. If we fight hard enough for what we want, we’ll be too busy to suffer from not having it. And as long as we keep fighting, we can’t feel the sting of defeat.

    I would rather take a chance and lose than to admit to myself that I didn’t have the courage to try. I’d rather make a hundred mistakes, and take the consequences for everyone, than to grovel in the dirt because fear had its foot on my neck.

    That’s why I say, “Refuse to be Afraid.” Refuse to submit to that mild form of cowardice known as self-consciousness. Recognize bashfulness and an inferiority complex for what they are – fear.

    Refuse to refrain from saying what you want to say for fear your tongue may get thick or your speech muddled. Refuse to slink in the background for fear of a rebuff. Refuse to be cowed by conventionalities.

    I’m an authority on these weaknesses and submission to fear because I’m still battling them. And whipping them with growing ease. And here’s a pleasant fact to remember: every time you fight fear you are making your next encounter with it less difficult. Every time you fail to fight, you make the next tilt tougher. Whip fear in the little things, and you’ll have two strikes on it in the big things.

    To always fight is the important thing; as two-thirds of the accomplishment in the world is due not to ability, but to the courage to try. You can’t afford to be afraid.

    Perhaps Errol’s life and lament was much the same as that of Icarus …



  3. TJR McDowell

    August 24, 2019 at 4:23 pm

    Of course, I could be wrong about this… but sadly I don’t think I am. Another characteristic of psychopaths is a certain fearlessness and a constant need to “feel” life (re: the article Jack submitted), to be stimulated daily through whatever means, because the psychopath feels very little (emotionally). A surfeit of charm, an above average intelligence, an addiction to sex drugs and alcohol, an ability to manipulate, to be gratuitously cruel, an imperiousness, impulsiveness, and often suicide, are also hallmarks of the psychopath. A good investigative reporter, which I think I was, weighs all the evidence and then draws a conclusion, with an eye on the criteria for judgement. But as a life long Flynn fan, which I still am, I just kind of stumbled onto this conclusion, knowing what I know about Flynn and psychopathy. I didn’t set out to knock Errol. Maybe I should have kept my thoughts to myself, but I’m fascinated by the ying and yang of life, the cause and effect, the reason for things.

  4. shangheinz

    August 25, 2019 at 4:40 pm

    Thanks TJR for your frankness. Every indebt blog entry is appreciated, especially the contoversial ones.. A true Flynn fan is well aware of Errols shortcomings despite his larger than life image. The whole Hollywood environment was detrimental to building character with studio bosses at the helm like Jack Warner, a penny pincher and compulsive casino gambler, Harry Cohn, a devoted wife cheater family man, and Darryl F. Zanuck, whose mistress protegés Carole Landis and Marilyn Monroe both ended their lives. Just to name a few hell of famers and the list doesnt even include WED!
    We are not oblivious to the fact he made some bad choices in life, including his choice of friends. What we charish is his devil may care attitude and his innate insecurity he overplayed so well with charm and humour. A lot of his cronies fit the description of psychopath better than him.

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