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Errol & Olivia
Ego & Obsession in Golden Era Hollywood
By Robert Matzen
Paladin CommunicationsCopyright © 2017 Robert Matzen
All rights reserved.
VOYAGES TO PORT ROYAL
The parallels are startling. Both born in the lands of the Pacific Rim — the south for him, the north for her. Both sired by tall, detached, thinking men with eyes for the ladies. Both reared by strong, flirtatious, histrionic mothers, one named Lily and the other Lilian, who berate and dominate their children. Both grow into beautiful young adults who are capable of looking after their own skin. Both take indirect roads to Hollywood and fall backwards into acting careers at the same studio, at the same time. Both rise to the heights of fame while other hopeful stars and starlets fail, burn out, or worse, commit suicide. Both are groomed within the studio system, grow rich and powerful from it, and then use their power to rebel against the same studio system as personified by one man, tough-talking, no-nonsense Warner Bros. Studios head Jack L. Warner — J.L. — the Boss. One brings J.L. to his wit's end through mindless antics; the other brings J.L. to his knees through guts, a congenital air of unhappiness, and cold logic. And right about here, with the two stars in court during World War II, the parallels end.
Errol Flynn and Olivia de Havilland grow up in far-flung lands, leading early lives that harden and warp them. They meet at just the right moment, learn about the picture business together, fall in love, fall in hate, reconcile, and part — all in the span of six years.
But before they meet, they must be born. Errol Leslie Thomson Flynn enters the world on June 20, 1909, in Tasmania, the appendix of Australia. The "lusty infant" has been conceived illegitimately after a shy but womanizing college professor meets the sexy, flirtatious daughter of a master mariner. As discussed in a number of biographies and in Flynn's memoir, My Wicked, Wicked Ways, through Flynn's infancy and into his later childhood, Professor Theo Flynn remains aloof, leaving Lily Mary Flynn, whom Errol will refer to later as "Mother," to run the show with an iron fist. Early on, Errol learns to be loud and obnoxious, or he won't get any attention because of the carrying-on and mirror gazing of Mother. The pathological way he will deal with women for the course of his lifetime serves as evidence of an unhealthy relationship with Mother, and the fact that his first wife is a dead ringer for Lily Mary, even down to the name Lili, hints that as much as Errol will rail against Mother, she still has her seductive qualities.
Around 1916, according to accounts that Flynn will tell, not just at the boozy end of his life but in 1933 as a young man, the Flynns move to Australia where little Errol will be cajoled by an older neighbor girl to show what he's got down there, as she does the same. No seven-year-old boy is going to know what this means, although the girl seems to know. Her mother walks in on them and goes light on Daughter; Errol catches hell, takes a beating, and, when forced to tell of his misdeeds to his father, refuses. Mother is enraged. "She flew at me again," he recalls. "I screamed. He stepped in. He was never any match for her, either in words or action, and Mother followed through with a torrent of invective. This is no place for me, I decided. I'd leave home, get a job. The next morning I went out of doors, ostensibly to play. I walked off, a long walk, into the farming country. Jobs weren't plentiful. There was a great deal of unemployment in the seven-year-old ranks."
At just about this time, farther up the Pacific, Olivia Mary de Havilland makes her grand entrance in, of all places, Tokyo, Japan, on July 1, 1916, seven years and ten days after the first appearance of the Tasmanian Devil. Like the Flynns, the de Havillands are well-to-do and popular in their social set — Walter is a patent attorney; Lilian is a socialite. When Olivia's baby sister, Joan de Beauvoir de Havilland is born on October 22, 1917, each girl has a day nurse and a night nurse. Such are the high times in Japan.
Olivia recalls, "My mother became interested in amateur theatricals in Tokyo," and before long participates in productions that entertain the visiting Royals.
Joan says, "Mother's whole attention was absorbed in us, in amateur theatricals, and in entertaining the European social set. Father felt slighted and sought other female playmates. Soon Mother's breakfast trays were being served by an upstairs maid who was wearing increasingly beautiful and costly kimonos. Though Victorian, Mother was no fool. It was Yoki-san who had to go ... or us. It was us."
"They then decided," says Olivia, "that my mother had to find some place, preferably outside of Japan. There were several possibilities, and the final decision was that my father would buy some land near Victoria on Vancouver Island." They sail to San Francisco but make it no farther north and never see Canada because Olivia contracts tonsillitis, and out come the tonsils in the latest of an ongoing string of health crises for the frail little girls — especially Joanie, who isn't outgrowing her sickly infancy.
Already, there is tension between the sisters. "When Joan got sick," Olivia says later, "it was an immense drama — and for an imaginative, hysterical child that was bad. If she got chickenpox, it was a drama of state. When I had it, I went to bed and was told to keep still and not scratch."
Olivia will see the attention that Joan gets for her illnesses and develop a sickly streak of her own that will stay with her through her career, so that it becomes difficult to separate real from imagined illness and real from imagined exhaustion.
Meanwhile, Down Under, Professor Theo Flynn pursues his doctorate at the University of Sydney and then goes on to other academic endeavors, including studies in London in 1922. Young Errol, feeling the influx of testosterone, tags along to London. He is placed in a boarding school in Barnes, Richmond Upon Thames, where he makes friends with a boy his age — and falls in love with his friend's elder sister, named Mary White. Flynn documents his precocious exploits in love letters to Mary in which he says of her kisses, "they are all right when they are real, by jove." In another he says, "I will be glad when I will be able to go out with you, of course once we have been out it will be easily managed another time. ... Will you come up to the football pitch on Saturday?" When classmates, including Mary's brother, tease young Flynn for his ardent pursuits, he reports to her that he "slapped their gobs and told them that they were talking out of their necks." He also laments in the letters that he never hears from Lily Mary: "Mum has not said anything since the last blue moon; probably the stamp supply round her way has run short or something."
Gloomy, insecure, feeling cut off from Mother and in the grip of hormones, Errol becomes a charming, self-absorbed bully. No school can hold the Devil, who is expelled from Barnes in 1924 and heads back to Australia and then Tasmania. School after school greets him and then gives him the boot. By 17, gripped by what would today be labeled Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder, or ADHD, marked by a short attention span, restlessness, forgetfulness, and then a spiraling lack of self-worth, he runs out of schools. In all his years of education, he excels only at tennis and other sports. For the Errol Flynn who will one day be labeled by some as an intellectual, his classroom career is hardly academic.
Out of options and still only 17, he does what any young hellion would — he gets in good with the monied social set and lands a department store job, which he loses in a year because he, apparently, is siphoning funds. At 18, Errol Flynn is proving not to be a hard worker. He has learned to use his charm in place of applying himself, but again he runs out of options and heads for the gold fields of New Guinea in anticipation of a quick strike and a Count of Monte Cristo-like return to Sydney.
For Errol, the awakening is rude. According to author John Hammond Moore in the exhaustively researched (in Australia and New Guinea) The Young Errol: "... the handsome youngster who arrived in Rabaul, New Guinea on 1 October, 1927, spent the following 25 months in a number of jobs, frequently getting the boot or suddenly quitting after only a few weeks. Part of his problem was undoubtedly endemic teenage restlessness, but this urge was complicated by well-developed laziness, contempt for authority and — very frankly — failure to get enough sleep each night. Involved with cards, drink, or perhaps some romantic exploit ... employers got short-shrift indeed."
Juxtaposed against the sweaty cesspool of 1920s New Guinea is the picturesque, refined hamlet of Saratoga, California, population 800 —"Our telephone number was number seven," says Livvie. Little Saratoga, nestled in mountain foothills and in the shadow of the redwoods, serves as backdrop for the American adventure of Lilian de Havilland who has found herself a new husband. He is George Milan Fontaine, a high-collared, stuffed-shirt department store executive who treats the de Havilland children as a gunnery sergeant would treat recruits. A classic stepfather, and not in a good way, Fontaine runs a tight and humorless ship. "Perfection was the least expected of us," says Joan. Livvie and Joanie take to calling him "G.M." or the more apropos "Iron Duke."
G.M. builds his new-found family a two-story, Tudor-inspired stucco house on La Paloma Avenue in Saratoga. Here Joan first starts to call her big sister "Livvie," and here the girls grow up, each of them an oven-forged, curious mixture of fanciful imagination and competitiveness. Olivia remembers, "Our house in Saratoga ... was homey and cozy but quite small. So that we had to share the same room whether we liked it or not. And we didn't like it at all.
"Those periods of being the stray dog around the house were numerous ... those days when I was told, 'Run along and play, Livvie, Joanie is asleep,' or 'Don't bother me now, Livvie, Joanie wants me to read to her' ... and at the same time there was Joan, feeling pretty limp, no doubt, even though she was so petted and pampered, and doubtless green with envy of me, all strong and well ... and so, you see the seeds which were to develop ... were already planted and growing."
A dozen years later when Olivia de Havilland and Joan Fontaine arrive in Hollywood, they will not be stars created and groomed by "star school" at the studios. The traits they share, the beautiful diction, calm demeanor, ability to memorize complex dialogue, graceful movement, and above all, the savvy, result from life in G.M. Fontaine's home on La Paloma Avenue. Joan says that according to their stepfather, "Real education was at home, not at school." The grueling curriculum includes regular lessons in manners, diction, walking, dance, piano, and domestic science. There is no such thing as downtime in the Fontaine home and no such thing as fun — except for Saturday evening trips to the picture show if conduct has been exemplary through the week.
In a magazine article years later Lilian will call her daughters' upbringing "just old-fashioned guidance of right and wrong," like the time the little girls argue in the back seat of the car and Lilian makes them walk home — on opposite sides of the street.
Or the time when Lilian discovers that third-grader Olivia has told a fib at home. Enraged, she barges into her daughter's classroom and announces the misdeed in front of all her classmates, adding, "Prevaricators should be shunned." Rebellion is inevitable under the yoke of oppression, and 12-year-old Olivia becomes "ringleader" of a group of A students who bedevil their teachers. Underneath, however, she has grown into and will remain a shy and uncomfortable introvert and a lonely soul. Like Errol, Livvie yearns to be in control, he by charm and she by force of a strong and wise-beyond-her-years will. They are also by now each exhibiting a sadistic streak born of the cruel treatment they have received from their closest authority figures. Errol will reveal this streak in cruel practical jokes; Joanie will later cite big sister Livvie's meanness by chapter and verse.
The sisters' central authority figure, G.M., is a dark man. Joan says, "Mr. Fontaine bathed us little girls in the tub each night. The washcloth would tarry too long in intimate places. Olivia and I, never given to confidences, did agree that something was odd." It is a telling admission, and perhaps the tip of an iceberg; neither of them will have anything to do with the Iron Duke as adults.
By the early 1930s, first Livvie and then Joanie begin working in theatricals, like their mother. This diversion suits the histrionic personalities of all three women, as histrionics rule on La Paloma Avenue.
Several thousand miles to the west, Errol Flynn, now at the age of majority, is on his third stint in the wilds of New Guinea, as overseer of a five-acre tobacco plantation in Laloki using black laborers. The facility exports more than a ton of cured tobacco in 1932, but the product is declared to be faulty due to bad curing. In fact, Australian tobacco growers don't want competition from New Guinea operations that use native labor, and Flynn's efforts are sabotaged. Were he successful here, Errol Flynn probably would never make his way above the equator or follow the strange path that will lead him to worldwide fame.
As it is, the weary adventurer washes out of the tobacco business and returns to Sydney and his old posse of the social set, including the fiancée he had left behind, elegant, dark-haired, dark-eyed Naomi Dibbs, whose appearance is not dissimilar to a beauty he will meet three years later during the casting of Captain Blood. Amongst this crowd, Flynn takes on the part of one of those cads who go by the name Reggie or Percy and populates upper-crust social comedies of the day. Their occupation is always in question, but they show up in skimmer and striped blazer with utter charm and get the biggest laughs.
One day, while on the beach with his friends, Flynn the cad catches the eye of established filmmaker Charles Chauvel, who is casting a documentary about Pitcairn Island called In the Wake of the Bounty, which includes a retelling of the mutiny on HMS Bounty. In one of those moments that seem incredible because, after all, what are the odds, Chauvel happens to be at the beach the same day that Flynn is at the beach and believes that this striking but anonymous young fellow could portray Fletcher Christian in his picture — not knowing that Errol Flynn really and truly is descendant not only of Christian but of another Bounty mutineer, Edward Young. In fact, Lily Mary Flynn's maiden name is Young, of those particular Youngs!
So, at just about the time that 16-year-old Livvie is impressing audiences on the stage as Alice in the Saratoga production of Alice in Wonderland, Flynn is chewing up the scenery on a Sydney soundstage as his own ancestor, Fletcher Christian, in a documentary travelogue.
Finally, at the age of 23 and lacking any experience, Flynn finds something he wants to do and something he has a gift for — pretending to be someone else. He actually gets paid to stand around and use his charm, and with a built-in audience!
Finally, at 16, Livvie can feel some semblance of control and lose herself in a new character. From Saratoga, Alice in Wonderland goes to the Palo Alto Community Theater. Livvie will later often say with pride, "The best review I have ever received — at the age of 16 — was from George C. Warren of the San Francisco Chronicle reviewing Alice in Wonderland."
Just now, Livvie has fallen deeply in love, establishing a pattern that becomes more pronounced as she matures. She will later identify her beau only as Peter. He is a year ahead of her at Los Gatos High. They have known each other since first grade, and he is an intellectual on his way to Yale, and a sensitive guy. She calls their relationship an engagement, and it is indeed serious. She invests everything in Peter and lives and breathes the part of a girlfriend. But when Livvie scores in Alice, and now has two loves, both extremely passionate, Peter feels as if the rug is being pulled out from under him.
"He began to be possessive and demanding," she says. "He insisted I be with him at times when he knew I had to be at the theater rehearsing." She had seen him as a god and now his behavior is "less god-like" and not in keeping with young Olivia's fantasy world of life in general and boys in particular. It is a place the sisters are driven to, a Wonderland not ruled by the Iron Duke. Young gentlemen who seek to romance either of them must be tall, older, distinguished, intellectual, and self-confident to the point of smugness, but remain gentlemen who will allow the girls to engage in their pursuits.
In other words, these gentlemen must in many ways resemble a benevolent version of the very man they despise, George Milan Fontaine.
For posterity Olivia will say that Peter's demands are "damned unreasonable" and states that she is forced to give Peter his walking papers, but it may well be that Peter knows what a Yale man has to offer, refuses to play second fiddle to a girl chasing footlights, and dumps Olivia, crushing her in the process.
Excerpted from Errol & Olivia by Robert Matzen. Copyright © 2017 Robert Matzen. Excerpted by permission of Paladin Communications.
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Table of Contents
Prologue: Chasing Legends,
1 Voyages to Port Royal,
2 The Coup de Foudre,
3 Flashman and the Lady,
4 The Big Dance,
5 The Sure Thing,
6 Gone Hollywood,
7 Dysfunction Junction,
8 Bored to Death,
9 Life Is Full of Surprises,
10 Lovers in Exile,
11 Life After Flynn,
Selected Book-Length Sources,
About the Author,
More Classic Hollywood from GoodKnight Books,