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Book Review Jeffrey Meyers “Inherited Risk: Errol and Sean Flynn in Hollywood and Vietnam”

Peter Crimmins, Special to the Daily Planet
Friday June 21, 2002

One of the initially curious things about the new book by Berkeley author Jeffrey Meyers is the author’s image on the dust jacket. It’s not a photo, but a reprinting of a painting depicting Meyers as the character Senor Ferrari from the film “Casablanca.” Ferraro, played by Sydney Greenstreet (the corpulent, semi-regular Bogart rival who also played opposite him in “The Maltese Falcon”) was the overseer of all things illegal in Casablanca and the owner of The Blue Parrot, the far less glamorous gin joint than Rick’s Café Americain. In the painting Meyers/Greenstreet/Ferraro is wearing a dinner jacket and fez, seated regally at the Café behind a notepad and a bottle of Jack Daniels while Rick and play-it-for-me Sam are brooding in the background. Ferraro, a Mabusian vulture, knows all the dirty dealings in Casablanca.  

It’s an oddly whimsical image for the distinguished writer, whose many books have gathered international laudations. He has written 40 books and hundreds of essays on literature, art, politics, and film, and his book on Earnest Hemmingway was praised on both sides of the Atlantic as a masterwork of biography. When he entered the realm of moviedom with a 1997 biography on Humphrey Bogart he brought Hemmingway along for the ride, comparing the two hard-living, hard-drinking men whose lives intersected when Bogart starred in the film adaptation of Hemmingway’s “To Have And Have Not.” 

As if to put the Six Degrees of Separation game into literate practice, Meyers links Errol Flynn into the chain of associations in his latest book “Inherited Risk: Errol and Sean Flynn in Hollywood and Vietnam.” The famous swashbuckler, womanizer, and actor from “Captain Blood” (1935) and “Robin Hood” (1938) had, like Hemmingway, gone to the Spanish Civil War on the side of the Loyalists (although neither, contrary to popular belief, actually fought in the war) and he starred in the film adaptation of Papa’s “The Sun Also Rises.” And although Meyer’s admits that Flynn “was not a close friend of Humphrey Bogart,” he connects the two actors’ characters together through their love of sailing, their hatred of their mothers, and being “aggressive and contentious, witty wise-crackers, and heavy drinkers.” But Meyers spreads his net much wider in tracing the life and times of Flynn, incorporating an erudite, kitchen-sink web of references (most pulled from the vast research of his previous writings) from Shakespeare to poet James Dickey to filmmaker Billy Wilder to Joseph Conrad to Fyodor Dostoyevsky to George Orwell to Mozart’s “Don Giovanni,” and even quotations taken out of context from Samuel Johnson (to Boswell), and Mary Shelley and Samuel Coleridge writing about Lord Byron: “…a wicked lord who, from morbid and restless vanity, pretended to be ten times more wicked than he was.” 

The life of Errol Flynn is not unknown. Much has been written about the Australian’s youthful adventures, sudden arrival and superstardom in Hollywood, his scandalous legal problems and decline into alcoholism and eventual liver failure. Flynn wrote a wildly popular autobiography just before his death. The title is loosely based on Coleridge’s description of Byron, “My Wicked, Wicked Ways.” Meyer’s does an admirable job investigating the inconsistencies in previously published material, and exposing the biases natural to the craft of biography – while at the same time being upfront about his slant. For example, when Flynn’s mother wrote a letter to studio head Jack Warner after Errol’s death, imploring him for financial assistance, Meyer’s writes, “one hopes this letter melted Jack Warner’s flinty heart and prompted a generous handout.” His lively account of Flynn’s life is peppered with innumerable tasty tid-bits of trivia. Did you know there is a species of tidepool fish, the Gibbonsia erroli, named after Errol Flynn? 

This re-examination of Errol’s life is most profoundly marked by Meyer’s framing device. Sean Flynn, Errol’s son by his first of three wives, Lili Damita, was eighteen when his estranged father died. Errol, who adored his children but was a lousy, mostly absent philandering father, passed on to his son a taste for danger and adventure that led Sean to an early, gruesome death. By varying accounts adoring or ignoring his father, Sean, who briefly dabbled in acting, set out to do in life what Flynn did only in movies – to live dangerously without a net. 

Like father like son, the Flynns had wanted to be writers and, to some degree they were. Along with his bestselling autobiography Errol wrote two novels, two plays, and several pieces of journalism. Sean went to Vietnam as a reporter and found success as a war photographer. In the many excerpts of their writings Meyer’s includes in the book, a reader can see differences between the caddish star of the 1940’s and the free-living student of Buddhism in the late1960’s. “What wine drinker, what man athirst, thinks of the bottle which is to assuage his thirst?” Errol wrote in his diary. “The hell with the decanter so the wine be good! So it is with women.” In Saigon 1970, Sean wrote to his mother “make peace with him and your heart is still. … Watch the plants, rains, sunsets, bugs, the changes in the winds, sea and clouds. Watch them and relax in peace. There is a place for all of us.” 

“Inherited Risk” begins with a brief, 40-page description of Sean’s upbringing, his restless youth in and out of private schools, and his fateful and fatal interest in the Vietnam War. The chapter acts as a kind of character preamble to the next 250 pages, which belong to Errol. The interpretations of his personality and self-destructive nature read like inevitable revelations in light of the doomed legacy his son would eventually live and die with. The final section is a 17-page account of how Sean died: recklessly interested in covering the emerging Cambodian war, he drove a motorcycle into a Khmer Rouge guerrilla camp and was never seen again. His death came most probably in a prison camp, from disease or a gunshot intended for sick prisoners who could no longer be transported. Meyer’s uses an entire paragraph to describe all the possible ways Sean could have died for the rubbernecking gore-hound readers: lynched for his wristwatch, crossfire, torture, buried alive, bludgeoned by a shovel, or perhaps beheaded by the blade of a hoe. 

Sean’s reckless, suicidal, and maybe heroic death during wartime is a spectacular death of a young man who eschewed the movie industry for “real” life. His was the kind of death, ironically, that might make for a particularly bloody action film. The final pages of “Inherited Risk” seem anticlimactic after Errol’s death from liver failure, which had a less spectacular punch but was more dramatic. Flynn saw his death coming, and maybe even prepared for it. One of his last movies was about the final years of Flynn’s close friend and alter ego John Barrymore, who had himself died broken from too much drink. Flynn, whose life and health was falling apart, played Barrymore while drinking two quarts of vodka a day on the shooting set. Meyer’s writes his performance was “uncannily accurate” and “unusually moving” as Flynn achieved, through Barrymore, a prescient wisdom. “Flynn’s performance, underneath all the fire and vitality, gave a heartbreaking glimpse of his own despair.”  

The title of Meyer’s book gives a sense of the demise of his two subjects. Errol in Hollywood lived and died like an actor given a full narrative arc and enough time in his death scene to find a character change. Sean in Vietnam died like a soldier in the field, suddenly, senselessly and, perhaps, deliberately.