Flynn's Last Fling
Near the end of his life, Hollywood's greatest swashbuckler embarked on one final adventure-the Cuban revolution
From the Print Edition:
Tom Selleck, Nov/Dec 2007
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The Big Boodle, produced by tiny Monteflor Inc. and released through United Artists, did little for Flynn's sagging career, but it did bring him to Cuba at a critical time in his life—and in the island's history. Fidel Castro, the 29-year-old resistance leader living in exile in Mexico, had declared that 1956 would be a year of reckoning for Cuban dictator Fulgencio Batista. Though the prediction would prove premature, by year's end Castro was indeed back in Cuba, hiding out in the mountains of Oriente province and solidifying his ragtag fighting force.
Flynn, if he had not heard of Castro previously, surely would have become familiar with the name that summer, when Havana was abuzz with the young rebel's rumored return, or, at the very least, by early 1957, when New York Times reporter Herbert Matthews wrote a series of lengthy articles identifying Castro as "the most dangerous enemy General Batista has yet faced." Not that Flynn was looking for a revolution. A frequent visitor to Havana since the 1930s, Hollywood's most famous swashbuckler was both an avid gambler and a habitué of the city's flesh dens. "I enter a whorehouse with the same interest as I do the British Museum or the Metropolitan—in the same spirit of curiosity," he once confessed. Cuba, under the dual administration of Batista and mob boss Meyer Lansky, was a paradise for dissolute tourists, one practically built with Flynn in mind.
And yet, by the late 1950s, the actor found himself drawn more and more to the revolution and its charismatic leader. "The one thing [Flynn] was for was freedom," says daughter Rory, offering one possible explanation for the attraction. But surely there was more to it than that. Might Flynn not have seen in Castro the reflection of his own, younger swashbuckling self—a real-life Robin Hood, complete with his own band of merry men?
Or, perhaps, he saw an opportunity to relive his own celluloid adventures. As he wrote in his autobiography, My Wicked, Wicked Ways, living up to his image as the quintessential man of action became almost an obsession for him: "There was a fellow inside myself who would say to me, 'You are an impostor, Flynn. In real life you don't do any of the things you do on the screen. You are no more capable of that kind of action in real life than a choirboy.' Maybe that is why, in my private life, I went ahead, consciously or unconsciously, to live such a life of reality instead of just portraying it all the time."
Most memorably, he had traveled to Spain as a correspondent for the Hearst newspaper chain in 1937, to cover the civil war. In a dispatch that must have sent shivers through the Warner Bros. offices, on April 5 The New York Times reported that Flynn had "received a minor bullet wound on his face." In truth, he had been nicked by some flying debris. Still, he had been close enough to the action for that to have been a hazard.
Given this history, and the increasing public fascination with Castro, it should have come as a surprise to no one when Flynn returned to Cuba in late 1958, again in the employ of the Hearst press. He arrived in Havana in late December, accompanied by his teenage girlfriend, Beverly Aadland. According to biographer Jeffrey Meyers, who recounts the episode in his book, Inherited Risk, Flynn had a secret meeting with a Castro agent at the Hotel Nacional. It was just before midnight on December 25. Two days later, after two plane flights and a harrowing car trip through the dirt roads of Oriente, Flynn met face-to-face with Castro. Impressed by the rebel leader, Flynn interviewed him extensively on his hopes for the future. One of Castro's men, though, had a question for the former screen star in their midst: "How come you look so young in the movies and so old now?"
Flynn and Castro spent the next five days together, observing the fighting around the city of Santiago. As in Spain 20 years earlier, a minor wound suffered by Flynn, a shell fragment in his shin, was blown up into something much more dramatic by the press: the loss of a leg. Limbs intact, Flynn not only managed to file his dispatches, but he was the only American correspondent with Castro when Batista fled the country on New Year's Day 1959.
A week later, when Castro arrived in Havana, Flynn was again close by. Legendary screenwriter Budd Schulberg (On the Waterfront), who had traveled to Cuba to observe Castro's triumph, and who a decade later would write a novel, Sanctuary V, based loosely on what he saw, remembers that it was Flynn who helped him secure an audience with the world's most famous revolutionary. "I met Castro in the lobby of a Havana hotel, arm in arm with Errol Flynn, who I knew from Hollywood," Schulberg told an interviewer in 2005. "So I went up to the room with them—Errol served up a tall vodka—and got to talk to Castro. The whole world wanted to talk to him."
However much Flynn might have appeared to enjoy his status as Castro's most visible American supporter, there was a dark side to the role as well. British explorer Robin Hanbury-Tenison, who, like Schulberg, was drawn to Cuba by the import of the historical moment and spent time with Flynn there, once recalled the unique strain the actor was under: "Errol was observing the downside of revolution at close quarters. As an international figure, he was useful to the regime, lending some legitimacy to the nastier things they felt had to be done to secure their hold on the country. Quick trials, kangaroo courts, followed by executions took place every evening. Errol was expected to attend."
That same January, Flynn appeared as a guest on the popular Canadian news/quiz program "Front Page Challenge." Addressing rumors that he had participated in some of the rebel fighting, he assured the panel of interviewers that he hadn't "[picked] up anything more dangerous than a ballpoint pen." It was a good line and it gave everybody a laugh. His attempt to sidestep the issue of Castro's bloody reprisals, however, was not nearly as successful. "I know that [Castro] himself and his brother, Raúl, and his little old lady mother, who's a doll, she really is," Flynn stammered, "don't believe in retribution... uh, summary retribution." His half-hearted assurances aside, he was disillusioned by what he had seen, and in time would conclude that the revolution he had supported so enthusiastically was not so different from the government it had replaced.
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