The book was done, typed and packaged, and a seamy document it was -- Errol Flynn raping women, Errol Flynn buying boys for the night. Errol Flynn stealing jewelry and dropping a piranha into his dinner hostess' fish tank and working so drunk he had to be wired to the castle battlements. Almost from the first interviews, Charles Higham had understood that he was writing about an essentially amoral man -- "frozen in that fascist period of first puberty," he wrote in the introduction, "when the human male feels his oats and is ready to try anything."
Higham had worked two full years on his Flynn biography. He had chosen a title, perused the photographs, sat through the minor motion pictures, stared over and over at the famous Flynn profile -- the delicate mustache, the aquiline nose, the clean strong arc of the matinee idol's jawline in scenes from "Captain Blood" to "The Adventures of Robin Hood." j
But something nagged.
It began with a single telephone call. Higham still needed some photographs of Flynn's early childhood, and he phoned for help to the Los Angeles writer who had ghosted Flynn's autobiography. The writer obliged.
Then the writer mentioned that an Errol Flynn buff had called him with an odd tip; perhaps Higham would be interested. It seemed this Flynn admirer had found an old newspaper article that said Dr. H. F. Erben, whom Higham knew only as an eccentric Austrian doctor who had befriended Flynn in New Guinea and remained a close companion for many years, had turned state's evidence at a 1946 Nazi espionage trial held in Shanghai.
Higham was curious, and a little uneasy. He got hold of the Shanghai trial transcript. Under oath, on the stand, the mysterious Dr. Erben had discussed in detail his role in the Mexico City branch of the Abwehr, the German military intelligence command that asked Erben to found the Shanghai Nazi spy ring. Erben, in a recent interview in Vienna for ABC news program "20/20," said he did testify as a prosecution witness in the Shanghai trail, but that he never said under oath that he spied for the Nazis.
Higham read the transcript quickly and decided to call Ladislas Farago. Farago is a popular writer, whose books include "The Game of the Foxes" and "Patton: Ordeal and Triumph" -- and he knew an enormous amount about espionage, and kept voluminous files filled with names.
Higham reached Farago by telephone. Did he know anything about Nazis and Errol Flynn?
"Freddy McEvoy," Farago said. McEvoy, a green-eyed Australian playboy who looked very much like Flynn, was one of the central characters in Higham's book. There was a picture of him lounging on the deck of Flynn's yacht. Higham had thought of him as Flynn's closest friend. Now Farago told him that McEvoy was a rabidly anti-Semitic Nazi sympathizer -- that some years before he drowned in a storm off the coast of Morocco, McEvoy had been part of a clandestine international clique working for the Third Reich.
Higham called London. He asked his British researcher to find Willi Frischauer, a retired journalist who lived in London and whom Higham considered on of the leading European authorities on espionage.
The researcher reached Frischauer at home. What Frischauer said, according to Higham, was this: He said the territory was quite dangerous. He said the researcher should come to his home the following morning to talk. He said, "There are people that won't like this found out. Be careful. Tell Mr. Higham to be careful."
He said, "I do know for a fact that Errol Flynn was a Nazi agent."
Charles Higham went to bed that evening and stared out int the darkness. He did not sleep. In the morning -- operating, he says now, on the blind instinct of an experienced biographer -- he took the train from Los Angeles to Washington, went straight to the National Archives, and found the files that contain the names of suspected "fifth column" subsersives brought to the attention of the State Department during World War II.
He found Erben's name.
He found McEvoy's name.
"And I found cards," Higham says, "on Errol Flynn." "Possible Subversive Activities," read the cards.
Higham had spent the last 24 months of his life researching this biography, interviewing, traveling, telephoning, writing, rewriting, trapped in the strange symbiosis of the biographer and his subject. His advance was used up. The idea of another year's work made him feel physically ill. He had no idea how classified documents might be stored, how to explore them, how to declassify them.
He though of dropping the whole book.
He thought of the vast array of appalling details he had already learned about the breathtaking Mr. Flynn -- the violent sex, the kleptomania, the casual and boisterous cruelty. By the time he had finished the book, Higham believed himself considerably beyond surprises on the subject of Errol Flynn. b
But Higham is an Englishman, and part Jewish. His childhood home was bombed by the Germans. His father was a ardent, active member of Parliament, who raised his children in a household bustling with English politicians and intellectuals.
All Higham's life, there had seemed to him no deeper evil than treason.
Charles Higham, sitting by himself in Stack 6E3 of the National Archives, began to cry.
And sometime that weekend, before the scheduled meeting with Higham's British researcher, Willi Frischauer, reportedly despondent over the death of his wife, committed suicide in his London home. The Secret Chase
"I was right to be afraid," Higham says. "Because it was the most difficult year of my life that lay ahead of me."
He smiles, but only a little. He is tall, roundshouldered, graying, British.
"I had to go to places like Fort Meade." Almost a visible shudder. "To me the thought of even setting foot in such a place was unthinkable. I didn't know if I'd ever come out again.Places like Suitland, Md., to the General Archives division, where they clip little words out with tiny pairs of scissors half the size of the average nail scissors. All I thought: 'This is perfectly awful. I'll have to enlist in M15."
Charles Higham -- poet, biographer, film columinist, lover of Chinese Chipendale and procelain dancing figurines -- stepped uneasily that afternoon onto the last shadows in the life of Eroll Flynn.
It was terriotry like nothing Higham had ever known. Raised in a brisk aristocratic shuttle between London and the grand family mansion in the English countryside, Higham felt slightly smothered by his overwhelming family and left England when he was 18 years old. He resettled in Australia, began reviewing movies and writing film commentary for the Sydney Morning Herald, and in 1970 moved to California to teach and write freelance articles about the motion picture industry.
He wrote movie biographies -- good ones, but easygoing. Katharine Hepburn, Marlene Dietrich, Ava Gardner. He wrote a lengthy biography of Arthur Conan Doyle, and edited anthologies of Australian writing. "Quite innocuous," Higham says. In his book "Hollywood at Sunset," Higham interviewed the eight surviving members of the Hollywood 10, the motion picture industry people who were jailed for refusing to testify before the House UnAmerican Activities Committee -- and that, until the Flynn biography, was the furthest Higham had even ventured into political or international intrigue.
Now he was caught, all at once, in a convoluted chase through a halz dozen secretive government agencies and three continents. He could not talk about it to people he knew. He had no idea how much he would find. He would stand around at parties, marking conversation, looking absent. "Suspended animation," Higham says. "I don't know how I slept."
The documents he requested began arriving in December 1978 -- fat manila envelopes filled with State Department memoranda, passport applications, consular reports, FBI reports, Coast Guard reports, military intelligence reports. Higham read and interviewed, and pieced together what he could.
He says he got hold of Erben's Nazi membership card and certificate of Aryan ancestry. He says he learned from government documents that while Erben was working in Florida, at a Civilian Conservation Corps camp, he made photographs of training methods and camp layouts, and spoke openly of his Nazism. He says he learned that when a warrant was issued for Erben's arrest, on charges that Erben left the United States illegally during a citizenship revocation trial.Errol Flynn hid Erben aboard his yacht and helped get the German doctor into Mexico.
In his interview for "20/20," Erben acknowledged, speaking English, that he had joined the Nazi party, but "not to join as an active political member." hNazi membership was necessary for his continued status as an academic, he said. To the charge that he involved Flynn in Nazi spying activities, Erben replied, "Utterly impossible . . . neither snaring Errol Flynn a friend of mine, not brain-washing Errol Flynn, a friend of mine was ever attempted or ever considered."
A dim memory surfaced now, something the late producer Robert Lord had told Higham nearly 10 years before. It had to do with Lord's picture "Dive Bomber," filmed in Hawaii in 1941. Lord had been adamant that Higham not tape-record or write down his statement, but as Higham dug back he believed he could reconstruct almost verbatim what the producer had told him.
In his book, he writes that this is what he heard:
Lord: "I do not want this statement published until after I'm dead. In our advance prints of the picture, before it was released, we used most of Errol's land and air shots of Pearl Harbor at his suggestion in a special, semi-documentary presentation of America's power in the Pacific. An advance print was sent to our representatives in Japan in the normal course of events in the late summer of 1941 . . ." Higham says Lord was in naval intelligence, and felt the Japanese had studied those films as a planning aid before the attack on Pearl Harbor.
Lord: "It's also shocking to think in retrospect that again at Errol's suggestion, we showed every detail of the San Diego Naval Base and the entire structure of the Enterprise. I believe the Japanese kept the film under study for years in case of a possible assault on California."
Higham had to find Erben.
"Obviously, if he was still alive, he was my number one target," Higham says. "I had a burning, consuming desire to expose this man . . . I hate Nazis with all my soul. Writing this book for me had been an adventure the first time round. A mission of exposure of my enemy."
Higham had one of his researchers check for Erben's name in past American Medical Association directories. He found it. Erben was listed as an absentee member in Vienna.
"So I called Vienna," Higham says. "No reply. I called again. No reply. So I had my service calling day and night, for three weeks, all through the night, with instructions to call me no matter when, if they got through. Nothing happened. One morning at 9:00 I got out of bed, and I had an overpowering impulse to call Vienna -- and I did. And a woman answered. My heart almost stopped."
The woman, speaking English, told Higham she was Erben's sister. Erben was out of the country. Higham says she said. He had moved to a leper colony in Sagada, in the Philippines, a wild and isolated place in the mountains where the doctor was at work on field research in leprosy.
There was no way Higham could reach the place himself, he decided -- the terrain was treacherous, and prone to violent storms. He asked the Philippine consulate to suggest reliable journalists who might make the trip for him, with a tape recorder and a set of questions, and when Higham had his names he stuck a pin into the list at random to make his selection.
The man he had chosen, Higham says, had grown up in Sagada.
And he knew Erben. He knew him very well.
The Philippine reporter talked to Erben at some length, Higham says, asking questions that made no reference to espionage. It helped to have a third party, Higham thought; he had learned from a former intelligence officer that in a situation like this, the interviewer ought to look as innocent as possible.
"He taught me counterintelligence techniques," Higham says. "He taught me, for instance, that you never disclose to your subject what you know -- that by seeming to be ignorant, you find out more than they intended you to know. Because the one thing that's significant of all Nazi agents is their contempt, especially for the English. And he would have a double contempt for me, because he would see me as a lightweight, showbiz writer who was lucky enough to find him in the wilds of the Philippines."
There was a great deal Higham needed to know about Erben, but one of the most important points of all was Erben's apparently illegal flight to Mexico during the trial to revoke his citizenship. If Higham could prove that Flynn helped him go, he believed it would help establish beyond a doubt that actor and German Nazi together, knowingly, conspired against the Allies.
So the Philippine reporter innocently asked Erben when he had last seen Errol Flynn.
"The answer was exactly what I'd hoped for -- 'When Errol Flynn drove me into Mexico, in November 1940,'" Higham says. "That was it. It was fabulous. It was on tape." A Natural Fascist
Charming, profane, easy before a movie camera, devastatingly handsome and possessed of an exuberant nastiness even as an Australian schoolboy -- that is the Errol Flynn of Charles Higham's book.
There is the boy Flynn gluing a mad dog's eyelids together, emitting rude noises in school assembly, clipping a parrot's wings to watch it dance frantically on a hot metal tub. The book says he was expelled from the Sydney Church of England Grammar School, with its handsome blazers and straw hats, for an untimely sexual congress with the laundress' daughter on the cellar coal pile; the head teacher upon being told what had happened is reported to have replied, "I'm not surprised. He just stole the slush fund for the tennis team."
With an itinerant, lecherous father and a self-centered mother apparently given to occasional bouts of neglect or child-thrashing, Flynn made his way into university, according to a friend Higham quotes, "wickedly handsome, lazy, and cynical about his studies . . . his mother's leaving him alone so much and his father's peccadillos, gave him little respect for the human race." m
Higham's gestures toward psycho-history are limited, but he speculates in the book that some combination of Flynn's homelife and his cultural upbringing made him a natural admirer of the Third Reich: "Errol inherited his anti-Semitism from his mother, but his mother was not alone in hating Jews . . . For almost two centuries, Australia maintained an all-white policy in defiance of every principle of democracy. In Hobart, Jews were tortured at school, eliminated from businesses if found out . . . It was a breeding ground of incipient fascism: Errol, like many Australians, associated Jews with decadent Europe, with authority."
By the time Flynn reached Hollywood, Higham writes, he had simply matured into an older version of the energetic boy on the coal pile. He was an expert sailor and loved the sea; in the book, Higham tells of the way Flynn would defy huge waves and thrashing water to make movies of mating whales, which he would then show to guests at his home (the movies were entitled, "Thos F---ing Whales"). There is an almost poignant account of his friendship with Olivia de Havilland, the famous Marian from "The Adventures of Robin Hood," whom Higham describes as being infatuated by Flynn's dash -- "the most magnetic man I will ever meet," he quotes her as having said -- but too shaken by his less-than-genteel behavior to allow any sort of affair.
"The fact is," Higham writes, "Flynn was determined to experience every pleasure to the limit. He wanted to drink deeply of life, and to avoid nothing of what it could offer. He experimented with cocaine, kif, opium, and hashish, not in a spirit of self-destructiveness but in a desire to enhance his senses so intensely that life would seem more brilliantly colorful, less painful and anxiety-inducing than it really was . . . He was aware more than most men of his own physique, his muscles, and the sexual center of his being. Yet, he remained insecure; he needed the reassurance of his sexuality and the admiration of others both on and off the screen."
But he lived, of course, in Holywood. And Errol Flynn, like every major studio star, floated out into America wrapped in the elegant fantasy of his large-screen self. When an FBI agent was recently asked by a reporter about the Nazi spying allegations, the agent asked plaintively, "Next you're going to tell me that John Wayne was a KGB agent?"
Higham believes that if FBI men had had their wits about them during World War II, Flynn would have been arrested as a Nazi subversive. "The FBI was not an intelligence organization, and their agents were not trained in intelligence techniques," he writes in his book. "They failed to coordinate their investigations with those of the State Department, and even when they tried, they often found their complaints blocked. They also failed to correlate with military and naval intelligence . . . Had British intelligence been in charge of the Flynn matter, there is no question they would have succeeded in arresting him." Network of Hate
Initial public reaction to the contents of "Errol Flynn: The Untold Story" has fallen pretty much into two camps. There are the outraged Flynn admirers, who insist that Captain Blood could not possibly turn out to be a bisexual Nazi sympathizer. (One of Flynn's former wives is among those who deny that he had any bisexual encounters.) And there are the movie industry people, Higham says, who saw and were troubled and never said anything before.
"People have been coming forward on an extraordinary, overpowering scale to inform me of his Nazi activities," Higham says. "When a person is that evil, they create a network of responses in people -- of hate, of fear. All of this was buried."
And in the community where he worked, Higham says, Flynn was shielded for so long by colleagues who either did not understand what they were seeing or simply chose to look the other way.
There was the movie actor's wife, Higham says, who reacted to the first publicity by telephoning several friends, each of whom called Higham afterward to repeat the conversation. The wife reportedly said her husband had remembered that when he and Flynn worked together on a certain picture, Flynn got thoroughly drunk and carried on in detail about his collaboration with Nazis. Her husband had never reported Flynn's behavior; in fact, Higham says the actor's wife begged Higham not to release the story, explaining that her husband was furious with her for repeating it. Higham promised only to withhold her name.
And there was the unnerving story that Jane Chesis remembered, some months after the book was completed. Chesis had been one of Higham's sources; she worked as Errol Flynn's secretary, and considered herself a personal friend of Flynn's. "There was always a cabinet in his apartment, that was never to be opened," Higham says, recalling Chesis' story. "It was always locked. And there was a photograph that he would never give an explanation of who it was. It was a man with dark hair, a middle-aged man . . .
"One day she came in and the file drawer was slightly ajar. Oddly enough, she was about to take a peek into it when a letter arrived in the mail, from Buenos Aires. And the letter was written in English. Signed by Hermann Schwinn. And when she mentioned that name my heart skipped several beats."
Just one week before, Higham had read Curt Riess' book "Total Espionage," which describes the work of a man identified as the California director of German espionage -- an impassioned Nazi named Hermann Schwinn.
"And that (another Nazi) had just been released from prison," Higham continues recounting Chesis' story. And that he was in need of help, and funds. And also could Mr. Flynn help him, Hermann Schwinn, in his effort to get re-established in Argentina.
"And she was just about finishing the letter when a hand clapped upon her shoulder and spun her around.
"And Errol Flynn's face was filled with absolutely terrible loathing, and fear. And there was a struggle. And she, by this stage, had taken a folder out of the file, to put the letter into. And the folder was filled with similar documents -- very Germanic names, and so on.
"And there was a struggle, and the file fell on the floor. Papers spilled all over the floor. Photographs that she couldn't identify. And they were on the floor, together, struggling. She was terrified. And she simply dropped everything and fled down the stairs into the street and disappeared.
"She didn't come back for several days, and finally he called her and said, you know, 'Have you left me forever?'. . . She was won over by his charm, and she came back to him. And she found the entire cabinet was missing. Everything was missing. There wasn't a thing left.
"And the picture had gone.
"A long time afterward, she asked him who this photograph was of.
"It was Hermann Schwinn."
Jane Chesis, with a few modifications (she says she wasn't prying and she wasn't terrified), confirms this story.
And when the material in Higham's book was first made public, Chesis says she was not at all surprised. "In fact, my husband and I were sitting in front of the TV," she says. "And the newscaster said, "We're going to divulge the name of a movie star who was a Nazi spy . . .' And I said, 'Oh, they finally found out about Flynn.' But I didnt know it. It was just a feeling I had . . . He used to call New York 'Jew York.' I finally said, 'I wish to hell you'd stop doing that. Do you remember I happen to be Jewish?' He said, 'Yeah, but you're a white Jew.'" Walled House on the Hill
Charles Higham is a changed man. "It suddenly renders movies or such much more trivial as subject matter," he says, "I now want to concentrate on a political book. I suddenly realize how much more important this is."
He had already chosen a topic for this political book, and although he does not yet want to discuss it in detail, Higham knows how to tantalize: "Another story of very high level figures in World War II who betrayed this country, and the levels go higher than Flynn, I can tell you. They go up into the government."
And he is not finished with Errol Flynn.
The last of the documents are still arriving. There are more interviews to be done.
The paperback, he says, will contain information he had not known about in time for the hardcover edition.
"The detective story's really still going on," Higham says. "There's a great deal more to be found out. The case is by no means closed."
Postscript: Three days after this article is completed, Charles Higham telephones from Los Angeles. His voice is filled with excitement. He does not bother saying hello. "Is it too late to give you an additional and stunning piece of information?" he asks.
It seems that a few weeks ago, a Flynn buff in Los Angeles wrote Higham a letter, apparently spurred by the first publicity over the book. The letter-writter said it was terribly important that Higham read the autobiography of Carly Chessman, the convicted California rapist, theif and kidnapper who was executed in May 1960.
Higham dug up the book in a Los Angeles library, and read it with growing astonishment. In a long passage, Chessman tells of a cellmate who bragged of having robbed the home of a famous movie star. Along with the usual booty, this cellmate reportedly said, he had stolen some documents that seemed to indicate Nazi activities. The cellmate figured they might be useful for blackmail.
Chessman apparently thought he had a better idea. Giving the movie star the alias "Mr. Christopher," Chessman wrote in his autobiography about an elaborate plan to escape from prison, use the documents to infiltrate Mr. Christopher's group, make his way to Germany, and perhaps assassinate Hilter in eventual exchange for a governmental pardon.
Chessman seems to have made it part way. His book says he escaped from prison (it is known that Chessman escaped several times during his long prison tenure), placed a phone call to Mr. Christopher's walled house on a hill near Beverly Hills, was greeted by someone with a "cultured voice," and eventually flew with Mr. Christopher to Mexico to meet other Nazis. The grander plan never materialized, of course; Chessman was rearrested and returned to prison.
This was crazy. Errol Flynn lived in a walled house on a hill. It was near Beverly Hills. "Cultured" described Flynn's voice perfectly, Higham thought. There were snatches of dialogue in Chessman's book that sounded precisely like a British (or Australian) way of putting things.
Higham called Rosalie Asher, Chessman's attorney for the last 12 years of the convict's life, to ask her what she knew about the Mr. Christopher episode. Asher mentioned one curious item -- in the original autobiography manuscript, she said, the "cultured voice" had been described as "English." But someone had deleted that word.
Asher directed Higham to Joseph Longstreth, Chessman's agent on the autobiography. After some delay, Longstreth called Higham back.
"I said, 'Was Errol Flynn Mr. Christopher?,'" Higham says. "There was a long pause. He said, 'I can 95 percent say yes.' He said, 'I believe that you're correct.' He said, 'I would say you are positively 100 percent on the right track.'"
Independent telephone conversations with Asher and Longstreth confirm Higham's story.
"Isn't that fantastic?" Higham says.