Today, those who have witnessed nearly 50 years of A-list stars such as Jane Fonda, Sean Penn, Ed Asner, and Danny Glover fall head over heels for Communist dictators, pine for the patriotic 1930s and 40s, where movie stars like Jimmy Stewart and Clark Gable found something worthwhile in America to take up arms for. Those who did join or fellow-travel with the American Communist Party were hardly A-list actors, but either B-level stars like Lloyd Bridges, Larry Parks or character ones such as Lionel Stander, Gayle Sondergard, and Howard De Silva. Even the Party’s greatest recruits, the screenwriters, only had one A-lister among them: the boringly Stalinoid Dalton Trumbo. Hence, those who truly were worthy to be in the top tier of Hollywood’s Golden Age were hardly the stuff of dupes.
When Errol Flynn died in 1959, the image he left behind was that of the undisputed King of the Swashbuckler movies and the “king” of hedonistic living (coroners diagnosed the state of Flynn’s 50 year old body to be that of a 70 year old). But since the publication of an explosive biography in 1980, Warner Brothers’ biggest star of the late thirties has been associated with Nazi espionage. Even though much more careful research has established that the charges were false, the image has stuck, so much so that when the makers of the Rocketeer film required for plot-purposes a movie star who moonlighted as a fascist spy, they used a thinly-veiled Flynn.
A treasure trove of unearthed documents released this year reveal that Flynn, although a decided anti-Semite, was the dupe of both the Nazis and Castro communists.
Before Hollywood, Flynn came under the spell of Dr. Herman Erben, an Austrian doctor who he called the greatest influence of his life. Erben, who made no secret of his pro-Hitler views, was in fact a Nazi spy, who during World War II, was called by the FBI “the most dangerous” secret agent in Mexico.
Flynn was aware of Erben’s Nazi sympathies, although not his spy work. In a recently unearthed letter to his father dated May 8 1933, he stated that Erben will “take a Nazi belt to hit a Communist…but he will devote himself to medicine.”
Flynn himself exhibited pro-Hitler sentiments in the early 30s. In a recently unearthed 1934 letter to Erben he complained about “a slimy Jew…[who’s] trying to cheat me …I do wish we could bring Hitler over here to teach these Isaacs a thing or two. “
Two years later as a major Hollywood star, Flynn would become known for his anti-Semitism, but this time without any Hitler references. He castigated studio boss Jack Warner with anti-semitic slurs, once goading him to fight the actor during film production and then when Warner showed up Flynn told him that “they didn’t allow Jews on the set.” Replying to an admiring letter from Burt Lancaster, Flynn attempted to warn the liberal actor about the Jewish exploiters in tinsel-town. Word of Flynn’s prejudices filtered out of Hollywood. FDR’s son, Franklin Jr., was aware of Flynn’s anti-semitism:
“Errol used to join me and the Whitney’s in fox hunting in Virginia. Knowing how much he hated Jews, we used to call him `Flynnberg’ to annoy him.”
In 1937, Erben, whose pro-Hitler outbursts made him unwelcome in various countries, visited Flynn in Hollywood. To many, he made a bad impression. Jim Fleming, Flynn’s friend and stand-in for many years recalled:
“He was obnoxiously anti-Semitic, and loud-mouthed about it, which went down very badly in Hollywood. He wore the same clothes every day; a kind of brownshirt uniform with leather boots” and “talked of the coming Revolution.”
Erben, tasked by Nazi intelligence to spy on the Loyalist side during the Spanish Civil War, convinced Flynn to join him there as merely “a grand adventure” without any political meanings. In his autobiography, Flynn stated that he was pro-Loyalist, but a recent FBI document shows that he and Erben first tried to obtain a visa from Fascist leader Fransico Franco, who denied the request. The actor’s recently-unearthed diary entries do show support for the Loyalists with him addressing communist troops. An unknowing Flynn allowed Erben to photograph him beside German volunteers on the Loyalist side. Recent documents reveal that Erben in turn sent the photos to Berlin where the soldiers and/or their relatives would become targets of the SS. In a recently-released diary entry, Flynn would express confusion about the doctor’s activities, particularly his hovering around the fascist lines (“I wish I knew what the devil he was up to”).
This trip and his friendship with Erben earned him permanent surveillance from the FBI and destroyed any chance of him enlisting on the Allied side during World War II. A 1942 letter released last year under the Freedom of Information Act reveals that Flynn personally asked FDR to let him join the OSS and work undercover in Ireland. FDR rejected this request because he believed Flynn had pro-Nazi sympathies. A FBI document released this year reveals that although the Bureau monitored Flynn during World War II for fascist sympathies they listed him as a communist sympathizer after the war.
Flynn did go to bat for Erben. When Erben’s activities endangered his newly-acquired American citizenship, the actor personally appealed to Eleanor Roosevelt for help. She was able to grant Erben a six month continuance. Visited by the FBI for information on Erben, Flynn stated that Erben was merely a “screwball” who “would do everything in his power to make it appear that in fact he was an espionage agent.” He concluded that Erben was “very much opposed” to Nazism. Nevertheless the Bureau issued a warrant for Erben’s arrest. According to Erben, Flynn smuggled him to Mexico on his yacht.
By the late 50s, Flynn’s years of substance abuse and alcoholism had wrecked his health and compromised his box office. With only a year to live, he became embroiled in politics again, continuing his m.o of witless dupe. For years an imbiber of fleshpot Batista era Cuba, Flynn became an unquestioning admirer of rebel leader Fidel Castro. Scooping the world, Flynn, commissioned by Hearst Newspapers to report on the Cuban Revolution, landed an interview with Castro. Flynn returned to the United States singing Castro’s praises. Asked by an interviewer about Castro’s reported Communist sympathies, Flynn based his belief that Castro was not a Marxist on Fidel telling him he wasn’t. In a recently discovered 1959 documentary Flynn narrated from a pro-Castro angle, the actor lauded Castro “as one of history’s great men.”
Beverly Aadland, Flynn’s teenage girlfriend and star of Cuban Rebel Girls, called Flynn’s time in Cuba his “last great adventure.” But given Flynn’s unwise political associations, it was really the bookend to a lifetime of being a dupe. Flynn had a faulty political attenae. While others, including the FBI, regarded Herman Erben as a passionate Nazi and a spy, Flynn saw him as merely a fellow anti-semite (which, given the ‘fashionable” anti-semitism of pre-war America wouldn’t on its own give Flynn cause for alarm) and outrageous attention-grabber. While Castro’s Marxism was immediately detected by, of all people, Richard Nixon, Flynn took the future communist dictator at his word that he was not.
Today the actor-as-dupe is a given and viewed as a unique feature of our time. But Flynn pioneered this idiocy.