All week, David Niven’s gloriously entertaining memoirs have proved a delightful antidote to the corona blues. From his countless love affairs to his captivating reminiscences about his introduction to Hollywood, you could be forgiven for thinking that he’s already seen it all. But in this final extract, the infinitely witty actor recalls a moment that will leave your jaw on the floor…
The great thing about Errol Flynn was you always knew precisely where you stood with him because he always let you down.
He thoroughly enjoyed causing turmoil for himself and his friends. I was one of those, for a good many years.
I first met him in Lili Damita’s bungalow at the Garden of Allah Hotel in the summer of 1935.
Lili was a beautiful creature (who would become Errol’s first wife) with the shape of an hour-glass, the epitome of the sexy French cover girls of La Vie Parisienne, but she was one of those insecure ladies who feel the necessity to be surrounded by devout homosexuals.
The usual little coterie was around her that night and for a while Flynn and I each thought the other was gay.
After sniffing suspiciously we got this sorted out, and a tour of the dives off Hollywood Boulevard became the logical outcome of the evening.
Flynn had that day completed his first part under his contract with Warner Brothers, playing a corpse on a marble slab in The Case Of The Curious Bride, so we had much to celebrate. Before long Flynn asked if I would like to set up a bachelor establishment with him.
The Adventures of Robin Hood’ (1938) starring legendary actor Errol Flynn
We rented 601 North Linden Drive, Beverly Hills, from Rosalind Russell, chartered a nice understanding housekeeper and pooled the expense.
Flynn was collecting rather more from his contract with Warner Brothers than I was receiving from Samuel Goldwyn so he forked out more in rent and insisted that he had prior claim to the largest bedroom, the one which housed the double bed.
He was fairly tight about money matters so although on state occasions I was allowed to borrow his room, it was only in consideration of a small readjustment to our financial arrangement.
Ten or 15 years before Robert Mitchum was unlucky enough to be arrested for puffing on a ‘joint’ in a house in Laurel Canyon, Errol had introduced the stuff into the life of 601 North Linden.
Under the name of ‘kif’ he brought it back from a trip to North Africa, and was apt to offer it around, saying rather grandly that the painter Diego Rivera had introduced him to it in Mexico.
Smoking it or chewing it, however, was a nonrisk pastime in those days: war on ‘pot’ having not yet been declared.
I gave it up early on, chiefly I think because I was already hooked on something probably far more lethal — Scotch whisky — but Flynn pressed on and 20 years later, at the last meeting I was to have with him, he told me that apart from mainlining heroin he had, by then, used every kind of drug there was.
In those pre-war days, Errol was a strange mixture: a great athlete of immense charm and evident physical beauty, he stood, legs apart, arms folded defiantly and crowing lustily atop the Hollywood dung heap, but he suffered, I think, from a deep inferiority complex.
He also bit his nails. Women loved him passionately, but he treated them like toys to be discarded without warning for new models, while for his men friends he really preferred those who would give him the least competition in any department.
He was not a kind man, but in those careless days he was fun to be with, and those days were the best of Flynn.
Humility was a word unknown to Errol. He became a big star overnight with his first Hollywood super production, Captain Blood, but it never crossed his mind that others — the producer, the director, the writers, the technicians and above all the publicity department — might have had a hand in his success.
It all went straight to his head and by the time I joined him in his second super production, The Charge Of The Light Brigade, he was cordially disliked by most of his fellow workers — particularly by the ‘extras’.
Errol always said that, physically, the toughest picture he ever made was The Charge Of The Light Brigade and he had a point.
We spent several months at Bishop, California, in the dusty, windy foothills of Mount Whitney.
The ‘location’ started easily with decent late autumn weather and with the only hotel in town taken over by the company, but after a week, shouts and profanities at two o’clock in the morning alerted us to the fact that someone had put a match to the place.
David Niven, Michael Brooke, Errol Flynn in the classic movie The Dawn Patrol (1938)
It burned to the ground very quickly, providing us with the last warm evening we would spend for the rest of the engagement, and thereafter in tents and other miserable makeshift accommodation far out in the desert in sandstorms, or high up in the freezing winds blowing off the mountain snows, we shivered and grumbled in our thin tropical uniforms.
Mike Curtiz was the director of the Charge and his Hungarianorientated English was a source of joy to us all.
High on a rostrum he decided that the right moment had come to order the arrival on the scene of a hundred head of riderless chargers.
‘OK,’ he yelled into a megaphone. ‘Bring on the empty horses!’ Flynn and I doubled up with laughter.
‘You lousy bums,’ Curtiz shouted, ‘you and your stinking language. You think I know f*** nothing. Well, let me tell you — I know F*** ALL!’
Flynn loved fighting: he took it seriously and kept himself in a permanent state of readiness at 601 North Linden by sparring twice a week in the garden with ‘Mushy’ Callahan and other professionals.
The director John Huston also liked a good punch-up now and then. On one famous occasion he and Flynn decided that they were bored at a Hollywood soiree.
‘Tell you what, Kid,’ said Huston. ‘Let’s get the hell outta here and go down to the bottom of the garden and just mix it a little. Whaddya say?’
‘You’re on!’ said Flynn and while the rest of the guests tried to concentrate on their dinner the sound of strife filtered through the open windows as Flynn and Huston whacked away endlessly at each other.
They both ended up in the Cedars of Lebanon Hospital for emergency repairs.
Flynn read somewhere that a man named D’Arcy Rutherford had invented a new sport in the South of France — waterskiing — and showed me pictures of Rutherford skimming along behind a speed-boat off Eden Roc.
‘Look, Sport,’ said Flynn, ‘we’ve got to try that,’ and designed a pair of very painful, heavy wooden skis which the studio carpenters knocked together for us.
The following weekend, we tried them out off Catalina Island… and they worked.
There is no record to prove it but I am pretty sure that on that day in the mid-Thirties, Flynn and I introduced waterskiing to California and maybe even to the U.S. Ronald Colman, aboard his Dragoon, was anchored that weekend in a nearby cove a couple of miles away, and we decided to give him and his guests an exhibition of our new-found sport.
Flynn was driving the speedboat when we arrived, and my girlfriend for the weekend was sitting beside him.
Actor Errol Flynn and his wife, actress Lili Damita on their ketch Sirocco
I was slapping merrily along on the heavy boards astern. After we had suitably impressed the customers aboard Dragoon, Flynn pulled a typical ‘frienddiscomfiter’ and instead of stopping or turning back, headed out into the open sea.
By now I was getting very tired indeed. I signalled to him to stop and about half a mile from Dragoon he obligingly did so.
I sank gratefully into the blue water and waited to be picked up. As the boat came near me, Flynn pulled in the tow rope.
‘So long, Sport,’ he called, ‘why don’t you drop in on Colman for a nice cup of tea? Betty and I are going back to the yacht to take a nap.’
My girlfriend Betty, I noticed with some annoyance, seemed to be putting up only token resistance to this infamous suggestion, and with a roar of laughter, Flynn swept away leaving me to face a long swim in mid-Pacific.
However, it was a lovely afternoon, there was no adverse current, the sea was warm and oily calm, and when I wanted to rest, I had only to use the skis to support me.
So, I took my time, paddling gently along, rather enjoying my languorous journey.
About half the distance to Dragoon was covered when I got a nasty feeling that I was no longer alone.
About ten yards on my right was a very large shark, its greasy black dorsal fin undulating above the surface as it moved effortlessly through the water.
Panic gripped me. I stopped swimming and tried to push the skis beneath my body for protection.
With the unco-ordination of fear, I let go of one of them which drifted towards the shark.
The brute immediately flicked its giant tail and changed course to investigate. Some half-wit once said that you can frighten sharks away by splashing violently and making a noise.
This is nonsense. I splashed and shouted like a maniac but my shark just came closer to find out what all the fuss was about.
With one ski now beneath me, hopefully protecting my underbelly etcetera, from being ripped away, I paddled slowly, gibbering with terror, towards Colman’s yacht.
In increasingly close attendance, the shark accompanied me the whole way. I prayed that he would remain on the surface and never took my eyes off his fin.
Periodically, I yelled ‘SHARK!’ and ‘HELP!’ at the top of my lungs.
At long last I saw field glasses pointing in my direction and stopped paddling when Colman and a sailor jumped into the tender and started up the motor.
Only when they were right on top of him did the shark lose interest in me. Then with a mighty swirling convulsion, he slid into the depths below.
Aboard Dragoon, a much-needed tumbler of brandy was pressed into my hand while I borrowed somebody’s hand mirror to see if my hair had turned white.
When Flynn came over later to pick me up, I had a few words with him. He hooted with laughter.
‘Jeez!’ he roared, ‘I wish I’d seen that!’ The war came, and it changed both of us.
How to behave as a young man when your country is in danger of invasion is a very personal decision.
I decided to go and Flynn decided to stay — simple as that. During my absence a lot of things happened to Errol.
He was charged with statutory rape, or sex with a girl under 18, and though he was found not guilty, the reputation stuck.
He also discovered vodka in a big way and proceeded to drink it as though it was going out of style.
At seven o’clock in the morning he was gulping it down in the make-up chair — mixed 50-50 with 7-Up.
It was not a happy man I found upon my return to Hollywood at the beginning of 1946.
Miraculously, Errol still looked in good physical shape and gave the outward impression of being the same, insulated with charmingly cynical self-sufficiency, but there was something infinitely sad about him, something missing, and behind his eyes there was a shield — I could no longer see into his face.
I had come back with a beautiful young wife and two tiny children, and I found I had little in common with the group which now surrounded Errol — hangers-on almost to a man.
The worst, I thought, was Bruce Cabot, an actor, who specialised in playing villains, who drank hard, played golf beautifully and gambled prodigiously, but who had a nasty habit of being absent when the debts were being settled.
Because of the implications, Errol tried hard to get away from making sex symbol pictures, but they earned money and the studios kept him churning them out till the pointed fingers and the snide ‘rapist’ cracks so depressed him that he drank more and more and even contemplated suicide — on one occasion sitting up all night with a bottle of vodka in one hand and a loaded revolver in the other.
In 1958, I met Errol by chance in London. Ten years had passed since I had last seen him.
We lunched, largely on Pouilly Fumé, at a little place in Soho and I cannot pretend that I was not shocked by the physical change: he had been doing himself grave damage, the face was puffy and blotchy and the hand that had once held the bow of Robin Hood could not have put the arrow through the Taj Mahal at ten paces, but there was an internal calm and a genuineness about him that I had never seen before.
He brought me up to date about all his wives and talked sadly of how impossible he must have been to live with.
Then he said something very unexpected: ‘You know, Sport, I’ve felt a heel about you for ten years.
‘When your wife died in that accident when she’d just come out to California, I never did a goddamned thing to help, did I? Never came to see you or anything.
‘Well, I wanted to and I thought about it all the time but I couldn’t bring myself to do it — I don’t know why. Anyway, I always wished I had.’
We filled our glasses and sat in that wonderful silence that old friends can afford.
After a while I said: ‘I see you’ve still got a couple of lawsuits going and all the usual tax problems. You seem very relaxed about everything — how do you do it?’
‘I’ve discovered a great book and I read it all the time — it’s full of good stuff,’ said Errol.
‘But if I tell you what it is, Sport, I’ll knock your goddamned teeth down your throat if you laugh.’ ‘I promise,’ I said. ‘It’s the Bible,’ said Flynn.
EXTRACTED from Bring On The Empty Horses by David Niven, published by Hodder & Stoughton on June 5, 2006 @ £10.99. © David Niven 1975.