Errol Flynn rose to fame in the Golden Age of Hollywood as the ultimate romantic swashbuckler. However, behind the dashing, heroic persona lay a darker side to his character that regularly got him into hot water. And during Flynn’s heyday, a scandal broke that had the potential to tarnish his career forever.
Yes, although Flynn was already renowned as one of Tinseltown’s bad boys at the time, the allegations that faced him on this occasion were alarming. In 1942 the one-time Robin Hood was accused of having raped two teenage girls in separate incidents, and the stunning claims subsequently prompted a media circus. Flynn vehemently denied the assertions during the 1943 trial, however.
And while Flynn was eventually acquitted in court, he nevertheless suffered reputational damage by way of the trial’s revelations. Perhaps as a result, then, the star didn’t enjoy anything like his pre-war success following the conclusion of the trial. Here’s a look at the story that changed how the actor would be seen forever.
Born in the Tasmanian suburb of Battery Point in 1909, Flynn studied in London and Sydney as a teen. The future actor was hardly a model student, though, as he was ultimately expelled for theft from his school in the Australian city. And Flynn’s early adulthood was similarly inauspicious; while not yet out of his teens, he began work in the metal mining and tobacco planting industries in Papa New Guinea.
Yet Flynn’s life changed significantly when he was discovered by Australian film director Charles Chauvel in 1933. And despite the young man having no prior acting experience, Chauvel duly cast him to appear in his docudrama In the Wake of the Bounty. But while the film didn’t exactly set the box office alight, it appeared to stir something in Flynn, as after that he ventured to the U.K. to go after an acting career.
Flynn then studied as an actor at the Northampton Repertory Company in England for more than half a year – a spell that ended after he apparently threw a female employee down the stairs. Still, that disturbing incident didn’t put paid to Flynn’s career. Not long after leaving Northampton, he signed with Warner Bros. and made his Hollywood debut in The Case of the Curious Bride. And one of his following movies, 1935’s Captain Blood, would help skyrocket him to fame.
Remarkably, Flynn beat established names such as James Cagney and Leslie Howard to the leading role. The first of the actor’s many films alongside Olivia de Havilland, Captain Blood was a hit, too, raking in over $3 million worldwide. And in 1936 Flynn and de Havilland reunited for the even more successful The Charge of the Light Brigade.
Flynn then portrayed a doctor in Green Light before later showcasing his comedic skills in The Perfect Specimen. In all, he starred in four films in 1937, although he also took an intriguing step away from Hollywood during this time to work as a war correspondent in Spain. Then, upon Flynn’s return, he was cast opposite de Havilland as the hero in The Adventures of Robin Hood. Famously, the critically acclaimed movie cemented Flynn as one of cinema’s greatest swashbucklers.
Drama The Sisters, WWI movie The Dawn Patrol and western Dodge City continued Flynn’s success, too, leading to him earning the role of Robert Devereux in 1939’s The Private Lives of Elizabeth and Essex. However, Flynn repeatedly clashed with co-star Bette Davis on set, as she apparently took umbrage with Flynn’s perceived lack of acting prowess. For his part, Flynn himself allegedly objected to being slapped hard in the face by Davis as part of a scene.
Regardless of the conflict with Davis, however, the hits kept coming for Flynn, with Virginia City, The Sea Hawk and Santa Fe Trail all performing well at the box office. In fact, Flynn’s success even saw him crowned as Warner Brothers’ biggest star on three separate occasions between 1937 and 1941. In 1942, though, everything nearly came crashing down.
The year had started well enough for Flynn, as George Custer biopic They Died with Their Boots On and war movie Desperate Journey had both earned good money. In time, though, the actor began to face criticism from reporters who weren’t impressed with his apparent failure to enlist in WWII. And at the time of production of boxing drama Gentleman Jim, Flynn suffered a heart attack to boot. Were these troubles augurs of things to come?
At the very least, life took a darker turn for Flynn after he attended a party held at friend Frederick McEvoy’s Bel Air home. There, the star met Betty Hansen – a 17-year-old accompanied by a studio messenger. And the aspiring celebrity soon became overwhelmed by the occasion, with the girl vomiting after having consumed too much alcohol. But that was just the start of the story.
Hansen apparently explained to her sister the following day that she had been escorted upstairs by Flynn in order to tidy herself up. After that, she claimed, the actor had subsequently taken advantage of her in one of the property’s bedrooms. And this hadn’t been the only time that Flynn had been accused of such a crime, either.
Indeed, after Hansen filed a complaint with Thomas W. Cochran, the district attorney remembered a very similar case. Another 17-year-old girl named Peggy Satterlee had previously made a rape allegation against Flynn after the pair had met on board the actor’s luxury yacht; initially, though, the complaint had gone no further.
Yet Flynn wouldn’t be as lucky in October 1942, when he was apprehended and charged for both alleged crimes. A trial was then set to take place the following January. And Flynn certainly wasn’t taking any chances with his defense by appointing Jerry Giesler – a man renowned for representing the Hollywood elite – as his lawyer.
Inevitably, there was a major media frenzy surrounding the trial, while Flynn was also mobbed by an army of fans who clawed at him before a preliminary hearing. Others, by contrast, descended upon the star’s neighborhood to get a close-up view of his 11-acre home. It seemed, in fact, that Flynn’s private life was itself becoming a movie.
Meanwhile some of Flynn’s most dedicated fans leapt to his defense by forming various protest groups. These included ABCDEF, a.k.a. the American Boys’ Club for the Defense of Errol Flynn, which quickly built a significant following; conservative commentator William F. Buckley Jr. was just one of its high-profile members.
And Flynn himself was seemingly left stunned by the allegations. While out on $1,000 bail, he told reporters of Hanson’s claim, “I’m bewildered. I can’t understand it. I hardly touched the girl.” One of the actor’s previous sayings did him no favors, though. Indeed, Flynn’s quip, “I like my whiskey old and my women young,” seemingly spelled out exactly what the star was like behind the scenes.
Yet while Flynn hardly made a secret of his peccadilloes, this didn’t by itself prove that he was guilty of rape. And in his book Hollywood Babylon, avant-garde filmmaker Kenneth Anger made a startling claim about the validity of the charges. In particular, he alleged that Flynn was paying the price for Warner Bros. not “coming across with juicy enough kickbacks” to local cops.
Whatever the truth of the matter, though, the trial remained set to proceed. And exactly nine women were selected by Giesler for the jury in what was a deliberate tactic. You see, the lawyer believed that Flynn’s natural charisma, good looks and star power would help to sway the verdict. But that was by far the only course of action to be taken by the defense.
The alleged incident involving Betty Hansen was the first to be addressed by the court, and when the teenager was cross-examined by Giesler, he tried to convince the jury that her testimony wasn’t reliable. It emerged, too, that Hansen and the studio messenger who had accompanied her to the party could potentially be charged with a felony.
Attention then switched to the Peggy Satterlee case. While being questioned by prosecutor Cochran, the teenager claimed that Flynn had given her two incriminating nicknames while aboard the yacht to Catalina. One of these, JB, apparently stood for “jail bait,” while the other, SQQ, was supposed to be short for “San Quentin quail.”
The prosecution argued, then, that these epithets served as evidence Flynn was fully aware that Satterlee was under the legal age of consent. The teenager claimed in turn that while she didn’t put up a fight the first time that the actor got into bed with her, she did resist when Flynn repeated the act in his cabin the following night.
Nevertheless, Satterlee also made several admissions that may have harmed her testimony in court. She confessed to regularly telling falsehoods about how old she was, for instance, as well as the fact that she’d previously had an affair with a married man. This liaison had come before her encounter with Flynn, and she’d even had an abortion as a result of the same relationship. Terminating a pregnancy was, of course, against the law in the early 1940s.
And Satterlee’s case was dealt yet another blow when – rather unusually – an astronomer was called to the stand. You see, the teen had claimed that Flynn had ostensibly taken her to his yacht cabin to gaze at the moon – something to which she had readily agreed. The astronomer asserted, however, that Flynn’s cabin wouldn’t have been in the right place to view the moon at that time.
Meanwhile, Flynn strenuously denied that he’d been involved in any wrongdoing with either Hansen and Satterlee. He said, for instance, that he’d never whisked Hanson away from the party after she began vomiting, nor had he ever been with Satterlee in his yacht’s cabin. He also clearly stated that he’d never had any kind of sexual encounter with either teen.
And it’s fair to say that emotions were running dangerously high while Flynn finished his testimony. Women present were reported to have burst into tears, while men in the courtroom shouted a stream of profanities. In fact, the bailiff had to act fast to ensure that pandemonium didn’t break out at the location.
But Giesler may have dealt the killer blow to the cases by questioning the timing of Satterlee and Hansen’s complaints. Despite the fact that the alleged incidents were supposed to have happened over 12 months apart, the lawyer said, the teens had curiously both gone to the police within the same week. And Giesler made a risky allegation of his own. He claimed that Satterlee and Hansen had helped prosecutors build a case against Flynn to avoid going on trial for their own misdemeanors.
In the end, the jury took just 13 hours to find Flynn not guilty. And Ruby Anderson, the jury foreman, later gave his reasons for the verdict, telling reporters, “We felt [that] there had been other men in the girls’ lives. Frankly, the cards were on the table, and we couldn’t believe the girls’ stories.”
An understandably dejected Satterlee later spoke out, too, explaining to the press that she wasn’t particularly surprised at the largely female jury’s decision. She said, “I knew those women would acquit him. They just sat and looked adoringly at him as if he was their son or something.” Yet while Flynn had triumphed in court, his life would continue to court controversy.
Rather incredibly, Flynn began a relationship with another teenager while his case was still ongoing. In fact, the star had first met Nora Eddington when she was a 19-year-old employed at the court complex. And just a year after that initial encounter, the pair were husband and wife and expecting their first child together.
It seemed, too, that audiences may have struggled to see Flynn in the same light ever again. At the very least, his first post-trial film, Northern Pursuit, disappointed at the box office, as did his comedy comeback Never Say Goodbye. Flynn did enjoy some success, however, with the westerns San Antonio and Silver River.
Yet by the time of Silver River’s 1948 release, Flynn had developed another major problem. His famously prodigious capacity for drink had led him to embark on afternoon shoots while often completely incapacitated. And director Raoul Walsh – a long-term friend and working partner – ultimately chose to sever all ties with the star as a result of his behavior on set.
But Flynn still managed to sustain his career into the following decade. He scored box office hits, too, with Montana, Rocky Mountain and Kim. And the star not only acted in 1951 swashbuckler Adventures of Captain Fabian, but he also co-produced and wrote the film. Was he on the cusp of a career renaissance?
As it turns out, it wasn’t. And after filming 1953’s The Master of Ballantrae, Flynn was let go from Warner Bros. after nearly 20 years with the studio. The actor subsequently moved to Europe, where he ran into trouble with The Story of William Tell. The 1954 picture – which Flynn was co-producing – was left unfinished owing to financial problems that left the star virtually bankrupt.
So, Flynn made an – unexpected – return to Hollywood in 1957 to shoot Istanbul. He even gained something of a second wind when The Sun Also Rises became one of the year’s biggest hits. And the actor may have had plenty of life experience from which to draw when portraying drunks in 1958’s The Roots of Heaven and Too Much, Too Soon.
Yet even if Flynn appeared to still be a force in Hollywood, any attempt at a comeback would be curtailed upon his death. The actor passed away in 1959 as the result of a heart attack, with cirrhosis and fatty degeneration of the liver also reported to be at play in his death, and he was subsequently buried at California’s Forest Lawn Memorial Park Cemetery.
However, even after Flynn’s passing, it seemed that he couldn’t stop making waves. In 1961, you see, Florence Aadland claimed that her daughter had entered into a sexual liaison with the star when she had been just 15. According to The Hollywood Reporter, Flynn was even still seeing Beverly Aadland at the time of his death in Vancouver. And further damaging allegations were to follow.
In 1966, for instance, Hedy Lamarr alleged in her memoir that Flynn was very much a Peeping Tom. Referring to the late actor’s mansion, the actress said, “Many of the bathrooms have peepholes or ceilings with squares of opaque glass through which you can’t see out – but someone can see in.” And after visiting the house in the 1970s, Rolling Stones guitarist Ronnie Wood seemingly backed up this claim, describing Flynn as an “A-1 voyeur.”
Then in 1982 Ronald DeWolf had his own allegations about Flynn, who had been a close family friend. In an interview with Penthouse, DeWolf asserted that the star and his Scientology founder father, L. Ron Hubbard, had regularly broken the law together by smuggling drugs and having sexual encounters with girls who were underage. If Flynn’s reputation hadn’t already been tarnished in life, then, it certainly was in death.