One day in October 1959, my dad was walking around English Bay when Errol Flynn approached him and asked, “Say, would you know where I could sell a yacht?”
Dad was 33 then, a strapping, sharp-dressed Kitsilano Irishman in his prime, with an unmistakable sea-going air and bearing. He directed Flynn to a guy he knew on the docks and that was that.
A few days later Dad was walking by an apartment house in the West End and noticed something was up. An ambulance was parked in front and a stretcher stood out on the sidewalk. Dad asked the attendant what happened.
“It’s Errol Flynn. Look.” And the attendant pulled down the top of the sheet.
It was Flynn all right, and his face was pitch black, Dad told us many years later. He had anticipated and repeatedly confirmed the Los Angeles coroner office’s findings.
“The fast living caught up to Flynn,” he’d say.
The Hollywood star was only 50 when his heart went.
Now here’s where this gets a little bit local.
Two days and a few hours later, at 1:15 a.m. on Oct. 17 to be precise, I was born.
In other words, just after Flynn checked out, yours truly checked in — almost in the same spot.
Perhaps I should have started by saying that if you believe in reincarnation, and if you happen to be right, then there’s a fair chance I could be Errol Flynn.
Personally I don’t buy any of that stuff, but in my younger day I looked into it and discovered the time element and geography — even the paternal encounters — lent credence to the possibility, if you buy all that doctrine, which I don’t.
Flynn was in Vancouver with his 17-year-old girlfriend, whom he planned to marry when he got back to his place in Jamaica. He died in the apartment of Dr. Grant Gould, uncle of pianist Glenn Gould. His last words at the party before going to lie down for a nap were, “I shall return.”
Flynn’s autobiography, My Wicked, Wicked Ways, contains some real slapstick. Just after he built his bachelor pad, Mulholland House, at the height of his fame, his first wife Lili, who was French, dropped a bombshell: “Fleen, you think you’ve screwed every dame in Hollywood, but now I’ve screwed you, my friend. You will have a child!” Flynn got a son, and Lili got Mulholland House.
In truth, I don’t relate at all to Errol. The woman-chasing sounds tedious and exhausting, the girl-chasing odious and silly; the vodka sounds crippling, killing in fact; and as for the stardom — I always figure a star is what you get when you cut an apple in two — easier to bite into, but half of something that was once whole.
Of course, I would have no way of knowing that. I’ve never been a star. It’s purely a conjecture.
Anyway, I went to Shorncliffe the other day and asked Dad, now 86, to explain again why Flynn’s face went black. He answered like a shot: “Fast life.”
As for Frank P. Gleeson’s veracity on matters Hollywood, I learned long ago not to question that. My older brother Danny used to wonder, especially about those stories involving Dad in a James Stewart western, filmed outside Jasper in 1953. Well, I now own the DVD of The Far Country, directed by Anthony Mann, written by Borden Chase and featuring Dad’s old campfire pal Walter Brennan — all fine craftsmen in their fields.
Sure enough, when the outlaw gang goes chasing Stewart and sexy Ruth Roman to the river’s edge, there’s Frank P. in the lead, Stetson flying behind the movie-star hairline, and even on horseback somehow conveying an unmistakable sea-going air and bearing.