(The following is a post by Juan Manuel Pérez, reference specialist, Hispanic Division. Patricia Penon, technician, Hispanic Division also contributed to this blog.)
When we think of Errol Flynn (1909-1959), the first image that pops up is that of a swashbuckling hero leading his band of merry men through Sherwood forest fighting against social injustice, saving the crown for King Richard the Lionheart, and wining the hand of the fair Maid Marian, in “The Adventures of Robin Hood” (1938), a film that catapulted him to international stardom. But for about ten days in 1937, Errol Flynn was dodging live bullets in the Spanish Civil War (1936-1939). It was one of the strangest things he ever did. And this brief episode has provided fodder for his detractors ever since.
In 1935, Flynn married French-American actress Lili Damita (divorcing in 1942), with whom he had a very stormy relationship, with frequent physical fights. They were called the “Fighting Flynns,” and he called his wife “Tiger Lili.” When his friend Dr. Herman F. Erben (1897-1985) proposed that he and Errol travel to Spain in 1937, Flynn jumped at the opportunity. The friends had met three years earlier on April 14, 1933 in Salamaua, New Guinea. Born in Vienna, Erben was a physician and a world traveler, adventurer, and photographer, making a living primarily as a ship’s doctor. The two adventurers liked each other from the start and traveled together for a couple of months through the Far East. (Thomas McNulty, “Errol Flynn: The Life and Career.” Jefferson, NC: McFarland, 2004. pp. 23-24) So, in early 1937, Flynn decided to go to Spain as a war correspondent with a commission from Hearst Press, to get away from it all (some say to, literally, escape from his wife) or perhaps just for the adventure. “Arriving in Spain, I felt I was right back in ‘The Charge of the Light Brigade’” (Errol Flynn, “What Really Happened to Me in Spain” Photoplay, July 1937: 12-15). Flynn and his enigmatic traveling companion, Dr. Erben, left on the Queen Mary on February 24, 1937, arriving in Southhampton, England on March 1.
On March 5, 1937, they arrived in London. From there they went to Paris where, Lili, to Flynn’s chagrin, was waiting for them at the plush Plaza Athenée Hotel. They had so many fights, were so loud, smashed so much crockery, and caused so much mayhem that they were told never to return. On the 21st of March Flynn attended a memorial service for the Clichy victims, who had died during a March 16 demonstration when the police fired into the crowd, killing six and wounding two hundred (Simon Kitson, “The Police and the Clichy Massacre, March 1937” in Richard Bessel and Clive Emsley, eds., “Patterns of Provocation: Police and Public Disorder.” New York: Bergahn Books, 2000, pp. 29-37).After enduring Lili’s company for a few more days, Flynn and Erben left for Spain on March 26th. On the 29th Flynn was in Barcelona and visited the government’s Propaganda Office, where he was very well received and was invited to a dinner with important government officials. Spain tried to use his visit for propaganda purposes in its efforts to secure aid from the United States. He was all smiles, posed for photographs, and autographed many of the photographs Warner Brothers had provided him with, as the studio intended to use the visit as a publicity stunt. Flynn spent a lot of time in the company of Warner Bros. staffers from their Barcelona office, and toured the city like a tourist. On March 31, 1937, the prominent newspaper La Vanguardia published a short note about the visit accompanied by Flynn’s photograph, which he had autographed and dedicated to its readers (March 31, 1937, p. 3). The government offered Flynn a car and driver which made him suspicious: “Fernandez (who is he?) implores me not to go to Madrid but I am intrigued by the offer of the gov’t party members to take us in an official car…”
Flynn carried a notebook with him during his visit in Spain. Unfortunately, the 74-page handwritten diary has never been published. Flynn’s daughter Dierdre sold the diary at an auction by Christie’s in 2000, and only a few excerpts were made public before the auction. The first entry in the diary is from March 26 as Flynn and Erben prepare to leave for Spain. Riding in a train, Flynn writes: “Beautiful spring day, warm sunshine, country beautiful. How can people fight a war in this lovely weather? Four hours train journey from here the most savage cruel patricidal war is being waged … Everyone is armed – some with large knives plus revolvers, but all with revolvers … We are crowded with young Loyalists all armed with the oddest assortment of uniforms. More soldiers, all kids, get on at every station. We are like sardines and smell like bad ones … Two hours late getting to Barcelona … have to give short speech and am cheered when I finished with clenched fist communist salute and the word ‘Salute’ … Great reception! Erben reminded me afterward I said ‘God bless you all’ – heresy here naturally as religion has been abolished. Lucky they didn’t understand.” (Christie’s, op.cit). Flynn’s account of his experience in Spain appeared in an article he wrote for the magazine “Photoplay” (Errol Flynn, “What Really Happened to Me in Spain” “Photoplay”, July 1937: 12-15) and he may have incorporated some of his diary notes into it, but it is difficult to say.
On March 31st, Flynn and Erben were in Valencia. From there they went to Albacete, where they visited a unit of the International Brigades on April 1st. The following day they arrived in Madrid, which was enduring a harsh siege by rebel troops that lasted most of the war, from November 1936 to March 1939.They stayed at the Hotel Gran Vía, in the heart of Madrid, where they took cheap rooms on the third floor with a nice view of the capital. Flynn would find out why they were so cheap in the morning, when he was awakened by artillery fire. He looked out the window and saw the Telephone Building being shelled. The front desk clerk told them: “Ah, yes, to be sure! 9:45. It is that way every morning. The enemy warm up their guns with three shells fired at the Telephone Building every morning. You may return to your rooms now in complete safety. There will be no more bombardment until tomorrow morning at the same hour—excepting, of course, strays. But they won’t be intentional.” (Flynn, “Photoplay”, op.cit.,) Flynn, didn’t want to hear any more and he and Erben decided to forgo the good view for the more secure hotel basement which was being used as a bomb shelter.At a lunch with high-ranking military officers, one of them talked about “the heartfelt emotions and happiness the Spanish people felt that their hero of the screen and upholder of justice, Errol Flynn, was with them. The Spanish people would never forget this … I sat there in amazement, trying not to show surprise to be cast in such a role.” (Errol Flynn, “My Wicked, Wicked Ways.” New York: Cooper Square Press: Distributed by National Book Network, 2003. Orig. pub. in 1959, p. 230. Flynn eventually found out why he was being given the royal treatment and why people had such high expectations about his visit. On his last day in Spain his driver asked him when he was going to donate the money that he and his Hollywood friends had raised. It was then, according to Flynn’s autobiography, that Erben explained that the best way to go places was to say they were bringing $1 million dollars to help the cause. Again, according to Flynn, Erben said that all he wanted was a chance to work as a doctor, performing surgeries. “The only way I could do it and get by in style here was to use you.” To which Flynn responded, “Thank you, Comrade [S.O.B.]!” (Ibid., p. 235)
On April 3rd, they visited the Guadalajara front. They mingled with the Loyalist troops and posed for pictures with them. The soldiers, of course, were happy to pose with a Hollywood star. Back at the hotel, they decided to see the front at night after hearing stories about how fascinating it was to see gunfire and artillery fire flashes lit up the sky. They left at night for Madrid’s University City where heavy fighting was reported, and found themselves suddenly caught in the middle of it and had to take shelter in a bombed-out building. An artillery round fell nearby and the concussion caused the building to shake and a large chunk of plaster fell on Flynn’s head knocking him unconscious. (“Photoplay,” op.cit.) This would only have been a footnote in the story, had it not been for Erben who filed a false news report that Flynn had been killed at the front. The news flashed around the world. Flynn had had enough and left in a hurry in the early hours of April 4th driving to Barcelona and from there flying to Paris in the evening, leaving a tarnished image behind him.
There had never been a million dollar donation, and Flynn had not been wounded or killed. The Spanish government was annoyed, to say the least, by the whole affair. Constancia de la Mora Maura, the director of the Foreign Press Bureau, and a Spanish aristocrat, granddaughter of the prominent politician Antonio Maura, was married to the commander in chief of the Loyalist Air Force, and gave a very unflattering description of Flynn. She said he had taken advantage of them with lies. They put their hard-pressed and stretched resources at his disposal for nothing. “Fortunately for Mr. Errol Flynn, he did not visit the censors’ office on his way back through Valencia. We would have really liked to have told him our opinion of his conduct …” (Constancia de la Mora, “In Place of Splendor; the Autobiography of a Spanish Woman.” New York: Harcourt, Brace and Co., 1939, p. 297-298).
The trip to Spain, with the twin hoaxes about the million dollars and his death, was a sorry affair for Flynn. In the end, there were no articles about the war, except the one in “Photoplay” which really focused on Flynn himself. Flynn probably went to Spain to seek relief from his marriage and from the constraints imposed by the movie studio, and not necessarily because he had any deep political ideology or inclination to help the Spanish Loyalist government. When the documentary “The Spanish Earth” was shown on July 12, 1937 in actor Fredric March’s house to a select group of actors and directors, Ernest Hemingway (the film producer and narrator) read a paper about his experiences in Spain and asked everyone to donate $1,000 to buy ambulances for the Spanish government. Flynn was the only person who did not write a check. (Marta Rey García, “Stars for Spain: la Guerra Civil española en Estados Unidos.” Stars for Spain: the Spanish Civil War in the United States) Sada, A Coruña: Ediciós do Castro, 1997, p. 340). Years later it was discovered that Erben was a Nazi and may have even been a spy. Rumors spread that the trip was an intelligence-gathering mission. Flynn never knew of Erben’s leanings, but it is clear that the Austrian doctor took advantage of him and of his fame as an actor. Flynn probably left Spain and Erben behind because of the false million dollar story.
For more information about Errol Flynn and the Spanish Civil War, search for the following subject headings in the Library of Congress online catalog:
-Flynn, Errol, 1909-1959
-Spain history civil war, 1936-1939
[Note: In Spain, Robin Hood is known as Robín de los Bosques, literally, “Robin of the Forest.”]