The Big Love by Florence Aadland — Thom Cuell

‘There’s one thing I want to make clear right off: my baby was a virgin the day she met Errol Flynn. Nothing makes me sicker than those dried-up old biddies who don’t know the facts and spend all their time making snide remarks about my daughter Beverly, saying she was a bad girl before she met Errol’

In October 2017, the New York Times published reports of alleged sexual misconduct against film producer Harvey Weinstein. Weinstein was soon followed by other powerful figures in the entertainment industry, including Kevin Spacey and Louis CK, as campaigns such as #MeToo encouraged women to share stories of abuse they had experienced.

Some insight into how this culture was allowed to develop, and the way in which powerful Hollywood men were able to use their influence to exploit and abuse female colleagues, can be found in a remarkable memoir, The Big Love, originally published in 1961, and re-issued this year by Spurl Editions. Written by Florence Aadland, the book details the scandalous relationship between Aadland’s daughter Beverly, a fifteen year old actress, and Errol Flynn. At times caustic, self-justifying and romanticised, The Big Love inadvertently reveals much about the culture which enabled the likes of Weinstein to act as they did, decades later.

Flynn and Beverly met on the Warner Brothers set, and began a relationship which would prove to be the last of Flynn’s life. The couple appeared together in the film Cuban Rebel Girls, and Beverly was with Flynn when he died from a heart attack in Canada in 1959. Official reports suggest that Beverly was 17 when she met Flynn; her mother, however, alleges that the affair in fact began two years earlier. These early years of the relationship are the main focus of The Big Love.

The heart of the story is the relationship between Flynn, Beverly, and Florence. We get little sense of Beverly’s character from Florence’s narrative. Personality is substituted for a list of accomplishments, which generally reflect well on her mother: an IQ of 140, singing lessons at 18 months, dancing at 2 years… we get hints of a rebellious nature, such as her taking up smoking after being told not to by her mother and singing teacher, but otherwise she remains largely a blank canvas. This use of a female figure as a blank canvas onto which male fantasies are projected is a familiar trope of Hollywood films, but it is disturbing to see it employed by Beverly’s own mother (or, indeed, her ghostwriter), to describe her. The technique, though, is indicative of Florence’s desire to present the affair between Flynn and Beverly as a classic Hollywood romance, rather than the abusive relationship that it was. As the culture of Hollywood enabled the abuse carried out by men like Flynn, its storylines created a framework in which that abuse could be justified.

Beverly begins working as a dancer for Warner Brothers whilst still underage, which is where she meets Flynn. Florence initially suggests that Beverly worked unchaperoned (‘Since Beverly was supposed to be over 18, it wouldn’t look right to have her mother tagging along with her to the studios… but sometimes I think that even if I had been there, I couldn’t have prevented what happened afterward‘), but contradicts herself on the very next page by stating that ‘for the first fifteen years of her life, I kept that girl in a cellophane bag. I saw to it that no-one touched her. Everywhere she went, I went with her. It got to be a standing joke around the studios‘. This tension between Florence wishing to appear as a good parent, but also be at the centre of the action, is present throughout the book, and makes her a highly dubious narrator.

At this stage in his career, Flynn was washed up: he had been away from Hollywood for four years, was virtually bankrupt, and had taken to carrying a bottle of vodka in his briefcase at all times. To Florence, though, he is still the ‘great actor and lover. Six feet two inches of beautiful man, with that terrific boyish smile, that cleft chin’. For all her supposed worldliness, Florence, who at 43 was 5 years younger than Flynn, is taken in by this ‘swankpot’, and his status – on their first meeting, she says, ‘I was about ready to faint, overwhelmed by the fact that my baby called this man Errol‘. This power imbalance will be ruthlessly preyed upon by Flynn.

Although ghost-writer Ted Thomey, author of sensational titles like Homicide Honeymoon and The Sadist, imbues the text with the breathless tone of a supermarket tabloid, The Big Love is a grim read, the opening chapters practically acting as a step by step guide for the grooming of young girls by powerful men. The ‘affair’ begins with rape:

‘She never had a chance to defend herself and, besides, what could she do against a man as big as that, and so strong? He grabbed her in such a hurry. He threw her on the bed and tore her dress. She hit him. She told him not to. She tried to get away, but he just clamped those big hands of his on her shoulders and held her. She cried and cried. She was completely shocked, and she was completely petrified by fear. And when it was all over she ran out of there, ran out of the bedroom to get away from him’.

The next day, Flynn telephoned and ‘begged her forgiveness. He told her she was a very sweet girl, something special to him… he phoned her at the studio every day’. In the meantime, he set about establishing his power and importance, leaving letters from his famous friends ‘open and easy to read’ around his lounge; on his first official date with Beverly, Flynn was accompanied by 12 lawyers. He charms Florence with parties at his Hollywood villa, and then manipulates her, making her complicit in his actions. First, he warns Florence that ‘if word gets out that she’s underage, that you’ve been letting her work illegally, she’ll be blackballed from the studios‘. Next, he suggests that they move to New York, where Flynn will have greater control over Beverly’s career, and both will become financially dependent upon him. At this point, Florence’s husband, already very much a background figure in the story, is written out completely, and the couple divorce.

From this point on, The Big Love is largely a round of parties, occasional rows, and examples of Flynn’s practical jokes (which often revolve around humiliating women). Florence, having been co-opted at the beginning of the relationship, is now eased out, left in her hotel room while Flynn and Beverly go out on the town, or sent home as they travel the world for film shoots. The primary objectives are, firstly, to establish Beverly as Flynn’s prospective spouse (much attention is paid to his promises to divorce the current Mrs Flynn), and to paint Beverly as a naïve innocent, who believed that her and Errol were ‘going to write The Arabian Nights all over again’. Florence’s account here raises interesting questions about her daughter’s agency; Beverly is presented as an extremely willing participant in the relationship with Flynn, and yet her description of the rape, and the lack of personality ascribed to Beverly, make her appear a victim of abuse first and foremost.

Flynn’s own memoir, My Wicked Wicked Ways, is silent on his relationship with Beverly, although it is dedicated to ‘a small companion’, which may or may not be her. It does, however, provide an extremely detailed and completely partial account of the various rape trials, statutory and otherwise, in which he was the defendant. A different perspective on their relationship is provided by a contemporary article from Master Detective magazine, included at the end of the volume by the publisher. This article, although coloured by the gender politics of its time, presents a very different view of Florence and Beverly. Beverly is portrayed as an out of control gold-digger, and her post-Flynn relationship with William Stanciu, which ended with Stanciu being shot following a struggle between the two, is held up as evidence of her bad character. Florence fares even worse, being presented as a pimp and an alcoholic. Clearly aware of this public perception, Florence is defiant throughout The Big Love, arguing that Flynn had agreed to marry Beverly, justifying her actions as Beverly’s guardian, and telling the ‘do-gooder busybodies’ who passed comment on her and her daughter to ‘drop dead’.

What she portrays as a great love affair is in fact an often grim document of abuse.

In many ways, The Big Love is a tawdry, sensationalist book, a cash-in written with one eye on rehabilitating Florence and Beverly’s public perceptions, and another on laying claim on Flynn’s legacy. Unfortunately for the author, the effect is almost exactly the opposite of what she was attempting to achieve. What she portrays as a great love affair is in fact an often grim document of abuse; although there are sections of The Big Love which are presented in a breezily enjoyable style, one finds oneself continually questioning Aadland’s motives. There is a strong sense of dissonance between the book’s content and its style, which makes for a deeply unusual reading experience.

From today’s perspective, though, it is a fascinating document, an insight into a Hollywood culture which facilitated abuse, and which has been allowed to continue almost unchecked, and into the dynamics of gender and power which make this possible. Between Flynn’s silence, Florence Aadland’s self-justification, and the misogynist tone of the Master Detective article, it is almost impossible to reconstruct entirely the relationship between Flynn and Beverly accurately, but The Big Love is inadvertently an extremely revealing document, not just of Flynn, but of a wider showbusiness culture which has persisted to this day.

Mrs. Florence Aadland was born on September 21, 1909, in Van Zandt County, Texas. She moved to Southern California and subsequently lost her right foot in a car accident. She married bartender Herbert Aadland and gave birth to her daughter Beverly on September 16, 1942, in Los Angeles. The affair between her adolescent daughter and actor Errol Flynn became tabloid news with his death from a heart attack on October 14, 1959. Her account of the relationship between her daughter and Errol Flynn, The Big Love, was “told to” writer Tedd Thomey and originally published in 1961. Mrs. Aadland died from alcohol-related causes in a Los Angeles hospital on May 10, 1965, at the age of fifty-five.

He is the cream in your coffee, your favourite literary critic’s favourite literary critic, the Northern laureate, the physical embodiment of loucheness, the most entertaining man in publishing, the 1,500 word man, ‘Tommy Literature’, ‘Mr Critique’, the circumcised saviour of publishing, ‘The Byline’, he’s really good at Twitter… Thom Cuell. @TheWorkshyFop

Image: Hoyts in Richmond, State Library Victoria Collecion, Creative Commons