Thursday, July 30, 2009

Collecting and Friendship and Something Called a Mola

A Kuna Indian woman shows an intricate Mola square, incorporated into a dress.

My friend from childhood, Leslie Larson, of Cupertino, California, is spending time this week helping set up an exhibit of Molas at the San Jose (California) Museum of Quilts and Textiles. Molas are intricate cloth squares designed by the Kuna people of the San Blas Islands and these, on which Leslie has been working, were donated by a family friend and will be featured in an exhibit at the museum beginning August 9.

From "Fabric Tattoos: the Spirit of the Mola." The exhibit is curated by Deborah Corsini.

Since we were kids together, Leslie has traveled widely, studying in Mexico when she was in junior high school, in other Latin American countries during her high school years, and teaching in Japan following her graduation from elite Occidental College. It was hard to keep up with the brilliant Leslie, because she was frequently off somewhere on an international adventure. But as friends, we made the time. Marriage to her husband Mike has kept her home more--but she and Mike still take the time to trek the globe whenever possible.

My friend Leslie in her high school photo.

One of Leslie's travels took her to Panama, where she connected with a friend of her mother's: Isabella (Miz) Lively. Ms. Lively is what is known as a "Zonian": an American person who was born and who lived most of her life in the Panama Canal Zone. As a Zonian, Miz Lively developed an interest in the beautiful cloth squares she had seen all her life in the Zone on Kuna Indian peoples and, often, for sale in shops and markets. She began to collect them.

A Mola made into a pillow.

Originally, the Kuna people used the aboriginal designs in tattoos and body paint. But with the arrival of the Europeans, the Mola designs were translated into textiles. Many of Mola patterns Miz Lively collected are from the 1920s. They are made using "a reverse applique technique, where the layers of colored cotton cloth are turned under to reveal the colors in the layers below." (From Leslie's exhibit introduction.)

We all struggle with time, as did the designer of this mola square.

Another friend from high school, Jan Sweeney Fukushima, and I met this week at the textile museum to see what Leslie was up to with the Mola exhibit. Jan, another brainy friend, graduated from Pomona College. She doesn't need to work, but teaches second graders because she loves to help children learn. She and her husband, an attorney, are empty-nesters now that their three straight-A college students are out on their own.

Jan, behind me, with two other high school friends, at one of our reunions. Leslie didn't attend this one.

Our visit together reminded me of two important things I've learned in my life: your character is pretty well formed by the age of eighteen. Thus, the friends you chose--and who chose you--when you are young are just the same kinds of friends you would chose to have a half century later. Jan and Leslie, who have been kind enough to be my friends for so many years, are truly fine people. I'm proud they chose to be my friends so long ago.

Jan at left and Leslie in front of a Mola display at the San Jose Museum of Quilt and Textiles. I took the picture so you'll have to imagine me as part of the threesome.

The second thing the exhibit called to mind is the unique joy of collecting. I had no idea what a Mola was nor what my friend Leslie was talking about when she said this is what she was working on. But I've known for years that if you love something and you want to collect it, that's just what you should do (in my case that might explain the wide range of black-and-white lithographs, exotic estate jewelry, and vintage handbags I own, but that's a subject for another day). If no one else understands what you collect--then so be it. One day, perhaps, they will.

One day you may find a friend to curate your collection. Then, the joy you've had in the things you've collected will be shared by others, who will find your joy to be contagious.

Leslie has written a wonderful book about Panama, called Panama's Caribbean Treasure: The San Lorenzo Protected Area (2002), which includes the history, the ecology, and stunning photos of the region.

San Jose Museum of Quilts and Textiles

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Friday, July 24, 2009

Timepieces as Images of Civilization

"Oh Great Sheik of the Desert. I love that Cartier Tank watch you are wearing. Did you buy it in Paris, or do you have their mail order catalogue?"

My grandfather, Joseph Roy Chapman, was a successful advertising man in Birmingham, Alabama, and like most men of his generation, he carried a pocket watch. My father, whose memory for recent events has vanished, but whose memories of the past have actually grown more acute, told us a funny story about that, recently.

He and his family lived in a Birmingham suburb called Homewood, and there they had a neighbor who played in a band. Being a musician, he was a bit of a sporty fellow and wore something my father (born in 1919) had never seen before: a wrist watch. The watch-on-a-wrist idea was so intriguing to my father as a little boy that he took the cap from a bottle of Coca Cola and some rubber bands and made himself a reasonable facsimile to wear. The inventiveness of children.

Joseph Roy Chapman, my grandfather who died in 1948, always kept his watch in his pocket, unlike some modernists.

What my father was seeing, as a child of the 1920s, was the beginning of an enormous change in the fashion of telling time. The wrist watch had been invented about 1896, but it was not popularized until World War I. Pilots and the first tank commanders (the tank was also invented during World War I) were mostly officers who needed to shout details and instructions to others and had their hands busy enough without having to reach into their pockets in order to check the time. So, these dashing gents ordered the newfangled wrist watch from their suppliers back home.

And when they came home on leave, battle-scarred, handsome and completely irresistible in their uniforms, everyone noticed that these paragons of style (many of whom wore "trench" coats, also invented for officers in the Great War) were accessorised with wrist watches. How truly modern they looked! The most well-off of them wore the Cartier Tank watch, designed by the French jeweler for tank officers. It wasn't long before the pocket watch was virtually discarded for the convenience of the new invention.

So my father, with his Coke-bottle-cap copy in the 1920s, had spotted the trend. Eight decades later, his father's pocket watch sits under glass in a display at Dad's home and Dad, age 89, tells the time with the old digital Casio on his wrist.

One of the most famous film appearances of a wrist watch takes place in the 1924 Rudolph Valentino film Son of the Sheik. In the film, Valentino plays a primitive Bedouin who takes dancing girl Vilma Banky to his tent and in stepping forward to ravage her, reveals ... a Cartier Tank watch on his wrist! The scene drew hoots from 1920s audiences who thought it impossible for an Arab swain to have slipped up to Cartier in Paris to buy himself this little item. Little did they know that in the 21st century sheiks were among the few who could afford to do this. The Cartier "Tank" continues to be one of that company's signature products.

Winston Churchill was probably the last great leader of the 20th century who did not make the conversion from pocket watch to wrist watch. In all his photos, even unto his death, he wears his pocket watch chain, fully visible across his vest, or as the English call it, his "waistcoat." On that chain he hung his gold watch and his cigar cutter, something, he always pointed out, one could never hang from a wrist watch. I once found a watch chain at an estate sale with that same link he used and I often double-loop it around my wrist to wear as a bracelet, in his honor.

Winston Spencer Churchill, the man who saved civilization in the 20th century. He also beat the Nazis.

Recently, I read an article that suggested how much things have, once again, changed regarding the use of the portable timepiece. "If you want to look young," said the author; "you must not wear a watch at all. All young people check the time on their cell phones."

This may be true. But having a cell phone in my purse will never serve as an excuse for me to miss the opportunity to wear a piece of jewelry around my wrist that, by the way, conveniently tells me the time. Good grief! One must maintain some standards of civilization. And if that makes me old fashioned, I guess I'll take my lead from Winston Churchill.

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Friday, July 17, 2009

The Beauty of the Tangible

My father as a toddler, in a photo taken by the Boyett Studio, 2008 Second Avenue, Birmingham, Alabama, about 1920.

While my sister was here, she swept our mother off to run some errands and I had time to sift through a box of old family photos as my father sat nearby and talked and dozed. In his mind that day, he was back in Alabama, where he was raised, and the stash of photos I found confirmed to him that his old home on Palmetto Drive, in Homewood, Alabama, was near enough for us to visit.

He talked about sneaking under his new house, when he was eight years old and the house was being built, and finding a neighbor girl had sneaked in behind him. He kissed Loula May that day, he said, though he knew he wasn't supposed to. He held up an old photo, and told me about the funny shoes he had to wear the day the photo was taken. The present is fading for Dad, but the past is very clear.

The short pants and the not-so-favorite shoes.

I wonder if generations to come will have the pleasure of holding old photos in their hands? So many of them now are saved as digital files, which is very convenient. But you can't hold a digital file between your fingers nor enjoy the tangible clues that a photo on paper provides.

Details from paper photo frames, surrounding circa 1920s photos of my father.

The old photos of Dad as a child are beautifully set in old graphic paper frames, and there are a number of them that catalogue his youth. Baby pictures, pictures of him at about age five, and then the pictures that show the growing maturity of a lively young boy and then a gangly young man.

One of them was in a frame behind glass and touching it reminded me that my grandfather Chapman was a very heavy smoker. The picture seemed obscured behind a haze and when I took the photo out to clean the glass I found it coated in a sticky layer of nicotine. My grandfather died of heart disease at the age of 57, just a few years before I was born. My father never spoke of him, until recently. Now his father's death brings tears, as if he is mourning a death that just happened.

We don't have any of these studio portraits of my mother. Her family was having a tougher time in Spokane, Washington, surviving the Great Depression and there was no extra money to spend on studio portraits of the the four Latta children. Dad's father, on the other hand, was more prosperous. Though he himself had achieved only a high school graduation certificate, he was already planning to send both his son and daughter to Auburn University, from which they both graduated.

Another photo, is one my father had taken during World War II when he was on leave from Ascension Island, at an "R and R" station in Recife, Brazil. It is a photo that was printed, as they sometimes where in those days, on a postcard. It wasn't sent that way, though, because it was not written on or postmarked. Holding it, you see the stamp of the processor, written in Portuguese on the back: "Foto Lux."

My father, on leave during World War II, in a photo taken in Brazil.

Here you see a dutiful son, away from home in a terrible war, having his picture taken on leave to send to his parents. His letter arrived and they took the photo from its envelope, and held it like a treasure. They had not seen him in two years. Carefully, they put it behind glass in a frame, where his father could see it as he paced, and smoked, and worried, and prayed that his son would come home from war safe and well.

My father dozed. I held the photo. Taken sixty-five years ago, it was now a treasure to me; for, though I will one day go to him, he will not come back to me again.

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Monday, July 13, 2009

Memories of Loyola School: And How it Grew Into the 21st Century

Loyola School in Los Altos, California after its recent makeover.

Guest Blog Post by
Lisa Gutt Arnold
Bainbridge Island, Washington State

Robin writes: Loyola was the first school I attended and though it was a mile from our house in Los Altos, California, and I began school at the age of five, I walked the distance daily with my sister and my neighborhood friend Keith. There was one girl in all of my classes, by the name of Lisa Gutt, who was my rival in everything: in athletic events we were the two best in our class; in academic contests we always were near the top; and in breaking the hearts of all the boys in our class, well, it was quite a battle indeed. Here she writes a guest entry for my blog about our alma mater (K-6) and the way its architecture was updated by another of our classmates.

By Lisa Gutt Arnold

In the hallowed halls of Loyola Elementary School I won the third grade spelling bee on the word “dictionary” and then had the misfortune of being sent to the cafeteria “bad table” by the vice principal, Mr. Wickstrom, for laughing too much.

Loyola School sports its new look.

On the playground I played four-square and raced Robin in the fifty-yard dash. Last fall Robin and I caught up with each other at our high school reunion, and discovered that the renovation of the school where our friendship and rivalry began was the focus of a high school classmate’s prowess.

In 2003 David Hingston (Los Altos High, Class of 1968), an architect, flexed his design and management muscles against the weight of expectation. A renovation of Loyola School had been underway when conflicts surfaced among the participants, stalling the project dangerously close to the beginning of the school year.

The utilitarian school takes on post-modernist coloring.

We alumni, who savored our Loyola years, might have hoped the renovation would bring the school into the present without destroying the past. But, for a student, worse than the prospect of starting school at the end of a glorious California summer, would be starting it in the midst of construction. David’s mandate was to pull the team of contractors back from the edge and complete the renovation on time. He proved up to the task, blending diplomacy with design intelligence and what he calls “spirit of place.”

The beauty of California flora is now incorporated into the common areas of the school.

Given the fifty-odd years since Loyola was built, there was much room for architectural improvement, like clerestory windows to summon the northern light into classrooms. But the renovation also succeeded in maintaining a military grace, existing in the original design.

As David describes it, the building is: “Shed-like, utilitarian, expediently constructed, the campus in some ways resembled a small military base. The ‘bar buildings’, surrounded by asphalt, were barracks-like. Arguably the school’s most prominent architectural feature was the flagpole sporting a flag for country and one for state."

Redwood siding graces the open air hallways of Loyola, post renovation.

"Bar buildings date back to the decade following World War II. From school to school their construction varies, but the concept is the same: an east-west orientation, parallel placement, thirty or so feet of separation, and a north wall of glass to admit natural light. Hundreds if not thousands of schools, especially in California, have classroom buildings based on this concept. The term of art is finger-plan. The schools are known as finger-plan schools.”

Renovation of the exterior of the bar buildings added paint to the stucco and redwood siding. The modernization introduced air conditioning, insulation, and ‘novelties’ (see the photo of the Hungry Lion fast food window, just the right size for kids). When the classroom buildings were built circa 1950, the only heat in the classrooms came directly from the sun. Now heat and air conditioning are centrally controlled from district headquarters.

At right, the Hungry Lion serves fast food for elementary kids at Loyola, an innovation.

David’s view is that “for a school, to be functional, is fitting. Utilitarian buildings and brainpower: the connection is mythic. Victor Frankenstein had his basement; Packard and Hewlett their garage; Abe his log cabin. Surely physicists work in Quonset huts, and scientists of all stripes in trailers.”

Brain power, exhibited in fourth-grade flash cards and wild excesses at recess gave David pause when it came to Loyola’s playground. “Much as it always has been, the playground at Loyola today is largely an uninterrupted, horizontal, asphalt plane. From a small child’s perspective, it is a vast, almost infinite space.”

In that space we took our time between classes, absorbed lessons taught, and imbibed fresh air. But to David, “such spaces favor big kids and athletes, who tend to dominate them.”

The school's lion mascot is featured in a new mosaic.

To me, admittedly small, the merriment was thick, encouraging learning with brief respites. The other day my father and I recalled Pet Parades held on the Loyola grounds. Our dear mutt Peco’s spotted bow tie once won my sister a pearl necklace. So much for mad scientists and early computer geeks. Loyola’s architecture, and along with it, our memories, are destined to improve with age.

The cowgirls in this historic photo include Loyola school alumna Lisa Gutt (back row left) and Robin Chapman (front row left).

David Hingston's firm is:
Gelfand Partners Architects

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Friday, July 10, 2009

Sister Comes to Visit: Happy Day for Dad

My sister Kimberly with my Dad during her visit this July. We all did a lot of laughing together.

My sister and I showed up on the steps of our childhood home this morning with pancakes and coffee from McDonalds. Dad clapped his hands when he saw my sister.

"But are there two Kimberlys?" he asked. He was pretty sure she was his daughter, but he was expecting a little girl. Gradually in the hours we spent together, he got used to her again and kept telling her how happy he was to see her.

"I was so surprised I almost fell out of my chair," he said.

"It is a good thing you didn't," my sister wrote to my father--who is deaf. "You would have hurt yourself!" They both laughed. It was a great time for Dad.

Dad kept clapping his hands all morning with glee. "It's a family reunion. All the Chapmans are here!" Dad loves things these days the way a child does and it is a pleasure to see him so delighted.

Even our neighbor's dog Sunny came over to visit, making Dad even happier--if that were possible. Sunny is as old in dog years as my Dad is in human ones. Dad helped train Sunny a decade ago when her owner was struck down with cancer. Her owner died and Sunny is now devoted to her original owner's son and to my father, whom she always remembers. Sunny limps badly now from hip dysplasia and her body is wracked with tumors. Still, when she sees my father she wags her tail. The two are old dogs together.

Dad with his friend Sunny, about ten years ago.

Dad is familiar with the things and the people he sees every day, so he knows Sunny and he knows me and knows I live nearby. But since my sister is only able to come to California from her home in Colorado every few months, Dad forgets in between times that he has seen her.

"I haven't seen her since she was baby," he said the other day. I told him he had seen her, but he had forgotten. He shook his head.

"My mind is all mixed up," he said. He is still well enough to understand that--some of the time. Most of the time, mercifully, he is not.

It is always a joy when my sister comes. She takes the pressure off me for the time she is here and the helps lift the weight of caring for our two elderly loved ones. She always provides moral support and advice at the end of a phone line. Now that she's here, we also share the work. Her skills are different from mine, so, for example, she is happy to help Mom with the banking--something I hate to do.

Robin and Kimmy in Colorado.

My sister is also a great cook. If I supply her with a glass of wine and turn her loose in my kitchen, I can watch old movies or read the newspaper and the most wonderful things turn up on my dinner table. It is a delight. I'd have her cook for me every night but her husband back in Colorado would probably object.

So this week the Chapman family is on a good track: we are together, in our own fracturered way, and we are united in our love, as flawed as that is. Blessings, when they come now, are fleeting enough to hold tight to and treasure. And if you throw in a couple of gourmet dinners created by my talented sister, you have to feel lucky indeed. I'll remember to save a doggie bag for Dad, and for his good pal Sunny.

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Sunday, July 5, 2009

Errol Flynn Turns One Hundred

Guest Blog Post by Steve Latshaw

Errol Flynn as George Armstrong Custer in They Died With Their Boots On(1941).

Robin writes: Errol Flynn (1909-1959) was one of the most gifted actors ever to grace the screen. His films, beginning with Captain Blood (1935), still sparkle with Flynn's talent and grace. He reached the absolute pinnacle of his profession and then, for reasons we still don't completely understand, threw it all away. Beginning as a hard-partying playboy, he evolved into a man addicted to alcohol and drugs and he died, as Michael Jackson did, far too young. But his demons died with him and he left his best for us to see in his wonderful films. Screenwriter Steve Latshaw annually celebrates Flynn's birthday with an unusual group of friends, who this year marked Flynn's centennial.

Guest Blog Post by Steve Latshaw
Hollywood, California

“It isn’t what they say about you, it’s what they whisper.” Errol Flynn

I was born on August 13, 1959, just sixty-one days before the death of Errol Flynn. Later, as a teenager, I read Flynn’s autobiography, My Wicked, Wicked Ways. It was the tale of an adventurer who took Hollywood by storm, but then didn't seem to want what he had. For good or ill, it was just the sort of story that opened my eyes to the great, wide world outside of the corn fields and plains of Central, Illinois. I was ruined forever.

Now here we are, fifty years after Flynn’s death. I’ll be fifty myself in a few weeks. If I want, I can always drive up on Mulholland, past Flynn Ranch Road, and see where the old sport used to live. And I can celebrate his birthday with some like-minded fellows, which is the point of my story here.

There was no one like him, before or since. The son of a famed international scientist, Errol Flynn was born and attended private schools in Hobart, Tasmania. Before he was twenty-two, he was an adventurer, gold miner, war veteran, gigolo, thief, and slave trader, sailing his way through the Pacific. He came to Hollywood, by way of England, and transformed his rugged, devil-may-care, Tasmanian self into a movie actor.

Errol Flynn, 1938, in a Warner's production still published in Grand Illusions by Richard Lawton.

“There was just one word for Errol Flynn—outrageous. In his real life as on film he was constantly sprinting out from behind the arras, pursued by an angry husband or a flummoxed female. He was married three times, fathered four children and won a law suit charging him with fathering another. He loved the company of young girls and he was accused three times, but never convicted, of statutory rape." Life Magazine obituary for Flynn, 1959.

Would we have been pals? Good question. I’d have liked to think so, but maybe at a distance. I've been a fan of Flynn's since I was 15. That’s 35 years. I have read just about everything there is to read about the guy, including all of his own work as a writer. He was a complex man, born out of his time, more interested in exploring the world (and everything that entails) and writing about it than he was in Hollywood or movies.

My understanding, from talking to his friends and family members, is that he was great fun to be around, generous and a very good parent. He was probably easiest to get along with in the 1930s and early 1940s, when he was still very much a Tasmanian kid turning Hollywood on its ear, enraging Hal Wallis and Jack Warner and making millions of bucks in the process.

Errol Flynn in his prime in a photograph by George Hurrell.

In the late forties and into the fifties he was much more cynical and world-weary. He had lived through a trial on charges of statutory rape. It turned out to be a set-up, cooked up by the Los Angeles Police Department because Warner stopped paying kickbacks to the Chief of Police. Flynn was acquitted. But the subsequent snickering about his trial--hence the phrase "in like Flynn"--was something he hated.

“I had now made about forty-five pictures, but what had I become? I knew all too well: a phallic symbol. All over the world I was, as a name and personality, equated with sex.” Errol Flynn

"In twenty-five years of movie-making he earned and grandly spent more than $7 million. He drank two quarts of vodka daily, three when he got up early enough ..." Life Magazine, 1959

He carried a lot of anger about those days that he couldn't wash away with booze or drugs. The fact that he couldn’t get into World War II had broken his heart. He’d tried to get into every branch of the service but was turned down because he had serious health issues. The biggest, most athletic action star in the world spent most of his life a very sick man. It was a secret kept by Warner Brothers. So, Flynn fought the war in Warner’s Burbank soundstages, feeling like a fake, when, as his friend David Niven put it: "So many opportunities for real life heroism were all around.”

"He was a scamp, bounder and barroom brawler in the great and mannered tradition of Cellini, Casanova and Don Juan. The truth was not in him when a lie made a better story. Large numbers of people loved him dearly." Life Magazine, 1959

The worst of it came from Flynn’s best war film, Objective, Burma! (1945). It was a simple story about an American, behind-the-lines mission. Burma was mostly a British show, and though Americans did fight there, the Brits hated the movie's exclusively American point of view. Flynn, born in the British Commonwealth, got the blame.

By the late 1950s (when he was in his late forties) he was a dying man, drowning in his own shredded lungs and heart. He'd had tuberculosis since the early 1930s and had his first heart attack on the set of Gentleman Jim (1942). Yet he continued to chain-smoke cigarettes, drink heavily, and take massive doses of morphine. Toward the end, so the story goes, he was still charming but prone to bouts of drug-fueled rage and hallucinations.

The old sport near the end of his life.

"Last week, at fifty, Errol Flynn lounged about a Vancouver doctor's apartment while the classic pains of a coronary spread through his body and down his arms and legs (he knew them, for he had suffered them before) and talked of other things, of long-gone friends, of John Barrymore and W. C. Fields. He said, 'Hell, dying is not so much,' and asked for a room to lie down in." Life Magazine, 1959

His second heart attack killed him, in October of 1959. Yes, I think I would have enjoyed being his friend, though I would have wanted him to stay with us a little longer than he did.

“My problem lies with reconciling my gross habits with my net income.” Errol Flynn

I worked with--and got to know his daughter Deirdre a little bit--and saw through her stories her Dad's talent for survival. In the 1950s he taught her how to steal silverware from expensive Beverly Hills restaurants and how important it was to wash your socks in the tub when you got the chance to take a bath.

I also think I would not have gotten too close to Errol: like a fire, it might not have been too safe. He reminds me of Beach Boys drummer Dennis Wilson, whom I met a few times in the last couple of years of his life. He was very much like Flynn, right down to the explosive presence and the furious dissipation.

Yet Flynn was so complex. He also wrote articles, papers and books and pursued writing with the same reverence he pursued women. He was a war correspondent during the Spanish Civil War and a novelist. Beam Ends (1937) and Showdown(1945) were published to great acclaim. He even sold a swashbuckling screenplay, The White Rajah, to Warner Brothers. It still sits on their shelves, waiting for Brad Pitt, or Johnny Depp, or Russell Crowe to give it life.

Now I'm just about the age Flynn was when he died.

And I must say a splendid time was had by all at my pal Jack Marino's "Mulholland In Burbank" retreat, as the "Mulholland Drive Boys" held a 100th birthday celebration for Errol Flynn.

Flynn's birthday cake sits adjacent to a sculpture taken from a life mask of the actor.

“Mullholland Drive Boys?” We’re fans of Flynn (who used to live up Mullholland near Hollywood). We are men and women who have some connection to him. Some few of us, now getting on, met or knew him. Some others have had occasion to encounter his family. For myself, I won’t get into detail, except that I once had an opportunity to help one of Errol’s children.

Now let me help you get something straight. This is not just a group of fanatical Flynn fans. We’re doing this because thirty years ago Flynn history was rewritten into fiction. And we’re doing our part to restore the truth.

To explain: Charles Higham wrote a terrible book in 1980 that purported that Flynn had been a Nazi spy. The story was not true and was later disproved by a number of sources in the 1980s and 1990s, including the FBI. No less a figure than Sir William Stephenson, “The Man Called Intrepid,” personally intervened after the book was published. Stephenson had run combined British and American Intelligence during World War II. He contacted Flynn’s widow, Patrice Wymore, assuring her that Flynn had been a loyal patriot.

But over time, the story has become legend. It has even been presented as the truth in the Disney movie The Rocketeer, in which Timothy Dalton plays a Flynn-like character who's a Nazi spy. It has affected Flynn's reputation in film history. Part of what the "Mulholland Drive Boys" do is work to restore his reputation, as it benefits his family. And it has. New documentaries, books and films are surfacing. Warner Brothers has thus far put out three DVD boxed sets of Flynn classics, and the old boy's reputation is getting a new coat of paint.

Who are we? Well, we all have some connection to the film business. But the founder is someone special. Jack Marino is a filmmaker. A conservative filmmaker, actually, and there aren’t too many of them in Hollywood. He was raised a Kennedy Democrat, directed a very good, old-fashioned, Warner Brothers-style war picture about the Vietnam War called Forgotten Heroes. Jack’s movie reminds me a lot of Flynn’s Objective, Burma!.

He meant it that way--an old-fashioned war picture. It doesn’t glorify war--far from it. But it puts the American soldier on a pedestal, where he ought to be. The movie stars baddie William Smith, who also attended our Flynn birthday party. Because, like Jack, Smith is also a big fan of old Errol.

On to the party: posters and memorabilia were everywhere. Flynn's gold cigarette case--his cigarette holder floated around as some brave souls smoked through it. Longtime Errol Flynn expert Trudy McVicker attended: she goes back to the 1940s with Flynn, one of the original five collectors of Flynn memorabilia and one of his friends. (Author and soundtrack producer Tony Thomas was one of the other "original five." He passed away a few years ago.)

Flynn's gold cigarette case.

Others in attendance included Thomas McNulty, author of Errol Flynn: The Life and Career, which is just about the best book on Flynn in existence. Also attending: the daughter of Flynn's last girlfriend ... daughter of "Cuban Rebel Girl" Beverly Aadland.

Actor and Errol Flynn fan, William Smith, with his wife JoAnn. Screenwriter Steve Latshaw is posing in Flynn's last trenchcoat.

Smith told a story of meeting Flynn when he, Smith, was sixteen, and Flynn's Cord sports car crashed into a ditch near Chandler Street in Los Angeles. Flynn was in jodhpurs, having just come from, no doubt, a polo match. Bill, who is a big man, was even bigger in those days and graciously (and single-handedly!) lifted Flynn’s car out of the ditch.

We even had a surprise international guest ...

Jack and some of the "Mulholland Boys" visited Errol's grave site on his birthday morning. While observing a respectful silence, Jack and friends ran into a fan who had flown all the way from Sweden to visit Errol's grave on his birthday.

After everyone recovered from the shock and awe of that, our new friend was invited back to Jack’s place for the celebration. All night long he kept insisting we all take pictures with him because no one at home would believe him.

The Flynn centennial party gathers for a memorial photo. The fan from Sweden is at the back, wearing a black hat. He can use this photo to prove to his friends back home that this evening really did happen.

Our Guest of Honor was another famed character actor: a fellow contract player with Errol at Warner Brothers. Paul Picerni, of The Untouchables, House of Wax, and many other fine films and TV series, brought his wife and manager along to the festivities. Fast-moving, quick and funny, a sprightly 87, Paul sat down in a semi-circle with the guests as video cameras rolled and did an hour of great stories about working with Errol and the glamour of old Hollywood.

Actor Paul Picerni chats with friends at the Flynn centennial.

What did Paul have to do with Errol? They were co-stars in the 1952 melodrama Mara Maru. One of Paul’s great Flynn stories involved Jack Warner. It seems in the middle of production, Flynn had been making a series of long distance calls to his then wife Patrice Wymore (his co-star in Rocky Mountain). Exasperated, Warner sent a note to the set, berating Flynn for the extra expense. Flynn read the note out loud to Paul, then said, “Watch this, sport.” Flynn wrote the following carefully on the note:

“Jack--I'll forget about all of this if you will. Best, Baron.”

Baron was Jack Warner's nickname for Errol. Flynn handed the note back to the messenger.

Warner gave up trying to collect.

Flynn and Warner eventually parted. In 1952 he told Warner to go to stuff it: he was going to make his own movie--and, he hoped, a fortune with it. It was called William Tell and would be the first swashbuckler shot in CinemaScope. But Flynn was bamboozled by his Italian backers, robbed by his business manager (who said on his deathbed, somewhat belatedly: “Tell Errol I’m sorry.”) Flynn was also betrayed by Tell co-star and long-time friend Bruce Cabot, who attached Flynn’s car, furniture and clothing in order to get paid for his work in the film.

About the same time, Flynn’s European doctors told him, at age 42, he was suffering from hepatitis, lung disease, from various other ailments caused by his heavy use of alcohol, nicotine, and drugs and that he did not have long to live. So, he loaded up his family, stuffed his briefcase (labeled “Flynn Enterprises”) with vodka and took to the sea, living on his boat the Zaca for the next few years.

Flynn was as good at sailing as he was at everything else and he truly loved it. This is one of his favorite photos.

He’d land occasionally, in London or Hollywood, and make a film, later garnering the best notices of his career with character parts in movies like The Sun Also Rises (1957). In that one, Flynn finds himself in a Spanish hotel room during the running of the bulls and confronts his own alcoholism. He raises a glass to Tyrone Power, saying “Bung Ho, old boy."

Dissolve back to 2009. As the sun goes down, the booze and food continues to flow at our Flynn party. As a capper, we all settle back to watch a movie. What else? Paul Picerni's co-starring turn with Errol in Mara Maru, projected onto the big screen, in Jack's backyard.

It was a great way to celebrate the old boy's life. But what I loved the best is that I am completely convinced Errol showed up for the festivities.

About forty-five minutes into the movie, during a dull bit (some long dialog scene between Raymond Burr and Ruth Roman) there was suddenly a scratching noise in one of Jack's movie speakers. We listened, as the scratching suddenly became recognizable. For about ten seconds, we heard the unmistakable voice of Cab Calloway, singing the refrain, "Hi-de Hi-De Hi-De Ho!" from his hit song "Minnie the Moocher". Just that little bit. "Hi-de Hi-De Hi-De Ho!"

And then Cab faded away, never to return.

This was Errol, of course, playing a little joke. He was known for practical jokes during home screenings of movies, especially his own.

“One thing I always knew how to do: enjoy life. If I have any genius it is a genius for living. I spent myself to the full, dissipating all that I wanted to, testing how much my constitution could stand, bending where others might break.”
Errol Flynn

A great night. Hi-De Hi-De Hi-De Ho to you, too, old sport.

And Bung Ho.

* * * *

More on Flynn's Films

Forgotten Heroes Movie Web Site

Jack Marino’s Errol Flynn Web Site

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Friday, July 3, 2009

Be Proud on the Fourth of July

We take so much for granted in America. That we can move anywhere we like, that we can vote, that we can start a business and fail and start again and succeed beyond our wildest dreams. That our government--though imperfect--can actually get things done. That we can vote the rascals out when we choose. People still die for simple things like this across the globe.

We're so rich, we can afford to make our environment a priority. I'm often reminded, when I hear people whining about carbon footprints, that San Francisco Bay is cleaner now than when I was a child, though the Bay Area population is eight times what it was then. We've cleaned up the Cayahoga River in Ohio, ("Burn on, Big River, Burn On" songwriter Randy Newman once wrote), cleaned up the mighty Columbia, and have preserved millions of acres all over the U.S. from development by making them national preserves and parks. I was in Sao Paulo, Brazil once and even though that country has the ninth largest economy in the world, the river adjacent to the airport road was a sewer--filled with chemical pollution, human waste, and old refrigerators. Not a priority there.

We so often shy away from patriotism in America, at least it seems we have in the half century since we won the second World War. It is almost as if our riches embarrass us and we hesitate to show the flag. Europeans--whom we spent most of the 20th century propping up during their endless wars, dictatorships, and slaughters--have so often told us we're arrogant, uncouth and unsophisticated that we seem to have come to believe them. We duck our heads so they won't notice have far above them we have flown.

Everyone wants to live here. In the 1980s, and 1990s nearly a million legal immigrants each year came to America. We absorb them and see them everywhere. They are Americans now.

Once in my life I have seen an amazing show of the flag in my country and that was in the days after September 11, 2001. Suddenly, spontaneously, American flags popped up everywhere. On houses, on businesses, in windows, on automobiles. The flag stores in Orlando, where I was living at the time, were sold out and had to start taking orders. Though the intelligentsia later decried this, it was somehow so comforting. It was as if one's neighbors were saying: "We're in this together." And the country, as a whole, seemed to stop what it was doing and turn and say to the bad guys: "You got us once you bastards. Now try it again."

It is such a beautiful flag. It represents an experiment created by men and women who pondered such things in the Age of Reason and the Age of Enlightenment. They gambled together their lives, their fortunes and their sacred honor to make that flag ripple in the breeze of history.

We ought to thank them on this Fourth and show the Stars and Stripes that so many have fought and died for since that first Fourth of July in 1776. The land of the free and the home of the brave: we need the brave today as much as we ever have. When you have something good, there is always some knucklehead who wants to take it from you.

Show the flag for our soldiers, for our founders, for our grandfathers and for our children. For the new Americans around us and the old Americans too. We are so privileged, we are so rich, we are so lucky. We're America.

Many of the postcards here were loaned to me by Russell Hughes, an Orlando postcard collector. Hughes was a teenage soldier when he was captured in December of 1944, during the Battle of the Bulge, and put into a German prison camp where he very nearly starved to death. One day, in April of 1945, he and his fellow prisoners awoke to find their guards had deserted. He and a friend appropriated some linens from the home of the camp's commandant and sewed together small American flags that they pinned on their ragged clothes. Thus adorned, they began to walk toward the Allied lines. When they encountered some Russian troops, the Russians recognized the emblems on their torn uniforms and pointed to the American lines. They headed there on foot and were eventually rescued. To Hughes and men like him, the U.S. flag is more than a symbol. Perhaps it is no wonder he collects these beautiful cards.

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