Errol Flynn and Harvey Weinstein: Writing About Past Hollywood Abuses in the Midst of #MeToo
Lindsay Lynch on Writing Historical Fiction to Understand the Present
In 2017, I quit my job as a social media manager at a bookstore in Nashville to relocate to the least populated state in America, a state that hasn’t voted blue in a Presidential election since 1964, and a city that’s arguably most well-known for a hate crime.
When people question “Why Wyoming?” I explain to them: because Brad Watson asked me to. For years, I had dreamt of getting a call from any of the writers helming MFA programs across the country. It’s my luck that it was Brad in Wyoming who read my short stories and wanted to offer me a spot.
I spent the summer before moving out to Wyoming drafting a collection of stories because I am nothing if not prepared. I put my life in storage and temporarily set up in a cottage that didn’t have internet but did have a view of a lake, and I wrote. It was the first time in my adult life that I had weeks with no objective except to write and I was ambitious. I outlined stories that I thought would help me process the chaos of 2016, the suffocating online-ness of my past job, the devastation of trying to make a living in the wake of a recession when everything on the horizon looked equally bleak. Stories with freelancers cobbling together a wage on spec, millennials reckoning with the boomers who raised them, or people navigating the disconnect between their online selves and reality.
By the time I made the cross-country road trip out west, I had a plan. As the landscape around me turned from the sprawling strip malls of the south, to plains of the midwest, to the mountains and plateaus of Colorado and Wyoming, I thought about the work I would do over the next two years.
A few months into the program, though, something strange happened: I didn’t know how to write about the present world anymore. For the next few months, I tried my best to work on my short stories. I failed. Instead, the only thing I could get myself to read was an obscure gossipy book about the history of 1940s Hollywood that I had checked out from the library on a whim.
Then I started rewatching the films. Then Trump reversed a policy protecting the rights of transgender workers. Then I checked the index of the Hollywood history book and found more books. Then Trump sent his condolences for another mass shooting. Then I started inventing historical characters of my own, including a young woman who becomes a gossip columnist. Then Trump declared there was no collusion. Then I reread the Hollywood books. Then Trump defended a sex abuser who was running for Senate. Then I re-rewatched the films. Then Robert Mueller was supposed to save us all from Trump. Then it was winter. Then Trump declared there was no collusion, again. Then it was winter. Then Trump taunted North Korea via Twitter. Then it was winter for another four months.
I wasn’t writing contemporary short stories anymore.
Taking an unexpected departure into historical fiction was never about escaping from the present—I wanted to understand how we got here. The novel I was working on follows a gossip columnist who finds herself at the center of a trial when an underaged actress accuses an actor of sexual assault. As I constructed a network of actors, actresses, studio executives, and gossip columnists in golden age Hollywood, I told myself that I wouldn’t drag my twenty-first century biases and political opinions into the stories I was telling about the past. My fear was that I would come across as being heavy-handed in my treatment of misogyny, systemic abuse, racism, and homophobia in the 1940s.
In my research, I found a story about a top-tier film star who was accused of sexual assault by two underaged girls. I was surprised to learn that the accusations actually led to a trial in 1943.
Errol Flynn is best known for his roles playing devilishly handsome protagonists—he did swashbucklers, war heroes, and was beloved for his portrayal of Robin Hood. Off screen, he was a loose cannon. I’m not being biased this time: it’s well-documented that Errol Flynn spent his days provoking every person who came into his line of fire, resulting in an endless list of public brawls, confrontations, and eventually a high-profile trial.
Betty Hansen was seventeen when Flynn followed her upstairs at a house party in Bel Air. Peggy Satterlee was fifteen when she went aboard Flynn’s yacht and he forced his way into her room. After an incendiary opening hearing with testimony from both girls, the case went to court. Over the course of the trial, the girls were vilified and humiliated. Flynn’s lawyer, Jerry Giesler, made a point of publicizing every one of the girls’ past misdeeds—Satterlee, in particular, was a subject of scrutiny because she worked as a nightclub dancer, she had past affairs with married men, and at least one abortion. In the closing defense, Flynn’s lawyer declared: “I say we did not smear these girls. I say they smeared themselves before they ever took this witness stand.”
Flynn was, of course, declared “not guilty” on all counts.
When I first shared a portion of my manuscript with a few readers, I included a note wondering whether or not I should be concerned that my novel would inevitably be read in the context of the #metoo movement. I had tried not to bend history to my will and my contemporary viewpoints, but the parts of the novel that felt the most prescient were the parts that I wasn’t making up.
Look, I didn’t want to be heavy-handed with my treatment of American history—but American history is really goddamn heavy-handed.
Sometime in fall 2018, my aunt and uncle invited me to stay with them in Colorado for a weekend while they attended a wedding for one of their neighbors’ daughters. The drive from Wyoming would only be a few hours and they had an extra room in their Airbnb—I was still a grad student living on a meager stipend and not one to pass up good meals, gorgeous views, and a comfortable bed.
I’d spent a lot of my childhood in the same neighborhood as my aunt and uncle. They lived just one block away, so our families were often intertwined, coming and going for dinners, drinks on the porch. Also a block away from my house, for all those years, lived a US Court of Appeals Judge named Brett Kavanaugh.
I had not fully thought through this association when I agreed to go with my aunt and uncle to a cocktail reception that weekend. The name Christine Blasey Ford was making more and more appearances in every major newspaper as her story gained traction, credibility. The Kavanaugh family, understandably, was not in attendance that week. But all their neighbors were.
It’s been years since that weekend, and I still don’t know what to do with these facts. I didn’t know what to say when I listened to the people at that party—all of whom would have proudly voted for Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton, would have marched on Washington, would have knitted pink hats—say that it’s not that they don’t believe Christine Blasey Ford, but she might not remember things very clearly from that night decades ago. Brett Kavanaugh was a friendly neighbor, their kids went to school with his daughters, he coached the girls’ basketball team. They were all very, very sorry for what happened to her. But they didn’t think the man they knew, their good neighbor Brett, could possibly have been the man in that room all those years ago.
There’s a scene in my novel in which the narrator, Edie O’Dare, stands by a window on the top floor of a building overlooking a series of studio lots. From her vantage point, Edie watches a scene being filmed on an open lot—having once been an actress herself, Edie’s been in plenty of filmed scenes, but she’s never seen it all from this view. She’s surprised by the level of orchestration, how every movement, every mark, every piece falls into place.
My novel is about Hollywood history, but it’s also about inevitability. When we’re in the thick of a scene, as Edie has often been, we feel we have agency, we’re moving through space, we’re enacting change. Go up several flights of stairs, though, and everything can be seen in miniature. An actress bumps into an actor by accident, but really, he’s been poised on a mark, waiting for this precise moment to collide with her.
When Errol Flynn was acquitted in 1943, he stated: “My confidence in American justice is completely justified.” And he was right to believe that. Flynn’s story was only one in a long history of white men in America being pardoned—both by the state and by the public—for their atrocious acts. The script was already written, because it’s been written a hundred times over. There was never an America in which Errol Flynn was going to be convicted.
While drafting my novel, I felt tempted to write a narrator who stands up to the status quo, who becomes that one person enacting change. And, to be fair, Edie does try. But could it really be a spoiler for me to tell you that she doesn’t succeed?
At one point while querying the novel, I talked to a literary agent who insisted that I get justice for the girls who were assaulted—take down the Harvey Weinsteins of the world, really stick it to the men, right?
The thing is, I grew up with a historian in my family. If I’ve learned anything from him, it’s that you don’t get to alter history: it’s ugly and it’s unsatisfying, but it’s a disservice to the people who lived through it to make their suffering more palatable for a modern audience.
I can’t change history. What I can do is tell stories. In all my searching, I never found much more information about those girls Errol Flynn assaulted. I don’t know if they lived happy lives, if they moved on from Hollywood, or if they tried to use the trial for their own fame. I know plenty about what happened to Errol Flynn. He’d go on to attend more Hollywood parties and get kicked out of more Hollywood parties, he’d get married, he’d get divorced, he’d make more movies. There would be more scandals—rumors of him sympathizing with Nazis, shady deals with foreign film productions, more accusations of assaulting underaged girls.
Errol Flynn has been dead for over sixty years. There’s not a chance in hell that he could ever predict a millennial writer would find herself isolated in a state full of right-wing libertarians for two years, become obsessed with the world he inhabited in the 1940s, and write a book about it. Trust me, I didn’t really expect it, either. History is inevitable—but so am I.
Do Tell by Lindsay Lynch is available now via Doubleday.