In his lifetime Errol Flynn was scandal personified. Before he died of a heart attack in 1959 at age 50, the swashbuckling star of Captain Blood and The Adventures of Robin Hood had been accused—and acquitted—of the statutory rape of two teenage girls and had made a lurid name for himself as a hard-drinking womanizer. Yet he was a popular actor; the public seemed to like his brawling boys-will-be-boys way of life. Then earlier this year his reputation suffered grievous injury with the publication of author Charles Higham’s Errol Flynn, the Untold Story. In it, Higham alleged that the Australian-born Flynn was both a Nazi spy and a closet bisexual who had slept with Tyrone Power, Howard Hughes and Truman Capote. Flynn’s daughters, Deirdre, 35, and Rory, 33, were outraged, but seemed to have no legal recourse. U.S. law holds that the dead cannot be libeled.
The two women were not to be frustrated so easily. Deirdre and Rory are the actor’s only surviving children apart from a half sister, Anello, 26. Flynn’s photographer son Sean disappeared while on assignment for TIME in Cambodia in 1970. Last week the two sisters filed suit in Quebec. The legal code there may allow them to collect damages if they can prove Higham’s charges are false. San Francisco lawyer Melvin Belli is handling their case. “We’re not suing for a particular amount of money,” says Rory. “That’s not the issue. We’re trying to clear father’s name.”
Both daughters are inured to stories of Flynn’s unappeasable appetite for women and whiskey, though Rory says that at home, “He was very strict and taught us a strong sense of right and wrong.” They indignantly deny reports of his sexual interest in men and the suggestion that Flynn’s friendship with Vienna-born physician Hermann Erben—unmasked in 1946 as a Nazi spy—reflected on the actor’s own politics. Says Deirdre: “He knew FDR. That didn’t make him a Democrat.” Adds Rory: “The book is just guilt by association.”
For his part, author Higham is confident. The 48-year-old son of a British MP, he is a onetime protégé” of T.S. Eliot with five volumes of verse to his credit. Later he churned out a series of film biographies (Katharine Hepburn, Charles Laughton, etc.). “This book was not written in a mood of calculation or with the desire to create a sensation,” Higham says. “I found the evidence of Flynn’s collusion with, commitment to and involvement in the Nazi cause quite clear. His activities after the outbreak of war were treasonable.” Although the charge of bi-sexuality may be harder to prove, Higham claims to have irrefutable evidence that Flynn was a traitor. Among the author’s allegations: that the actor arranged to have his 1941 movie Dive Bomber filmed on location at the San Diego naval base in order to give Japanese military planners a look at American defense installations and aircraft carriers.
The two Flynn daughters grew up in Hollywood. Deirdre is an ex-movie stuntwoman who now works as a stand-in; Rory recently broke off a six-year romance with Yes drummer Alan White and is studying acting with Martin (Mission: Impossible) Landau. She recently completed You and Me, a feature movie with David Carradine. Both women believe Higham’s book goes far beyond routine Hollywood scandalmongering. “We’re saying there are limits to what a biographer can get away with,” Deirdre says. “We’re hoping that what we’re doing might discourage authors like Higham from writing about people who aren’t even alive to defend themselves.” Higham replies with equal determination: “From the moment the book was published, people have come to me with details about Flynn’s connections with the Nazis. New information arrives almost daily.”