Errol Flynn’s Jamaica Inn

The Hollywood actor’s swashbuckling lifestyle continued when the cameras stopped rolling...

Errol Flynn. Photograph by Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images

Some characters are so surrounded by myth and legend that you end up wondering whether anything about them is actually true. This is the case with Errol Flynn, the swashbuckling actor, womaniser and general ne’er-do-well who died exactly half a century ago, on 14 October, 1959. Of course, most people know that he was famous for an – allegedly – outsized anatomical feature, but perhaps less well-known were his colourful and often controversial connections with the Caribbean.

Much of Flynn’s persona was invented, including his claim that his mother was descended from a mutineer from the Bounty and that his antecedents were sea-faring folk (in fact, his Australian father was a rather more conventional professor of biology in Tasmania). But the sea-dog image proved useful, especially when, after a chequered education and early attempt at running a tobacco plantation, Flynn resorted to acting and landed a part as Fletcher Christian in an Australian film called In the Wake of the Bounty. This version of the yarn actually predated the better-known Mutiny on the Bounty by two years, and opened the door for further nautical roles such as the 1935 potboiler Captain Blood.

So it is somehow rather pleasing that Flynn’s celebrated relationship with Jamaica began in a boat – not in a film, but in his luxury schooner Zaca, which was washed ashore by a storm near Port Antonio on the island’s north-eastern coast in 1946. It was by all accounts love at first sight, as the rakish actor declared the verdant landscape of Portland more beautiful than any woman he had known (and there had been many). Jamaica seemed to offer Flynn an escape from the pressures of Hollywood, where he was by now a big name, and from the fall-out from various unsavoury incidents, such as charges of statutory rape, that continued to dog him.

Port Antonio, run-down yet charming, looked like a town that had known better days. Once a British naval base, in the late 19th century it had experienced a mini-boom as a banana exporting port, and then it had hosted an early tourism industry, with the large and luxurious Titchfield Hotel re-opening in 1905 after the original burned down. But banana disease, hurricanes and competition from other Caribbean resorts had put an end to Port Antonio’s golden age and it had largely reverted to being a sleepy fishing port.

Errol Flynn’s arrival galvanised the town. Flush with Hollywood dollars, the film star bought a large piece of land near the village of Boston Bay as well as the 64-acre Navy Island, the small and idyllic-looking island that guards Port Antonio’s double-horseshoe harbour. According to the Flynn myth industry, he won the island in a rum-fuelled game of poker, but then, according to the same industry, he eventually lost it in similar fashion.

Flynn and his third wife, Patrice Wymore, moved full-time to Port Antonio in 1950, where they lived at least some of the time on Zaca, moored at Navy Island. By now the best of his career was already over, and his health was deteriorating. A long list of ailments, some self-inflicted through a lifetime of alcohol abuse, troubled Flynn, and he had also recurring bouts of malaria, which he had contracted while running the tobacco plantation in Papua New Guinea.

Yet ill health did little to slow Flynn down or being him to his senses. Tales of the actor’s irrepressible bad behaviour continue to resonate in Port Antonio, which has probably never really recovered from “Flynn fever”. He once, so it is said, released a large alligator into the town’s main street, a jape that may have amused him and his cronies, but not anyone who came across the beast. He also apparently drove his Cadillac into a swimming pool – but without extinguishing his cigar. According to Wymore, he often spontaneously invited large groups of people to lunch or dinner, usually after a rum-drinking session, leaving his long-suffering wife to worry about the catering.

There was also a darker side to the drunken mayhem. In his new book on Jamaica, Ian Thomson – to whom I am indebted for reminding me of Flynn’s Caribbean associations – describes the film star as “swollen with alcohol” and launching “the sexploitation of Jamaican girls that lasts to this day”. According to Thomson’s The Dead Yard, Flynn had planned to buy the landmark De Montvin Lodge hotel—a splendid example of Victoriana transplanted into the tropics – and “turn it into a New Orleans-style brothel”.

He did, however, purchase the Titchfield Hotel, which he planned to restore and re-brand as the Caribbean’s most luxurious watering hole. There were other ambitious projects: to turn the estate into a profitable cattle ranch, to take over and revitalise the Bonnie View Hotel, to build a luxury mansion at nearby Castle Comfort. Flynn’s circle of friends also bought into the dream and fell for Port Antonio, while the actor had a circle of unconventional expatriate friends who included Noel Coward and Ian Fleming.

None of these plans ever materialised, as Flynn died of a heart attack in Vancouver in October 1959. He was apparently on a mission to lease his yacht to a millionaire and was accompanied by the16-year-old actress Beverly Aadland, who believed Flynn was going to marry her. Legend has it that the hard-drinking actor died in the midst of an impromptu party and that he was buried along with half a dozen bottles of his favourite whisky.

Errol Flynn’s legacy to Port Antonio is mixed. The Titchfield Hotel burned down again in the 1960s and was never rebuilt. Patrice Wymore retained the cattle ranch and lived on for many years in and around the town. The renamed Errol Flynn Marina opened in 2002, attracting well-heeled sailors to this corner of Jamaica. Perhaps most lastingly, Flynn’s idea to turn rafting down the nearby Rio Grande – hitherto a method of transporting bananas to the port – into a tourist attraction has proved a massive success, with thousands of visitors each year enjoying the spectacular scenery. Of all the myths surrounding Flynn, this one seems to have more truth than most, and it suggests that even the most addled of minds can occasionally have a brilliantly simple idea.