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Shadows on a Legend : Cary Grant's Image as the Perfect Hollywood Heartthrob Is Sullied in Two Competing New Books Portraying a Darker Side to the Star

March 24, 1989|GARRY ABRAMS | Times Staff Writer

In a related development, the ghost of another superstar, Errol Flynn, hovers just offstage as another Hollywood writer tries to rekindle an old controversy over whether the swashbuckling Flynn was a Nazi spy, a dispute that involves Higham, who wrote a controversial biography of Flynn. "My Days With Errol Flynn" (Roundtable Publishing) by Buster Wiles with William Donati principally is a memoir of Flynn by Wiles, a stunt man and buddy of the late actor. But in the just-published book's appendix, Donati, who has pursued the matter for much of this decade, has written a chapter charging that Higham altered World War II-era government documents to make it seem as though Flynn was working for the Nazis. Donati also says that time sheets from Warner Bros. studio show that in November, 1940, Flynn was at work on a film, "Footsteps in the Dark," the time Higham charges in his "Errol Flynn: The Untold Story" that the actor was helping a suspected German agent cross the U.S.-Mexican border.

At the conclusion of the account of his investigation, Donati writes: "Charles Higham describes himself as a serious writer and a scholar; yet, in the academic realm the worst sin is falsifying primary-source material to prove one's thesis. Deceitful, pseudoscholarship degrades information and distorts the truth."

Higham stands firmly by his conclusions about Flynn. And Higham--author of a number of best-selling biographies including most recently "The Duchess of Windsor: The Secret Life," which also contains material about the duchess' Nazi connections--said that his most important work consists of "American Swastika" and "Trading With the Enemy." Both depict assistance and support of--and dealings with--the Nazis by prominent people and businesses.

In an interview, Higham said he has not read Donati's charges "and I can't comment until I have." Higham also said that controversy is "inevitable" due to the nature of his work.

"People say nasty things about the President," Higham said. "They say nasty things about anyone that's at all prominent. In my minuscule degree of prominence, I suppose there'll be a fair share of that. And I think that I'm not upset about it and haven't been upset about it."

When the Flynn book was published in early 1980, Higham said he clearly remembered the storm that erupted then with "people saying he couldn't possibly have been a Nazi, we knew him and he was a wonderful guy and he was a fool and he couldn't have been a spy, as if it takes intelligence to be one. . . . And they were going to people like (Flynn's friends) David Niven and Olivia de Havilland (and asking), 'Didn't he tell you he was a Nazi spy,' which has to be the silliest question ever asked."

Higham's Grant biography also revisits some of this ground, including sketches of the bizarre cast of characters--movie actors including Grant and foreign nobility--involved in the murky depths of espionage in World War II Tinseltown.

Indeed, much of "The Lonely Heart" relies on Higham's long presence in Southern California, a base from which the native of England and former Australian newspaperman has contributed to the New York Times in addition to writing numerous books.

Higham said he met Grant on several occasions on the social circuit but never knew him well. In those "superficial" meetings, Higham said he found Grant "to be enormously secretive, turned inward with a face that resembled a mask, with eyes so opaque--shining and intent on the screen but in person utterly opaque--so it was like the eyes of a ventriloquist's doll. . . . The charm was extraordinary but I felt very much applied to the surface. And so I felt here was someone who above all was guarded, fearful and deeply introspective. . . . In other words the opposite of the careless elegance of the screen image where he seemed the most relaxed dapper dan of all."

Higham and co-author Moseley, who is based in London, say that research for the Grant biography included more than 150 interviews as well as combing voluminous documents and old newspaper files. Probably the centerpiece of the book is an interview with Virginia Cherrill, Grant's first wife, who the authors say was physically abused by Grant. In one episode, they write that Grant "threw her to the floor so that she fell on the iron fender in front of the fireplace. Her face was cut, and again blood drenched her dress. He walked out and drove to the party alone."

Higham said that Grant's apparent pattern of wife abuse "was a shock," adding, "I wasn't ready for that at all."

On the other hand, Higham shrugged off the book's sensational allegations of Grant's bisexuality as a widely known fact in movie circles. He first heard of Grant's dual sexuality in 1965 in a conversation with actress Marlene Dietrich, he said.

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