Weekend at Errol Flynn’s: When John Barrymore’s Friends Stole His Corpse From the Morgue for One Last Prank

They did what? —John Barrymore
They did what? —John Barrymore
Francis Bergman, Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

In the 1930s, artist John Decker’s cabin studio on Bundy Drive in Brentwood, California, became the de facto clubhouse for a rowdy gang of Hollywood A-listers that included writer Gene Fowler, art critic Sadakichi Hartmann, and actors Errol Flynn, W.C. Fields, and John Barrymore (among others). These so-called “Bundy Drive Boys” partied often, drank always, and generally encouraged their reputations as high-society mischief-makers—so it’s not a bit surprising that they’re at the center of one of the most outrageous rumors from the Golden Era of Hollywood: That after Barrymore’s death in 1942, one or more of his cronies supposedly smuggled his corpse out of the morgue for one final toast.

A Descendant Weighs In

After decades of hearsay and a couple of dubious firsthand accounts, Drew Barrymore (granddaughter of John) actually confirmed the story during a recent appearance on the YouTube series Hot Ones.

“Is it true that your grandfather’s body was stolen from the morgue by W.C. Fields, Errol Flynn, and Sadakichi Hartmann so that they could prop him up against a poker table and throw one last party with the guy?” host Sean Evans asked.

“Not only yes,” Drew answered, “but there have been cinematic interpretations of that. A Blake Edwards film called S.O.B. that’s just brilliant and fun to watch.” In the 1981 film, the deceased protagonist—a film producer played by Richard Mulligan—is spirited away from the funeral home and buried at sea. Evans followed up by asking Drew if her grandfather’s postmortem festivities had also inspired the 1989 black comedy Weekend at Bernie’s, to which she replied, “I’ve heard things, but I can’t know ever if that’s even true.”

While Drew’s corroboration would seem to settle the matter, it’s still possible that her grandfather’s body never left the morgue at all. And even if it did, the occasion probably wasn’t a spirited, booze-filled fête to rival Weekend at Bernie’s.

A Ghastly Gag

The earliest written reference to the tale is from Errol Flynn’s memoir My Wicked, Wicked Ways, penned by ghostwriter Earl Conrad and published just months after Flynn’s death in 1959. In Flynn’s version of the story, director Raoul Walsh and two friends persuaded the caretaker to let them borrow the body for an hour by spinning a sob story about Barrymore’s housebound old aunt who wanted “a final look at her beloved nephew.” After sealing the deal with a $200 bribe, the body-snatchers brought Barrymore to Flynn’s house, arranged him in Flynn’s favorite chair, and waited for the unsuspecting actor to return from the bar.

“The lights went on and my God—I stared into the face of Barrymore!” Flynn remembered. “His eyes were closed. He looked puffed, white, bloodless. They hadn’t embalmed him yet. I let out a delirious scream.”

Flynn got as far as the front porch before Walsh and the others caught up, explaining that it was “only a gag.” They returned Barrymore to the funeral parlor, while Flynn spent a sleepless night “shaken and sobered” by the prank. “It was no way to remember the passing of John Barrymore,” he wrote.

Errol Flynn in The Dawn Patrol (1938).FilmPublicityArchive/United Archives via Getty Images

Walsh recounted his side of the story throughout the 1970s. According to his 1974 memoir, Walsh enlisted Flynn’s inebriated butler to help him jockey the corpse onto a corner of the couch. “I’ve never seen Mr. Barrymore so drunk,” the butler said. “Looks like he might be dead!” Flynn, after seeing the body, ran out and retreated behind a bush, shouting that they’d all end up in San Quentin State Prison for the prank.

When Walsh told the undertaker that Barrymore had been to visit Flynn, he replied, “Why, if I’d known you were going to take him up there, I would have put a better suit on him.”

The Bundy Drive Fabulists

The similarities between the two stories would suggest that Barrymore’s corpse did briefly leave the morgue the night after he died. But according to Gene Fowler’s son Will, he and his father sat vigil beside Barrymore’s body for the entire night, and at no point was it whisked off by Walsh or anyone else. In a 1977 biography of Barrymore, author John Kobler alleged that the only visitor was a prostitute who “knelt and prayed and continued on her way in silence.”

Gene Fowler practicing for his next all-night vigil.The Print Collector/Print Collector/Getty Images

Gregory William Mank, author of Hollywood’s Hellfire Club: The Misadventures of John Barrymore, W.C. Fields, Errol Flynn and the Bundy Drive Boys, finds Fowler's claim “far more credible” than Flynn’s or Walsh’s.

“It was Errol Flynn, I believe, who originally made up this morbid tall tale, and Raoul Walsh was all too happy to support it (after all, it’s a hell of a story),” Mank tells Mental Floss. “Flynn worshiped Barrymore, and he created this wacky corpse-swiping saga to give his idol a resurrection of shorts, temporary though it was.”

The story itself—ghoulish, yet tinged with humor—reflects the nature of the Bundy Drive Boys, who Mank describes as “brilliant, sensitive men, plagued by demons, and tormented by the way they’d destroyed most of their meaningful relationships and squandered their remarkable talent.”

“The ‘We once stole Barrymore’s body for one final party’ story was one of their ways of laughing at their own misery,” he says.

So in a way, the veracity of the legend isn’t really the point. The idea that Flynn and the others would completely fabricate a story about stealing Barrymore’s body is nearly as fascinating as if they’d actually done it.

Mental Floss's Three-Day Sale Includes Deals on Apple AirPods, Sony Wireless Headphones, and More

Apple
Apple

During this weekend's three-day sale on the Mental Floss Shop, you'll find deep discounts on products like AirPods, Martha Stewart’s bestselling pressure cooker, and more. Check out the best deals below.

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Absentee Ballot vs. Mail-In Ballot: What’s the Difference?

Liliboas/iStock via Getty Images
Liliboas/iStock via Getty Images

Since you mail in an absentee ballot, it seems like mail-in ballot is just a convenient alternative for people who always forget the word absentee. And though the terms are often used interchangeably, there is technically a difference.

Up until the Civil War, American voters were generally required to vote at their local polling stations in person. But when states realized this would prevent hundreds of thousands of soldiers from voting in the 1864 presidential election, they started passing laws to let them send in their ballots instead. As The Washington Post explains, state legislatures have since broadened these laws to include other citizens who can’t make it to the polls on Election Day: people who are traveling, people who have disabilities, people attending college away from home, etc. Because these voters are all physically absent from the polls for one reason or another, their ballots are known as absentee ballots.

Some states require you to meet certain criteria in order to qualify for an absentee ballot, while others don’t ask you to give a reason at all (which is known as “no-excuse absentee voting”). Since this year’s general election is happening during a pandemic, many states have temporarily adopted a no-excuse policy to encourage everyone to vote from home. But even if you don’t need to provide an excuse, you do usually need to request an absentee ballot.

According to Dictionary.com, mail-in ballot is a more general term that can refer to any ballot you send in. It’s often used when talking about all-mail voting, when states send a ballot to every registered voter—no request necessary. Oregon and a few other states actually conduct all elections like this, and several other states have decided to do it for the upcoming presidential election. But even though you don’t have to send in an application requesting a mail-in ballot in these situations, you do still have to be registered to vote.

Because voting processes are mostly left up to the states, there’s quite a bit of variation when it comes to what officials call ballots that you don’t cast in person. You could see the term mail-in ballot—or vote-by-mail ballot, or advanced ballot, or something similar—on an application for an absentee ballot, and you could hear absentee ballot used in a conversation about all-mail voting.

No matter what you call it, you should definitely mail one in for this election—here’s how to do that in your state.