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.

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Anti-Pasta: When Italian Futurists Tried to Ban Pasta in Italy

A pasta vendor in Naples during the late 19th or early 20th century.
A pasta vendor in Naples during the late 19th or early 20th century.
Carlo Brogi, Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

While speaking at a multi-course banquet in Milan on November 15, 1930, Filippo Tommaso Marinetti presented his fellow Italians with an incendiary call to action. Pasta, he said, was a “passéist food” that “[deluded people] into thinking it [was] nutritious” and made them “heavy, brutish,” “skeptical, slow, [and] pessimistic.” As such, it should be abolished and replaced with rice.

So began an outrageous crusade against the country’s most beloved carbohydrate. Not only did Marinetti's movement elicit passionate reactions on both sides, but it also had some less-than-tenuous ties to Benito Mussolini's fascist regime.

Mr. Rice Guy

Filippo Tommaso Marinetti (center) and his fellow Italian Futurists in Paris in 1912.Proa, Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

Marinetti’s initial statement spread so widely because he himself loomed large over society at the time. His 1909 “Manifesto of Futurism” launched the Futurist movement, which championed a shift away from the slow, outmoded processes of the past and toward the sleek technologies of the future. Though originally specific to art, Futurism was a nationalist cause at heart—a way for the newly unified country to catch up to other world powers—and it aligned with Mussolini’s fledgling political campaign. In fact, the two men collaborated closely while establishing their respective political parties (Marinetti’s Fasci Politici Futuristi and Mussolini’s Fasci di Combattimento) as World War I came to a close. Marinetti had distanced himself from Mussolini by the early 1920s, but he still invoked Il Duce’s policies when they served his goals.

For the pasta prohibition, they did. To make Italy less reliant on imported wheat, Mussolini’s administration had started promoting rice—which was much easier to produce domestically—over pasta. In the late 1920s, he established the “National Rice Board” and even declared November 1 to be “National Rice Day.” As Philip McCouat writes for the Journal of Art History, the dictator never went so far as to ban macaroni, but citizens were already familiar with anti-pasta sentiment by the time Marinetti began his smear campaign.

On December 28, 1930, the Futurist followed up his dinner speech with the “Manifesto of Futurist Cooking,” co-written with the artist Luigi Colombo (known as “Fillìa”) and published in Turin’s Gazzetta del popolo. In it, they described pasta itself as an “absurd Italian gastronomic religion” and pasta lovers as being “shackled by its ball and chain like convicted lifers or [carrying] its ruins in their stomachs like archaeologists.”

In short, they believed that pasta weighed Italians down and prevented them from achieving any kind of greatness. The ultimate solution was for the government to replace all food with nutritional pills, powders, and other artificial substitutes, but until the chemists could create such innovations, the Futurists would settle for swapping out pasta with rice. “And remember too,” they wrote, “that the abolition of pasta will free Italy from expensive foreign wheat and promote the Italian rice industry.”

Starch Enemies and Allies

While Marinetti’s initial speech had incited a small uprising among Italians, his written manifesto gave the issue a global audience. “Fascist Writer, All Wound Up in Health Subject, Begs Countrymen to Swallow New Theory,” the Chicago Tribune summarized in an article titled “Italy May Down Spaghetti,” which hit newsstands just two days after Marinetti’s manifesto.

Smaller presses covered the bombshell, too. “No, signor. We beseech you, call off your holy war,” Ernest L. Meyer pontificated in Madison, Wisconsin’s The Capital Times. “Would you abolish macaroni and all its tunefully christened cousins—macaroncelli, foratini, maglietti, ditalini, vermicelli—and reduce Italians to the ugly dissonances of beans, cabbage, chops, chard, and chewing gum? Fie, signor, there is no poetry in your soul, and your palate lacks wit.”

Pasta drying in the streets of Naples in 1897.J.F. Jarvis, Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division // No Known Restrictions on Publication

People living everywhere from France to Australia commented on the matter, but nowhere was the response more impassioned than in Italy. Women in the city of L’Aquila sent Marinetti a protest letter, and the mayor of Naples went so far as to proclaim that “the Angels in Paradise eat nothing but vermicelli with tomato sauce.” (Marinetti later retorted that this was simply proof of “the unappetizing monotony of Paradise and of the life of the Angels.”) But Futurism wasn’t unpopular, and the pasta ban had ardent advocates of its own. Italian writer Marco Ramperti, for example, lambasted the beloved repast in a highly imaginative op-ed.

“[Pasta] puffs out our cheeks like grotesque masks on a fountain, it stuffs our gullets as if we were Christmas turkeys, it ties up our insides with its flabby strings; it nails us to the chair, gorged and stupefied, apoplectic and gasping, with [a] sensation of uselessness …” he wrote. “Our thoughts wind round each other, get mixed up and tangled like the vermicelli we’ve taken in.”

The Movement Loses Steam

Marinetti collected the best testimonies from scientists, chefs, and literary firebrands like Ramperti and reproduced them in 1932’s La Cucina Futurista (“The Futurist Cookbook”), which also contained Futurist recipes and instructions for hosting various kinds of Futurist dinner parties. But the 1930s were an exceptionally tumultuous decade for the country—which faced the Great Depression, Adolf Hitler’s growing influence, a war with Ethiopia, the Spanish Civil War, and eventually World War II—and Italian citizens were focused less on what they were eating and more on simply eating.

Two Neapolitan boys eating plates of pasta, date unknown.Bain News Service, Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division // No Known Restrictions on Publication

Furthermore, Futurism soon ran afoul of fascism. In 1937, Hitler decried modern art as “degenerate,” anti-nationalist, and somehow inherently Jewish. Though Marinetti spoke out against these associations, anti-Semitism had already infected Italy, and fascists started condemning the Futurist movement. Since Mussolini was courting Hitler as an ally, his regime’s ties to Futurism could easily have become a political liability. In 1939, when Marinetti published a fiery denial of Hitler’s accusations in a Futurist journal called Artecrazia, the government forced it to shutter.

So, by the 1940s, Marinetti was no longer spewing consistent vitriol against pasta, Il Duce was no longer supporting the Futurist movement, and the world at large was consumed with much greater threats than linguini-induced languor. And if Marinetti ever entertained fantasies about resurrecting the cause after the war, he never got the chance—he died of a heart attack in December 1944, just months before the deaths of both Mussolini and Hitler the following April.