I was in the basement of the downtown Los Angeles courthouse, where I was researching a possible nonfiction book about an overlooked film-noir actor whose offscreen brawling and balling led to occasional trouble with the law, as well as comparisons to his better-known colleague at Warner Bros., Errol Flynn. The basement is where old case files are stored on microfilm, and one of the files I needed was lost, so that I kept returning to the courthouse to see if it had been found. I was out of luck again that day, headed to the elevator when I was stopped by a nondescript man of sixty or so. He couldn’t find his way out of the basement, he said. I told him to follow me. He did, remarking on the flatcap I was wearing.
“I used to know somebody who wore a hat just like that,” he said. “She was a big racing-car driver back in the thirties. She was friends with my family.”
He repeated that. He repeated everything he said. Something was clearly wrong with him, though whatever it was, he was in no way menacing. Apparently obsessed with height, he informed me, apropos of nothing, that he was six feet tall. Then he asked how tall I was, and before I could answer, he said, “Six-one, right? You’re six-one.”
“Very good. People usually think I’m taller.”
“No, you’re six-one. I used to know somebody who was taller than you. He disappeared in Vietnam.”
That was all he said, but I instantly blurted out, “Sean Flynn?” I had once considered collaborating on a screenplay about Sean Flynn, who disappeared during the Vietnam War and was, I knew, tall. I suppose it was simply a guess, but it somehow felt like more than a guess, and I could tell by the man’s spooked expression that, yes, he meant Sean Flynn.
“How did you know that?” he said.
“I don’t know how I knew. I just knew.”
Like most movie legends of his day, Errol Flynn, Sean’s father, fades from collective memory a little more each year, but he was once so famous that “in like Flynn” was a winking expression for sexual success, per its inspiration’s well-earned reputation for promiscuity. He maintained that he never chased women, they chased him, and that was certainly true of Sean’s actress mother, Lili Damita. She met Errol aboard the ship that was carrying him from England, where he began his career in theater, to America, where, on the strength of a screen test, Warner Bros. had placed him under contract. Already a movie star, tempestuous Lili campaigned for marriage, threatening to kill herself when Errol balked. They wed in Yuma, Arizona, a curious setting for an international pair (she was French and he was Australian), and back in Hollywood, Lili used her influence to land Errol the title role in Captain Blood, the pirate movie that established him.
Naturally, his new celebrity attracted other women. “Sometimes,” he said, “they come into my dressing room at the studio and shut the door and do it to me. I just let them, that’s all.” Lili retaliated with tantrums and dalliances of her own, and the couple separated and reconciled again and again before Lili became pregnant with Sean. Then thirty-eight, eight years older than Errol, Lili wanted a child and he didn’t, and after he predictably and conclusively left her, she “devoted many years of her life to pursuing him through the divorce courts and trying to destroy him,” in the words of Flynn biographer Jeffrey Meyers. Finished with acting, she moved to Palm Beach, Florida, the better to keep Sean from his father. It was just as well, since Errol had become addicted to heroin and cocaine, to say nothing of his outstanding addiction to alcohol, which he considered the deadliest drug of all—a seasoned opinion that should give us all pause. His calamitous marriage to Lili seems to have permanently inclined him toward younger women; his second wife was nineteen to his thirty-three when they met at the courthouse where he was being tried for statutory rape. (He was acquitted.) His third wife was two years younger than his second, and his last girlfriend, a year younger than Sean, was fifteen when she got together with forty-seven-year-old Errol. “This little girl could well become your mother someday!” he would razz Sean on the rare occasions they saw each other. “Don’t talk to your mother that way!” Meanwhile, he supplied Sean with hookers.
But Sean was never the womanizer his father was, due, in part no doubt, to his close relationship with Lili—too close, at times, for Sean. He was her only child (Errol went on to have three daughters), and she fussed over him, polishing his manners and overseeing his education at an elite prep school. He was a senior at that school when his father died of a heart attack at fifty, so disfigured from years of heavy drinking that he could have been taken for seventy, and Sean flew to L.A. for the funeral, where he turned heads. His future agent remembered him as “maybe the most beautiful boy I had ever seen.” Beautiful is a word that reliably occurs in memorials of Sean, most notably in his friend Michael Herr’s justly celebrated Vietnam memoir, Dispatches, which has introduced Sean to many with: “Sean Flynn could look more incredibly beautiful than even his father, Errol, had thirty years before as Captain Blood, but sometimes he looked more like Artaud coming out of some heavy heart-of-darkness trip…” The Conrad allusion foreshadowed Herr’s screenplay work on Apocalypse Now. (He also co-wrote Full Metal Jacket.)
As a child, Sean had done a few bit parts in productions featuring his father, and at home in Florida, just before he enrolled at Duke University, he did another bit part in Where the Boys Are, arranged by its male lead, George Hamilton, who had grown up with Sean in Palm Beach. Publicity photos of them on the set of Where the Boys Are were seen by the producer of Captain Blood, stirring his memory of having met Sean at Errol’s funeral and sparking a brainstorm: The Son of Captain of Blood, starring the son of Errol Flynn. Sean had only been at Duke for three months when the producer called him.
Acting didn’t especially interest Sean. Nor did school interest him. He liked cars, guns, boats, travel, and here was an offer that could conceivably subsidize all that, Lili being something of a tightwad. Torn about the offer, Sean discussed it with a Duke classmate who later gave an account of their talk to Jeffrey Meyers. If he did this movie, Sean projected in what Meyers rightly characterizes as “a shocking (and surprisingly prescient) forecast,” he would end up moving to Hollywood and “getting into that whole moviemaking scene,” though he would “probably get very bored with it.”
“After that?” asked the classmate.
“I’ll go sailing around for a little while.”
“I’ll go to Africa and do some hunting.”
“Then, I’ll probably find some way to get myself killed.”
Sean didn’t take to Hollywood, as predicted. There was an embarrassing attempt at molding him into a pop star, but he wasn’t much of a singer, and he wasn’t much of an actor, either. Errol could handle dialogue almost as gracefully as he could handle a sword, and though Sean was equally graceful in action scenes, he didn’t seem fully at ease with dialogue. He was sensitive to the inevitable comparisons to his father and wary of the inevitable questions about him, telling reporters they were practically strangers, or as he said to one: “He sired me, that’s all.” Errol’s absence from Sean’s childhood, Lili’s bitterness toward him, the debt his fame forced on Sean: all guaranteed Sean’s unsurprising ambivalence about his father. But he wasn’t ambivalent about Hollywood. “Everyone I met [there],” he later remarked to his friend Zalin Grant, “was extremely cynical and knew everything. To them, screwing a girl had nothing to do with love. Even liking a girl was a kind of therapy. Life just didn’t have much meaning.” It’s interesting that he emphasized sex in dismissing Hollywood to Grant, as if making a coded contrast of his Hollywood father’s treatment of women and his own.
He moved to Paris, where he lived in his late grandmother’s apartment in the 17th arrondissement, and without much enthusiasm, he continued to act in movies, including three Spaghetti Westerns. Between gigs, he satisfied his taste for sport and travel, at one point working as a safari guide in Tanzania, another fulfillment of his prophecy at Duke. Back in Paris, he put down his gun and picked up a camera, working a little as a fashion photographer, and appealed to Paris Match to send him to Vietnam as a war correspondent. Though he had no experience, Paris Match agreed, undoubtedly swayed by his famous last name.
During the Spanish Civil War, Errol had likewise tried his hand as a journalist, one of several efforts, shades of Sean, to prove he wasn’t just an actor. He funded and documented a science project for his biologist father and wrote a play and three books: a novel, a nonfiction account of his sailing expeditions, and his autobiography, My Wicked, Wicked Ways. The first two are out of print, but the third has never been out of print since it was published soon after his death, and it’s often cited as the gold standard of movie-star memoirs. Errol had help with that book, but he nevertheless could turn a phrase, as when he vividly summed up his marriage to Lili as an “impossible snarl of two volatile people” from which “there came something good anyway.” The something good was Sean.
Errol’s journalism career was a short-lived fiasco. Wounded and reported dead in Spain, his rapid return to Hollywood invited derision and accusations of cowardice, which Jeffrey Meyers believes unfair. In any case, just as Sean had followed his father onto the screen, he now followed his father to war. Impeccably polite, reserved but approachable, humble despite his glamorous appearance and background, he “blew minds all over Vietnam,” Herr writes in Dispatches, popular with military personnel and his fellow journalists alike. With three of the latter, among them English photographer Tim Page, he rented a Saigon flat that he described in a letter to Lili as a “lovely place” with “good company when I come back from the field. We have a houseboy and his wife, stereo music, PX cards to get food & liquor from the Army. I enjoy myself very much here.”
He was enjoying more than food and liquor at Frankie’s house, as the flat was called after the houseboy. Tim Page, who soon became one of Sean’s closest friends, is said to have been the model for Dennis Hopper’s character in Apocalypse Now. In other words, Page was wild, and he set the tone at Frankie’s house. A lot of women came and went. A lot of pot was smoked. So was a lot of opium.
War photography is, to say the least, risky business, but Page took more risks than most, and Sean did as Page did and, like Page, was injured, though not as routinely or seriously. He parachuted into combat and walked point on patrol missions in areas filled with booby traps and snipers. He carried a gun and sometimes participated in firefights, which further endeared him to GIs. “Mud and fear, blood and death, where no films exist, is where my life is,” he told a reporter who surely punched up the quote. Either way, low on cash, Sean left Vietnam for a few weeks to make a film, his last, Cinq Gars pour Singapour (or, as it was called in English, Five Ashore in Singapore). It was shot, of course, in Singapore, and when it opened in Saigon, it was billed as starring “Saigon’s own Sean Flynn.”
He left Vietnam again during this period to cover the Indonesian-Malaysian Confrontation in Borneo, and the following year, interrupting a visit home to the States, he flew to Israel to cover the Six-Day War, which was over by the time he arrived. There would be other travels: to New Guinea, where he turned some aborigines on to pot; to Laos, where he shacked up with a local girl; to Bali, where he fell in love with another local girl and was briefly jailed for assaulting a taxi driver who, he thought, had insulted her. It’s said that he planned to marry the girl in Bali and settle there with her, but that may have been a pipe dream, since he knew the girl’s wealthy parents looked down on him and would never give their blessing. Besides, he felt that for “some incredible reason” he belonged in Vietnam. The era of Frankie’s house over, he and Page got a new flat and new flatmates: the writer Perry Deane Young and the photographer Dana Stone. Young would publish Two of the Missing, his book about Sean and Dana, who vanished together. You would never think, to see pictures of the short, spectacled, Scoutmasterish Dana, that he once worked as a stripper in San Francisco; but you would also never think that the movie-star offspring of two movie stars could reinvent himself as a war correspondent, or that another war correspondent was a former model for Coco Chanel. Michèle Ray had been a Chanel model, and she was captured and released by the Vietcong, the South Vietnamese insurgents, which may well have figured in the fate of Sean and Dana.
If Sean aimed to become something other than Errol Flynn’s son by going to Vietnam, he had gotten what he came to get; Herr notes in Dispatches that he impressed people who “had barely ever heard of Errol Flynn.” He had also found his calling. Apolitical and vaguely patriotic before he arrived in Vietnam, it didn’t take him long to realize the war was a mistake, and he spoke against it in images, which suited him better than words. He acknowledged that he “may not have been as good a photographer as some of the other newsmen in [Vietnam], but I went into some places and got into some situations which they did not. This was the difference. I took some idiotic chances—but here I am.”
He said that in March 1967. He disappeared in April 1970. Famous last words are seldom said last.
For twenty years after Sean disappeared, no one entered his apartment in Paris, as if to do so would cause him to keep away, per The Year of Magical Thinking. The apartment, then, except for the cobwebs and accumulated dust, was left exactly as Sean left it when he was last in Paris in 1969, and pictures of it were taken and run in a tabloid after the door to the apartment finally opened again. A book on the kitchen counter, unopened letters, ties and jackets hanging in a closet, professionally laundered shirts: we see similar shots all the time online now, and the ones snapped at Sean’s place are just are unremarkable unless you’re acquainted with their unique backstory.
But other shots are remarkable without need of the backstory. Sean’s apartment looks almost like a page from the collage diaries of Peter Beard or Dan Eldon, like Hemingway’s den if Hemingway had been around Sean’s age, twenty-eight, in 1969. Animal heads and hides are mounted on the walls, and so is a human skull with antelope horns arranged like tusks on either side of it. Beads circle the skull and dangle from its teeth, while nearby peacock feathers graze a poster of Che Guevara, blending with his beard, so that the feathers, which stand in a white urn, look like the stems of an uprooted flower, the urn its bulb, the head of Che Guevara its blossom. There are psychedelic posters, one that reads HAIGHT-ASHBURY, as well as posters of Jimi Hendrix and Ho Chi Minh, and glossy photo prints, including a self-portrait of Sean shot while parachuting, and Chinese lanterns, and rattles, and stacked poker chips, and the decorated sheath of a scabbard, and a turntable on the dining table, which suggests that Sean usually ate at restaurants and not at home.
Of course he did.
This trippy bachelor pad is so specific to its time that it could never be recreated now and, by itself, demonstrates Sean’s transformation from a clean-cut preppie to the stylishly shaggy globetrotter who somehow died in Cambodia, where the war had spread. The Vietcong and their confederates, the North Vietnamese, had established bases in the Cambodian jungle, which the U.S. was bombing, driving the communist Vietnamese deeper into the country and closer to its capital, Phnon Penh. Cambodia, meanwhile, had its own communist insurgency, the Khmer Rouge, and a flimsy government, led by Prince Sihanouk, under mounting pressure from without and within. When Sihanouk was ousted by his prime minister in a coup d’état, the result was chaos: some reports had Phnon Penh about to fall to the Vietcong and North Vietnamese. This was what Sean and Dana, on assignment for Time and CBS News respectively, had come to document.
Phnon Penh didn’t fall, not yet, but two days after they arrived, Sean and Dana heard that the Vietcong had attacked Chi Phou, a town ten miles from the Vietnam border, and they hit the road on rented motorcycles. Another journalist told them they looked like characters in Easy Rider—in fact, Sean could have doubled for Peter Fonda—and Sean corrected him with: “Queasy riders is more like it.” He was hoping to be captured by the Vietcong.
So it’s conjectured, based on his overheard quarrel with Dana at a café in Chi Phou a few hours before they were captured. Or maybe they didn’t quarrel. Dan Southerland, a Christian Science Monitor reporter who was with them at the café, has written that they “seemed to be in a light-hearted mood” and that Dana was “joking” when he said of Sean: “This guy wants us to get captured.” But whether Sean did or didn’t want them to be captured deliberately, he was almost certainly thinking of the “war from the other side” stories filed by Michèle Ray and a handful of others after their release by the Vietcong. Ray played cards with her captors, who composed poems about her and made her a pair of custom black pajamas when she proved too tall for a guerrilla uniform. According to Tim Page, Vietcong units “had explicit orders to handle all journalists correctly,” since their superiors “knew the value of the press and the persuasive power of propaganda.” Even so, the Vietcong refused to cooperate with foreign media, so that Sean may have been trying to persuade Dana that they could return from captivity not only with their own “war from the other side” stories but the photos that none of their colleagues had been able to get.
The last known images of Sean were shot by a French news crew that turned up later that day on a stretch of National Road 1, almost four miles from Chi Phou, where a white car had been abandoned in the middle of the road and villagers told of seeing four men being marched by the Vietcong at gunpoint into the surrounding woods. Three of the men proved to be French and Japanese journalists—the fourth was their Cambodian driver-interpreter—and the same villagers were to witness Sean and Dana being forced off their rented motorcycles and led away at gunpoint.
Though the abandoned white car is in the French news footage, Dana is strangely absent while Sean, on camera, warns the crew that Laotian guerrillas are in the woods. Why did he say the guerrillas were Laotian? And why did he scare the crew away? Was he concerned for their safety or afraid of being scooped? Whatever his state of mind, the crew credited Sean with saving their lives: still more journalists would vanish in the same area over the next week or so, and none of them were ever seen by Western eyes again.
“This will be the end, I know,” Lili had cried to a friend on learning that Sean was headed back to Vietnam that March. Interviewed by the Palm Beach Daily News the day after her only child, and only living blood relative, was reported missing, she quoted the close of the letter he had written to her minutes before his flight from Saigon to Phnon Penh. As if he shared Lili’s sense of foreboding and was bracing her for the news to come, he encouraged her to take comfort in “this idea that all things here in the world are God’s toys, you, me, Cambodia. Make peace with Him and your heart is still. Do you know how to do it? Watch the plants, rains, sunsets, bugs, the changes in the wind, sea and clouds. Watch them and relax in peace. There is a place for all us.
I once bought car insurance from a Cambodian man who had escaped from a Khmer Rouge prison camp. He had seen his entire family murdered, he told me as I signed papers at his office on Sunset Boulevard, and he had to help bury the corpses in a mass grave. He was tortured for the slightest infraction. The Khmer Rouge were monsters, and if they’re rarely mentioned now, that’s surely in part because, except for 1984’s The Killing Fields, their atrocities have never been been dramatized by the world’s most popular historian, Hollywood, which continues to dramatize the atrocities of the Nazis, prompting twenty-first-century children to the conclusion that mass extermination was practiced by the Nazis alone. Yet from 1975, when the Khmer Rouge took control of Cambodia, to 1979, when Cambodia was invaded by Vietnam, by then a united communist state, as many as three and a half million people were wiped out by the Khmer Rouge. The exact number is disputed—the Khmer Rouge claimed it was two million—though it’s accepted that half the victims were officially executed and the other half died of starvation and disease in the killing fields. The Khmer Rouge sought a perfect society of godless and purely Cambodian peasants, so that Christians and Muslims and Buddhist monks had to be eliminated, as did professionals and intellectuals, that anachronistic class, as well as the various ethnic groups, Thai and Chinese and Vietnamese, who called Cambodia home.
All things here in the world are God’s toys, you, me, Cambodia. There is a place for all of us.
Sean and Dana, along with the other journalists taken prisoner near Chi Phou, were turned over to the Khmer Rouge by the Vietcong at some point in 1970 or early 1971. Few, if any, Westerners knew much about the Khmer Rouge at the time, so that the journalists probably figured they would be treated by their new captors as they’d initially been treated by the Vietcong, and that wasn’t altogether bad, according to an American intelligence report. Able to bathe and move freely about the house where they were kept, the journalists only lost such privileges shortly before they were delivered to a Khmer Rouge POW camp, and from there to a Cambodian rubber plantation where, surprisingly, the Khmer Rouge restored their privileges, allowing them to roam the plantation in black pajamas and sandals fashioned from rubber ties. So Cambodian informants told Tim Page. However, Page was further told, the journalists later went on a hunger strike, demanding their release, and in June 1971 they were beheaded with a sharpened hoe because the Khmer Rouge didn’t want to waste bullets on them.
Jeffrey Meyers has likewise dated Sean’s death to June 1971, though under different circumstances. In a magazine article titled “The Nowhere Man” and again in Inherited Risk, his book about Errol and Sean, Meyers referenced a Cambodian report of a malaria-stricken man who was euthanized with three injected ampules of Thorazine at a field hospital, though he may have been in a coma and not yet dead when he was buried. The report stated that this luckless man, despite “a large beard that made it difficult to recognize his face,” was “physically similar to Mr. Sean Flynn,” and Meyers is convinced the man was Sean, while Tim Page is equally convinced that his own version of Sean’s end is the correct one.
Other versions have surfaced over the years: Sean was burned alive; he was shot accidentally or intentionally; he was beaten to death with clubs and shovels. Zalin Grant, who, like Page, has spent decades trying to find the remains of Sean and Dana, believes that Sean, at least, wasn’t executed by the Khmer Rouge until late 1973 or early 1974. A former Army Intelligence officer, Grant first investigated the case at the behest of CBS News anchorman Walter Cronkite, and he was friendly not only with Sean and Dana but Dana’s wife, Louise, who conducted her own investigation, “becoming an accomplished intelligence agent” in the qualified view of Grant. She followed case updates even as she was increasingly debilitated by multiple sclerosis, dying in Kentucky in March 2000, a month shy of the thirtieth anniversary of her husband’s disappearance.
Lili died in March 1994, four months shy of her ninetieth birthday. In her later years, remarried to a wealthy dairy farmer and dividing her time between Palm Beach and Fort Dodge, Iowa, she was known as Lillian Loomis, and she spent a sizable chunk of Mr. Loomis’s millions on search missions for her missing son, hiring soldiers of fortune who journeyed to Cambodia and returned with nothing. She had Sean declared legally dead in 1984, and, in the hope that his remains would turn up one day, she left behind a sample of her blood to help identify them.
In 2010, a search team sanctioned by Sean’s half-sister, Rory Flynn, thought it may finally have discovered his remains during a dig in Cambodia, but forensic tests concluded that the excavated remains were of someone else. With an estimated 20,000 mass-grave sites in Cambodia, courtesy of the Khmer Rouge, it’s “like [trying to find] a needle in a haystack,” Rory has said of the search for her brother’s bones, though she has vowed to keep searching, determined to give Sean the proper burial he deserves.
Not everyone agrees. Sean got exactly what he deserved by taking the risk he did in April 1970, some say; but there’s no shortage of ways he might have died in a war zone even if he had never been captured. The great photojournalist Robert Capa was killed by a landmine in Vietnam while covering the First Indochina War in 1954, after surviving Omaha Beach on D-Day and the Spanish Civil War, which his photojournalist lover, Gerda Taro, did not survive; she was crushed by a tank near Madrid in 1937. Larry Burrows, for my money the best Vietnam War photographer, died in a helicopter crash caused by enemy fire in Laos in 1971. Twenty-two-year-old Dan Eldon was stoned to death by an angry mob in Mogadishu in 1993. Tim Hetherington, on assignment in Libya for Vanity Fair, was fatally injured in a mortar shelling there in 2011.
The death of Hetherington shocked me. Only a couple of months before, he and Sebastian Junger had been interviewed by my friend Terry Keefe about their Oscar-nominated documentary Restrepo, which focused on a Marine base in Afghanistan, and I had seen the movie only days before I heard the news from Libya. Even President Obama took official note of it, releasing a statement in which, “saddened,” he reminded us that journalists “risk their lives each day to keep us informed, demand accountability from world leaders, and give a voice to those who would not otherwise be heard.” Oh, I thought, that’s what they do. American journalists, anyway, are no longer the watchdogs they once were—I was repulsed by their gung-ho attitude when the Bush Administration invaded Iraq on a blatantly false pretext—but I’m nonetheless concerned about the phasing out of journalism as a paid profession and unconvinced by the fashionable notion that, in a world where everyone carries surveillance equipment, we no longer need paid journalists and can rely on Joe Blow to keep us informed. Personally, I’m far more skeptical of Joe Blow than I am of most journalists, and besides, I’ve never seen an Instagram photo as powerful as “Reaching Out,” Larry Burrows’ shot of one wounded soldier rushing to check on another, just I’ve never seen, and don’t expect to see, a book as durable as Dispatches tweeted 140 characters at a time, or less, brevity being the soul of our age.
Dispatches and Sean figure in a 2011 piece by Gary Brecher, otherwise known as the War Nerd, about Hetherington’s death. “Somebody with a face finally died in Libya,” the piece begins, and not only did Hetherington “have an Oscar-nominated face, it was a real good-looking face, too, which all the tributes to him seem to repeat over and over.” For Brecher, one such tribute recalls the “ridiculous” description of Sean in Dispatches—“incredibly beautiful” and so on—and Sean and Hetherington, an Englishman educated at Oxford, are “the same breed,” children of privilege who “soak up the blood and the cool of a war zone without getting any of it on their hands: they take pictures of it instead of getting dirty shooting people.”
Gary Brecher is the alter ego of John Dolan, who, under his own name, was the first critic to openly question the veracity of James Frey’s bestselling rehab “memoir,” A Million Little Pieces, and its sequel, My Friend Leonard, ultimately leading to Frey’s notorious public flogging by Oprah Winfrey. In “A Million Pieces of Shit,” Dolan’s opening salvo against Frey, he wrote in terms that evoke his take on Sean and Hetherington: “Rehab stories provide a way for pampered trust-fund brats like Frey to claim victim status. These swine already have money, security and position and now want to corner the market in suffering and scars, the consolation prizes of the truly lost.” But Sean and Hetherington were literally lost, and while I concur with Dolan about Frey, I think his general loathing of “pampered trust-fund brats” hinders his judgment of Sean and Hetherington, whom he further scorns in his piece about the latter as “decadent freaks, no-touch perverts who want to roll in the gore without getting dirty”—that word again. In fact, Sean did get “dirty” in Vietnam: he was known to have shot and killed at least one enemy soldier. That doubtless isn’t dirty enough for Dolan, whose work I almost always enjoy for its black humor and flippant insight, and there’s insight when he concludes about Hetherington that his death was a publicity coup for the rebels fighting Khadafi in Libya, since none of the other victims of the civil war there had “got an Oscar nomination in their lives” and they “weren’t all that good-looking, either.” They were, to add to Dolan’s point, as faceless to the world at large as the millions of victims of the Khmer Rouge, except for two, if I count Dana, who might also be faceless but for his capture alongside the other one.
Meanwhile, a glance online tells me that 1,655 Americans who served in the Vietnam War, most of them surely not by choice, are still “unaccounted for,” a number down from the 2,646 it was in 1973. How many of those Americans once appeared on buttons, bumper stickers, and matchbooks by way of calling attention to the MIA/POW cause? How many inspired a song by the Clash?
As far as I know, just one.
So, yes, even in matters of war, it pays to have a good-looking face and Hollywood credentials, though they didn’t pay for Sean Flynn when it really mattered.
I had no doubt that the man at the courthouse had known Sean; he corrected me on details I only dimly remembered from the research I’d done years earlier, for the screenplay about Sean that I never wrote. For instance, I mentioned that Sean had grown up in Miami Beach, and the man said, “No, it was Palm Beach. Sean grew up in Palm Beach. That’s where I met him.” His family used to spend a few months in Palm Beach every year, he told me as we spoke outside the courthouse for maybe fifteen minutes, and one day, at a swimming pool, he almost drowned and Sean dove in and saved him. Afterward he met Lili, who, it turned out, had been friendly with his mother back in L.A. Lili and his mother reconnected, and Sean became like an older brother to him. They stayed in touch for years, even after Sean first went to Vietnam. But Sean changed, he said.
“What do you mean?”
“He was moody. You couldn’t talk to him anymore. He stopped calling me. He didn’t write. Why did he change?”
“Well,” I said, not sure that he expected an answer, “I guess war will do that to you.”
He would call Lili every so often, he told me, after Sean was taken prisoner and she was spending more time in Iowa, and every time they spoke, she would say, “Why did Sean break my heart?” He repeated that more than once. He also repeated, again and again, “Why did Sean change?”
I had to go, but before I did, I asked him for his email address. I knew I would never write a screenplay about Sean, so it had nothing to do with that; it just seemed significant, somehow, that I had instantly guessed, as we were waiting for the elevator, the name of his tall friend, and I wanted to have some way of reaching him if I ever had cause. But he didn’t have an email address, he said, and he wasn’t on Facebook, and he didn’t have a cellphone. I believed him. There was something a bit otherworldly about him, like a man out of time, and I’m not sure how else to describe him other than that he was six feet tall, as he had informed me in the courthouse basement, and a tad flabby and balding and dressed blandly, so that he looked like any other sixty-year-old white guy, invisible to the world. But so am I. So are most of us, once we’re robbed of any physical beauty we may once have had. I walked away and turned for a moment and watched as he grew smaller and smaller until, like we all do, he disappeared.