Remembering actress-turned-rancher Patrice Wymore
For the autumn/winter 2013 issue of AnOther Magazine, writer Hannah Lack had the pleasure of meeting and spending time with the inspirational and effortlessly chic former Hollywood star and widow of Errol Flynn, Patrice Wymore, at her cattle ranch in northern Jamaica. Last Saturday, Wymore sadly passed away at her seaside home, aged 87. To mark her wonderful life, here we revisit an extract of Lack's intimate interview alongside photographer Maurice Haas' portraits of the late Wymore taken last year.
Aged 86, the former actress still knows how to make an entrance. If you weren’t versed in her silver-screen pedigree, Patrice Wymore (or Mrs. Flynn, as she’s known around here) still instantly registers as a “somebody”. So slender as to be ethereal, effortlessly chic in pale silk and sun hat, she arrives in the lobby on the arm of her driver. A waitress hands her a rose – as though she’s just taken a curtain call – and she takes a seat, fishing a pack of cigarettes from a black handbag. Iced rum and cokes arrive. She lights up and takes a long drag. “Jamaica was the one quiet place where we could go, where people didn’t tear you apart asking for autographs,” she remembers, contemplating the velvety sea. “It was a magic land, and it was just Errol and I.”
"So slender as to be ethereal, effortlessly chic in pale silk and sun hat, she arrives in the lobby on the arm of her driver"
Today Wymore is a cherished local treasure, but when she first touched down in Jamaica in the early 50s, it was the Kansas-born actress’s first encounter with the tropics. “Oh God, the first time I arrived here?” she laughs. “The airport was a converted hut left over from the war. Dirty, hot, windy and Errol wasn’t there. I got into the first limousine I saw and said, ‘Port Antonio, please’. Hours later we finally arrived at the Titchfield Hotel and they told me Errol was on Navy Island. ‘So how do I get in touch with him?’ ‘Well,’ they said, ‘you walk down the path to the beach, and yell.’” She takes a sip of rum and shoots me a mischievous look. “Well I yelled like a wounded banshee when I got down there! But Errol had arranged a lunch reception of 20 people for me on the yacht. I couldn’t exactly express my anger right then. So I went below deck, got into some country clothes and… joined the party!”
Her Lauren Bacall looks aside, it might have been Wymore’s readiness to match Flynn’s spontaneity that convinced Flynn their marriage would be third time lucky. She may have been a bonafide movie star, but Wymore isn’t the type to stay home admiring her jewels for fear of chipping a nail. Photographs of the couple in Jamaica capture them sailing, horse riding, shooting and diving, the svelte, blonde Wymore in swimsuits, while Flynn, 17 years her senior, is a little paunchier, one hand never too far from a tumbler of vodka.
It must have been breathtakingly exotic compared with small-town Miltonvale, population 500, where the actress was born in 1926 (a Google search turns up an image of a dusty cornfield and a solitary gas station). “Miltonvale was only a few miles from the geographical centre of the US – you can’t get anymore mid-western than that!” she explains. When the depression of the 30s hit, Wymore’s father went into a neighbouring town and got a job driving a truck. “And before the year ended, he owned the truck line,” she says. The cargo contained a glimmer of her future – her father was in charge of distributing motion pictures as far as the border. “I even used to drive the truck sometimes,” she remembers. “When there was bad weather and we needed reserve drivers, I could skip school and deliver the films. So from delivering them, I ended up making them.”
“Jamaica was the one quiet place where we could go, where people didn’t tear you apart asking for autographs" — Patrice Wymore
When they met in Hollywood, Wymore was a fresh-faced 24, while Flynn, following a 15-year rein at the woozy pinnacle of Hollywood, was heading downhill fast, accelerated by the hard-drinking and drugs swirling around his infamous Mulholland Drive house parties. Wymore happened to be the girl put on his arm for a western called Rocky Mountain, shot in the deserts of Gallup, New Mexico (“A film best forgotten” laughs Wymore). She didn’t count herself among the screen idol’s legion of fans at the time. “He said Errol Flynn, I said Errol who?” she remembers. “I was the only woman in the cast, we were out in the desert and became buddies. There was nobody else to talk to! And then he asked me to marry him. I said, you’ve gotta be kidding me! You have too much of this desert moon in your eyes. I’ll continue to see you when we go back to Hollywood, but marriage now… well, pretty soon I realised I was in love as well. He was a very intelligent man, with a wild interest in everything. He was just so interesting to be with.”
Once Flynn had extricated himself from the clutches of a European princess, the pair tied the knot in Monaco in 1950, followed by a “mild earthquake of a reception” at the Hotel de Paris on the Riviera. Wymore was radiant in white lace, gracefully negotiating a towering wedding cake and the thousands of fans gathered behind police cordons outside. They spent their wedding night aboard the Zaca, awaking to the sounds of cannons from the American Fleet floating nearby – they announced Flynn’s new marriage over loudspeaker and were renting out binoculars to anyone eager to get a look at the new bride. Wymore took it all in her stride. "I realise my husband is hardly what you call the fireside-and-slipper type," she told Silver Screen Magazine.
In Jamaica, the newly married couple hosted an ever-shifting array of guests. “There were no supermarkets in those days,” she told the Telegraph in 2008, “but someone would always bring over a suckling pig, and someone else some fish...” Days would be spent gliding on thin bamboo rafts down the Rio Grande river, under a canopy of foliage and bird song – you can still make the trip today. “We lived on the river,” nods Wymore. “A large group of us would take off early in the morning, spear the fish, set up a fire – the best food in the world! We’d have the bar on one raft, musicians on another, and spend the whole day, right to sunset.” Among the guests were Truman Capote, Ava Gardner and Noël Coward, as he remembered in his diary: “27 March 1951. Rafted down the Rio Grande. In the evening dined with Errol Flynn and his wife Pat. Drinks on his yacht, which is beautiful, then barbecue dinner on his island – palm trees – lit by torches.”
In 1968, she made the decision to return to Jamaica full-time. “I walked out of Hollywood, fired the managers and came down to Jamaica to be a farmer, even though I didn’t know anything about farming. Well, I’ve learned now! Would you like to see the ranch?” Minutes later, we’re driving east along the coast road, Wymore in the passenger seat acting as tour-guide, pointing out the azure waters of the Blue Lagoon, and Alligator Head, a jetty of land bought by the late billionaire industrialist and art collector Baron Thyssen. In the hills to our right, obscured with vines, lies the former home of Flynn’s parents, who spent many years here – nature is working to overtake what’s left of their house. Suddenly Wymore taps a manicured fingernail on the window. “Here is the beginning of the ranch...” We keep driving. There’s plenty of it. “Small for Texas, big for Jamaica,” she quips. At a small turning, a gate is unlatched and the car makes bumpy progress up a track. “I’m running about 700 head of cattle,” she explains. “We’re expanding the herd to 1,000 head, so it’s a handful. I have about 20 people working with me.” Two horses canter past, ruffled by the sound of the engine. “I don’t ride anymore,” she sighs. “I figured the law of averages was on my side. I didn’t feel like having a broken hip.” Soon we’re on Wymore’s porch high up on the mountainside, hills rolling away to cove beaches and coral caves below. It’s awe-inspiring and a little wild. “It can be,” she nods, studying a hawk balancing on the air above us. “Especially in hurricane season. Gilbert was the worst. Thirty-nine panes of glass blew out. I was hit by 200-mile an hour winds. I didn’t even know it was coming!”
Wymore is currently 20,000 words into writing her memoirs, longhand. In 1989, she added a “rancher of the year” award to her acting ones. “You know, between making movies and running the estate, I think this is tougher. Only the other day I thought, I’m going back to Hollywood, this is too hard!” she says with a laugh as she waves farewell from her porch, dogs weaving about her feet, the sweet smell of frangipani in the air, and the distant swell of the Caribbean below. If the Flynn name casts a long shadow, Wymore’s late reinvention as cowgirl, entrepreneur and queen of a Jamaican ranch is her very own twist in the tale.