This post is by Melanie Rinehart, Assistant Archivist, Time Inc. Archive.
LIFE Magazine was launched on November 23, 1936, for readers “to see life; to see the world; to eyewitness great events.” The subject matter focused on both political and cultural events, and while the photographers captured iconic or scandalous photographs, it was rare that they were drawn into the lives of their subjects to the point of legal involvement.
One of the four original LIFE photographers, Peter Stackpole (1913–1997), was typically assigned to shoot California culture and Hollywood subjects. In August 1941 he joined Errol Flynn (1909–1959)—the swashbuckling leading man of The Adventures of Robin Hood (1938)—aboard Flynn’s yacht, the Sirocco, to photograph him for a story about his spearfishing skills. Also present were stuntman Buster Wiles (1910–1990), crew members, and three young women. One of them, fifteen-year-old actress Peggy Satterlee, later accused Flynn of raping her. The case, unsurprisingly, created a media storm. Errol Flynn was a married movie star, accused of statutory rape by a girl fifteen years his junior. Peter Stackpole was dragged into the spotlight by association.
On October 23, 1942 the prosecuting District Attorney’s office subpoenaed Stackpole to provide photographs of Peggy Satterlee aboard the Sirocco from that weekend. An internal memo from Sid James, head of the Los Angeles Bureau, to Wilson Hicks, picture editor of LIFE, reveals that waiting for the subpoena was a strategic move to prevent accusations of purposefully “digging up evidence against Flynn, and thus [disturbing LIFE’s] relationship with the industry.”
At preliminary hearings, Stackpole testified that he had driven Ms. Satterlee home from the docks after that weekend. Alhough nothing had happened between them, and although he was present only for the purpose of photographing a story, Stackpole wrote to his bosses on December 3, 1942 to see if it would be prudent for LIFE to hire a defense lawyer for him:
I only want you to know that it’s the opinion of local press people and myself that Flynn’s lawyer is almost certain to infer that I had something to do with the girl in order to create doubt in the minds of the jury as to Flynn’s guilt […] I hope that should this occur Life will find a way to go to bat for one of their photographers.”
Sidney James had already written to Andrew Heiskell in November that despite the potential of the defense shifting blame onto Stackpole, there was “certainly no call for the appearance of a lawyer.” The photographs made it clear that Stackpole had been present in a work capacity only, and hiring a lawyer would only arouse suspicion. It was a careful balance of protecting both an employee and the relationship of the publication’s new, cozy relationship with Hollywood.
The trial lasted for a month, and Flynn was acquitted by a majority-female jury that was, according to Satterlee, charmed by Flynn’s movie-star persona. LIFE still ran the Errol Flynn spearfishing story. Peter Stackpole stayed with LIFE until 1960; a majority of his twenty-six cover photos capture Hollywood stars. None required another court appearance.