Howard Hughes: The Secret Life

While we’re worrying about our country’s precious natural resources, let’s consider unsavory millionaires. There’s no danger of exhausting our supply of them, but what about eccentric unsavory millionaires? That’s the problem. Would Donald Trump go off and live incognito for months as a hobo, riding the rails and rubbing elbows with the homeless? Would David Geffen risk his neck piloting a 1938 plane around the world? With his daredevil flying suit and his Indiana Jones outfit — battered fedora, white shirt, baggy pants — Howard Hughes during the ’30s was one of the most picturesque rich men in our history — a ticker tape-parade American hero who was also making some memorable Hollywood movies (Hell’s Angels, Scarface, The Front Page) and whose tramp adventures inspired another one (Preston Sturges’ Sullivan’s Travels). By the ’60s and ’70s, when his chronic paranoia locked him up and threw away the key, Hughes had become another sort of legend. The Hermit of Las Vegas, he was emaciated, often wearing nothing but a Kleenex fig leaf, with overgrown hair, beard, and clawlike fingernails, eating a steak and exactly 12 peas for dinner, surrounded by Mormon thugs who carefully swatted away any stray insects, germs, or IRS agents who came near.

The money was from the oil-drilling bit that his hellraising father invented, turning Hughes Tool Co. into a cash cow, and from cozy government contracts for Cold War paraphernalia. With it Hughes was free to pursue his hobbies and obsessions — not only aviation and movies, but lechery, bigotry, political skulduggery, the usual vices (though he didn’t touch alcohol) that the rich and famous cultivate out of a sense of duty to the American publishing industry. Charles Higham says he wrote HOWARD HUGHES: The Secret Life to show that Hughes ”played a crucial role not only in aviation and movie-making but in major political affairs.” But the major affairs to which he devotes most of the book aren’t political.

He has discovered Hughes’ fingerprints on the CIA plot to kill Castro and on the Watergate burglaries, though that probably isn’t what induced the National Enquirer to purchase first serial rights to the book. More likely the selling point was the very long, very stellar, and very bisexual list of Hughes’ Hollywood bedmates, including Bette Davis, Katharine Hepburn, Rita Hayworth, Cary Grant, Randolph Scott, and Tyrone Power. The homosexuality rumors start with Hughes’ alleged seduction at age 15 by an uncle, a story which comes from the late publisher of Photoplay magazine by way of his nephew. This sounds like shaky ground to me, but in any case Higham conveys the dubious, supermarket-tabloid side of his story in suitable style. Train passengers ”sat aghast at the sight of America’s hero acting like a fairy. Here was the man who flew round the world behaving like a sassy schoolgirl!”

Hughes had an adventurous, lawless frontier streak, inherited like his money from his wildcatting father, and he wound up in Hollywood, Las Vegas, and the delinquent wing of the Republican Party, making himself something of a missing link in the American West. It would be interesting to speculate on how his trajectory — from wide-open spaces to sterile hotel rooms — reflects the evolution of American culture in this century, but Higham is too busy speculating on exactly what Hughes did in bed. He offers the conjecture, without which no gossip-magazine story would be complete, that Hughes died (in 1976, at age 70) of AIDS. Higham pretends to know when he was impotent, where he masturbated, etc. And he assures us that Hughes was also a voyeur. If so, this is a case of the pot writing a biography of the kettle. D