Cockpits and casting couches
He was a film mogul, flyer, hermit and syphilitic. Godfrey Hodgson reads the history of Howard Hughes
Saturday 13 April 1996
When I'm gone", said Howard Hughes, dying in Acapulco, with festering bedsores untended on his back and an income of $75,000 an hour, "the biographers are going to flock around, and I don't want them to dwell on the girls and the movies. I want to be remembered for only one thing - my contribution to aviation."
Fat chance. The biographers have flocked, and it is on the girls and the movies that they have dwelled most lovingly. Few biographies of aviators come equipped, as this one does, with a five-page list of their sexual conquests and near-misses, in alphabetical order.
This is an anthology of Hollywood's finest, from Carla Balenda ("Real name, Sally Bliss", probably platonic) by way of Joan Crawford, Bette Davis, Yvonne de Carlo, Olivia de Havilland, and Ava Gardner, all through to Jane Russell ("Mean, moody, magnificent") Lana Turner ("the Sweater Girl") and the sumptuously named debutante, Gloria Vanderbilt.
Philip Larkin was ill-informed. However long it took to catch on in Hull, in Hollywood sexual intercourse was well-established a generation before 1963. But there is nothing quite so tedious as lists of sexual conquests. Hughes's psychopathologia sexualis is not altogether uninteresting, though, just because he was so crazy. Brown and Broeske dignify his brand of insane bullying with the term "Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder", which is as good a name as any other. Disorder it certainly was.
Hughes was a caricature of the old-style phallocrat. Although he kept company with some highly independent women, such as Ava Gardner and Katharine Hepburn, he was into imprisonment and harems. He used to have his people ship in "starlets", the fresher the better, from the Mid West and points south. They were warehoused, coiffed, styled and given elocution lessons until ready for the imperial casting couch.
He even communicated for months on end with one of his wives, the good- natured Jean Peters, by telephone alone. He had her installed in one bungalow in a Beverly Hills garden while he was living in another, and he rented six other accommodations for spies, goons, gofers and body-servants.
These creeps, most of them Mormons, supplied him with written reports on what his wife was up to ("At 8.52 am. JP ordered one coffee, 2 milk and papers".) Peters had to communicate with her husband through the same creeps: "3.10am. Tell Mr Hughes I'm sick and tired of waiting for him to call and I'm going to bed."
Hughes was terrified of germs. He not only insisted that everything that came near him be handled in wads of Kleenex, he issued lengthy instructions on how to pick things up with it. "If you need to lower the seat," he told Jean Peters when escorting her to the movies, "do it with Kleenex." Somewhere along the way, in spite of this cleanliness fetish (which seems to have been encouraged by his over-protective mother), the authors believe that Hughes contracted syphilis. They say it had reached the tertiary stage (dementia and locomotor ataxia) by the time he was in his fifties.
The pox would account for some of the craziness of his later years, but the explanation is not wholly convincing. For one thing, although the Mormon creeps kept him in an inert state with massive doses of codeine and valium, when it suited them (when, say, they needed him to sign some papers), they would cut off the dosage and the poor old man would perk up. They would cut his lank hair, have a barber trim his filthy beard, cut his talon-like finger and toenails, and he would do the business, sometimes even coming up with some fancy engineering mathematics. Then they would hit him with the codeine and valium, and it would be the hairy hermit of Acapulco - or Las Vegas or the Bahamas - all over again.
If Hughes was in some ways a monster, he also possessed something of that combination of intelligence, energy and self-centred determination we call genius. His father invented an ingenious rockbit for oil drilling and Howard Jr inherited a vast income derived from Hughes Tool. But he really did make a major contribution to aviation. He was obsessed with flight from an early age, and even before he had a pilot's licence had assembled the world's biggest aerial navy to shoot the war movie, Hell's Angels. He had the courage of a psychopath, and went on flying after numerous crashes, two of which did damage to his tall, lanky body that would have killed most men.
He set new records for flying across the US, then around the world. He created the airline TWA. In the Second World War, he built Hughes Electronics into the biggest supplier of weapons systems to the US navy and air force. He designed and test-flew the legendary "Spruce Goose", a giant wooden aircraft. He invented the air-to-air missile. He invented, then mass-produced, the "all-weather interceptor" fighter, and designed the navigation system for the F-102. He virtually invented the battle helicopter, and pioneered unmanned satellites.
Finally, he was involved in secret business with the CIA and other hush- hush agencies, including a scheme to lift a Soviet submarine from the bed of the Pacific. There is, too, a sense in which Watergate was "about" Howard Hughes. He gave large amounts of money to Richard Nixon, some of it undeclared cash to finance dirty tricks.
Brown and Broeske do not delve very deeply into Hughes' involvement in Watergate, nor do they unravel in any very satisfactory way his business history. They only sketch in various intrigues by the Mormon creeps to take advantage of Hughes's illnesses, natural and artificially induced, to take over his industrial empire and his vast other assets. They make a valiant effort to obey the crazy titan's dying wish and write about his contribution to aviation, but you sense their hearts are not wholly in it.
They are in their element, though, when it comes to dope and broads, machinating Mormons, and the syphilitic sultan's Hollywood harem. Read all about it!
Potter's attempt to create an Essex Taj Mahal was a lovely treattv
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