Death of the dream, again

HOWARD HUGHES by Peter Harry Brown & Pat H Broeske Little, Brown pounds 20
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The Independent Culture
OURS, as you have been told often enough, is the American Century, hostage to the American belief that their lurid confection of opportunity, daring, ambition, rugged individualism, wealth and happiness is self-evidently worth pursuing, even if it doesn't seem to be working out terribly well just at the moment.

No, no, you groan, please, not another piece about the Death of the Dream; it will have rich irony and deep tragedy, it will be set against the gaudy background of Hollywood, which will be called The Dream Factory and also used as A Metaphor For The Whole, and I don't think I can stand it.

Well, yes: but this, in honesty, is not any old Death; this is the Death of the Dream that Freud and Jung would have popped their couches for; this is the Gone With The Wind, the Ben Hur, the Sunset Boulevard of Dead American Dreams; this, ladies and gentlemen, is Howard Hughes.

Allow me to precis: Howard Robard Hughes, Jr, was the son of an obsessively philandering father and an obsessively possessive mother. He was born and brought up in Houston, a city split between the old southern gentilities and Texas brashness. His father founded his fortune on the invention of a drill bit tough enough to penetrate down into the oil waiting to transform America. His company was the Hughes Tool Company (to save space, please work up your own metaphors where appropriate). Both parents died young and suddenly, leaving a teenager who was awkwardly tall, very shy, quite deaf, stifled, patchily educated, very rich and very keen on films, flying and sexual intercourse.

For the record: Films: Hughes produced Hell's Angels (1930), an immensely expensive airborne spectacular which introduced Jean Harlow; The Outlaw (1943), which introduced Jane Russell's breasts, for which he designed a cantilevered brassiere (Hughes had a thing about breasts); and very little else worth mentioning, despite his ownership for a period of RKO, always excepting John Wayne as Genghis Khan ("This Tartar woman is for me and my blood says take her!").

Flying: Air Speed Record (1935); TransAmerica Record (1937); Round World Record (1938). He founded the Hughes Air Co, becoming a vital figure in the American air and space defence systems industry; he was also owner of the greater part of TWA, leading the way in developing post-war long-haul flying.

Sexual intercourse: Jean Harlow, Katharine Hepburn, Bette Davis, Yvonne De Carlo, Rita Hayworth, Linda Darnell, Ginger Rogers, Kathryn Grayson, Ava Gardner, Lana Turner, and some hundreds of sundry starlets.

All this was based on the wealth provided by the Tool Co. According to numerous psychological studies, it was also an attempt to escape, emulate and revenge himself upon his parents. Hughes's mental health was not helped by the 14 separate head injuries he sustained in air and car accidents. He was also diagnosed as suffering from Neurosyphilis and Obsessive Compulsive Disorder (OCD). He kept the stable of starlets he used for occasional sex in a form of purdah, holding out to them the hope of film roles that rarely came.

He built up a large network of aides who spied on his paramours, logging such things as their ice cream consumption. He was, in return, much bugged and spied upon by other agencies, including the FBI. In later life he became addicted to various drugs and became increasingly reclusive in an attempt to escape the germs he believed had taken his parents at an early age. He watched films and ate chocolate bars. He would touch nothing without covering it and his hands in tissue (earlier in life this meant that he would have to wait to get out of restaurant and hotel lavatories until somebody else opened the door). He bought most of Las Vegas. Yes, one of the key figures in the American defence industry at the height of the Cold War was completely barking.

His aides fed his addictions and he became their prisoner. He died unkempt and neglected by them in 1976 at the age of 70, weighing 93 lbs. He had barely been seen in 18 years. He was married twice and divorced twice but had no children. His estate was contested for 14 years. Was he happy? No, potential reader, he was not happy.

What more need detain you, before you walk away, shaking your head and drawing a moral? Brown and Broeske, you should know, interviewed more than 600 people for this book, and have drawn on documentation which included surveillance reports from the FBI and other agencies, and court depositions, including 400,000 pages never previously seen. The bibliography lists 294 books, including some 25 other biographies and memoirs of Hughes.

You will learn that Watergate, apparently, was prompted by fears that secret loans from Hughes to Nixon were about to be exposed; that he liked his lettuce shredded on the bias and that he kept a slide-rule to measure the size of the peas he customarily ate with the steak he customarily ate (too big was bad); that his starlets were not allowed to travel at more than two mph in cars over bumpy roads because the sudden motion might tear at their breast muscles; and that on New Year's Eve, 1956, he dined with three film star lovers, Susan Hayward, Jean Peters and Yvonne Shubert, in different rooms at the same hotel, each unknown to the other. (How did he persuade big Hollywood stars to sleep with him? Silly question: mostly he asked them to marry him, which, quaintly, pre-60s, seemed to make it all right. He then reneged, of course.)

But although Brown and Broeske can tell you this, and what he was wearing on a given day in February, 1945 (raccoon coat, serge suit), and that his body required just three16oz bottles of embalming fluid, they fail to give the slightest smell of this crazy guy. Hughes, typically, has gone missing from his own biography.

Death of the Dream Footnote: lawyers made at least $10m in fees from the litigation over the Hughes estate. And, yes, potential, I should think they probably are happy.