Howard had too much and was too weird

August 09, 1993|By Jon Anderson | Jon Anderson,Chicago Tribune

The life of Howard Hughes, as chronicled here, reminds us that an excess of money can lead not to happiness but to personal chaos.

Take Christmas Eve of 1940. Hughes was at home snuggling with actress Gene Tierney. His front doorbell rang. In bounced dancer Ginger Rogers, whom Hughes was also dating, dressed as Santa Claus -- white cotton beard, red velvet suit, black boots -- and carrying a bag stuffed with gifts.

As biographer Charles Higham relates, Tierney "made a rather clumsy escape." Ms. Rogers and Hughes "plunged into a furious fight." Santa picked up her gifts "and made an undignified exit into the night." Hughes, cutting his losses, ordered his staff to repossess a car he'd given Ms. Rogers.

It was his way of notifying Ms. Rogers that their romance was over. So it often went with Howard the Horrible. These exhausting pages are crammed with quarrels, rages, revenge, drugs and carnal relationships with women, men and even, as a teen-ager, with his dumpy Uncle Rupert.

There was lots of money, produced by the family's Hughes Tool Co. and by his own business adventures, some quite successful. When Hughes sold his share of Trans-World Airlines, for example, he got $546,549,171, which arrived at his office, says Mr. Higham, in the form of "a small, not executive-sized, check, like a payment for groceries."

But his personal agenda, shaped by his parents, eventually overwhelmed him. His father was an oil wildcatter who, as a lad, beat up girls, slashed boys with knives, staged cockfights and, later, in the tumultuous early years of the Texas oil fields, bought rights to a drilling bit and made a fortune. His mother, a neurotic Dallas heiress, was terrified of cats and obsessed with the perils of bugs.

Hughes was 18 when his father, 53, crashed to the floor of his office, dead of an embolism. Hughes took over the company and roared into the business fast lane. He made movies, built airplanes, made mining deals, invested in Las Vegas hotels, dabbled in politics and lent substantial sums to Richard Nixon's brother Donald.

He also developed some strange personal habits. For dinner, most nights, he would order a butterfly steak, medium rare, and one dozen peas which he would thread onto a fork. If a pea was too big, he would send it back to the kitchen for replacement.

Refusing to eat leafy vegetables, Hughes suffered for most of his life from constipation, spending hours on the toilet reading the Wall Street Journal or company reports, but never books. To the dismay of associates, he often insisted on holding business meetings in his bathroom.

A single-minded entrepreneur, he was filled with energy. He was also a compulsive hand-washer who massaged his hands for hours at a time with rubbing alcohol. Toward the end he flew to Acapulco and settled into a $2,000-a-day penthouse atop the Princess Hotel, sealing off his rooms with plywood and dark curtains.

Mr. Higham does a good job of tracking Hughes through his Byzantine business and personal relationships and his final descent into incoherence and death in 1975, at age 69. The comatose Hughes died in the cabin of a Lear jet on a flight back to Houston. Contradicting the maxim that you can never be too rich or too thin, Howard Hughes was both.

BOOK REVIEW

Title: "Howard Hughes: The Secret Life

Author: Charles Higham

Publisher: Putnam

Length, price: 368 pages, $26.95

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