My encounter with Howard Hughes - or was it a hoax?

April 29, 2007|By Ira Rifkin

That Howard Hughes was a bizarre man is indisputable. Bizarre is also how I might describe my own encounter - to use the term loosely - with the reclusive billionaire, who is back in the pop culture spotlight thanks to the new film, Hoax.

Hoax is Hollywood's version of writer Clifford Irving's outrageous attempt to sell a fake Hughes autobiography back in 1971 and 1972. Despite his claims, Mr. Irving never got close to Mr. Hughes.

In 1968, an odd experience left me wondering whether I had.

At the time, I was a young reporter for United Press International in New York, assigned to cover Mr. Hughes' attempt to purchase a controlling interest in the American Broadcasting Company. ABC sought to block Mr. Hughes through a series of legal maneuvers, which is what brought me one July day to U.S. District Court in Manhattan.

Mr. Hughes was far into his reclusive deep freeze by 1968. Playing on that, ABC attorneys argued that Mr. Hughes' personal testimony was required in the case. Were the judge to rule in their favor, they reasoned, Mr. Hughes would drop his bid rather than show up.

As the arguments droned on, I lost interest and my eyes wandered toward the packed gallery. One man in particular caught my attention.

Sitting in the back of the courtroom was a tall, thin, shabbily dressed man who resembled, to an amazing degree, every photograph of Mr. Hughes I had ever seen. He had a thin mustache and parted his hair down the middle. He looked far more like Mr. Hughes than Leonardo DiCaprio ever did in 2004's The Aviator, Mr. Hughes' last pop culture moment before Hoax.

I pointed out the mystery spectator to the reporter sitting next to me - a guy from Variety, as I recall - who opined that no matter how much the man looked like Mr. Hughes, it couldn't possibly be him. I agreed, reluctantly - very reluctantly, because what a bloody story it would make if it was Mr. Hughes.

Paying more attention to the Hughes look-alike than the legal arguments - court reporting was never my thing - I watched as the man seemed to hang on every legal twist and turn while intermittently taking notes. Suddenly, the ABC lawyers grew agitated and formed a huddle. After a few minutes, one of them approached the bench, and, in a moment of true courtroom theater, loudly intoned something to the effect of, "Your honor, we have reason to believe that Howard Hughes himself is sitting in the courtroom at this very moment." With a flourish, he then turned to face the mystery man.

Perry Mason could not have injected more drama. Bedlam broke out, and in the few minutes it took for the judge to restore calm, the look-alike hastily left the courtroom. I followed, as did the other reporters.

We managed to circle him in the hallway and demanded that he identify himself. Not at all rattled, he took out his wallet and showed us a New York driver's license and a New York library card. Both bore a name I no longer remember and a Manhattan address that I do remember as being on West 42nd Street. A security guard soon came over and, before any of us could copy down the license number, ordered us to let the man go.

Today, a reporter would likely take cell phone photos of the man and license. At the least, his voice would be taped and given to a voice recognition expert for analysis. But this was 1968; not even Dick Tracy had anything near this sort of equipment. All we had were pens and notepads.

Back in the courtroom, the ABC attorneys tried to get the Hughes lawyers to admit that the man was indeed their boss. They did not, of course, and ABC's legal gambit ultimately failed; the judge rejected ABC's request. However, ABC did get the Federal Communications Commission to schedule a hearing on the matter at which Mr. Hughes was ordered to appear.

That worked, and Mr. Hughes dropped his bid. Time magazine wrote then that Mr. Hughes cited ABC's "inordinate opposition" as his reason for doing so. "More likely," Time added, "the main reason was a very personal one - reclusive Howard Hughes' reluctance to show himself in public."

So, who was the mystery man? A prankster? A Hughes wannabe? Someone sent by Hughes for the fun of it? Howard himself? Not likely. All I know is that the address on the license and library card turned out not to exist.

Ira Rifkin, an author and journalist, lives in Annapolis. His e-mail is

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