Book Review: Howard Hughes: The Untold Story by Peter Harry Brown and Pat H. Broeske

Howard Hughes: The Untold Story
by
Peter Harry Brown and Pat H. Broeske

Rating:

I’m embarrassed to say that I didn’t know much about Howard Hughes when I opened this biography. Most of it happened before I was born and I was too young to understand what happened later in his life. But I knew his name and I had a vague knowledge of his involvement in aircraft and the movies. That was it.

Hughes had a lot going on in his life. He was a dashing billionaire inventor and pilot, ran two giant corporations, built a major airline, was a filmmaker and used his money to get and control whatever he wanted, including a shockingly long list of glamourous women.

Born in Texas in 1905, Hughes grew up an only child, smothered by his mother’s obsessive attention and fear of germs. Already different and uncomfortable around other children, he preferred to play alone in the workshop his father built for him, where he tinkered with many inventions. He became a millionaire at nineteen, when his father died and left behind a successful oil drill bit business (Hughes Tool Company). The timing of his life, his engineering genius and business instinct resulted in decades of profits in the tool, aircraft and government contract businesses. With all this going on, he plunged into movie-making and made many successful films.

But there were many things askew in Howard Hughes. Obsessive Compulsive Disorder, a condition that was less understood at the time and often untreated or self-treated, affected all aspects of his life. More than a dozen head injuries, a syphilis infection and an alarming drug habit no doubt contributed to an increasingly bizarre and reclusive life.

He surrounded himself with staff and security who would do anything he asked, including hunting down beautiful stars and starlets, some of them in their teens, setting them up in bugged apartments, with detectives reporting on their every move. He seduced hundreds of famous women, including Jean Harlow, Kathryn Hepburn, Ava Gardner and Lana Turner, married twice, and was engaged to multiple young women and girls at the same time. He declared his love to all of them and some of them bought it. Hughes’s behavior with women was glamorized at the time, but from a modern reader’s perspective, it is disturbingly predatory.

Despite these conditions, he continued to negotiate huge deals for Hughes Tool Company, Hughes Aircraft, RKO Pictures and Trans World Airlines. He was also a political contributor, sometimes to both parties and had ties to President Richard Nixon’s adversary, Democratic National Committee Chairman Larry O’Brien. It’s believed that Nixon’s interest in knowing more about O’Brien’s relationship with Hughes was one of the reasons for the Watergate break-in.

In his prime, Howard Hughes was deemed an American hero, but in his final years, he was barely lucid. And it turns out, his loyal staff had their sights on his riches and pumped him with shocking amounts of codeine and painkillers. He died at age seventy in 1976.

There is much more in this book, too much to mention and better to read first-hand. There is no question that Hughes’s unbelievable life story fits Mark Twain’s observation that “Truth is stranger than fiction.”

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