He could afford it

Jenny Diski

  • Howard Hughes: The Secret Life by Charles Higham
    Sidgwick, 368 pp, £16.99, September 1993, ISBN 0 283 06157 X

This is the story of a man who insisted on having precisely 12 peas on his dinner plate every evening. He threaded the peas all in a row on to his fork and ate them, but if one of the peas was too big to fit on the prong with the rest, it was returned to the chef to be replaced by a pea of standard size. Once you know this everything else follows.

Howard Hughes’s life is a series of obsessions, each overridden in its turn by a bigger and better fixation. It begins with 12 peas on a plate, and ends with urine stored in Mason jars. Actually, it’s not an unusual story as such – the world is full of people dogged by ritual obsessions. What made Hughes remarkable was that he had the money to give absolute licence to every desperate whim. There was no practical reason for him to try to control his madness. The rest of us have to make our neuroses fit in with the world around us – a touch of reality that may trim our unreason. The rich are different from us not just because they can afford to indulge their madnesses, but because they can pay other people to sustain their nightmares.

This is a practical, rather than a moral point, and not one made by Charles Higham, whose moral fervour in telling this wretched story twangs with self-righteousness. There’s talk of ‘moral cesspools’ and ‘man-hungry, tweedy heiresses’ – it’s a world where God and Charles Higham sit in judgment and everybody gets their just deserts. You might think that a man whose lovers include Katharine Hepburn, Ava Gardner, Claudette Colbert, Bette Davis, Lana Turner, Rita Hayworth, Marlene Dietrich, Tyrone Power, Robert Ryan and Cary Grant must have had some kind of good time, but no one gets to have much fun in Higham’s book. Higham explains with nice elaboration that, with women, Hughes ‘preferred intermammary intercourse – making love between a woman’s breasts – or fellatio to vaginal intromission. With men, he also preferred oral sex.’ On the other hand, we’re told later that after marrying the virginal Terry Moore on a yacht outside the five-mile limit so that the marriage wouldn’t be legal, he ‘massaged her clitoris, using a Japanese technique of arousal that overcame her inhibitions’. Unfortunately for inhibited women everywhere (except in Japan), Higham doesn’t amplify.

Women are either virgins or sluts to Higham, and he doesn’t give much for their strength of character whatever their moral state. Here’s how he describes Katharine Hepburn: ‘She was no stronger than any other woman when it came to meeting an immensely powerful and wealthy young man with stunning good looks and a lean, hard body who looked vulnerable and anxious to be mothered.’ Do you hear the weird sound of simultaneous salivation and teeth-grinding? As a final thrust we’re told: ‘It never seems to have occurred to her, in her extraordinary state of self-centredness, that she would be sharing Hughes with Cary Grant, Corinne Griffith and any number of unnamed beauties of both sexes.’ The slurping and gnashing reach ear-splitting proportions.

But however loud the voice of the moral majority, the tale of Howard Hughes comes across for the miserable, sad thing it was. Not a tragedy. That would require a poor, talented boy who hungers for success, makes good and can’t handle it. What we’ve got is a rich, talented boy who starts off with everything, wants more and handles it well enough, but is unfortunately also a fruitcake. It wasn’t just the peas: during the same period he took to conducting his business conferences on the lavatory. Severe anxiety about constipation had set in. Apparently, the business associates of rich young men do not refuse to meet wherever the rich young men require them to.

What made Howard run? Was it that wicked Uncle Rupert who sodomised young Howard? The late Photoplay publisher James Quirk told his nephew Lawrence (who decades later told Mr Higham) that Rupert put pressure on Hughes to go to bed with him. Higham says they say that Rupert owned a circular graveyard in New England in which he kept the bodies of people he’d murdered, drowned his daughter, replaced her with a double and made love to his sister. Which is pretty conclusive, and who knows, maybe that was where the funny stuff with the peas – not to mention the constipation – began. Then, thank God, we’ve got an explanation for the whole sorry mess and we can go about our business safe in the knowledge that once again child abuse is to blame for it all.

Then again, perhaps it was the family holocaust that happened when Hughes was in his late teens and, over a period of less than two years, his germophobic, hypochondriacal mother died under an anaesthetic, his alcoholic aunt hanged herself, and his father fell off his chair and died of an embolism. Or did Hughes’s congenital deafness so isolate him that his world shrank to the peas on his plate? Actually, there’s no indication that Higham cares to explain why Hughes was the way he was. The family background and tales of his youth are not developed as psychological causes, but are merely tossed on an accumulating pile of corruption. Everybody is doomed because everybody, past and present, is contaminated. This is quite Greek, except the Chorus is that of the tongue-clicking virtuous – no hint of pity attends this drama.

Of course, sex has nothing to do with Hughes’s life. Women were conquests and in that sense not very different from planes – Hughes had a number of record-breaking flying exploits to his name. When one – sadly unnamed – movie star refused to go into his bedroom after weeks of being wined and dined, he went in by himself, leaving the door open so that the astonished woman could see him having sex with a life-size, anatomically correct, rubber replica of herself which he had had made. But by the early Fifties he had given up the real-ish thing and was spending days at a time locked in the Goldwyn studio’s screening room, peeing into bottles and masturbating to the bad movies he had RKO make for the purpose. This ended when Preminger screened a rough cut of Porgy and Bess in the room, and Hughes, as anti-black as he was anti-semitic, refused ever to go there again.

All along, it was about power, and although he seemed not to be very good at business (luckily he was rich enough to stay rich whatever messy deals he made), he had a real talent for buying influence – with Nixon, the CIA, Somoza, the Mafia and any passing local politician. He was involved in an assassination attempt on Castro, the Watergate break-in and had the US weapons establishment in his pocket. Power is, of course, control, and Hughes accumulated it from the moment he had access to wealth. But it was at the peak of his influence that the obsessive anxieties really took flight. As he wrapped up control of the macroscopic world, the microscopic universe began to control him. His mother’s fear of germs re-emerged and he sat naked in air-conditioned hotel suites, touching nothing – doorknobs, telephones – unless his hands were protected by a Kleenex tissue. Sometimes for days on end he’d sit like this, staring at the light bulb in case a fly landed and deposited its germs. Three Mormon aides were employed to work eight-hour shifts exclusively to deal with the threat – which has had the happy result of allowing one of them to write a memoir entitled ‘I Caught Flies for Howard Hughes’. Magazines were brought in on a trolley by other aides who had to move one step at a time to Hughes’s signal so that no dust was disturbed in the room. There had to be three copies of each magazine, and when, eventually, they were within arm’s reach, the Kleenex-covered hand picked the middle copy.

If, from the word go, you have power, but want more and have the means to get it, eventually you get all the power an individual can have. But flies still fly, and germs remain invisible – and so long as something, somewhere in the cosmos is beyond your command, you don’t have everything. Nothing you’ve got is going to make up for the control hole, once you’ve spotted it. Perhaps there’s another way of looking at it: when a man has everything, what is going to keep him alive except the discovery of some recalcitrant aspects of the world he can go on wanting? Hughes needed the flies that didn’t need him.

Higham reckons that he has two main contributions to make to the sum of human knowledge: the first is that Hughes died of an early form of Aids. There are certainly coincidences of symptoms over Hughes’s long, slow deterioration, though these could be the symptoms of any kind of auto-immune disease. He cites evidence of an English sailor whose frozen blood proved to have been HIV positive when he died in 1959, which might indicate something, but not that Hughes had Aids, since he refused to allow blood to be taken. Higham asked a retired forensic surgeon if, with his symptoms, Hughes could have had Aids, to which the surgeon replied that he could. In fact, Hughes died of kidney failure brought on by taking too many analgesics in his attempt to control the permanent pain he had been in since a flying accident. Case not exactly proven, I’d say.

Higham’s other theory is that, contrary to the rumours of Hughes being non compos mentis and under the evil influence of his Mormon aides, he was meanly and miserably in control right up to the time of his death. This sounds more persuasive. A man as control-hungry as Hughes wouldn’t let a small detail like dementia or insanity prevent him from keeping tabs on things.

There may have been a moment when Howard Hughes had the chance to be a human being. In his twenties he walked out on his life and hoboed around America. Preston Sturges based Sullivan’s Travels on the adventure. But what Hughes found out in the real world didn’t please him. He came back and settled into his penthouse seclusion. And Preston Sturges, of course, went mad.