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Howard Hughes; The Secret Life.

HOWARD HUGHES, The Secret Life, by Charles Higham (Putnam, 368 p.) is definitely not for those who still consider Hughes some sort of hero for circling the world in a small plane. It is in many ways a devastating book about a psychopath who used his millions to deceive the world, including his friends, and who used his money ruthlessly to literally buy everything he wanted, including the sexual favors of famous men and women and the services of local and national government officials.

If Higham is to be believed, and his appendix would indicate that he has done a very thorough research and investigative job, Hughes was a thoroughly despicable man, a secretive, amoral operator whose tentacles reached from the White House to the Caribbean and whose legendary charms got him what money couldn't buy.

He was born in Texas in 1905, the son of a rich oil prospector and an equally rich heiress. During his lifetime he managed to squander a lot of that money on hair-brained schemes, most of them having to do with aviation. He spent it on buying RKO Pictures and running it into the ground, and on political grandstanding, including buying entire islands for CIA use.

He hatched grandiose schemes for the assassination of Fidel Castro (which may well have led to the eventual killing of John F. Kennedy) and he ended up owning half of Las Vegas. He worked closely with the Mafia and there seems no question that, being close to Nixon, he was involved in the Watergate scandal.

The Hughes book does justice both to his craziness and his genius. It is also very well written, in a matter-of-fact style, letting the reader judge for himself the depth of Hughes' depravity. What is surprising in the end is not only that Hughes was able to function the way he did, but that so many people including the press were willing to go along with him.

One of the sensational theories put forward by Higham is that Hughes may well have died of AIDS. All his medical problems of the last few years point to it, and his obsessive sex life would point to it as well. What's more, after a Beverly Hills plane crash, which almost killed him. Hughes received a lot of blood transfusions (that was in the sixties).

As a personality, Hughes fit the description of an insane person. He hated blacks and Jews with a passion, including the heads of the big studios, like Louis B. Mayer. He would disappear periodically and then suddenly reappear. He had a fear of germs and bugs and insisted on wrapping his hand in Kleenex before touching even a magazine.

His affairs included Cary Grant, Tyrone Power and Jack Beutel (whom he starred in the "Outlaw ") as well as a string of stars and starlets from Katharine Hepburn and Ginger Rogers to Linda Darnell and Yvonne de Carlo.

He had an obsession for Jean Peters, whom he eventually married, and who had to put up with almost unimaginable insanities, and for the beautiful Terry Moore, a young Mormon starlet. In fact, he was surrounded, and guarded by, a tight group of young Mormons. As he grew older, and his sex drive waned, Hughes developed many peculiarities. He let his fingernails grow excessively, he rarely washed, shaved or brushed his teeth, never cut his hair, and he was a blatant liar in both business and his personal relationships, though--gradually--this reputation preceded him and business executives caught on.

With all this craziness, Hughes also showed a remarkable business sense. He acquired, and later lost TWA and a couple of other, smaller airlines. His Hughes Manufacturing Co., partly through bribes, obtained vast government orders. However, it was sloppily run and gradually his competitors won out over him.

Higham is a persistent digger, and the book sheds welcome new light on the famous Irving Clifford episode, when Clifford wrote a book on Hughes, using fake interviews, and Hughes gave his first press interview in years (over the phone). Then there is Hughes' running feud with Frank Sinatra, which originated when Hughes set his sights on the reluctant Ava Gardner, who was having an affair--and who later married--Sinatra.

Howard Hughes is riveting. Not only in its startling details, but, equally in its portrayal of an utterly immoral segment of society that allowed itself to be seduced and bribed, cheated and yet dazzled by this half-mad and evil-minded tycoon plotter. Needless to say, Hollywood doesn't come out all that well from this book.
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Author:Hift, Fred
Publication:Video Age International
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Oct 1, 1993
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