Hughes’ Tool

Howard, the Amazing Mr. Hughes

by Noah Dietrich, by Bob Thomas
Fawcett, 303 pp., $1.50 (paper)

Is Howard R. Hughes the most boring American? Admittedly, the field is large: over two hundred million of us are in competition. Yet on the strength of this old associate’s recent memorial, I am inclined to give Hughes the benefit of the belief I have long held that the more money an American accumulates the less interesting he himself becomes. Certainly there is not much you can do with the fact of someone else’s fortune except stare at all those naughts upon the page. Then, naughts aside, Hughes the actual man emanates a chloroform quite his own: the high droning voice, the catatonic manner, the absence of all humor (a characteristic of the very rich American, but here quintessential), the lack of interest in the human, the preoccupation with machinery (yet he is “a lousy engineer,” according to my father, a long-time aviator acquaintance, and “a menace as a flier”), the collecting of beautiful and famous women to no vivid end (although feisty Ava Gardner did knock him out with an ashtray), and, of course, the grim eating habits (dinner is always a steak with peas, followed by vanilla ice cream and cookies).

The best thing about Hughes has been his withdrawal from the world—for this, if nothing else, he ought not only to have been honored but encouraged by a grateful nation. Yet even in the shadows of his cloistered motels, the inept tycoon insists on pulling strings, making a mess of TWA, a disaster of RKO, a shambles of vice in Las Vegas, all the while creating the largest unworkable plywood plane in the world at a cost to the taxpayers of twenty-two million dollars. There is something peculiarly inhuman even about his incompetence. At least John D. Rockefeller gave out dimes and drank mother’s milk (from other people’s mothers, that is). Why then contemplate Howard Hughes? Because he is involved in politics and even a cursory glance at his career is a chilling reminder of the nation’s corruption at every level.

In 1925, Noah Dietrich was engaged by the nineteen-year-old Howard Hughes to run the grand duchy Hughes had inherited from his father (the manufacturer of a special kind of drill much favored by Texas oil men). The handsome young heir had moved to Hollywood where the girls and the movies were (how square can you get?). Aware that he knew nothing about business, Hughes hired Mr. Dietrich, a certified public accountant, to look after his affairs. This profitable association lasted until 1957, when Mr. Dietrich, feeling the shadows lengthen, asked for some stock, a few capital gains, to supplement the large salary on which he was forced to pay a large tax. Hughes promptly let him go. If Mr. Dietrich is a bitter man, this book does not reveal it. Every page radiates octogenarian serenity—the CPA at Colonus. Nevertheless, despite the sunny manner, Mr. Dietrich and Mr. Thomas, his prose stylist (as such workers are called in Youngblood Hawke …

This article is available to Online Edition and Print Premium subscribers only.
Please choose from one of the options below to access this article:
If you already have one of these subscriptions, please be sure you are logged in to your nybooks.com account. If you subscribe to the print edition, you may also need to link your web site account to your print subscription. Click here to link your account services.