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The Solid Gold Cornflake

The only human being in our epoch who has been able to equal Jackie O in ink and air time was Howard Hughes. We’ve had celebrity tycoons before, some of them almost as wacky as the solid gold cornflake. In the 1890s there was Hetty Green, the Witch of Wall Street, followed in the first decades of the century by Henry Ford; and ever since the billionaire, mysterious, industrialist, recluse, eccentric, speed-plane pilot, movie producer, Las Vegas entrepreneur, CIA partner Hughes, until on April 5, 1976, his dehydrated, drugged, and debilitated, 100-pound corpse was off-loaded from a private jet at Houston Intercontinental Airport.

Yet even now Hughes’s dead body seems to command as much interest from the National Enquirer press as Jackie O’s live one. The stories never cease and doubtless never will, but for those who would like to know which are the true ones there is this remarkably researched biography by Barlett and Steele. Of course, with Hughes and after Clifford Irving’s hoax one never knows, yet if any book appears to be a work of care, accuracy, and responsible thoroughness, it is this long, overly detailed, and somewhat repetitive but often entertaining story.

It’s also a tale to make us wonder if our great grandparents might not have been right to regard some forms of madness as a moral disorder, although Barlett and Steele’s descriptions of Hughes’s life make him out to be a classic batso. Take this description of the rich man’s mode of living toward the end of the Sixties:

Tightly closed drapes…were never opened…. Spartan furnishings were dominated by a hospital bed, a reclining chair, and a television set. The room was never visited by a vacuum cleaner…. A television addict, Hughes stared at the screen for hours at a stretch, watching movies into the early morning hours. He spent most of his time lying in bed, surrounded by piles of newspapers; a collection of old TV Guide magazines…. Everything Hughes needed was in easy reach of his bed, including the metal box where he kept his tranquilizers and narcotics and the syringe he used to inject himself with the drugs. From time to time, he would have one of the aides lay what they called a “foundation” of paper towels on the bed, thereby extending, at least to Hughes’s satisfaction, the life expectancy of the soiled sheets, which were changed, it seems, no more often than once a season.

Or this from the early Sixties, when he was still vaguely functioning as a husband and had not yet immured himself from the world, bricked up alone with his Mormon janissaries: “Hughes’s compulsive need to send messages at all hours did not disturb his wife nearly so much as his nervous habit of clicking his long [Mandarin length] toenails while he dictated. To muffle the sound, Jean put Kleenex between her husband’s toes.”

Yet through years of screwball behavior, increasing reclusiveness and drug addiction, our Mr. Hughes, they point out, was able to function, sometimes profitably, more often not, as a businessman. In many ways he comes across as rather more representative of the big, big rich, especially the big, big inherited rich, than not. Indeed, some of what he did, which might be a sign of paranoid nuttiness in those who must work for a living, is not untypical of people who’ve inherited a lot of money. They’re always afraid somebody is after their dough, so that the Barlett and Steele quote from one of the billionaire’s former assistants describes non-deviant behavior for those born to the long green:

Howard would see a girl he liked. He would motion to one of his men to see if he could get her for him. The aide would approach the girl, and if he succeeded in getting her to agree to join Hughes at his table, he whipped out a disclaimer and asked the girl to sign it before joining them.”

Most rich folks don’t feel the necessity of taking such precautions when bedding down for the night with a hooker, but they routinely do it when marrying.

Nelson Rockefeller possibly to the contrary notwithstanding, Howard Hughes shared another big rich trait: a miserly stinginess which in his case reached the point that he could not even bring himself to give his money away in a will. Our authors, who must have examined several hundred thousand documents to write this book, can find virtually no examples of Hughes making a single free and material gift.

Hughes’s only charity, the Howard Hughes Medical Institute, was a philanthropic fraud whereby the tax laws were corruptly manipulated to keep the tycoon yet richer and more powerful. Our authors tell the Medical Institute story well, beginning in 1953 when the executives of Hughes Aircraft, an enormous defense contractor wholly owned by Hughes, began demanding stock options such as the big- and medium-sized cheeses in other corporations get. Hughes, not unlike similarly placed men and women, hated the thought of diluting his control by surrendering the least bit of equity. The answer to his problem was to dump all of the stock of Hughes Aircraft into the Hughes Medical Institute, an entity for which he was the sole trustee.

In that fashion he maintained his control over the company, thereby foiling his executives, while reaping millions of dollars in tax benefits plus setting up his philanthropy so that most of the money it paid out was to Howard Hughes. From its founding through 1970, “for every $1 million the Institute gave to medical research, it gave $2.5 million to its founder…. The Institute’s expenditures for medical research averaged between 0.2 and 0.3 percent of its assets.” There are other little pluses in backing medical research the way the dope-addicted Hughes did: “The physician Hughes had placed in charge of the institute’s medical work was Dr. Verne R. Mason, the Hollywood doctor who treated him after his near-fatal 1946 plane crash and who had been supplying him ever since—apparently without any legitimate medical reason—with narcotics.”

The world’s richest dope fiend got away with these flagrant violations of the letter and the spirit of the tax laws by voodooing the IRS. At first Internal Revenue refused to give the institute a tax exemption despite the newspaper editorials praising the man’s benefactions. To the IRS, Hughes’s philanthropy looked like “merely a device for siphoning off otherwise taxable income to an exempt organization and accumulating that income.” Nevertheless, in a decision worth incalculable millions to Hughes, the IRS reversed itself, less than a month after Hughes had lent then-Vice President Nixon’s brother Donald $205,000 secured by a vacant lot worth a quarter of that figure. Our two diligently researching authors point out that the IRS commissioner at the time was one Dana Latham, whose Los Angeles law firm would subsequently represent Hughes Aircraft while the gentleman’s son-in-law became general counsel for the company.

In spite of a Freedom of Information Act lawsuit filed by the Philadelphia Inquirer, for whom Barlett and Steele work, documents relating to the IRS decision have never been made public. Nor has it been explained how millions of dollars of the Medical Institute’s funds were used, circa 1972-1974, to save the investments of Hughes Aircraft executives in the Marina City Club, a luxury condo development in Los Angeles. The authors suggest the explanation may lie in the fact that Richard Nixon’s lawyer, Herbert Kalmbach, and his firm of Kalmbach, DeMarco, Knapp & Chillingworth handled the Marina City deal for the aircraft company people.

Horrible Howard wasn’t the only one to get cut into government favors, but if he got more, as indeed he did, it was because he paid more. During World War II he got a government contract to build an airplane, which he never delivered, because his public relations man took one of Franklin Roosevelt’s children, Elliott, on a coast-to-coast nightclubbing tour, or so it would appear from this book. There followed countless other dispensations of dough, culminating with such celebrated political donations as the fifty grand to Hubert Humphrey and the 100 grand which wound up in Bebe Rebozo’s controversial safety deposit box. Barlett and Steele sum up by observing:

As might be expected of a man who distributed millions of dollars to politicians of both major political parties at the local, state and federal levels, who sought to manipulate officeholders from state legislator to president of the United States, and who attempted to influence the decisions of governmental agencies from city councils to the Internal Revenue Service, Hughes was apolitical…. Hughes never once voted in his entire life.

What’s to vote for between two candidates both of whom are on your payroll? Yet again, crazy or not, Howard Hughes acted like his fellow millionaires when threatened by someone who truly seemed to be politically opposed. Thus, after buying RKO movie studios, Hughes told a newspaper interviewer, “During the next two months we are going to set up a screening system as thorough as we can make it…. We are going to screen everyone in a creative position or executive capacity…. It is my determination to make RKO one studio where the work of Communist sympathizers will be impossible.”

In his recent autobiography, William Paley, founder and board chairman of CBS, writes, “After much thought, studies and consultations, we decided upon an in-house questionnaire, issued to all CBS staff employees, including some performers. The employee was asked if he or she was then or ever had been a member of any organization listed as subversive by the Attorney General of the United States, and the list of organizations, including the Communist Party, USA, was printed on the reverse side of the questionnaire…. [Employees] were interviewed and when the circumstances of their past activities seemed absolutely harmless, they were kept on.”*

The last twenty years of Hughes’s life were spent in a reclusive seclusion in which his attendants, mostly Mormons of modest learning and attainments, came to be more keepers than servants. Nevertheless, he continued to conduct business operations on a grand scale, and if, as Barlett and Steele aver, he was often stolen blind by some of his closest subordinates, he himself was busy trying to screw others in a fashion which demonstrated that, though he might spend his days stark naked on a hospital bed in a sealed hotel room swallowing codeine and Valium, he had lost none of his rapacious cupidity. In the midst of the Vietnam War he attempted to price gouge the government for helicopters badly needed at the front; he also had his wits about him to the extent of entering into a scheme designed to drive down the price of stock of what became Hughes Air West, an operation that got him the airline, all right, but also got him indicted, although he died before he could stand trial.

These aren’t the acts of a raving lunatic but of homo economicus in control of whatever faculties it takes to buy and sell, barter and trade. But at the same time this madman was spending his life in his sealed rooms watching movies and television, taking drug dosages that would fell a horse, unshaven, unbathed, a revulsive humanoid who voided himself by having his attendants give him enemas, “the big E” as the merry Mormans called it. Yet this degradation could tell one of his subordinates with considerable truth, “You just remember—I can buy—I, Howard Hughes, can buy any man in the world, or I can destroy him.”

Our authors aren’t able to resolve the two Howard Hugheses their researches have so convincingly presented to us—the rational, social carnivore and the revolting slob. They make a few, not very elaborate, passes at a psychiatric explanation of how it came about that two personalities cohabited Hughes’s scabrous, needle-punctured body. The argument doesn’t jell; moreover, the reader gets the impression that Barlett and Steele themselves see their subject more as a case of morals than as a bundle of symptoms wrapped up in a syndrome.

As they depict Hughes we see a human being who was so rich, so waited on, so catered to that he never learned to give a damn about anyone else. Anyone who has spent time around people born to pots of money can’t help but notice how richlings seldom learn how to discern what others are feeling, what others may need or desire, or how to please another. They don’t need to know so they don’t. Hughes was an extreme case of this kind of invincible selfishness, this egotism which often takes the form of a righteous fatuity. It could prompt Hughes to write a memo to a subordinate immediately after the murder of Martin Luther King saying, inter alia, “I can summarize my attitude about employing more negroes [sic] very simply—I think it is a wonderful idea for somebody else…. I feel the negroes have already made enough progress to last the next 100 years…. I don’t want to become known as a negro-hater or anything like that. But I am not running for election and therefore we don’t have to curry favor with the NAACP either. I thought I better get this to you before somebody commits you to head up some pro-negro committee.”

Despicable, yes, deranged, no. This isn’t a case for an alienist, but for a judge. Here was a man who disdained cultivating virtue and died with none. Such little as he may have had when he was a record-breaking aviator he used up without troubling to replenish, this coward who was once saved from an angry husband’s beating when the wife’s mother threw herself on the prone Hughes to take the cuffs and kicks destined for him. He had the means for a life of absolute self-indulgence until he had so stupefied and incapacitated himself that others could take over the running of his huge domain and cut the intricate deals that were made between his organization and the CIA, deals, incidentally, that our authors tell us Hughes was too far gone to know about.

Read this book and you will understand how grave Roman senators made respectful way for the Emperor Caligula’s horse on the occasion of his introduction to membership in their august order. Fear or greed—I can buy any man in the world or destroy him—procured infinite men for infinite wicked chores. From 1966 to 1970, in those four years alone, the authors have been able to determine Hughes procured and consumed 33,000 codeine pills. If certain doctors and perhaps some person in the ecclesiastic structure of the Morman Church have had the most somber doubt cast on their actions by this book, so also have Wall Street firms like Merrill Lynch. According to this book, after the Securities and Exchange Commission raised questions about Hughes’s mental competence in agreeing to sell his sole proprietorship in the Hughes Tool Company for a loss estimated at $350 million or more, Merrill Lynch vice-president Julius H. Sedlmayr and J. Courtney Ivey, a partner in the New York law firm of Brown, Wood, Fuller, Caldwell & Ivey, flew to see Hughes in Managua, Nicaragua. Their appointment was for 2 PM, September 24, 1972.

As Barlett and Steele reconstruct the record, earlier that day Hughes took seven “blue bombers,” as his staff called his Valium pills. These were ten-milligram doses, or “28 times the recommended daily dose for someone his age.” The man passed out, slept through the appointment, and didn’t wake up until 5:30 in the afternoon. After going to the bathroom, he sat in a chair for another three hours. At one AM on the twenty-fifth, he was looking at a movie; at 3:45 AM one of his attendants cleaned up the slovenly recluse—like LBJ, Hughes showed his contempt for others by thrusting his nakedness on them—and at 5:45 AM he received the two Wall Streeters for a discussion of his decision to sell this El Dorado of a company for a third of a billion less than it was worth. Sedlmayr, whose firm handled the sale, and Ivey flew back to New York and “informed the Securities and Exchange Commission that Hughes himself had authorized the sale.” So much for those around Hughes and those with whom he did business.

The end was awful: “A malignant tumor was growing out of the left side of his scalp, an inch or two above his left ear…the scraggly gray hair no longer covered it…. He had shrunk almost three inches. There were white opaque rings around the corneas of his eyes…. His upper and lower teeth dangled from the receding jaw bone…. Pus had collected around the rotting teeth. His arms and thighs were carpeted by needle marks.”

Whether or not the wages of sin are what it is written they are, this book suggests the social and moral costs of great inherited wealth may extract salary demands the rest of us do not wish to pay.

  1. *

    As It Happened (Doubleday, 1979).

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