Howard Hughes
Howard Hughes; drawing by David Levine

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), have managed to give us a highly detailed and most plausible portrait of what is apparently an honest-to-God American shit.

In Hollywood Hughes produced a number of pictures. Those in which he took no “creative” part sometimes made money (like Milestone’s Two Arabian Knights); those he himself worked on invariably lost money, including the renowned Hell’s Angels (the aesthetic value of these works will not be dealt with here). Incidentally, during the first thirty years of his association with Dietrich, Hughes made only one visit to the Hughes Tool Company. As a result, the company was a great success, producing the money Hughes promptly lost on movie making, on a color process for films, on a new kind of automobile, on the career of Miss Jane Russell (a lifelong search for the perfect set of boobs ended abruptly for Howard in a dentist’s office when Nurse Russell suddenly made her appearance carrying a tray of pliers). For an American bore of major standing, Hughes demonstrated, from the beginning, an attractive talent for failure which almost—but not quite—catapults him into the ranks of the human.

“My first objective is to become the world’s number one golfer. Second, the top aviator, and third I want to become the world’s most famous motion picture producer. Then, I want you to make me the richest man in the world.” So spoke the young Faust to Mr. Dietrich, his eager counter-Faust. For a very rich young man the realization of such simple dreams ought to have been an easy matter. Unfortunately, Hughes’s golf was not all that good; as a flier he was the Icarus of an entire generation of aviators; while the movies he produced brought him only publicity. Mr. Dietrich did make him very rich, but not as rich as J. P. Getty.


It would seem, on the evidence of this memoir, that Hughes was never interested in money or movies or airplanes or women. What did absorb him was tinkering with bits of machinery or celluloid. Hour after hour, day after day, he would concentrate totally (and to no ultimate purpose) on a carburetor or the editing of a zoom shot. Detail work was his narcotic. But attempts to relate the details of the work to some larger unit like an automobile or a finished film (or a love affair?) were quite beyond him, as even devotees of The Outlaw must admit.

Mr. Dietrich gives us a bit of character analysis, but not much. This is wise. The point to Hughes is that he is what he seems: a simple, uneducated man, interested in machinery. He apparently never liked anyone very much, man or woman. Suffering from hereditary deafness, he went into retirement because it was difficult for him to hear conversations at parties (he can hear perfectly on an altered telephone and so prefers to conduct his business at long distance). Since his family is not long lived, he has become frightened of the germ and its carrier, people. “Everyone carries germs around with them. I want to live longer than my parents, so I avoid germs.” Living alone, with only servants to look after him, he has developed a somewhat solipsistic turn of mind, given to night fears—not only of germs, death, betrayal, but of monsters like the ones he watches so avidly on the “Late Late Show” coming to kidnap him, to eat him up.

The interesting part of Mr. Dietrich’s book begins during the war. Over the years, Hughes had managed to offend a number of important generals (Hap Arnold, the army air force’s commander, was turned away at the door to the Hughes plant). In the interest of landing war contracts, Hughes decided to corrupt the generals and their masters, the politicians. Why not? All businessmen dealing with the government do—or try to. Hughes hired an amiable man-about-town called Johnny Meyer, who “certainly knew how to please the tired politician or general, and he was lavish with hotel suites, fancy dinners, champagne, and caviar, not to mention $100-per-night beauties. You’d be surprised how many senators, governors and generals partook of his largesse.”

I think Mr. Dietrich exaggerates the surprise of those of us born under the dread sign of the soon-to-be-shredded Dita Beard. What we really want to know is not how our masters behave in the sack but what deals they make in the office. “Despite his obviousness Johnny Meyer produced results for the Hughes enterprise.” The most important VIP that he snared was Elliott Roosevelt. Parenthetically, when my father became Roosevelt’s Director of Air Commerce (1933-1936), young Elliott told him, “Everyone else in the family’s got their man in the Administration. Well, you’re going to be mine.” From an early age, Elliott showed a great interest in the future of aviation, and worked hard to give America that mastery of the skies she has so long held.

The air force procurement brass was anti-Hughes, particularly General Echols. But air force Brigadier General Roosevelt managed to turn them all around, obtaining for Hughes a contract for one hundred F-11 plywood fighters at $700,000 apiece. Meanwhile, the actress to whom Johnny Meyer had introduced Elliott became his wife—benignly, Hughes paid for both wedding and honeymoon.

Meyer was also working on Major General Bennett Meyers in Materiel, Maintenance, and Distribution. This general had a passion for money unusual even in a military man sworn to defend capitalism. He wanted “to buy government bonds on margin and turn over a quick profit.” To accomplish this, Hughes was to lend the general $200,000 “on a short-term, no-interest loan.” As it turned out, Hughes’s lawyer in Washington aborted the scheme and General Meyers eventually ended up in the clink.

During this period, Hughes was not always himself. Dietrich recalls a telephone conversation in which his employer repeated the same sentence thirty-three times. When this dysfunction was drawn to his attention, Hughes allowed that his doctor was also concerned, and promptly vanished for six months, to return in 1947 ready for his finest hour.

Senator Owen Brewster of Maine, dreaming of the Vice-Presidency as Maine men tend to do during those long hard winters Down East, decided he needed some publicity. What better target than the eccentric young millionaire, flyer, and stud-consort of sinful lascivious Hollywood stars and broads? Forthwith, Brewster summoned Hughes before a Senate committee in order to show the foul ways in which clean-limbed West Pointers, golden Presidential sons, selfless tribunes of the people had been tempted by Johnny Meyer, booze, and women, women, women.


But Senator Brewster had met his match. The inarticulate Hughes suddenly found his voice. Masterfully, he defended himself, often disingenuously, but then a Congressional committee is not exactly the Bocca della Verita. Luckily for Hughes, the senator from Maine was a…well, enthusiast for Pan American Airways, even though Pan American made no stops in Maine. Suddenly the alleged corrupter of public virtue turned on Senator Brewster and said, “I specifically charge that during luncheon at the Mayflower Hotel in Washington in the week beginning February 10, 1947, in the suite of Senator Brewster, the senator told me in so many words that if I would agree to merge TWA with Pan Am and go along with this community airline bill, there would be no further hearing in this matter.” The career of Senator Brewster was at an end. Not only did he not become Tom Dewey’s running mate in 1948, but when he came up for re-election to the Senate in 1952, Hughes gave $60,000 to his opponent. Brewster was defeated.

During the late 1940s and throughout the 1950s, Howard’s political contributions ran between $100,000 and $400,000 a year. He financed Los Angeles councilmen and county supervisors, tax assessors, sheriffs, state senators and assemblymen, district attorneys, governors, congressmen and senators, judges—yes, and Vice Presidents and Presidents, too. Besides cash, Howard was liberal in providing airplanes for candidates.

In 1944 a fine comedy took place at the Biltmore Hotel in Los Angeles. Hughes and his lawyer went around to the suite of the candidate for Vice-President, Harry S Truman. Hughes sent the lawyer in to see Truman, with an envelope containing $12,500. Brooding in the outer room, Hughes began to worry that Truman might give the lawyer the credit for the cash. Hughes barged into the politician’s presence “and said bluntly, ‘I want you to know, Mr. Truman, that is my money Mr. McCarthy is giving you.’ Truman managed to laugh off Howard’s lack of diplomacy….” Ho ho ho all the way to the White House.

For those who are curious about just how large sums of money are got physically into the hands of politicians (barring the direct method favored by a recent mayor of New York who used to accept pillowcases stuffed with cash), Mr. Dietrich is most illuminating. In fact, revelatory.

I asked Trippe [president of Pan Am] how he managed to wield so much influence in Washington—the Pan American lobby was enormously effective, and not only with Senator Brewster. “Well, you know,” he confided, “the law says nothing at all about contributions from foreign corporations. We have a subsidiary in South America that takes an intense interest in our US elections.”

From that moment, Hughes Tool of Canada dispersed three to four hundred thousand dollars a year to American politicians, and it was all legal.

Most notorious of the Hughes loans was to Richard Nixon’s brother Don. Apparently Don has two passions: money and food. They came together in a Whittier, California restaurant starring the Nixonburger. In 1956, shortly after Richard Nixon was reelected Vice-President, he got in touch with Hughes’s political lawyer and told him that brother Don needed $205,000. Now Mr. Dietrich was a good Republican who had supported the Eisenhower-Nixon crusade for decency. He was as appalled as Hughes was delighted. “Let ’em have it,” said Hughes. After all, $205,000 is not much to buy a Vice-President—particularly when the pro for the quid (for those wicked partisans who take a sequential view of life) was nothing less than saving Howard Hughes from having to pay taxes.

Prior to the loan, Hughes had been trying to set up a tax-exempt medical foundation with himself as sole trustee. The IRS had twice refused him a tax exemption. Then the loan was made to Donald Nixon, through his mother, the saintly Quaker woman Hannah. As collateral, she put up a lot in Whittier valued at $13,000. Hannah then popped $165,000 into Don’s company. No one seems to know what happened to the rest of the loan. A few months later the Howard Hughes Medical Foundation was exempted from taxes by the IRS.

Alarmed by these shenanigans, Mr. Dietrich went to Washington on his own to talk sense to Richard Nixon. “He was extremely cordial and showed me around his office, pointing out mementos of his visits to foreign lands” (the verisimilitudinous touch which authenticates). “Then we sat down for a serious talk.” Mr. Dietrich talked turkey. “‘If this loan becomes public information, it could mean the end of your political career. And I don’t believe that it can be kept quiet.’ He [Nixon] responded immediately, perhaps having anticipated what I had said. ‘Mr. Dietrich,’ he said, ‘I have to put my relatives ahead of my career.’ Nothing further was said about the subject.” Not long after, Don’s restaurant failed and the Nixonburger was history.

In 1957 Mr. Dietrich ceased to be privy to Howard Hughes’s political donations and so his inside narrative is fifteen years out of date. Are “noble commitments” still being made? We do not know. But after all, Hughes Aircraft is the Pentagon’s twelfth largest contractor, and 90 percent of its $750,000,000 annual sales are to the government. This company, incidentally, is the one entirely owned by the tax-exempt Howard Hughes Medical Institute whose great task is to do research around the country on various diseases, with particular emphasis on the heart. As in most successful Hughes enterprises, the living legend has little to do with the company’s operation.

Political corruption has been with us since the first congress sat at Philadelphia, and there is nothing to be done about it as long as we are what we are. In fact, as election costs mount the corruption will tend to be institutionalized by the small group of legislators and bankers, generals and industrialists who own and govern the United States, Inc. But it does not take great prescience to realize that they are playing a losing game. As the polity becomes more and more conscious of the moral nullity at the center of American life, there will develop not the revolutionary situation dreamed of in certain radical circles but, rather, a deep contempt for the nation and its institutions, an apathy bound to be exploited by clever human engineers. In the name of saving the environment and restoring virtue, they will continue the dismantling of an unloved and unhonored republic. But then republics are social anomalies, as Thomas Jefferson must have suspected when he claimed to see, off there in the distance, no larger than a Federalist’s head, the minatory shape of the despot’s crown.

This Issue

April 20, 1972