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…

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