Howard Hughes: Hell’s Angel
America’s Notorious Bisexual Billionaire
By Darwin Porter
Blood Moon Productions, April 2005, hardbound, $26.95
814 pages, ISBN# 0-9748118-1-5, with 175 vintage photos
When Howard Hughes (now known to movie fans as “The Aviator”) was 18, his father, the mega-wealthy owner of the Hughes Tool Company, found out that his son had homosexual tendencies. Repulsed by the discovery and irritated at behavior he considered disloyal, Howard Senior replaced his existing will with one that would have left his son wealthy but without the autocratic power that he had himself enjoyed. But just a few moments before he could execute the new document, Howard Senior suffered a fatal heart attack in his Houston office.
If he had signed it before his death the history of American aviation, and the history of Hollywood filmmaking, might have been very different.
Before his dad was in the ground, Howard (he never used “Junior” again) tore the new will into shreds and single-mindedly went after the other beneficiaries of his father’s estate, his grandparents and his uncle. “I don’t want to own 75 percent of Toolco,” he told his father’s attorney. “I want to own one-hundred percent so I’ll not have to report to anyone.”
With persuasion, bullying, and something approaching blackmail, he was eventually able to acquire the balance of the outstanding shares thereby gaining complete control. The rest is history. Beholden to no one, with virtually unlimited funds at his disposal, Howard Hughes and his infinite ego set out to create an empire. Three empires actually: Toolco grew without much input from Hughes into a billion dollar company; Hughes Aviation propelled Howard at the forefront of 20th century flight; and Caddo Productions, which later evolved into RKO Pictures, established him as a major filmmaker.
Hollywood biographer Darwin Porter has outdone himself with Hell’s Angel. His previous two intimate portraits, of Humphrey Bogart and Katharine Hepburn, set a new standard for detailed, tell-all biographies. Now, with 814 pages on “America’s Notorious Bisexual Billionaire,” Porter raises the literary bar again. Beginning with his own eavesdropping as a child on the set of Slattery’s Hurricane, where his mother worked as an assistant to both Linda Darnell and Veronica Lake, Porter continued through decades of interviews with literally hundreds of Hughes’ associates, intimate and casual. His own research was bolstered by the extensive unpublished memoirs of his long-time writing partner, the late Stanley Mills Haggart, a former roommate of both Cary Grant and Randolph Scott. (The 15-page index is a veritable encyclopedia of the film industry: from Aherne, Brian to Zanuck, Darryl.)
Because of the very personal nature of this oral history, most of this detail has never seen print before. The press in the 1940s and ’50s, even the nosy Hollywood gossip columnists, could not print the revelations Porter spreads out on these pages. Be warned, he doesn’t expurgate these tales. Sometimes it gets very intimate; I really didn’t need to know about Clark Gable’s smegma problem, for example.
The dictionary has two definitions for the word “profligate.” Howard Hughes personified them both: “completely given up to licentiousness” and “wildly extravagant.” Extravagant, as when he dumped a load of diamonds, rubies and gemstones in the lap of the young Elizabeth Taylor while she lounged by a hotel swimming pool. (She was not impressed.)
And, as with so many rich and powerful men, sex was a constant. Porter documents Hughes’ relationships, all the famous ones, including Ava Gardner, Bette Davis, Katharine Hepburn and Gloria Vanderbilt on the distaff side and Cary Grant, Tyrone Power, Robert Taylor and Errol Flynn on the other.
Many of Hughes’s conquests remain nameless. As a heavyweight Hollywood producer he put dozens of would-be actresses, usually teenage lovelies come to California hoping to break into the movies, under contract. Then he’d audition them on his casting couch.
If you’ve seen the movie, now discover the rest of the Howard Hughes story.