Wednesday, November 28, 2007

Man or superman?

Rather unexpectedly, I've found myself interested in Howard Hughes. A little less than a week ago, Sarah and I watch the Aviator and I've been sort of fascinated in him since. What I thought the movie did well (beyond some really good acting by most of the people involved) was that it played with the myth of Howard Hughes without explaining it away. And, its sort of the myth that I find compelling.

Figure 1: Not Tony Stark

By this I mean, I think its really fascinating that at one time a person could be a wealthy industrialist from Texas, a famed movie director with movie starlet girlfriends and also be a flying ace who set the record for fastest plane ever flown and fastest flight around the world.

To me, that's crazy. That's the stuff superhero comics are made of. In fact, Tony Stark (aka Ironman) is actually based on Howard Hughes. But, I'd argue Hughes is more interesting... because he was real.

Figure 2: Not a comic book about Howard Hughes

And what's even crazier (to me at least) is that the movie didn't even touch on half of the Myth of Howard Hughes™. In fact, let's use that source of all knowledge in the universe, Deep I mean... Wikipedia, to make a bullet list, shall we? (If my years working in an online marketing department, it’s that bullet lists = power.)

The Myth of Howard Hughes™

• Historians are not sure what day he was born on, but he claimed to be born on Christmas Eve.

• He erected Houston's first wireless system. When he was 11 years old.

• There are pictures of him riding Houston's first "motorized bicycle. Which he also built himself. At age 12.

• After his parent’s death, at the age of 19, he moved to Hollywood and decided to use their money to direct films. Several of which went on to be nominated and win Oscars.

• His film, Hell's Angels was the most expensive film ever made, up to that date. It cost $3.8 million and took three years to produce.

• Two of his films ran into trouble with industry censors. Scarface because of its violent content. The Outlaw because of Jane Russell's revealing outfits. Hughes designed her bra for that movie.

• Though he was married, he was frequently romantically links with almost every major starlet of the time, ranging from Katherine Hepburn, Bette Davis and Ava Gardner to Jane Russell and Jean Harlow.

• He hit and killed a pedestrian, and was charge with negligent homicide. Charges were later dropped when a witness suddenly changed his story.

• He cast John Wayne as Genghis Khan.

• In 1935, in the H-1, he set the airspeed record at 352 mph.

• A year and a half later, flying a redesigned H-1, he set the transcontinental airspeed record. He flew from LA to NYC in 7 hours, 28 minutes and 25 seconds.

• The H-1 featured a number of new advancements in airplane design, including retractable landing gear and rivets flush with the body of the plane.

• In 1938, he set another record by completing a flight around the world in just 91 hours (3 days, 19 hours).

• The received the Congressional Gold Medal from Truman, but never picked it up.

• He crashed his experimental XF-11 plane into a Beverly Hills neighborhood, destroying it, three house and giving himself a crushed collar bone, 24 broken ribs and a number of 3rd degree burns.

• While in the hospital for his injuries, he had a custom bed designed for himself.

• He designed and built the infamous H-4 Hercules (aka the "Spruce Goose"), the "largest airplane ever built." It's frame was constructed of wood, and it only flew one time. For roughly a mile.

• Starting with his parents drill bit company, he expanded not only into movie making (and eventually gaining control of RKO), but also started Hughes Aircaft, Hughes Aerospace, Hughes Space and Communications Company, the Hughes Research Laboratories and the Howard Hughes Medical Institute.

• He bought up the majority stock in TWA and expanded it to include transatlantic flights.

• He was brought before a Senate War Investigation Committee on charges of not delivering on a number of projects he promised to the US Government during the war (including the Spruce Goose). This is largely believed to be an attack by Pan Am Airlines in response for his attempting to break their monopoly on flights to Europe.

• A bribe from Hughes to Nixon's brother may have been the catalyst for the Watergate Scandal.

• He worked with the CIA to provide a cover while they attempted to salvage a Russian sub from off the coast of Hawaii.

• He suffered from Social Avoidance Behavior and Obsessive Compulsive Disorder. The primary manifestation was his obsession with germs and cleanliness.

• He enjoyed eating peas. But was also obsessed with their size and would line them up from smallest to largest.

• Although at one point he was one of the most publicly visible men in America, he became a recluse in his later years. Going so far as to lock himself in his private room for days on end. And would only get his hair and nails clipped once or twice a year.

• Although not a Mormon himself, toward the end of his life, he surrounded himself almost exclusively with them because he felt they were trustworthy.

• Also, in addition to being addicted to a number of painkillers, he started using tissues when picking things up and touching them.

• He watch Ice Station Zebra over 150 times.

• He became obsessed with buying up every chain restaurant and 4 Star Hotel in his home state of Texas.

• He became obsessed with avoiding taxes. Going so far as to living in hotels full-time to avoid them.

• When the law changed requiring anyone to pay income taxes if they live in one state for 180 days, he took to moving to a new state every 180 days.

• After running into problems with the owners of the Desert Inn Hotel in Vegas, he simply bought the Desert Inn and made it his headquarters.

• After that, he began buying up other hotels from the mafia, convinced he would turn the city from a place of mobsters and sin to a place of old time glamour.

• An insomniac, he bought several local TV stations, so that he would have something to watch in the middle of the night.

• He became obsessed with Baskin-Robbins Banana Nut ice cream, which had been discontinued. So, he had a special order of 350 gallons made. Only to decide he liked French Vanilla. The Desert Inn gave away from banana nut ice cream for a year.

• He repeatedly attempted to bribe Nixon and Johnson to stop the testing of nuclear weapons in the Nevada desert. When he fails, he exiled himself from the United States.

• He then lived in a hotel in Nicaragua, where he kept the windows blacked out to avoid assassins or prying photographers.

• Author Clifford Irving claimed to have co written an autobiography of Hughes. Because Hughes was such a recluse he didn't step forward immediately to refute the claim. When he eventually did, Irving was fined and jailed, and the entire episode was turned into a movie starring Richard Gere.

• Hughes eventually died in 1976, on a flight from Mexico back to Houston. He was practically unrecognizable because of his long hair, beard, nails and the fact that he barely weighed 90lbs. They had to fingerprint him to get positive ID.

• His cause of death was a heart attack. But, he suffered from malnutrition and there were numerous needles broken off in his arm.

• Three weeks after his death, the infamous "Mormon Will" came forward. This will, supposedly found on the desk of a Church of Later Day Saints official gave (amongst other things) $156 million dollars to a gas station attendant named Melvin Dummar. After Melvin's fingerprints were found on the will, he claimed the following story:
Dummar claimed to reporters that late one evening in December 1967, he found a disheveled and dirty man lying along U.S. Highway 95, 150 miles (250 km) south of Las Vegas. The man asked for a ride to Las Vegas. Dropping him off at the Sands Hotel, Dummar said the man told him he was Hughes. Dummar then claimed that days after Hughes' death, a "mysterious man" appeared at his gas station, leaving an envelope containing the will on his desk. Unsure if the will was genuine, and unsure of what to do, Dummar left the will at the LDS Church office.

Eventually, the courts would declare this will a fraud and Hughes estate would be divided up amongst 22 relatives. Jonathan Demme would eventually make a movie about Dummar and Hughes relationship.

• An undisclosed amount would later be given to Terry Moore, who claimed she had married Hughes onboard a yacht off Mexico in 1949, and never officially divorced.

Ok, so not everything about Howard Hughes is glamorous. In fact, the whole second half of that bullet list lives somewhere between "horrific" and "tragi-comedic." But, heck, no bodies perfect. I mean, even Tony Stark is a recovering alcoholic. The fact remains that Hughes lived a truly larger-than-life life. And, his life captures that period in history where a person could be both a Hollywood socialite and an ace test pilot.

That's gotta count for something.

No comments: