Every Man A Boss

The billionaire recluse as national icon


Among the many gems of Howard Hughes table talk that don't have a place in the new Martin Scorcese biopic (which covers only Hughes' mid-career, pre-billion successes), we find this 1969 memo, written to Hughes' tireless factotum Robert Maheu, after America's first billionaire caught a scene from The Great White Hope with James Earl Jones, performed during a telecast of the 23rd Annual Tony Awards:

I hate to disturb you this late, but I just saw something on TV that litterally (sic) and actually physically made me nauseated and I still am! I saw a show on NBC in which the biggest ugliest negro you ever saw in your life was covered—litterally (sic) covered from head to foot with vaseline almost 1/2 of an inch thick. It made you sick just to look at this man.

There's plenty to savor in this memo: the energetic, chatty, almost sprightly tone the mogul uses to describe what must have been a painful experience; the spectacle of a man with the world at his command stuck with nothing to do on a Sunday night but endure a showcase of Broadway self-congratulation; the unspoken but unmistakable indication that Hughes was not just venting, that he expected Maheu to do something about this situation.

But for this writer, the Jones memo strikingly shows how Hughes' notorious racism shared a source with his more widely known misophobia: a disgust with skin, with the workings of the body. Any piker can hate blacks out of habit, or social awkwardness, or cultural upbringing, or pseudoscientific theories about racial underachievement. But a racism rooted in horror of the flesh itself—only the elect are capable of that kind of passion.

For this reason, I think a Howard Hughes movie that doesn't feature Kleenex, footlong fingernails, and a darkened hotel floor in Las Vegas is like a sundae without fudge. Not because I have an aversion to the flyboy glamour Virginia Postrel ably studies in her article today: If anything, I applaud Martin Scorcese for shifting the locus of Hughesiana onto territory that is largely forgotten and apparently (I haven't seen the movie) artistically rewarding—the legend-building achievements of Hughes' youth.

But the story of Hughes' decrepitude isn't just the grisly denouement; it's the payoff. Throughout his career, Hughes inspired popular culture simulacra that played off his wealth of charm, charisma and, well, wealth: the wealthy and dashing flying man, the wealthy and dashing producer, the wealthy and dashing financial genius. I like to think even "King Westley," the rich doofus in It Happened One Night who pilots himself to his own wedding in a duded up heliplane-type contraption, is an icon of the Hughes public image circa 1934. But all these versions of Hughes pale in comparison with the rich visual tradition of Hughes as the mad, reclusive billionaire.

This is the Hughes who captured, and retains, the public imagination. He has, of course, been portrayed directly more than a few times, by, among others, Laraine Newman on a Saturday Night Live sketch and Jason Robards in Jonathan Demme's Melvin and Howard. More fruitfully, Hughes provides the none-too-secret template for such obsessive/compulsive bazillionaires as The Simpsons' C. Montgomery Burns and E.G. Marshall's Upson Pratt, the cockroach-battling tycoon in the unforgettable finale of George Romero's Creepshow. Back before Dynasty made John Forsythe's face as famous as his voice, who didn't picture Charlie as a disheveled, urine-hoarding maniac, ordering his "Angels" into increasingly bizarre adventures while Ice Station Zebra played silently in the background?

The comfortable explanation for this fascination with the unstable recluse is that we are moved by the spectacle of a noble mind overthrown. This is horse pucky. Within a few blocks of my home I can find a dozen homeless guys who (unlike Hughes, who saw World War II only as an opportunity to rip off the government) served their country honorably in Vietnam and Iraq, and now suffer mental torments Hughes could barely imagine.

A more accurate, though still not wholly satisfying, explanation is that we're moved simply by the money. Hughes' unsavory end—possibly the purest expression of the old saw about the man who gains the world but loses his immortal soul—allows Americans to indulge the real national pastime: swooning over the rich while scoffing that the rich ain't all that.

But this raises the question of just how great Hughes' achievements were. What's striking about Hughes' career is not just that he was at the center of four of the twentieth century's newest and most dynamic industries—oil, movies, aviation, and bilking the government—but that the last was the only one in which he showed real flair. It was the drill bit invented by Hughes' father that made the first family fortune in the oil business. His contribution to the movies may have been more lasting: seventy years after the fact, the aerial sequences in Hells Angels remain thrilling, and his ad slogan for the 3-D Jane Russell vehicle The French Line ("It'll knock both your eyes out!") is a marketing masterpiece. But by this yardstick, Hal Needham's contributions to the science of movie car crashes make him a giant of the industry. Any one of the colorful movie moguls who ran circles around Hughes (and hell's bells, where is the Jack Warner biopic already?) would make a better candidate for an industry hero. As for aviation, Hughes Aircraft's finest hour came when Hughes, locked out of the wartime contracts game, had his henchman Johnny Meyer wine, dine, and provide women for Colonel Elliot Roosevelt, leveraging the president's son to get around the well founded objections of General HH "Hap" Arnold and scoring for Hughes a lucrative contract for reconnaissance planes—planes that Hughes ultimately failed to deliver. By general agreement, TWA was headed for oblivion under Hughes' direction; it was only when a shareholder revolt forced him out of any management role at the company (while allowing him to retain his ownership stake) that TWA began to thrive and Hughes in turn made his first billion. Only late in Hughes' career, when such Dead End Kids of the sixties and seventies as E. Howard Hunt and Charles (Bebe) Rebozo begin making regular appearances, do the Hughes biographies (and there are a million of them) really get fascinating.

Looking back over Hughes' career, with its heaps of fat federal contracts, regulatory gamesmanship, and other manipulations of and by the state, you realize that these days we don't just produce a better class of citizens; we produce a better class of billionaires. It's hard to imagine a less dashing rich guy than Bill Gates, but he made his fortune in a way Hughes didn't: in a free and voluntary market, without the assistance of, and for a blessed few decades with studied indifference to, the power of Washington, D.C. It's only since the mid-nineties that Microsoft, prodded by its failed competitors and their Clinton Administration champions, has had to learn the dark arts of gaming the system.

So here's my guess as to why Howard Hughes with all his bedsores remains America's favorite model of a rich guy. It's a case of wish fulfillment. As noted by Postrel, glamour, with all its winking falsehoods and its reliance on the existence of a ready population of untermenschen, is a difficult fit in an age where the average American enjoys more material comfort than would have been available to Louis XIV. But the opportunity to wallow in crankish, dictatorial self-indulgence, stroking your prejudices, coddling your hypochondria, dreading your own bodily existence, building intricate mental empires out of your own oozing, squalid, shameful desires—that's a future most of us can hope to approximate right now. My own favorite Hughes anecdote involves his protracted, and ultimately futile, efforts to have an Arby's roast beef sandwich, made with a special stainless steel slicer, delivered to his hotel room. It's not that the anecdote humanizes the man, but that it dramatizes his passionate desire to de-humanize himself.

In his essay "L'homme-jet," Roland Barthes put a finger on this aspect of pilot glamour. Pointedly distinguishing jet pilots from the scarf-and-goggles aviation icons of Hughes' prime, Barthes envisions a "new race of aviation, closer to the robot than the hero," considering the "new skin" of nylon suits and space helmets and the virtues of diet, discipline and self-control that distinguish this new race, but concluding:

All this would be banal if it referred only to a traditional hero, for whom the goal was to fly without losing his humanity (Saint-Exup?ry the writer, Lindbergh in his jacket). But the mythological particularity of the jet-man is to retain none of the romantic or individualistic elements of the sacred role, without giving up the role itself. Assimilated by his name to pure passivity (what could be more inert or more dispossessed than an object being jetted?) he nevertheless retrieves through myth the ritual of a fictional, celestial race, who will retain the particularities of his asceticism, and will accomplish a sort of anthropological compromise between humans and Martians.

Barthes had only a partial grasp of the future, however. The real attraction of the jet age wasn't its uniformed self-discipline but its capacity for individualized self-abandonment. Increasing swaths of comfort, entertainment and self-stimulation are available to increasing numbers of people, who never even have to leave the house. Sure, the rest of us must get by without the limitless Percodan and the Mormon slaves, but on any given night, we're guaranteed to have better entertainment options than the Tonys.