Howard Hughes inherited three-quarters of his family’s multi-million dollar drill-bit fortune, and in 1925 he moved from Texas to California with his young bride, Ella Botts Rice. He built careers in aerospace, engineering, and filmmaking and experienced a life that saw him succumbing to mental illness, driving Hollywood studio RKO into the ground, and living alone as a recluse until his death in 1976.
Refreshingly, writer and podcaster Karina Longworth’s book “Seduction: Sex, Lies, and Stardom in Howard Hughes’s Hollywood” flips the narrative on the man, focusing on the players in Hughes’s life we’d normally think of as a supporting cast.
“Several years ago, I just stumbled across a message board where somebody had posted something like… the title of the post was ‘Howard Hughes’s Conquests’ or something like that, and the body of the post was… just a list of names, most of which were actresses,” Longworth tells me by phone, of the origin of her book. “There are so many fascinating people on this list, and I’d love to know more about so many of them.”
Since 2014, Longworth has written, produced, and hosted the popular film podcast “You Must Remember This,” exploring the “secret and/or forgotten history of Hollywood’s first century.”
Early in the book's introduction, Longworth writes of Hollywood as “an industry run by men and fueled by male desires, [where] most women found they could find the most success by leaving something of their ‘real’ selves behind.”
Each of the names on that list Longworth read many years ago represents a life, and Longworth elegantly weaves the stories of Jean Harlow, Katharine Hepburn, Billie Dove, Ginger Rogers, and Jane Russell.
Hughes, like many studio heads of the time, would take actresses under his wing by signing them to a contract, although according to Longworth, most of them never shot a frame that wound up onscreen.
According to Longworth, by the 1940s “[Hughes] would make sure their days were scheduled within an inch of their life… this was pretty typical of the studios when they would sign young actresses. But Hughes, as with everything he did, he did it in a more extreme way. So his contract stars lived in hotels or apartments or houses that Hughes paid for. They were assigned drivers who would drive them around town and also function as bodyguards and spies for Hughes, so that he was always able to be updated as to what the actresses were doing, and all day long they would go to acting classes, dancing classes, singing classes, elocution classes.”
Some of the actresses under contract with Hughes never even met him.
“He was just completely overextended, and he would choose to pay attention to something when he chose to pay attention to it, and he expected that thing to just go completely dormant when he wasn’t paying attention to it. It never occurred to him that these women were human beings who had lives that continued when he wasn’t around.”
Jean Peters, who Hughes met in the 1940s, and to whom Hughes was married from 1957-1971, “was instructed to call in to Operations every morning when she woke up,” Longworth says. “They would write that down and give her any messages that came in for her from Hughes overnight.”
“That is how most people communicated with Howard Hughes. It was very rare to have a direct phone conversation.”
Longworth’s research for “Seduction” included extensive use of primary sources and documents, including “telegrams from the 1930s, court depositions, and the call logs which were the notes secretaries took on all the incoming and outgoing calls for Howard Hughes,” and the files of psychologist Raymond D. Fowler, hired by Hughes’s lawyers to write a biography of Hughes from “a psychological, psychiatric perspective.”
She began work on the book in 2015, two years before sexual assault allegations took down modern movie mogul Harvey Weinstein. Nothing in the present day changed the content or style of the book, Longworth says. Of the past, she notes times were different.
“It was considered taboo to speak out. [Actresses] were intimidated into believing that they would lose any chance that they had for a career. But when it came time for them to write their autobiography, they would be honest about things like this. Even Ginger Rogers, who prided herself on being extremely conservative, and certainly never would have called herself a feminist… she was honest about the fact that Harry Cohn quote-unquote ‘chased all the girls around the desk’ at Columbia. Women did talk about these things. They just didn’t necessarily talk about them in a politically empowered way, the way that women are now,” says Longworth.
“The women who became victimized by things like casting couch culture were not asking for it, and it shouldn’t be the price of doing business in Hollywood.”
“Seduction: Sex, Lies, and Stardom in Howard Hughes’s Hollywood,” is now available through Custom House books. Karina Longworth is the host of the popular podcast "You Must Remember This," an essential listen for classic film fans.