28 February 2005

The man behind The Aviator

The much-praised movie The Aviator didn't win an Oscar but it aroused much interest in Howard Hughes, surely the weirdest billionaire ever, writes Cybershrink.

The much-praised movie The Aviator (11 Oscar nominations, 3 Golden Globes) was foolishly neglected by the Oscar voters, who always prefer the sort of slushy sentimentality and ancient clichés that Million Dollar Baby dished up. But the film has aroused much interest in Howard Hughes, surely the weirdest billionaire ever.

Donald Trump's awful hair may compete only with that of the North Korean leader, Kim Il-Sung (for whom life is one perpetual Bad Hair Day), but Hughes compares to no-one in his strangeness, perhaps the only man so rich who nonetheless died of malnutrition, dehydration and neglect. Whereas many people die because they can't afford proper medical care, Hughes died because he could afford to refuse and evade the care he needed.

As an aviator, he broke some records at a time when he could afford to take advantage of applying the latest technology and his skill at unrealistically ignoring risks and problems, but was infinitely less of a great pioneer than his publicity machine made him out to be. As a movie director he may have been associated with some legendary films (Hells Angels, Scarface, The Front Page) but he was a disaster for the studios he played with.

When able to direct, he filmed obsessively, producing vastly more miles of film than could possibly be used, then spending years editing this down to a usable length. As a businessman he was atrocious, often losing money whenever he took charge, while making millions when he was distracted enough to allow others to run his potentially easily profitable businesses. As we'll see, as a lover he was negligible, despite his many well-publicised affairs. He was occasionally lucky, rather than very talented

The King of Constipation
Once the Champion of the Skies, he became the King of Constipation, and maybe the only person with severe Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder who managed to pay other people to act out his bizarre rituals for him. A severe drug addict, he made heavy use of Librium, Seconal, and especially Codeine and Valium.

"The Aviator" concentrates on his story from the 1920's to the 1940's, before he withdrew from society, and before his oddities became very widely known. The most peculiar comment I found in a review in the New York Times, which proclaimed that Howard Hughes was "born, and died, alone". Now, in fact there were people around him when he died in mid-air, flying from his hidey-hole in Mexico for treatment in Houston, including an aide, two doctors and a pair of pilots. And where on earth do they think his mother was, during his birth?

The real cause of his death was self-neglect, though the official diagnosis, at one stage diabetic coma, was eventually chronic kidney disease and renal failure. For over 50 years, for instance, he suffered severe onychomycosis, a chronic fungus infection of finger and toenails, which he refused to treat, though it produces disfigured, baroque curly nails.

Neurotic rituals
He inherited great wealth from a swashbuckling philandering father who made a fortune by devising a special drill bit that became standard in all oil-drilling. His mother was neurotic about her only son, and taught him to anticipate and avoid infection. For many years she would carefully examine his stools, fearing a tapeworm.

She developed a ritual cleansing each morning before he was allowed to go to school, including a scrubbing with harsh lye soap, inspection of his feet, ears, throat and teeth, and of course the examination of his stools. And heavy usage of Castor Oil was required. Perhaps to some extent his later massive self-neglect was a form of rejection of this excessive care. When an aunt died of tuberculous peritonitis, he was swept to hospital for a check-up and lectured on TB and how to watch out for its symptoms.

There was an odd episode of what sounds like a psychosomatic illness or simple faking, when he was thirteen. Having overheard his parents quarrelling, he woke up one morning to find his legs paralysed. His mother was sure it was "infantile paralysis" and they called in the top specialist available. After some weeks in bed, his parents united in their concern for him, and he made a remarkable recovery.

The mechanics of death
His mother, Allene, died suddenly. While out shopping, she complained of severe abdominal pain, and collapsed, with severe vaginal haemorrhaging. She died during a D&C procedure, when it was discovered that she was two months pregnant with what would have been her second child. Howard didn't seem much affected. A year later, an aunt committed suicide, hanging herself from the fan in her cruise-ship cabin in the harbour of Haiphong, French Indo-China. Hughes promptly began studying the methods and mechanics of such strangulation, alarming his father. He seems to have always been more interested in finding mechanical solutions, even to clearly personal problems.

He experienced a number of plane crashes, which reminds us that he wasn't such a great pilot after-all. He enjoyed risk-taking, even when it risked the lives and property of others. While filming Hell's Angels, he had his first major crash, and needed some facial plastic surgery.

Some time later, in 1929, he collapsed and went into convulsions. His doctors were alarmed and pronounced that he had bacterial meningitis and he was for a time not expected to live, as in these pre-penicillin days it was usually fatal. But then he woke from his coma, and they revised their diagnosis to one of severe influenza.

Ailing health
Then there was the crash of the Sikorsky at Lake Mead, in which two others died unpleasantly, others seriously injured, and he had merely scrapes. After the XF-011 crash in Beverly Hills, shown in the movie, he was in shock, with a punctured lung, eight broken ribs, a broken left shoulder, third degree burns on the left hand, a broken nose, and a gashed head that remained chronically painful. Reports of his injuries were greatly exaggerated, and he was said, falsely, to be struggling to survive, while he was busy working by phone. But this was the start of his problems with analgesics.

Around the time of the premiere of Hells Angels, he began to display increasing difficulties in hearing what people were saying, and it was found that he had otosclerosis, a condition (which also troubled his uncle), in which the little bones in the ear grow together and stop transmitting sound properly. Characteristically, he refused proper examinations or advice about this. He learned lip reading, and later got a hearing aid though he very rarely used it.

He seems to have suffered from either impotence or a chronically low libido, and functioned rather poorly sexually. He was truly a sheep in wolf's clothing. Though someone who observed him in the days when he chose to spend much time in the nude, remarked that he was unusually well-hung, several of his glamorous partners reported that he was impotent with them, or at least required their energetic attentions to be able to perform.

In the company of stars and starlets
He was a close pal of actor Cary Grant, and at one time was rumoured to be gay, as he frequented notable gay bars and drag shows, but this doesn't seem to have been his primary orientation. Although he was considered a notable playboy, having a great many well-publicised affairs with well-known glamorous stars, starlets, and wannabes, he was really collecting them as trophies, insisting on enviable women as partners, though he never really attended to them. He was no husband to any of his wives.

The most patient of them, actress Jean Peters, tolerated very long episodes of living alone, not even seeing him or having her phone-calls returned for extended periods. For years he had a sort of talent scout who would gather young wannabes for him, and he enjoyed looking at them, though he seems to have no real relationship with any of them.

He later became obsessed with displaying the 59 inch bust, the breasts of actress Jane Russell, "the most beautiful pair of knockers I've ever seen". Though he featured her in his awful movie The Outlaw (the poster showed her leaning towards the viewer, with the slogan: "Two good reasons to see The Outlaw"). Notoriously, he designed a special bra to cantilever and display these objects, a metal one, made by his factories, but I gather it was so uncomfortable that she hid it under her bed and used her own bra, enhanced by some layers of tissues. Once introduced by Bob Hope, as "the two and only, Miss Jane Russell!", she made other films, and even a Broadway appearance in the fine musical Company, but by the 1970's was best known for appearing on TV in a series of bra ads.

In 1941, he developed a blistery rash on hands, diagnosed as syphilis, and he got a very early supply of penicillin to treat it; along with more traditional remedies. He was told "don't shake hands until it's cleared", and began scrubbing his hands with lye soap until they bled. He dumped his entire fancy wardrobe of clothes, sheets, blankets, and even sold his collection of cars.

He became increasingly isolated, his room's windows sealed and blacked out. Eventually, he had very few clothes, and often sat on his lounger naked. At first, his coats and trousers had to be hung at least five feet apart. He thought his phone was being tapped, though in fact this was true only occasionally and briefly.

Irrational fears
He had a severe but internally irrational fear of germs. He believed in "insolation", using thick wodges of Kleenex, at first requiring six or eight pulled from the box one at a time, to be used by anyone required to open doors, or turn on taps, for him. And while they were using Kleenex to open the door handle, he lay for years in unaltered filth, on his body and in his rooms.

He wrote extremely detailed instructions for every conceivable procedure. One ran to pages of instructions on how to handle the cord of his hearing aid, even though he hadn't worn it for years. At first he engaged in extra showers, ritual hand-washing, trimming nails and hair - then completely avoided all these chores for many years. He designed an elaborate metal apparatus, a foot brace with rods, which he had manufactured at Hughes Aircraft, to separate his toes, "to keep nails from hitting" against each other, rather than simply to trim his long toenails.

He was rich enough to evade medical scrutiny, and to buy compliant doctors, who would serve his wishes rather than his needs. Although at one stage a doctor wanted to have him declared incompetent, this threat was easily side-tracked and neutralised. As an obsessive billionaire, he was able to hire others to carry out many of his rituals for him. Eventually, to prepare for a telephone call, required a two hour ceremony to clean the telephone cord, involving a cup of boiled water and 84 Kleenex.

One of his men was required every day to buy him three copies of each manor newspaper and magazine, and bring these to him in a "sterile" box, held at an angle of 45 degrees, so Hughes could carefully take the middle copy of each trio, the others being discarded. Hughes would then very carefully and neatly place each on top of an existing pile of previous issues, without reading it (because he believed that newsprint contained germs).

The ritual of eating
He maintained a slightly varying but eccentric diet over the years, first with a standard steak dinner, later with specific forms of junk food, then TV dinners. Eating could take hours, as for instance a chocolate bar had to be ritually broken into single blocks, and cautiously consumed while drinking milk. When he ate canned fruit, the tin had to be scrubbed carefully, and opened and emptied in a specific way. Fresh-squeezed orange juice, drunk quickly, as he believed the vitamins evaporated into the air within 10 minutes.

Thanks to his diet and huge intake of codeine, he became the King of Constipation, suffering severe abdominal cramps, and spending hours on the toilet, sometimes right through the night, his record being a stretch of some 27 hours. He might sit on the toilet all day, taking calls, and repeatedly scrubbing his arms and face with rubbing alcohol, using some four pints of it per day. At first he took Empirin, then with the assistance of his doctors, codeine tablets, crushed, dissolved in water, and self-injected.

For a man concerned about germs, he was cavalier about often urinating on the floor and walls, and he rarely if ever washed, preferring to spend days on end watching old movies projected for him on the wall of his room. In 1968 he began urinating into Mason jars, usually used for preserving canned fruit, and storing the glass jars. The number of Kleenex required for his rituals continued to increase, and he'd spend hours carefully re-arranging the new Kleenex boxes in different patterns.

Solitary confinement
In 1973 while in London (he occasionally made great secret journeys between countries, seeking to avoid legal requirements to appear in public in connection with a range of legal problems) he had a serious fall, with a number of injuries including a fractured hip, which was well repaired by a skilled London orthopaedic surgeon, who noted how dehydrated and malnourished Hughes was. He refused post-operative physio - he didn't care to walk again.

For many years he was never even heard from, until, after a chancer nearly got away with writing a fake Hughes autobiography, gambling that the recluse would never be bothered by it, he gave a press conference by phone link, denying its authenticity. He returned to his decades of solitude, to the degree that when he eventually died, there was difficulty in establishing with certainty that he was indeed the mythic Howard Hughes. His estate proved even more troublesome, with wills, claims, and relatives multiplying, such that it took years to settle matters.

It's hard to believe that all his money ever made Hughes happy, and he insisted on spending his last decades in a form of solitary confinement so severe that it would be banned if inflicted on convicted criminals in any jail.

Coming tomorrow - Oscar, Cybershrunk --- Cybershrink's take on the Oscar ceremonies, after we have all had a chance to watch the spectacle.

- Prof M.A. Simpson




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