By the time Howard Hughes died in 1976, little remained of his reputation as the upstart producer of “Hell’s Angels.” There was no trace of the American hero who pulled off 1938’s record-breaking flight around the world, or the “rugged individualist” who transformed hearings on his misuse of World War II defense funding into an offensive against congressional corruption. The Howard Hughes that loomed large in the collective imagination was a germaphobic recluse: a man who actively cultivated a distance between himself and the world, an isolation enforced by a team of aides, private detectives and switchboard operators.
In “Seduction: Sex, Lies, and Stardom in Howard Hughes’s Hollywood,” Karina Longworth creates a candid portrait of the multifaceted millionaire, revealing the depth of his tendencies toward control, secrecy and manipulation of the women he kept close.
Known for her podcast “You Must Remember This,” Longworth, with “Seduction,” strengthens her reputation as one of our most knowledgeable researchers of Hollywood history. Her approach is twofold: Our focus is, of course, on Hughes in Hollywood (with relevant peeks into his obsession with aeronautics and, ahem, breasts), but we also gain insight into the lives of the actresses he pursued. What was it like to be a woman working in the industry during Hollywood’s Golden Age? Early on, Longworth notes that “the female body has always been a key building block of cinema,” and there’s no question that Hughes viewed the women in his life as units of production.
Laying out her tale chronologically, Longworth grounds us in Hughes’s family dynamic and the workings of Hollywood at its inception before introducing us to the first Mrs. Howard Robard Hughes. His marriage to Texan society belle Ella Botts Rice wasn’t a love match — though Ella would be the last to know. Instead, by aligning himself with a prominent Houston family, Hughes kept tabs on his inherited business without actually having to clock in.
Moving to Los Angeles, Hughes quickly tired of his marriage, exchanging Ella for silent screen star Billie Dove. But that romance (they never married) didn’t quite take, either.
Between his divorce in 1929 and his second marriage, to actress Jean Peters in 1957, Hughes cycled through a number of the era’s most beautiful women. Within “Seduction’s” pages, we meet such starlets as Dove, Jean Harlow, Ida Lupino, Ginger Rogers, Katharine Hepburn, Ava Gardner and Jane Russell. Their names glowed white-hot over marquees, but the intricacies of their interactions with Hughes remained, relatively speaking, under wraps because of Hughes’s obsession with controlling his image and his paramours’ publicity.
Hiring PR experts like Russell Birdwell, Hughes fashioned an image, and he resented the intrusion of journalism that exposed his actual lifestyle. When news of Hughes and Warner Bros. contract actress Faith Domergue’s whirlwind trip to San Diego, San Francisco and Phoenix hit the gossip columns, she said, “he fell into a silence that lasted several days.” Meeting Hughes when she was 16 and he was 36, Domergue was quickly enveloped by Hughes’s control. Calling her “Little Baby,” Hughes proposed, intimating that she was “the child [he] should have had.”
Longworth muses that this relationship, with its power imbalance and incestuous overtones, was a turning point, altering his ideas about women.
As his romantic tastes shifts from known quantities — like Hepburn, Rogers and Gardner — to powerless unknowns, “Seduction” reveals the root of Hughes’s interest in women: a desire to exert total control, rather than true affection.
Lauren Sarazen is a freelance writer based in Paris.
By Karina Longworth
Custom House. 560 pp. $29.99.