The search for fresh ‘talent’ would begin with a stack of newspapers and magazines. As he flicked through the pages, Howard Hughes was searching for only one thing: photographs of nubile young women.
They might be models, beauty queens or teenagers yet to graduate from high school. Once, it was a girl who had won a local fishing contest.
But was she as pretty as she seemed? From experience, Hughes knew better than to trust a grainy photograph — so he despatched aides to track down whichever girl had caught his eye, with orders to get her to pose for a set of new pictures.
He was very specific about the images he wanted. There had to be three of the girl sitting down, another three of her standing up; she also needed to be shot head-on and in profile, and without heavy make-up or fancy hairstyling.
Fighting back: Feisty Ava Gardner, left, proved a match for control-freak Hughes
After the photos were blown up, exposing every tiny blemish, Hughes would examine them at length. Some, like the girl whose picture he’d seen in a fishing magazine, didn’t make the cut: too many freckles and two of her teeth were missing.
Those who did pass the blow-up test were soon paid another visit by an aide. The great Howard Hughes, they would be told, was convinced they could become the next major movie star.
Within weeks, the girls would sign $75-a-week contracts with either RKO studios — owned by Hughes — or with his personal production company.
Convinced that their names would soon be in lights, they poured into Hollywood, usually with protective mothers in tow. That was fine with Hughes; he knew that most mums were at least as eager as their daughters to do whatever he deemed necessary.
So it was the mothers who were instructed to ensure that their girls always slept in their bras (to prevent droop and were never allowed to turn their heads more than 15 degrees to the left or right (only Hughes knew why).
Meanwhile, the young women were each assigned a furnished flat and an on-call driver — though few ever knew that he doubled as a spy for Hughes. Every moment of their days and nights was scheduled: dance, voice and acting classes, followed by dinner out, usually at Perino’s on Wilshire Boulevard, always chaperoned by the drivers.
Aside from that, all they could do was wait while Hughes searched for the perfect script.
Months would go by, sometimes years. It was hard to give up hope, not when he was housing them, training them, feeding them and paying them a salary. Yet the overwhelming majority never landed so much as a walk-on part.
They had been lured to Hollywood for one reason alone: as potential new lovers for Howard Hughes.
According to Walter Kane, his chief procurer, ‘Hughes didn’t like just one woman, he liked 30 or so and he could choose one or two out of the group.’
This meant that one or two girls out of every 30 would end up in his bed. Most of the others never met him at all. He was simply too busy seducing other women — many of them major movie stars — to devote much time to his spares.
It was enough to know that they were his, that he could catch the most beautiful specimens, tear off their wings, lock them away — and take them out of their boxes whenever he felt the urge.
Hughes operated in the so-called golden age of Hollywood — from the 1920s until the late 1950s. In his prime, he was hailed by the media as an all-American hero and the most eligible bachelor on the planet.
Katharine Hepburn called him ‘the best lover I ever had’. Ava Gardner praised his sexual technique, saying: ‘He taught me that making love didn’t always have to be rushed. ‘Slow down, slow down, kid. We’ll get there!’ he’d say. He was like a f***ing horse whisperer.’
Actor and dancer Ginger Rogers joins Hughes for dinner in c.1932. Ginger overlapped for a while with Hepburn and later became famous as Fred Astaire’s dancing partner
They may have been telling the truth, but it certainly wasn’t the whole truth. One of the first in Hollywood to recognise the power of spin, Hughes hedged his darker activities by hiring the most aggressive publicists of his day. He also reined in the gossip columnists by feeding them stories — and threatening to stop if they wrote anything negative.
Largely, at least until the final two decades of his extraordinary life, this worked. A timely new book, however, has pulled into focus the authentic Hughes: devious, manipulative, sex-obsessed and utterly self-centred. By comparison, modern-day predators seem almost like bumbling amateurs.
After the death of his Texan parents, Hughes had turned up in Hollywood at the age of 18, determined to use his father’s fortune — from making drill bits for the oil industry — to make a name for himself in the movies.
Tall and dark with lustrous brown eyes, he was undeniably good-looking until he had a plane crash in 1928, which left him with a crushed left cheekbone.
As a seducer, he was awkward and scarily intense. His first major conquest, Billie Dove — known in the late 1920s as the most beautiful woman in the world — recalled that during his pursuit ‘he would just glare at me — he didn’t talk or anything’. He also became her stalker. ‘Every time I’d be at a place where there was dancing, pretty soon the door would open and there would stand Howard,’ she said. ‘He’d look around, spot the table I was at, make a beeline for me and pull up a chair and stay the whole evening.’
His behaviour on movie sets was equally creepy. After casting the 19-year-old blonde bombshell Jean Harlow as the lead in a film called Hell’s Angels, he had a flesh-coloured, skintight dress designed for her. At the fitting, Hughes snatched the scissors out of the costume director’s hands and slashed the fabric down to her waist.
To promote the movie, she was ordered to give public ‘performances’ which consisted of Harlow merely leaning down to pick up a handkerchief. ‘That was all she had to do,’ recalled actor Reginald Owen, ‘because those wonderful breasts almost fell out, and that was worth any price for admission.’
The multimillionaire was often seen with the biggest names in Hollywood, including Marian Marsh, Gail Patrick and Bob Cobb
Later, Hughes took a similar interest in the breasts of Jane Russell, the star of The Outlaw —designing a bra to showcase them, and later sending skywriters up above Los Angeles to draw two suggestive circles with dots in the middle.
In private, his sex life was thriving as he moved on from Dove to stalk other stars of the day. His bashed-in cheekbone, lack of conversation and growing obsession with germs (he was constantly washing his hands) proved no handicaps when weighed against his power as a rich film producer.
A further image-booster was his skill in flying aeroplanes, which led him to break several aviation records — for instance, setting a new non-stop transcontinental flight time record in 1936.
His plane also came in handy when he decided to target Katharine Hepburn, landing it in the middle of her golf lesson at the Bel Air Country Club. This was vintage Hughes — selfish, oblivious to how he was ruining everyone’s game, and totally spectacular.
Ava Gardner praised his sexual technique, saying: ‘He taught me that making love didn’t always have to be rushed. ‘Slow down, slow down, kid. We’ll get there!’ he’d say. He was like a f***ing horse whisperer.’
By 1937, they were lovers. ‘He was sort of the top of the available men,’ was how Hepburn coolly summed it up, ‘and I of the women. We weren’t inhibited people. We certainly weren’t inhibited about our bodies … Howard was not shy about sex. I think it was the only thing he wasn’t shy about.’
Was she genuinely in love with Hughes? It seems more likely that they used each other in their burning mutual desire for fame. The end came when Hepburn moved to the East Coast for work — ‘Ambition beat love,’ she admitted.
Hughes’s parting gift was the film rights to The Philadelphia Story, which spectacularly revived her career.
‘I slept with Howard Hughes to get The Philadelphia Story,’ chortled Hepburn. ‘Well, not exactly, but that’s the way it worked out.
‘He was a brilliant man and going to bed with him was very pleasurable. But the pleasure of owning The Philadelphia Story lasted longer.’
In 1938, Hughes turned his unsettling stare on Bette Davis, who was married but only too happy to meet him for assignations in a cottage.
‘I liked sex in a way that was considered unbecoming for a woman in my time,’ she said later. ‘You know, I was the only one who ever brought Howard Hughes to a sexual climax, or so he said at that time.
‘It may have been his regular seduction gambit. Anyway, it worked with me and it was cheaper than buying gifts. But Howard Huge he was not.’
After casting the 19-year-old blonde bombshell Jean Harlow (pictured together) as the lead in a film called Hell’s Angels, he had a flesh-coloured, skintight dress designed for her
Another conquest was Ginger Rogers, who overlapped for a while with Hepburn and later became famous as Fred Astaire’s dancing partner. Eventually, she began to suspect that Hughes was tapping her phone and having her followed.
The final straw was her discovery in 1940 that he was cheating on her. Ginger ended the affair — and that, said a long-serving aide, was the only time he ever saw Howard Hughes cry.
The following year, Hughes’s attention was caught by a newspaper photo of Ava Gardner. After persuading her to go dancing with him, he hired an entire club for the night so they wouldn’t be interrupted (or pick up other people’s germs).
All the women were lured to Hollywood for one reason: as potential new lovers for Howard Hughes
He was, said Gardner, a ‘lousy dancer’ but he kept badgering her to marry him and — without much enthusiasm — she finally said yes. Doubtless neither of them expected the engagement to last.
In fact, Hughes often asked his dates to marry him, knowing that a proposal usually put paid to any qualms about premarital sex. And if a girl started boasting around town about their engagement? The gossip columnists, all in Hughes’s pocket, obligingly failed to report it.
Gardner enjoyed her time with Hughes but she wasn’t in love and didn’t believe any of his promises. Nor was she at all pleased to have his men constantly parked outside her door, reporting back on all her comings and goings.
Hughes would buy up beautiful girls, put them in expensive pictures, and sell to them a ‘paying’ studio, as he briefly turned his attention to his cockpit victories
She refused to meet him one evening at the airport. Later, she explained that she hadn’t been able to make it because she’d been out with her ex-husband.
Furious, Hughes took a swing at Gardner, who fell back into a chair. Then he jumped on her and pounded her face with his fists. As he started to walk away, she struck him with a bronze bell she’d picked up from the mantelpiece, splitting his forehead open and knocking loose two of his teeth.
‘I thought I’d killed the poor bastard,’ Gardner said later. ‘There was blood on the walls, on the furniture, real blood in the bloody Marys.’
Katharine Hepburn had an intense love affair with Hughes, saying: ‘Howard was the best lover I ever had. We weren’t inhibited people. He was not shy about sex’
For Hughes, it was as though a switch had flipped: after more than a decade of pursuing adult movie stars, the 35-year-old playboy decided to set his sights on young and immature unknowns.
One was starlet Faith Domergue, all of 16 when they met.
After quickly buying up her modest contract with a movie studio, Hughes effectively owned both her body and career. ‘Little Baby’, he called her, while cynically ensuring that she never got offered any work.
‘I was suddenly alone,’ realised Domergue, who called Hughes her father-lover. ‘I had no friends any more.’
Harlow (pictured in the 1930s) hated being ‘forced to embody a sexual fantasy that felt to her nothing like the real her’, writes the author. But she skyrocketed to become an international femme fatale and helped invent the blonde sex goddess
No longer permitted to drive a car, she was given a chauffeur who reported back all her movements to his employer. Poor Domergue, who’d hoped Hughes would introduce her to the Hollywood elite, was bored witless.
Once she’d collected ample proof that he was deceiving her with other women, she eloped with a bandleader in 1946.
Had she but known it, he’d also been secretly assembling his stand-by collection of star-struck girls who hoped to be the next Jean Harlow or Jane Russell. They all looked alike: young and dark-haired, with small hips and the requisite large bosoms.
Hughes’ ways are revealed in the new book Seduction: Sex, Lies, and Stardom in Howard Hughes’ Hollywood by Karina Longworth
In 1948, Hughes bought a film studio, thus giving himself the perfect cover for signing up more girls, while making just one film a year. The girl-collecting continued on an industrial scale, with a whole fleet of chauffeurs — most of them clean-cut Mormons — to take them from one acting or dancing class to another. And Hughes, more of a control freak than ever, would pepper the drivers with instructions.
As Ron Kistler, one of his former drivers, recalled, the rules included never allowing the girls more than one ice-cream cone a day.
The chauffeurs were also under strict orders never to touch their charges, not even to offer them a hand when they got out of the car.
The most sacred rule? ‘If we saw a bump in the road, we were supposed to slow down to a maximum speed of two miles an hour and crawl over the obstruction so as not to jiggle the starlet’s breasts. Hughes was convinced that women’s breasts would sag dangerously unless treated gently and supported at all times.’
A few nights a week, a chauffeur would chaperone his Hughes girl (and often her mother) to one of Hughes’s chosen restaurants — each of which would inevitably be full of other Hughes drivers, at tables with other Hughes girls.
Table-hopping was risky, as the men had to abide by their master’s other cardinal rule: ‘not to let the young lady know there might be other girls like her under contract to Hughes Productions’. So while the drivers recognised one another, the girls had no idea they were sharing the restaurant with their rivals.
Howard Hughes was an aviation and movie mogul and business tycoon who spent his final years in seclusion
As they ate, private detectives —paid for by Hughes — lurked in the parking lot. ‘One was assigned to each driver-starlet car to make certain there was no hanky-panky,’ said Kistler. ‘About half the time, each detective would be followed by another detective — presumably to prevent any co-ordinated driver-detective sexual conquest.’
This elaborate deception continued for more than 20 years, even after Hughes sold RKO in 1955. Unaware that he was no longer making movies, the girls still kept coming, eyes shining, hoping for their big break.
By his 40s, Hughes was starting to look seedy, his scrawny neck rising tortoise-like from over-large collars and his suits always rumpled. Worse, yet another plane crash had left him with an addiction to codeine and unsightly scars on his upper lip.
Hughes and Bette Davis (pictured together in 1940) quickly fell into a hot affair and rented a cottage in Malibu for their secret hideaway
Even so, there were plenty more women — aside from his would-be starlets — who were happy to share his bed. And when one actress, a devout 19-year-old Mormon, refused to surrender her virginity, he simply ‘married’ her aboard a yacht — a marriage for which no paperwork was ever found.
Some, like the actress Jean Peters, were his on-off lovers for years. Then in 1957, to the astonishment of his aides, he suddenly married her when he was 46 — though they both used false names.
Did he consent to the wedding because, as his right-hand man suspected, Peters had threatened to blackmail him over something she knew? To this day, no one really knows.
Jane Russell (pictured on the set of The Outlaw, which was released in 1943) was next up to get a call from Hughes – and hired without ever meeting her in person. He heard about her breasts and listed measurements: 38-22-36
Within two months of the marriage, they were living in separate bungalows at the Beverly Hills Hotel, and communicating through Hughes’s so-called Operations. This was a crew of secretaries who had long answered calls from anyone who wanted to reach him, thus enabling him to juggle and control his various women.
Peters had to rely on Operations to leave messages for her husband, there being no question of simply knocking on his bungalow door.
In the evenings he would occasionally invite her out to watch movies, after which he’d escort her back to her bungalow and return alone to the private screening room.
Hughes took a similar interest in the breasts of Jane Russell, the star of The Outlaw —designing a bra to showcase them, and later sending skywriters up above Los Angeles to draw two suggestive circles with dots in the middle
Mrs Hughes, his aides noted, began accompanying him less frequently. Eventually she stopped coming at all. This was a relief to Hughes: in her absence, he could use the screenings to hunt for new talent.
Occasionally, he would ask the projectionist to stop the film on a specific frame, or rewind until he found a particular face. ‘I’m interested in the gal sitting at the third table from the left top part of the screen,’ he’d say.
The projectionist would then give Operations the movie title, so they could track down the original casting director. And if the casting director couldn’t recall the actress from Hughes’s description, he would be asked to attend a special screening of the movie.
Hughes had his spies watching Ava – even while she was married to Frank Sinatra
Once identified, the girls would be approached by another aide with the usual proposition. But Hughes seldom met any of them, preferring to spend all his waking hours watching films alone, sometimes for 18 to 72 hours straight, after which he would sleep in his chair for 24 hours before starting again.
After a few days of this, his clothes became so dirty that he just took them off, remaining naked except for his shoes as he continued his marathon film-fest. To avoid having to meet his wife, he constructed elaborate fibs about being unwell or even in hospital.
These fake illnesses became a self-fulfilling prophecy as he grew ever more emaciated from lack of exercise and a screening-room diet of just milk, nuts and chocolate bars.
By late 1944, Hughes exhibited obsessive-compulsive behavior and confusion repeating the same sentence 33 times
After five years of this, he finally agreed to move into a house with his wife. But they didn’t share a bed, and she ended up having to schedule appointments to see him.
The last time Jean Peters saw him was in 1966. By then he was a drug addict, gulping down mammoth doses of Valium and injecting codeine tablets that he’d dissolved in water.
One day, on a whim, he flew to Las Vegas, where he holed up in a penthouse suite at the Desert Inn for four years. When the management tried to chuck him out, he simply bought the hotel for $13 million.
Somehow, Peters — whom he’d continued to phone regularly —managed to endure 13 years of this eccentric marriage before filing for divorce. As for Hughes, he spent the rest of his life travelling from one hotel to another in Nicaragua, Canada, the Bahamas, the UK and Mexico.
During a trip to London in 1973, he fractured his hip in a fall and thereafter never rose from his bed. He was still watching back-to-back films — often the same one, over and over again — when he fell gravely ill in a Mexican hotel suite.
On April 5, 1976, Hughes died on a plane that was taking him to the U.S. for medical treatment. He was dehydrated and starving, with broken-off hypodermic needles in his arms, and had possibly overdosed.
His once-handsome face was so withered that the FBI had to take fingerprints from his corpse in order to confirm his identity.
Not a single actress came to his funeral.
- Seduction: Sex Lies and Stardom in Howard Hughes’s Hollywood, by Karina Longworth, is published by Custom House at £20. © Karina Longworth 2018. To buy a copy for £16 (20pc discount) call 0844 571 0640 or go to www.mailshop.co.uk/books. Offer valid until 07/01/2019, p&p free on orders over £15. Spend £30 on books and get FREE premium delivery.