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September 25, 2021

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New book tells ‘Untold Story’ of Howard Hughes

In the 20 years since the death of Howard Hughes aboard a chartered jet flying over the Gulf of Mexico, there have been countless books, magazine articles and even a television film about the reclusive billionaire.

So why do authors Peter Harry Brown and Pat Broeske title their book "Howard Hughes: The Untold Story"?

"In the past, most biographers have focused on the brief period in Hughes' life when he was a recluse," said Broeske, a former Los Angeles Times reporter who writes about Hollywood for Entertainment Weekly. "There is so much more to Hughes."

For instance:

* Hughes suffered from several debilitating illnesses and conditions that contributed to his physical and mental problems in later years. These included otosclerosis, an ear condition that slowly caused him to go deaf, and syphilis, contracted in the mid-1930s -- before penicillin -- which later attacked his brain and nervous system.

* His "emotionally incestuous" relationship with his mother when he was a young boy, coupled with the billionaire's later physical problems, contributed to a classic case of obsessive-compulsive disorder that haunted Hughes for years and eventually drove him mad.

* He had sexual encounters and affairs with the likes of Jean Harlow, Ava Gardner, Susan Hayward, Katharine Hepburn, Rita Hayworth, Ginger Rogers, Lana Turner and countless lesser known starlets.

* He was the ultimate control freak who actually kept a harem of waiting women. He allowed them just one ice cream cone a day and ordered limousine drivers to drive slowly over speed bumps, to prevent a sudden jolt that might tear at the breast muscles of a paramour in the back seat. He also wouldn't let any of the women eat pork products.

* Before Hughes died, he made provisions in his will to withhold money until the 200,000 pages of his personal and business documents were first shredded. His will, however, vanished sometime before his death on April 5, 1976. This started a three-way residence battle among Texas, California and Nevada for tens of millions in estate taxes.

In compiling "The Untold Story" (Dutton Signet, 399 pages, $24.95), Brown and Broeske spent more than three years poring through thousands of pages of single-spaced logs detailing Hughes' every action, 2,100 pages of once-sequestered FBI files on Hughes, and interviews with more than 600 people, including many of his lovers.

The information on Hughes "fills 15 file drawers," Broeske said. And all that information points to only two things that Hughes dearly loved: flying and women.

Hughes set a speed record of more than 350 mph in the Silver Bullet, the world's fastest plane, in September 1935. Six months later, he set a transcontinental speed record of just less than 9 1/2 hours.

In 1938, he and a crew flew around the world in a little more than three days, setting another record, and returned home a ticker-tape parade hero.

Hughes also pioneered high-altitude flying, which led the way to the commercial airline industry.

In the 1940s and '50s, Hughes developed everything from rapid-fire aircraft machine guns to air-to-air missiles. And in later years, Hughes pioneered and produced unmanned satellite prototypes, which led to the space age.

Hughes was a true 20th century daredevil who survived no fewer than 14 major airplane and automobile crashes, according to the authors' count. But his injuries from those crashes -- coupled with his growing addition to painkillers -- took a toll on his health in later years.

"Howard loved adventure," Broeske said. "The skies were there to conquer -- and so were the women."

There were hundreds of women in Hughes' life. There were so many dalliances that the billionaire worried about what the world would think of him.

"As he lay dying, he told one of his aides, 'I hope I'm remembered for my aviation achievements. I don't want the biographers digging up all the women.' Well, sorry, Howard," Broeske said.

Broeske believes Hughes' fascination with women began during his childhood, when his mother, Allene, doted on him. Broeske writes that Allene bathed her son and slept with him until he was 10 years old.

"If anyone spoke about this tendency to overprotect, Allene launched into a diatribe about little Howard's susceptibility to germs," the authors write.

"Allene was very beautiful and very weird," Broeske said. "Howard Sr. didn't give her a lot of attention, so she focused all of her attention on Howard Jr."

When Hughes attended camp, his mother took a nearby apartment to be close to her son. Back home in Houston, his friends would take their bicycles on excursions across the city, but Howard "had to ride his bike in little circles" outside the family home.

It was during this time that Hughes began to conceive the idea of faking illnesses to achieve a goal.

"He was very manipulative in nature," Broeske said. "He would feign illnesses and -- guess what? -- it would bring his mother and father closer together."

In later years, the feigned illnesses gave way to real, life-threatening ones.

But the thing that remained constant throughout all of Hughes' 71 years was his manipulative nature.

Often, in order to bed a woman, Hughes would promise to marry her. Other times, he would crawl into bed with an unresponsive woman, saying, "I'm cold."

When Gina Lollobrigida was on her way to becoming an international sex symbol, Hughes imported her from Italy. But when she spurned his advances, he kept her from making American films for seven years, using an obscure provision in her contract.

In the 1930s, when his Hughes Tool Co. was earning record profits ($13 million in 1937, during the height of the Depression), Hughes used the court system to turn a bad situation into a good one.

It was during that decade that a former Tool Co. scientist defected and founded a rival corporation by carefully modifying Hughes' basic drill bit. Hughes instantly went to court and collected half a million in damages.

But, by reading thousands of pages of court documents, Hughes learned that the modified bit actually performed better than his own.

"He purchased one, took it back to the lab and dissected it," the book states. "He found that it used very soft lead ball bearings in place of the hard grinders favored by (Hughes Tool). Howard quickly added the soft bearings to his bits, causing sales to double within the year."

Hughes could even manipulate seasoned newsmen.

It was on Jan. 7, 1972, when Hughes conducted his famous telephone press conference to denounce as a fraud Clifford Irving, author of a "The Memoirs of Howard Hughes: His True Life Story as Told to Clifford Irving."

Hughes disposed of Irving right off, saying, "I don't know him. I never saw him."

But the newsmen were more interested in hearing Hughes talk about himself.

"If I had toenails 8 inches long, I couldn't walk," Hughes mused.

When asked about his health, he shrewdly replied, "Well, how the hell is anybody's health at 66 years of age? I certainly don't feel like running around a track. ... But my health is tolerable."

And then, Hughes removed the veil of pretense and confided to the world that despite all his success, all his wealth, "I'm not very happy."

Indeed, Hughes was miserable, and he needed medical help.

"At the very end, somebody needed to pick up the phone and call a qualified doctor who was not part of Hughes' inner circle," Broeske said. "That person probably would have been fired immediately, but he could have saved Howard's life."