Picks and Pans Review: Howard Hughes the Secret Life

updated 10/04/1993 AT 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 10/04/1993 AT 01:00 AM EDT

by Charles Higham

In his latest outing, veteran celebrity biographer Higham (Katharine Hepburn, Cary Grant, Errol Flynn) puddle-jumps over billionaire Howard Hughes's achievements in the oil business (he invented a drill bit that made his fortune), aviation (a round-the-world speed record), movies (he produced Scarface, The Outlaw and The Front Page) and real estate (he owned much of Las Vegas).

Instead, Higham takes the low road, lavishing obsessive attention on Hughes's prolific sex life. The author claims that the teenage Hughes was seduced by his uncle, novelist Rupert Hughes, seeding a bisexual nature. Higham's list of his subject's lovers includes Cary Grant, Rita Hayworth, Carole Lombard, Randolph Scott and Tyrone Power.

A misanthropic recluse by the late '50s (because he was by then impotent, speculates Higham), Hughes was cogent and conniving. He dealt murkily in the CIA plot to assassinate Fidel Castro and had a long fingernail in the Watergate break-in. He hated children, fired loyal employees on whim and, as a last insult to his inner circle, refused to tell if he had made a will.

Having almost no above-the-belt insight into his subject, Higham does little to unravel the mystery of this complex, flamboyant and important American figure. But perhaps there is an odd justice here: In death, Hughes has received a biography he deserves—as cold, calculating and unfeeling as he himself was in life. (Putnam, $26.95)

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