Picks and Pans Review: Hughes
The Private Diaries, Memos and Letters
By Richard Hack
History has been unkind to Howard Hughes, but then the Old Man, as his greedy retainers liked to call him, was pretty hard on himself. Younger readers think of him as The Simpsons' Mr. Burns with even fewer social graces: a germ-obsessed recluse who, despite unfathomable wealth, nearly starved to death on a punishing diet of candy bars and nuts. He became so fearful of human contact that, during one two-year period toward the end of his life, when he was living in a Las Vegas hotel, he had his bed linen changed only five times.
Often missing from that account, but now restored in this showstopper biography, is the story of a life as robust (and occasionally as sordid) as 20th-century America itself. As a pilot, America's first billionaire broke aviation records and built the world's largest aircraft, the Spruce Goose; as a producer in Hollywood, he discovered Jean Harlow (for whom he coined the term platinum blonde). As a playboy, he was even more prodigious, counting Katharine Hepburn and Ava Gardner among his many conquests. Hack, a biographer (Michael Jackson) whose reporting compensates for sometimes stagnant prose, traces Hughes's creepy decline to his contagion-conscious mother and a 1941 bout of syphilis that pierced his armor of invulnerability. From there and until his death as a codeine-addled hermit in 1976, it was all, slowly but spectacularly, downhill. (New Millennium, $28)
Bottom Line: A billionaire recluse is richly exposed
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