670: Howard Hughes by James Phelan

by Gerard

670.92: Phelan, James. Howard Hughes: The Hidden Years. New York: Warner Books, 1977. 299 pp. ISBN 0-446-89521-0.

Dewey Construction:

  • 600: Technology
  • 670: Manufacturing
  • +092: Biography

James Phelan does what Clifford Irving couldn’t: he wrote a respectable biography of the final years of the great Howard Hughes. In the cultural landscape, there are two Hugheses—the monolithic business genius who amassed great wealth through his ingenuity in aircraft and tool manufacturing and the eccentric almost xenophobic shell of a man he became in his last years. Everyone knows the first half of the story, but only a select few got live access to the latter.

By the mid 1960s, Howard Hughes, titan of industry, had become a hermit. Only the most privileged aides and associates were allowed to see him. All other business was conducted by memo or phone. Hughes had constructed a vast empire of casinos, restaurants, manufacturing plants, and media outlets and ran it all from a Barcalounger, where he would spend days in just his undershorts. Every so often, on a whim, he would up and move his operations to another city, travelling from Las Vegas to Nassau to Vancouver to London and so forth.

Phelan’s Howard Hughes depicts Hughes as a fragile, sad, no-nonsense man who tried to control everything he came into contact with, but ultimately failed. His Secrecy Machine worked so well that nobody ever really knew what he was up to. He kept doctors and aides on stand-by, only to have them wait incessantly. His health deteriorated rapidly, partly due to his own neglect and partly due to the culture he bred around him. No one thought to forcibly take him to the hospital when he needed it most. The rules were the rules.

Phelan’s writing is terse, fun, and journalistic. The only problem I have is the editing. My copy is, yes, a mass market paperback version of the original publication, but the numerous typos detracted from the story. I felt a great deal of sympathy for those who had to deal with Hughes’s whims in his last years, learning to live out a suitcase and having to constantly adjust to odd scenarios. Hopefully, they got a good severance package.