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Author Climbs Inside Strange World of Howard Hughes

Ultimately, the biographer says, the reclusive billionaire wasn't a nut case, just obsessed.

October 14, 2001|MICHAEL J. YBARRA | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

SAN FRANCISCO — For the last decade, Richard Hack has published at least a book a year, sometimes more, but he insists that his new book on Howard Hughes is no quickie bio. In fact, Hack circled his subject for years before he started researching the life of the man who went from dashing Hollywood producer, man-about-town and test pilot to become the world's first billionaire, who spent almost no money, saw almost no one and wanted to do little but watch bad movies and write pages of memos detailing to his staff the precise way to remove tissue paper from a Kleenex box.

Hack first chanced upon Hughes in 1978, when he was a columnist for the Hollywood Reporter and jumped at an opportunity to interview Hughes' lawyer, Noah Dietrich. Years later, Hack wound up ghostwriting the biography of Hughes' longtime lieutenant, Robert Maheu. "I was fascinated by the people," Hack says. "Hughes kept coming back to me--kept jumping back into my life."

Eventually, Hack was fascinated enough to spend the better part of a decade (amid other projects) working on "Howard Hughes: The Private Diaries, Memos and Letters," which was recently published to rave reviews and debuts today on The Times' nonfiction bestseller list at No. 12.

"Hughes' story has been told before, of course, but never with the overview, insight and, most important, extraordinarily diligent research applied by Hack in this riveting biography ... ," opined Publishers Weekly. "What Hack has uncovered is an astonishing tale of rampant ambition, obsession and madness. ... Readers will be nailed to these pages in the most exciting bio of the year."

Hack only yielded to the idea of actually writing the biography in the early 1990s, when the magnate's probate records were opened to the public at the state archives in Austin, Texas. Hughes died without a will, and people claiming to be wives or children suddenly appeared in double digits, starting a flood of litigation and investigation.

California and Texas, which were each laying claims to the estate, spent millions to depose hundreds of people who knew Hughes and subpoenaed hundreds of thousands of pages of corporate documents, private memos and letters, including many by Hughes himself. It was a biographer's dream, and Hack spent months shifting through material to which previous biographers never had access--and won't in the foreseeable future because a Texas judge later ordered the records sealed for privacy reasons.

The probate records proved a treasure trove of Hughes weirdness, including endless memos to staff--eight pages on how to clean the wires on a hearing aid that he didn't use--and obsessive records of his bodily functions. Yet what really surprised Hack was that he came to conclude that Hughes wasn't really the nut case that most people assume him to have been.

"The most extraordinary revelation that I came away with is that he wasn't crazy or unhappy," Hack says. "He was obsessed. He spent his entire life working. He was extraordinarily happy."

Hack says that the documents he read allowed him an insight into the mind of his subject that had eluded previous biographers. "There were already 80 Hughes books," Hack says. "The typical books have been geared to telling you all the strange things this man did and all the women he slept with. They were satisfied giving you the eccentricities. But what I wondered was why? He dated Bette Davis, Ginger Rogers, Ava Gardner and Lana Turner--often in the same week, proposing to them all. To go from that to someone who saw no one for years. It's extraordinary behavior. Why did someone who had billions buy nothing?"

The answer, Hack ultimately found, was in Hughes' childhood in Houston. Born in 1905, Hughes was a spoiled and coddled child. His mother was terrified of losing her only child, fussing over the boy's health and checking his stools for tape worms, which instilled in him a lifelong dread of germs. His father was constantly traveling and yanking young Hughes from school so frequently that he never finished a full year in the same class and never learned to get along with others. When Hughes was 18 his father died, leaving him Hughes Tool Co., which made oil drilling equipment and was the start of an empire that ranged from TWA to RKO Studios and made Hughes the biggest single defense contractor during the early days of the Cold War.

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