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Billionaire Junkie Calling: The Strange Last Press Conference of Howard Hughes

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In 1972, Clifford Irving, a low selling and high spending author, almost pulled off the publishing hoax of the century. As a new film called The Hoax, starring Richard Gere, documents, through forgery, plagiarism, and falsifying legal documents, Irving was able to convince a major American publishing house that he had the autobiography of America’s richest, strangest, and most elusive man — the Texan billionaire Howard Hughes.

As the film shows, Irving was counting on Hughes’s notorious oddness and reclusive nature for the success of his scam. The former aviation pioneer and movie mogul had not been seen in public for 15 years. He moved from state to state to avoid paying taxes and it was rumoured that behind the darkened windows of his hotel suite he shunned all physical contact, wore Kleenex boxes as shoes, let his hair and fingernails grow to grotesque lengths, and drank his own urine. Such a man, Irving reasoned, would not want to make an appearance in public, even to denounce an autobiography he hadn’t written. But Hughes did make a return to public life and he did reveal Irving’s book as a fraud. The manner of that return, a bizarre press conference that is only glimpsed fleetingly on a TV set in the film is perhaps the most compelling episode of the entire affair.

Those at the top of the Hughes organization knew that the Irving book was an elaborate hoax from the moment that McGraw-Hill announced that they would publish it. They also knew that they would have a hard time proving it. They issued denials that Hughes had written any book but Irving countered by insisting that he had dealt with the billionaire directly and he claimed to have letters from Hughes to back his position up. A public appearance by Hughes to deny authorship was needed and therein lay the problem. When some in the media first mooted the idea of staging some kind of press conference Hughes protested, “I will not go on television. I don’t want anybody to see the state I’m in.”

Howard Hughes had been a drug addict for decades. As the journalists Donald Bartlett and James Steele reveal in their book, Empire: The Life, Legend, and Madness of Howard Hughes, by 1972 he was shooting up massive amounts of codeine, regularly taking doses thought lethal. He had been hooked since a 1946 near fatal plane crash. His doctor had prescribed morphine to ease the pain of what were assumed to be his final hours. But Hughes recovered and the doctor substituted codeine. As the years passed Howard demanded ever larger doses and to meet this demand an illegal supply operation came into being based on getting prescriptions filled under assumed names at dozens of Los Angeles drugstores.

But it wasn’t just codeine. By now Hughes only left his bed to go to the bathroom or to sit in his reclining chair and watch private screenings of his favourite movies. As Bullet For A Badman or Ice Station Zebra flickered on the screen he would swallow one of his “blue bombers”. These were 10 milligram Valium tablets – ten times the recommended dose – and they would leave him in such a confused state that he would often ask for the same movie to be screened four or five times in a row. And then there was the Empirin #4, a compound containing codeine, caffeine, and a synthetic painkiller called phenacetin. The phenacetin was devastating his kidneys. In a few years it would kill him.

This level of drug abuse had had a catastrophic effect on Hughes’s physical appearance. The rumours about his hair and nails were correct. His long grey hair trailed halfway down his back and he had a scraggly beard that reached midway onto his sunken chest. His finger and toenails were indeed disgustingly long, yellow and corkscrewed. But the true extent of his physical deterioration was on a much larger scale than any rumour had suggested. He was six-foot-four-inches but weighed only just over 100 pounds. Most of his teeth were rotting black stumps, a tumour was beginning to emerge from the side of his head, and the bed sores which festered all down his back were so severe that the bare bone of a shoulder blade protruded through his thin desiccated skin. The former movie producer and director knew that he was not ready for his close-up.

Howard’s drug taking and the almost complete withdrawal from the day-to-day running of his financial empire that it precipitated had allowed a small group of Mormon employees to rise to the top of the Hughes organisation. Hughes had hired these men, taken on in the '40s and '50s as chauffeurs and bodyguards, because he believed the clean living, family oriented tenets of their religion would make them trustworthy. It was these men who ensured the steady flow of disabling narcotics to their boss. And it was these men who carefully stage-managed what happened next.

On Friday, January 7, 1972, seven reporters filed into a makeshift television studio in a conference room on the ground floor of the Sheraton-Universal Hotel in Hollywood and sat down at a long table. In front of them, on another table was a phone set to speaker.

Three thousand miles away, on the ninth floor of the Britannia Beach Hotel in the Bahamas, Howard Hughes, huge amounts of codeine coursing through his system as usual, picked up the telephone and met the press for the first time in 15 years.

As Stephen Fay, Lewis Chester and Magnus Linklater explain in their definitive account of the Cliffored Irving affair, Hoax, Roy Neal of NBC asked the first question: “Good afternoon, Mr. Hughes, where are you speaking from right now, sir?”

“Paradise Island,” Hughes replied. “Nassau seems to be a more widely known name. I notice from accoutrements here at the hotel that it is called Paradise Island, Nassau. That must be because Nassau is a more widely known name than New Providence. But in truth, New Providence is the main Island here in this group and Paradise Island, which used to be called Hog Island, is a part of that group, and that is where I am.”

The voice was older and more hesitant but for the assembled journalists who had all known the billionaire when he had owned Hollywood studios like RKO, romanced every beautiful actress in town, and flown his own planes into the record books, there was no mistaking the nasal Texan whine of Howard Hughes. As Jim Bacon of the Hearst newspapers observed when it was his turn to ask a question, “I have heard that voice so many times, and the minute you started talking I knew it was Howard Hughes.”

And so for the next two and a half hours television cameras beamed the strange spectacle of seven grown men, gathered around a telephone, reverently posing questions to a disembodied voice into millions of American homes.

The performance witnessed in those homes was low-key, convincing, and not without humour. Hughes was able to recall the specifications of airplanes he had designed and built in meticulous detail. When asked about his self-imposed isolation he said, “I am rapidly planning to come out of it.” And when the interviewers began to ask about his personal appearance and the rumours of hair down to the waist, the emaciated body and the six-inch fingernails, Hughes replied that he cut his own nails. “I do it myself. I never had a manicure. I don’t know, maybe it is an outgrowth of my childhood when they used to teach people about nails and about having manicures. Anyway, I never have had them. But, I have always kept my fingernails a reasonable length.” His physical condition, he revealed, was “tolerable”. “I’m not seriously in a deficient condition,” he lied.

Eventually, as the journalists sweated under the arc lights the questioning got around to the purpose of the interview, the Clifford Irving book. Hughes began by expressing astonishment: “This must go down in history. I only wish I were still in the movie business, because I don’t remember any script as wild or stretching the imagination as this yarn has turned out to be. I’m not talking about the biography itself because I have never read it. I don’t know what’s in it. But this episode is just so fantastic that it taxes your imagination to believe that a thing like this could happen.” On the subject of Clifford Irving himself, Hughes was explicit and to the point: “I don’t know him. I never saw him. I have never even heard of him until a matter of days ago when this thing first came to my attention.”

As the interview drew to a close Hughes was asked if he had any plans to resume flying airplanes. He replied, “Yes. Positively. I definitely expect to recommence the program of flying.” Then, as Michael Drosnin documented in his 1985 biography, Citizen Hughes, the interview over, he shot up some more codeine and settled back to watch Funeral In Berlin for the fourth time that day.

For the Mormons who controlled the Hughes empire, the press conference had been a great success. Within a month, Clifford Irving admitted that the Hughes autobiography was a product of his imagination and within a year he was in jail for fraud. But for Howard the future was even worse. He would never talk to the press again and never come out of seclusion. His few remaining years held only greater physical and mental disintegration in a series of hotel rooms. And in his death, four years later, on a plane over Mexico there was only a grotesque echo of his desire to “recommence the program of flying.”

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About Michael Guiry

  • jon

    Whole chunks of text in this “article” are lifted directly from The book you mentioned in the second to last paragraph, Citizen Hughes. This article is rife with plagiarism.

  • Tim Xavier

    Wow, GREAT aritcle. I never knew Mr. hughes was such a drug addict, (an IV drug addict at that)….it’s all just very interesting to soak up..one example as noted. I swear, this world/THIS country…it’s like it’s catered specifically to people that and clueluess/mindless numbskulls that have all the money in the world and vice versa. Howard Hughes was VERY lucky to inherit all that money when he was like 15 years old. He’s such a RARE example of what real geniouses can do in the “hard”/hard world(s) outside of art, and really know how to make a difference. I can’t BELIEVE I never heard of Mr. Hughes until I saw the new “Aviator” Movie….embarrassing in a way, but wtf-ever…..’least I know who he is now. Here’s a drink to you “Howard”….(oh, and one to the author of this article…the mr/mrs/ms “copy slash paster”…lol, jk …

    peace
    -Tim Xavier PS: The nationalgeographic channel has an EXCELLENT documentary on his life…IMO, I was at least 10X more entertained by the doc. peace.