There wasn’t a lot I knew about Howard Hughes beyond the jokes that, by the 1980s, had become pervasive. Long fingernails, bottles of urine, complete disconnect from society were the punchlines that formed the majority of my knowledge of the reclusive billionaire. Watching Martin Scorsese’s The Aviator didn’t help much as it was so superficial in its treatment of the man, one focused on the things we already knew.
It turns out the best way to get to know him is by analyzing the impact his erratic, selfish and often flat out crazy behavior had on the people around him. In the case of Seduction: Sex, Lies, and Stardom in Howard Hughes’s Hollywood by Karina Longworth, it’s specifically the women he wooed and manipulated that offer insights into how all the issues Hughes suffered from manifested themselves.
Longworth’s narrative follows a more or less chronological timeline, following Hughes from his troubled childhood through the death that left more questions than answers to the kind of life he had lived. Instead of keeping the examining camera on Hughes, though, the story instead focuses on how his obsession with young and beautiful women defined many of his actions in Hollywood and elsewhere. Even more than that, she examines how those actions wound up causing problems for the targets of his obsessions.
That perspective is one that’s almost always overlooked or dismissed in biographies of powerful men.
Throughout the book, Longworth shows how Hughes used his money and influence in the early days of Hollywood to stalk young women. He may be known as a director and producer in an era when movies were transitioning from silent to talkies and beyond, but those roles were in service of sexually predatory behavior. Time and time again he identified his targets, signed aspiring actresses to exclusive contracts while at the same time trying to date them and promising marriage. He never followed through on most of these promises, either the personal or professional ones.
When many biographies focus on the accomplishments of powerful men, they usually begin and end with those accomplishments. “Look what they’ve achieved” we’re told by the author, even if the overall picture is less than flattering. The cost of those accomplishments is usually brushed to the side quickly, if they’re addressed at all.
There’s a lot that can be learned from examining that cost. Many of the stories Longworth shares end in women being strung along for years, if not decades, by promises of being turned into a movie star or becoming Mrs. Howard Hughes. When neither comes to pass they find they are without prospects in either field, but have instead spent that time posing for cheesecake photos and having their lives surveilled and controlled in most every possible way.
That, then, is Hughes’ legacy. It’s not the movies he produced, the planes he designed or anything else, it’s the human carnage he left in his wake as he sought some sort of control over the world he couldn’t control despite the fortunes he amassed.
Seduction is a book that is perfect for anyone who wants to gain a deeper understanding of Hughes as well as for those, like me, who grew up loving old movies. Many of the names of the actresses, directors and others mentioned will be instantly familiar to anyone who grew up watching AMC back in the day when it actually showed classic films.
It’s also recommended for anyone who just enjoys damn fine writing.
My praise needs to be accompanied by the disclosure that I’ve worked with Longworth on a few different occasions since 2005. She was my editor at Cinematical, was involved in a Samsung program I worked on while at MWW and was the editorial lead at Spout.com at the same time I was the site’s director of marketing. I’m a long time Karina Longworth fan.
What comes through in the book is Longworth’s incredible talent for crafting multi-faceted phrases that convey one of the most unique writing voices I’ve ever come across. That voice has only gotten stronger over the years, honed recently in producing her podcast You Must Remember This, and listeners to that show will recognize some of the anecdotes shared in the book.
That podcast is billed as “exploring the secret and/or forgotten histories of Hollywood’s first century.” Those are exactly the kinds of stories in Seduction. Too many women wind up fading out, ending up as unknowns whose ultimate fate post-Hughes is unknown and unaccounted for. Many of the stories that *are* included were suppressed in the moment by Hughes and those he exerted control over to maintain his public image and the perception RKO and his other ventures were more successful than they were.
Make it a point to find Seduction in the very near future. It’s a fascinating look at how Hollywood in its early days took in young women by promising them the moon and then using them for background scenery. That, unfortunately, is not dissimilar to today’s entertainment world, where women under 25 seem to rotate into the public eye regularly but then are ushered out without fanfare after turning 40. What stories, one then has to wonder, will be told about those in power in the decades since Hughes’ passing?
One can only hope Longworth is still writing them.