Thursday, September 30, 2021

The Devil and Mr. Hughes

He was tall, with piercing eyes and a needle nose. He would have been called dashingly handsome in his youth. By his early 70s, however, he had more than let himself go. He looked for all the world like what we called back then a “rubby” – the type of elderly man who frequented beer parlors on the Downtown Eastside of Vancouver and sometimes resorted to drinking aftershave or even rubbing alcohol. He had a beard that was gray and wispy. His hair was long and scraggly. Most repulsive of all were his long, unclipped fingernails. People gave him a wide berth between periods when I would see him in the upper reaches of the Pacific Coliseum in the mid-1970s, where we had seats in neighboring sections at Vancouver Canucks games.

Howard in his younger days
I was a student sports writer for the Daily Province, as it was then called. I was working my way through university at SFU. I had made good money working double overtime on a summer job in the North Vancouver shipyards, so when the Canucks suddenly became competitive in the fall of 1974, on the way to their first division title, I decided to splurge on season tickets at $5 a game. I sat for several years with my Peak student newspaper colleague, the late Georgia Straight film critic Ian Caddell, just a few rows from the top of Section 10, right on the blueline. There was an open area behind the seats back then, before it was filled in with luxury boxes. Between periods a lone vendor would sell flat, watered down Pepsi, which to this day is the way I prefer it. Rather than walk all the way down to fight the concourse throngs during intermissions and have to climb all those stairs back up again, I just popped up a few rows to stretch my legs and hydrate.

I was the only one who seemed willing to talk to the rubby. We talked hockey, of course. Canucks’ goalie Gary Smith carried the team on his back in 1974-75 en route to its first ever playoff appearance in what should have been an MVP performance. This next season wasn’t going as well. The old man really knew hockey. You could tell there was a sharp mind beneath his unsightly appearance. He occasionally asked me odd questions, like who was the biggest Hollywood starlet of the 1940s. I wasn’t even alive then, so I just offered up the first name that popped into my mind. 

“I dunno . . . Lana Turner?” 

The old man threw his head back and roared. “I fucked Lana Turner!” 

Yeah, right. Sure you did, I thought. This guy was obviously nuts. 

“Have you ever heard of the Spruce Goose?”

I remembered seeing something about it on TV. 

“Yeah, it was a flying boat.”

“It was an airplane,” he said sternly.

“Yeah, right,” I replied, recalling its one and only flight. I held one hand about eight inches above the other. “How high did it get off the water? About this far?”

Again he roared with laughter. He seemed to take a liking to me. 

“That was you?”

“Uh huh.”


He asked me questions about my studies and my work as a student journalist. Then he hit me with an offer.

“Say, I’ll bet you could use some money. I’ve got lots. More than I could ever spend. Why don’t you come down and see me at the Bayshore Inn. That’s where I’m staying. Ask for Mr. Smith.”

“Sure, that would be great.”

Yeah, right, I thought. This guy really is nuts.

“So, how did you make your money?” 


Sounded pretty boring to me.

“Well, I guess everybody needs tools.”

The buzzer signaled that it was time for the resumption of play.

“Yeah, sure. I’ll come down and see you.”



I promptly dismissed the whole idea. Little did I know I had been talking to the world’s richest man.


Howard Hughes was one of the 20th century’s most fascinating characters. He was born in Houston in 1905. His father, Howard Hughes Sr., patented a drill bit widely used in oil exploration, and he founded the Hughes Tool Co. in 1909. Young Howard became one of Houston’s first licenced ham radio operators at age 11, having assembled the city’s first wireless transmitter himself. He got his picture in the newspaper the following year for motorizing his bicycle with a steam engine. He was fascinated by airplanes and took his first flying lesson at age 14. He was a scratch golfer and could have played professionally. He studied aeronautical engineering at Cal Tech but transferred to Rice University in his home town. His mother died when he was 16 and his father suffered a fatal heart attack two years later. An only child, he inherited the family fortune. He dropped out of school, moved to Los Angeles and produced his first film at age 21. He made dozens more, including Hell’s Angels (1930), The Front Page (1931), and Scarface (1932). He bought the RKO studio in 1948 and sold it a few years later for $25 million.

His first love, however, was flying. He founded Hughes Aircraft in 1932 and commissioned numerous designs. He set flight records, including a 1935 airspeed mark of 566 km/h in his Hughes H-1 Racer. He flew around the world in just 91 hours in 1938, beating the old record by almost four days and creating a sensation for which he was feted with a ticker tape parade in New York City. Houston’s airport was briefly named after him until it was pointed out that Hughes was still alive. He survived four plane crashes, the first while filming Hells Angels and a final one, which almost proved fatal, aboard his Hughes XF-11 in 1946. He designed the lightweight HK-1 Hercules troop transport during World War II and an amphibious version, dubbed the Spruce Goose, which never saw production after its test flight proved *ahem* underwhelming. He took over industry leading Trans World Airlines in 1944, buying up its stock until he had a controlling interest. Despite owning 78 percent of its shares, he was forced out of the airline’s management in 1960 due to his increasingly erratic behavior. Leonardo de Caprio portrayed him in the 2004 Martin Scorsese blockbuster The Aviator.

Hughes dated a slew of starlets, including Turner, Bette Davis, Ava Gardner, Olivia de Havilland, Katharine Hepburn, Ginger Rogers, Janet Leigh, Rita Hayworth and Mamie Van Doren. Turner’s mother would hem his trousers while he waited for her to get ready for their dates because she always felt they were too long. He remained devoted to Lana after they broke up she married, reportedly chartering a plane for her mother to join her after a 1949 miscarriage. Hughes married and divorced twice but never produced an heir.

Most of all, Hughes was odd. He suffered from obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD), which became more pronounced with age. Friends said he was obsessed with the size of peas, using a special fork to sort them by size. He once went into the studio to screen films and emerged four months later, watching movies naked and subsisting on chocolate bars, chicken and milk. He became addicted to painkillers after being injured in so many plane crashes and became a recluse in 1958.

Dozens of books have been written about Hughes, including a 1971 best-seller by his former assistant Noah Dietrich, who had helped run his business empire for 32 years. Most famous, however, was a 1972 book written by the novelist Clifford Irving, which he claimed was based on interviews with Hughes. That was disputed by none other than Hughes, who had not been seen for decades. He sued to stop publication of the book and denounced the manuscript as fake in a televised press conference during which a journalist who had known Hughes for years verified the voice on the telephone line was indeed his. Irving was convicted of fraud and sentenced to 2½ years in prison. His 1981 account of the ruse was published as The Hoax and was made into a 2007 movie starring Richard Gere.