Seduction: Sex, Lies, and Stardom in Howard Hughes’s Hollywood
By Karina Longworth
Custom House/Harper Collins Publishers; Hardcover; $29.99; available today, Tuesday, November 13
Howard Hughes is one of the most legendary directors and producers who quickly established a reputation for discovering female talent in Hollywood’s Golden Age.
Hughes defied his family by investing his inherited riches in Hollywood beginning in 1925. As the owner and manager of RKO Pictures, Hughes consistently challenged the Hollywood status quo, especially the industry’s censors. His reputation as an iconoclast was challenged only by his reputation as a playboy who romanced dozens of actresses, from the town’s biggest stars to countless nameless aspirants.
In the new book Seduction: Sex, Lies, and Stardom in Howard Hughes’s Hollywood, Karina Longworth probes the inner workings of this glamorous era through the stories of some of the dozens of actresses pursued by Hughes, to reveal how the millionaire mogul’s obsession with sex, power, and publicity trapped, abused, or benefited women who dreamed of screen stardom.
The past year has brought us stories of many entertainment figures who used their power and money in Hollywood to sexually harass and coerce some of the most talented women in movies and television.
Longworth, the creator, writer, and host of the podcast You Must Remember This, which focuses on the secret and forgotten history of 20th century Hollywood, reminds us that long before Harvey Weinstein ran the town, there was Hughes, a Texas millionaire, pilot, and filmmaker whose reputation as a cinematic provocateur was matched only by that of being a prolific womanizer.
Hughes’s supposed conquests between his first divorce in the late 1920s and his marriage in 1957 to Jane Peters included many of Hollywood’s most famous actresses, including Billie Dove, Katharine Hepburn, Ava Gardner, and Lana Turner.
Longworth writes of Hughes and Hepburn, “Katharine Hepburn has been depicted, in biographies of herself and of Howard Hughes, as one of the eccentric aviator’s very few true loves, a portrayal that domesticates a nontraditional relationship between two self-styled mavericks into something easily digestible in gossip columns (including a multipart series by Adela Rogers St. Johns published in April 1947, nearly a decade after the Hepburn-Hughes affair ended) and stylized biopics like Martin Scorcese’s The Aviator. Hughes left behind faint but tangible traces of his obvious lasting affection for Hepburn: a letter here, a stray comment to a later girlfriend there. But Hepburn said much more publicly about Hughes than vice versa, and her version of the story made their relationship out to be a passionate fling, reaffirming for Hepburn that her main priority in life during the 1930s was not a man – not even the man she would describe as ‘the best lover I ever had’ – but herself.
“Very shortly after her romance with Hughes ended, Hepburn met and became involved with Spencer Tracy, the actor whom Hepburn herself would put forth as her great love. Hepburn outlived Tracy by thirty-six years, and over those decades, in writings and in interviews, she placed her relationship to the actor and the films they made together at the core of her legacy. In fact, because their real-life relationship and the films they made together combine so powerfully as a Hollywood love story, the history of Katharine Hepburn’s life and career can be divided Before Spencer and After Spencer.
“Hepburn’s lasting legacy is an iconoclast who demanded a level of liberation uncommon for women of her day, and though there is a lot of truth to that image, as an actress in the 1930s Hepburn was able to carve out spaces for her own freedom thanks to her alliances with powerful men. From the vantage point of today, we can see that a variety of different men helped to influence and support Hepburn in the Before Spencer years: directors George Cukor and John Ford; her frequent costar Cary Grant; her agent turned love Leland Heyward; and Howard Hughes. And since confirmation of her off-screen relationship with Tracy was withheld from the public until after Tracy’s death, Hughes remained the most public paramour of Hepburn’s acting career.”
Hughes promoted bombshells like Jean Harlow and Jane Russell and waged contentious battles with the censors, and through it all, perhaps more than any other filmmaker of his era, commoditized male desire as he objectified and sexualized women.
Aides and spies were deployed by Hughes to track down and recruit aspiring actresses. He controlled their professional and personal lives and reputations, and kept tabs on their day-to-day activities.
Hughes mastered the art of publicity to spin unflattering stories and provide tips to gossip columnists like Hedda Hopper and Louella Parsons as a way to control the public’s perception of himself and the women in his life.
There also were numerous women who were drawn in by Hughes and never made it to the screen, virtually imprisoned by him as he became increasingly paranoid and disturbed. Hughes retained many private investigators, security personnel, and informers to make certain these actresses would never get away.
The cast of characters in Seduction:
Ava Gardner – Hughes pursued Gardner, a young brunette under contract at MGM who had yet to make an impact on-screen, immediately after her separation from her first husband, Mickey Rooney, made headlines.
Ida Lupino – After appearing in several films in her native England, the bleached-blonde Ida was brought to Hollywood at the age of fifteen and signed to Paramount Pictures. When blond bombshells went out of fashion, Ida transformed her career, and eventually, with Hughes’s support, became the only female feature film director in 1950s Hollywood.
Jean Harlow – This nineteen-year-old, curvaceous blond bit player became an instant, international star after Howard Hughes cast her as the femme fatale in Hell’s Angels. When Hughes sold Harlow’s contract to MGM, she became the biggest sex symbol. comedienne of the decade.
Billie Dove – Major silent star Billie Dove’s reputation was based primarily on her unusual beauty. She left both her husband and her studio when she fell in love with Hughes, putting both her heart and her career into the young tycoon’s hands.
Ginger Rogers – The biggest female dancing movie star of the 1930s, Rogers spent that decade, in partnership with Fred Astaire and on her own, dominating the box office with her persona as a hardworking, clean-living, all-American beauty.
Terry Moore – The young star of animal movies like Son of Lassie and Mighty Joe Young began dating Hughes in late 1948. Moore was a Mormon, and she would not go to bed with Hughes until they made it official.
Faith Domergue – A teenage beauty whose contract Hughes had purchased from Warner Bros. For years he promised Faith that he would marry her and make her a big movie star.
Jane Russell – Nineteen-year-old Jane Russell was introduced to the world as Hughes’s new bombshell in his second directorial effort, The Outlaw. She would become the focal point of his experiments in suggestive promotion and the cultivation of controversy.
Longworth said of Howard Hughes, “I was interested in Hughes as a kind of Trojan Horse through which I could tell the stories of any number of the actresses, both famous and not, whose lives and careers were impacted by his interest in them. There are a lot of male film producers from the Classical Hollywood Era whose actress love interests could fill a book, but Hughes was a particularly interesting entry point because so much of his filmmaking output was defined by selling what he thought was sexy, and by engaging in fight with the censors over his right to sell it. These films and those fights, over time, helped to shape Hollywood’s ideas about sexuality, and the culture at large. But ultimately, I don’t see this as a biography of Howard Hughes – Hughes is merely the very useful common thread connecting these actresses and their experiences navigating their era’s ideas about female power, sexuality and stardom.”
Seduction is one of the most detailed and entertaining books on the Golden Age of Hollywood you will ever read, with Longworth examining at the role of women, sex, and male power centered around one of the masters of its universe.