Howard Hughes was among the most famous men of his era—and he would have been the first person to tell you that, as Karina Longworth makes clear in her enthralling new book Seduction: Sex, Lies, and Stardom in Howard Hughes’s Hollywood.
The book is a worthy and entertaining extension of Longworth’s work on the Hollywood history podcast You Must Remember This, unmistakably written in the voice fans will recognize. It takes a similar approach to one of her “seasons,” like her fascinating string of episodes on the Blacklist or Charles Manson’s Hollywood, where she selects a person or subject and uses them almost as a sort of tracking shot, a way into a particular era or theme. Hughes proves rich subject matter: He spent decades making headlines and also trouble in Hollywood, dating Ava Gardner and Katherine Hepburn and helping launch the careers of Jane Russell and Jean Harlow.
His story is also very relevant to our current cultural moment, between his constant, exaggerated hyping of himself and his controlling, frankly appalling treatment of women, which sheds light on the rest of the old Hollywood universe. The difference between his treatment of aspiring starlets he signed to draconian contracts and that of the studio system was one of degree.
Most of us born after Hughes’s death in 1976 have likely encountered him most thoroughly via the 2004 Martin Scorsese biopic The Aviator, which tells a story of immense technical ingenuity by a tragically troubled genius. Seductionturns that story inside out, demonstrating that Hughes’s greatest gift was often for hype and turning the focus instead to the many, many women who crossed his path in Hollywood, from the late silent era all the way through to the last days of the studio system. Harlow, Russell, Gardner, and Hepburn are all here, as well as women who are less well-known today, like Billie Dove. Seduction has all the pleasures of a dishy tell-all memoir by a studio system star, with reporter’s skepticism and a modern sensibility about gender relations in the entertainment business.
I spoke to Longworth—slightly starstruck, getting answers to my specific questions from such a familiar voice—about Hughes, his controlling relationships with women, what the old studio system made of him, modern celebrities’ Instagram stories, and, of course, the midcentury obsession with Jane Russell’s breasts. Our conversation has been lightly edited.
JEZEBEL: You’ve covered a lot of ground in the podcast. You’ve gone from Charles Manson to the Blacklist to Dead Blondes to Hollywood Babylon. When you decided to do a book, why’d you pick Howard Hughes as your way in?
KARINA LONGWORTH: Well, he was just somebody who would allow me to talk about all these different actresses spanning from the 1920s to the end of the 1950s, and actresses who on the surface had nothing to do with one another. I just found it fascinating that you could use one man as a trojan horse through which you could smuggle in the stories of 10 completely different women.
I kind of couldn’t believe how many different women crossed through the path of the book. I guess Hollywood is tight-knit and it’s such an industry town, but the wide variety of women who popped up was just wild to me.
I think there was a period in which everyone in Hollywood kind of knew each other. But I also think that nobody was really around knowing everybody for as long as Hughes. You know? Just the fact that he’s there in the silent era and he’s doing the same stuff, if not more intense, in 1957.
How does looking at Hollywood through the lens of Howard Hughes allow us to understand the business and its history?
Hughes himself is sort of this crazy Zelig figure, where he has a hand in some of the major evolutions of the industry during that time. So you can tell the story of the transition from silent film to sound film through Hell’s Angels. You can talk about the weakening of the censorship system through his films with Jane Russell. You can talk about the end of vertical integration when he takes over RKO and immediately accepts the government’s offer about how they want the studios to divide their production businesses from their movie theaters. Then you can tell the story of the collapse of the studio system through his totally disastrous mismanagement of RKO. He’s a really unique figure in that way, I think.
This is a really random question, but after he totally runs RKO into the ground, they sell the back catalog to TV. Is that part of the reason—didn’t he ultimately shape the way we think of Old Hollywood, too? Because of reruns on television? Isn’t that part of why Casablanca is so famous, besides of course being a great film?
Well, Casablanca wasn’t part of that specific archive, but certainly, a lot of those RKO movies ended up in heavy rotation on television. And Hughes himself, when he was a hermit in Las Vegas who wouldn’t leave his hotel room, he ended up buying a local television station so that he could dictate what movies were shown in the middle of the night.
To rewind back to before he became this man silently sitting in a screening room in Las Vegas—you talked a lot about how he worked the Hollywood PR machine. What did he understand about PR, about how to work the PR machine, that enabled him to do that?
I think he understood that nobody was doing any fact-checking and that most of the Hollywood journalists were just happy for access, and they were happy for easy content. So they would run press releases as though they were their own stories. They would accept bribes to tell false stories. And if you got something in the press, whether it was true or not, it became real in the minds of the public. He’s not the only one to understand that—the whole Hollywood publicity system is based on the hope that would work. But he really, really blatantly manipulated the fact that that worked.
I wonder who that reminds me of?!
Yeah, I mean, at one point I wanted to call the book “the greatest,” because that was a phrase that was in so many press releases issued on behalf of Hughes from the 1920s all the way through the ’50s. He was always called the greatest aviator, the greatest star maker, the producer of the greatest hits in Hollywood history. And none of these things were true, but he kept paying people to say that about him, and that’s very Trumpian.
I feel kind of embarrassed because I don’t think I realized just how famous Hughes was. I think of the great celebrity of the era as being, like, Elizabeth Taylor. Because he ended the way he did, he isn’t as active anymore in pop culture. But I wonder how much somebody like Trump is able to step into a mold that Hughes was able to carve out. You told the story of how he was able to embody this figure of the rugged American individualist, and I was like—oh, a lot of people are using that same script. I wonder how many people are using the same narrative that Hughes pioneered?
That’s a really interesting idea. I mean, I don’t think Howard Hughes was the first rugged individualist, but certainly, he did things in a very specific way that was unique for its time. Hollywood wasn’t used to people like him coming in with money and saying, but I also want creative control. They were used to rich guys showing up and being like, whatever you want! Take my money just as long as I get to hang out with the beautiful broads. But Hughes was always very specific about what he wanted to see in the movies. I think part of it is, he talks about how he just felt drawn to watching movies even when they were bad and he couldn’t stop himself from watching them. I think there is a part of him where it was a real sexual fetish to watch movies and see women on the screen, and he felt compelled to share that with the world.
The book’s through-line is Hughes’s relationships with women. I want to talk about Hughes and the relationship with starlets, specifically. A lot of the book is a story of the evolution of how Howard Hughes manipulated women and used women, and it gets more extreme over the years. The story that people always talk about with Hollywood is the idea of the casting couch—it’s used to undermine some women and it also describes a real thing that happens to women in Hollywood.
To what extent was he doing something different, or more than other studio heads or other figures in the industry might have had a reputation for doing? Was he doing something different, or more, or was it part of a larger pattern?
Well, I think that he modeled himself off of other moguls to a certain extent, but then he thought of himself as an innovator. And he innovated certain processes that were unique to him, such as looking at outdoors magazines for women he could track down who had won fishing contests and then sending photographers to find them in Florida or wherever and then take these very specific photos. He would instruct photographers to take pictures of them with no glamour makeup, no hairstyle, from the front from both profiles. Then Hughes would examine these images and then decide should we bring her out to Hollywood and give her a contract. Then when he did that, he would make sure this woman had no agency of her own by putting her in a hotel room or an apartment that he selected, giving her a driver who was an employee of his, scheduling her entire day so she could not choose to do anything that she was not told to do.
These were versions of the kinds of things that studios did, but Hughes basically took out any free time and any opportunities for independence that an actress might have had under the studio system, and he made sure that he had total control. So in his mind, it was an improvement on the studio’s way of doing things.
In Hollywood, to what extent was the degree to which he was doing this known? And how was it perceived? Were people like, wow, Howard Hughes is really taking this too far? Or was it seen as business as usual? The way he treated these women, how was it perceived in the industry at the time?
I don’t think anybody really thought he was taking it too far. I think people knew things like this were happening, but it also existed in the realm of rumor, so it wasn’t like anybody could do anything to stop it. There’s a quote in the book from Jane Russell, where she’s like, people say that he’s exploiting these women but essentially what she says is that they’re lucky to have been selected by him and to have a free place to live and to have all these things that other actresses struggle for just handed to them and that most women would be happy if Howard Hughes wanted to have sex with them. They wouldn’t think it was a burden. That was the more prevalent idea at the time.
What people were upset about was his constant efforts to undermine Hollywood business as usual, in doing things like attacking the way other studios did business, attacking the censorship system, refusing to play by the rules that the other studios had all kind of agreed to play by.
It’s interesting how often this is the story—this happens in the way you read about history generally, but it’s also interesting how often it happens in this book. It reminds me of that story where he hits Ava Gardner, and Ava Gardner hits him back and really knocks his face in. And people are like—Ava, how could you? It becomes her fault. And it’s just interesting to me what was an issue then, compared to how you look at it now. He had all these women locked up in hotel rooms but all anybody cares about is his relationship with the censorship board…
Right, right. I guess we all know that so many things just come down to economics, but really, in the studio system, so many of things that were supposedly about something else, like film censorship and quote-unquote morals in movies, it was always about the bottom line.
I am curious—so he’s bringing these women out here and he’s putting them on contracts. He does make the career of Jane Russell, but over time, these women are less and less successful. There’s a lot of talk about how he’s basically having someone procure these women for sex. In the later, more baroque era of his relationship with women who want to be famous, does he have any intention of making them famous, do you think?
No, I think he just is trying to keep them busy and give them something to do so he can go off and do his own thing. Certainly, that’s how I feel about Faith Domergue. He really only put her in a movie when he absolutely had to, or risk losing her. Some of these later women like Yvonne Schubert, who is the last girlfriend that we know about, documented in the call logs in the late ’50s. He kept her busy by scheduling recording sessions so she could record a demo, but he really is just doing the bare minimum he can do to placate these women. But he was also such a collector, and he didn’t want to lose any of the items in his collection, so he would make sure that they really believed for as long as possible that he was working to make them a star.
That image of all the women on contract with their drivers at the restaurant—it’s like it’s his curio cabinet. It’s so creepy!
And the weirdest thing to me about that is that he wasn’t there. It’s not like he was lurking in the bushes, watching this and laughing. He was waiting for the driver to come back and give him a report as to how the night went. So it’s a very specific kind of voyeurism that’s not about looking. It’s about being told the story.
It is interesting, like you said, obviously other rich guys were involved in Hollywood, knocking around—Joe Kennedy is famously involved—but it really does seem like you’re saying that there’s a very different dimension to Hughes’s involvement. Like the movies are actually a compulsion for Howard Hughes.
I think the movies are a compulsion; the women are a compulsion. I really do feel like it was his ambition to just do everything bigger and greater in the sense of not necessarily better, but bigger than everybody else. He thought that was success. And maybe you can trace that back to his dad, who had some of the same kind of megalomania. There’s this quote in the book where he’s talking about how his dad was this more old-fashioned an adventurer who was going to drill to the center of the earth, and Hughes the son felt like he needed to find something like that where he could really be a conqueror. And I really didn’t get too into the metaphors of drilling [laughs], but somebody could probably make a few good jokes about that.
I just couldn’t get over his—speaking of lewd metaphors!—obsession with Jane Russell’s breasts. But then you talk about how all these people weighed in about his censorship battles over The Outlaw, and kind of the whole culture becomes that way about Jane Russell’s breasts. It’s not just Howard Hughes.
One thing I found in reading magazines of the 1950s is that it really was a cultural obsession. There was a cultural obsession with women’s and particularly actresses’ breasts, and there was a cultural obsession with talking about whether or not it was okay to be obsessed with breasts. And I don’t know if he single-handedly started this cultural obsession, but he was certainly ahead of the curve, because he was putting up these photos of Jane Russell in 1940. Marilyn Monroe does not really even become a star until like 1950.
It’s almost like he’s doing the saying the quiet part out loud thing.
[laughs] Yeah, he’s taking this thing that—I mean, maybe not revealing breasts to that extent—but had always been part of cinema, which is looking at beautiful women, and he is being extremely transparent about the fact that that’s why people go to the movies, and so he’s going to exploit it.
What you were saying about saying the quiet part out loud—that’s one of the things moguls were upset about. Because it’s like—if he announces the fact that he’s selling women’s bodies, everybody will find out that’s what we’re all doing! And we’re trying to pretend we’re not doing it. We’re trying to pretend that we’re obeying the Production Code and that movies are wholesome entertainment. When really, it’s wholesome entertainment to some extent, but women’s bodies are at the center of everything. So, yeah, that was absolutely one of the reasons why the other studio moguls were like, he’s going to get us all in trouble.
Obviously, the studio system is long gone. Do you see a lot of echoes in the way modern celebrity works in the story of Howard Hughes? The way that fame and entertainment work—how dramatically do you think things have changed since his day?
I think people are a little too quick to make parallels between the present and the past in terms of putting Harvey Weinstein, let’s say, in this canon of abusive moguls. I don’t like to draw those direct parallels, because of the fact that the studio system was a really, really different thing in terms of economics and power. But certainly in terms of celebrity—back then you’d have articles that were supposedly written by celebrities in magazines that were actually written by studio publicists—there was this whole world of parallel narratives that was completely fake.
There are similar things today. I don’t think any of us should be under any illusion that a celebrity’s Instagram stories are anything but a shaped and structured presentation. It’s a parallel narrative often made by somebody who is a professional at least at looking at a camera, if not a professional storyteller. So we have this illusion of transparency, but there’s absolutely no transparency. We know absolutely nothing about famous people’s real lives. We know nothing about how movies are really made. There’s no investigative journalism. We’re living in a fake world.
I read a lot about the royals, and I went on this binge where I read everything there was to know about Charles and Diana, the Tina Brown book, etcetera. I walked away from it thinking, I am never going to know any truth about any of this until 30 years from because that’s when all the skeletons come out of the closet. Because people aren’t as invested in the moment.
When you still have something to sell, and when you still have something to lose, you have no incentive to tell the truth. At least that’s how I see Hollywood working in the past and today.
It’s maybe even worse today because at least there was this period where actresses from the golden era could get paid a lot of money to write these paperback autobiographies. Let’s take for example Lana Turner’s autobiography. To some extent, there’s an illusion of candor. She’s only telling you what she wants to tell you. But there’s also stuff in there where she’s the first person to write about—or to tell her ghostwriter. She’s the first person to publish this idea about how MGM had these six-month contract girls who were there only to be taken advantage of sexually by studio moguls. True things do come out in those very manufactured, shaped stories.
Now, when a celebrity writes a book, in some cases they’re more transparent than others. I haven’t read it, but I’ve heard that Sally Field’s book is pretty raw, to some extent. But I think that a lot of celebrities have more of an incentive to be honest about their childhoods than they have an incentive to be honest about people who they have worked with that are still alive.