Haunted by Hughes

This fascinating biography details the descent into madness of Tucson's famous missile maverick

After I finished reading Geoff Schumacher's compelling new book about Howard Hughes, I got the urge to watch The Aviator again. Schumacher's Hughes is outlandishly crazy and sad, and I needed a little DiCaprio hero worship to balance it out before I wound up hating the racist, sexist, Red-baiting, egomaniacal billionaire.

Schumacher himself retains the same ambivalence about his subject. "While I'm not a big fan," he writes after ticking off the late aviator/industrialist's many faults, "I do find Hughes fascinating."

It's impossible not to, especially when it comes to the lurid, conspiracy-friendly years of Hughes' decline into drug addiction, germ-phobia and poor hygiene in a darkened Las Vegas hotel suite. Just as it is with the Kennedy assassination and other great American mythologies, Hughes' decline is fertile ground for cranks and theorists, mostly because there's so little verifiable information about those years.

Schumacher spent more than three years researching Hughes' life, with an emphasis on the truths, legends and lasting influences of Hughes' famous stay in a top-floor suite at the Desert Inn from 1966 to 1970, during which he went on a $100 million casino-hotel buying spree; he even bought a local television station, primarily so he could control the schedule of late-night movies that filled his sleepless, tortured nights. The author of Sun, Sin and Suburbia: An Essential History of Modern Las Vegas and a columnist for the Las Vegas Review-Journal, Schumacher read stacks of books on Hughes, shuffled through newspaper archives and interviewed many Hughes employees, friends and enemies still living in Las Vegas. The result is an informative and entertaining addition to the always-growing literature on Hughes, and it serves as both a worthy introduction to the aviator's later life and times--long after he'd slipped into madness and out of the once-adoring public eye--and a deeper discussion about his impact on Las Vegas in particular, and the West in general.

Of particular interest are the various assessments of Hughes' impact on Las Vegas' growth and reputation. The consensus seems to be that, while Hughes never showed his face in public there, and he didn't actually build anything there, his mere presence and heavy investment gave the once mob-haunted playground a kind of business-friendly legitimacy that helped usher in the corporate heyday still in swing. How many other people could impact a city's future simply by hiding out in a hotel room, blasted on codeine and Valium? Perhaps Hunter S. Thompson.

Hughes' character is softened a bit when Schumacher relates how the aides and executives who were supposed to be keeping him safe and sane instead likely hastened his addictions and death to enrich themselves. By the time he died, Hughes' many companies were in disarray, and his cousin needed to come in and save the empire. True to form in the Southwest, it wasn't casinos, aviation or weapons that turned around the Hughes fortune in Vegas, but land development.

Tucson is mentioned several times in the book, and there's even a hint that the Old Pueblo could have been the site of Hughes' hideout instead of Vegas. Bob Maheu, Hughes' right-hand man and official public face during the Vegas years, told Schumacher that in the mid-'60s, Hughes considered moving to Tucson, where he'd already set up a manufacturing plant in 1951. Hughes loved the desert, considering it free of the germs that stalked him. (There's a great scene in The Aviator in which the young Hughes sees a stand of saguaros in a film he's watching, and whispers something like, "so clean.") Ultimately, though, Hughes soured on the desert due to his inability to stop nuclear testing at the Nevada Test Site, fall out from which he obsessively feared.

While he never moved to Tucson, Hughes did, of course, have a presence here. Hughes built the Falcon--the world's first air-to-air guided missile--and many other missiles and weapons here. Hughes Missile Systems was eventually bought up by Raytheon, which is Southern Arizona's largest private employer today.

One of the most interesting sections of Schumacher's book is a chapter he calls "Hughesiana," in which he skirts the tangential and obscure regions of scholarship about Hughes and critiques many of the fictional accounts and movies based on Hughes' life and character. The take-away from reading this is that someone could end up giving a good portion of a life to the study of this strange man, and Schumacher admits that he is now "haunted by Hughes."

I'm not sure I'd want to find myself in a similar position--being haunted by a man who is so hard to admire--but I'm certainly glad the bug bit Schumacher.

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