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'Sex, Lies And Stardom': Exploitation In Howard Hughes' Hollywood

Billionaire filmmaker Howard Hughes has long been regarded as one of Hollywood's most eccentric and prolific playboys. A few years back, writer and film critic Karina Longworth stumbled onto an online message board, listing women Hughes had had sexual relationships with — just a list of names, no other information.

"In each of these names there's a whole life and a whole story," says Longworth, who hosts the film podcast You Must Remember This.


Other segments from the episode on November 13, 2018

Fresh Air with Terry Gross, November 13: Interview with Karina Longworth; Stan Lee obituary.



This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. Before I introduce my guest, I want to say that we're thinking of everyone in California who has lost family members, friends, homes, pets in the fires. We're so sorry for what you are going through. Coincidently, our first interview today is about Hollywood and about what Hollywood was like for women decades before the #MeToo movement, during the period from the 1920s until the late '50s.

You may know my guest, Karina Longworth, as the host of the podcast about that period called "You Must Remember This." She's written a new book called "Seduction: Sex, Lies, And Stardom In Howard Hughes's Hollywood." She says that film producer Hughes aimed to turn male desire into a commodity more blatantly than any mainstream filmmaker of his era. He was famous for his affairs with many beautiful and famous actresses and for turning some actresses into sex symbols.

He produced around 25 films and directed two. The first, "Hell's Angels," released in 1930, was about two brothers in the British Royal Flying Corps during World War I. But part of the appeal of the movie was the scantily clad female lead, Jean Harlow. His second, "The Outlaw," released in 1943, was about Billy the Kid, Pat Garrett and Doc Holliday. But was sold tickets was promotion around the size of Jane Russell's breasts.

Hughes was also an aviation tycoon and famous pilot. In the late 1940s, he acquired a controlling share of the film studio RKO Pictures.

Karina Longworth, welcome to FRESH AIR. And I love your podcast. Thanks for joining us. So you, in your book, want to focus not so much on Howard Hughes - although there is a lot about Howard Hughes. You wanted to focus on the women who he had affairs with or married. Why did you want the women to be the focus?

KARINA LONGWORTH: So at the very beginning of this process, the very first seed of me being interested in this was that I stumbled across a message board that had a posting that was something like, "All Of The Actresses Howard Hughes Slept With," and then just a list, with no other information about any of the actresses. And that just made me feel like, you know, in each of these names, there's a whole life and a whole story.

And somebody thinks that it's just enough information to say that Howard Hughes conquered them sexually. But I'm interested in everything else. And so that led to me doing a couple of podcasts episodes called, "The Many Loves Of Howard Hughes," about different actresses that he was involved with. And then the book was just an opportunity to explore these things in more depth.

GROSS: Was it hard to tell sometimes what was true and what wasn't - because he hired publicists to sell his image as a playboy.

LONGWORTH: Oh, absolutely. But I think that that's the case with all of my research about old Hollywood, is that you're constantly trying to sort out fact from the fictions that the studios and the publicists sold. You know, I think it's - it's fascinating, but in old Hollywood, the publicity narratives were consumed as kind of a parallel activity to consuming the movies.

You know, there was very satisfying storytelling being told in the fan magazines and in the movie press. But a lot of those stories, even if they were presented as the truth, were very shaped. And the personas of the stars and the filmmakers and people like Howard Hughes included at least as much fiction as fact.

GROSS: So give us your list of women you can substantiate had affairs or were married to Howard Hughes.

LONGWORTH: Wow. Well, there's a lot more than there are in the book. I chose to focus on 10 women, not all of whom actually had affairs with him. But the primary characters are Billie Dove, who was a silent actress who definitely had a relationship of several years with them, Jean Harlow - who people think had an affair with Hughes, but I've found no evidence that she did - Ginger Rogers, who definitely did, Katharine Hepburn, who said that she did. It seems like they had some kind of an intimate relationship, although there's a lot of questions about her sexuality. So not everybody believes that she and Howard Hughes actually had sex.

Bette Davis - Jane Russell did not have an affair with him. She was just an actress who he had under contract. Jean Peters was married to him. Terry Moore was definitely in a relationship with him, and she says that they were married. Ava Gardner, they definitely had a relationship. Lana Turner did. Rita Hayworth did.

GROSS: So it's a lot of women, and you're leaving some out (laughter).

LONGWORTH: (Laughter).

GROSS: When he launched the career of a beautiful actress, he often projected a fantasy onto her, like, a sexual fantasy. Did he have a kind of image that he liked to work with with the actresses, where you saw a certain kind of sexuality repeated over several actresses?

LONGWORTH: Well, definitely from the 1940s on, he seemed to be obsessed with brunettes. And the first example we have of this is Jane Russell. And both in his personal life and in his professional life, from that point on he seemed attracted to women who came from a very similar template. And it was slightly curly, very dark hair, large breasts, large lips, dark eyes and chiseled cheekbones.

And these women, these actresses who fit that template, from Jane Russell to Faith Domergue to Yvonne De Carlo to Jean Peters to several others, they look so similar to one another - especially in their publicity photos, in which they're heavily made up and lit in the same way - that you can create a transparency of these actresses' faces and put them on top of each other, and they look like the same woman.

GROSS: But if we back up just a little bit earlier, the fantasy was a blonde, a platinum blonde. I mean, his publicist created the expression platinum blonde. And that was for Jean Harlow, who he cast in "Hell's Angels," his first big picture, about British fighter pilots during World War I. But she's - she is, like, the romantic lead. So tell the story of finding her and of the origin of, like, the platinum blonde.

LONGWORTH: So Howard Hughes spent three years making "Hell's Angels," which was an extraordinarily long time - just be shooting a movie during that time, or really any time. What happened was that he was a perfectionist about the aviation material. And he spent so much time shooting it and re-shooting it that the entire industry transitioned from silent film to sound film while he was still making the movie. So he had cast originally an actress named Greta Nissen, for whom English was not her first language. And now, when they had to re-shoot the film as a talkie, he needed a new actress.

So he searched for months and months and months. And he finally ended up finding this girl, Jean Harlow, because she was the ex-girlfriend of one of his actors, James Hall. And James Hall suggested she come in for a screen test. Jean Harlow was 19 years old. She had - was recently divorced. She had been married as a 17-year-old. And she was somebody who was very naturally voluptuous and beautiful but didn't consider herself sexy, didn't project on her own a sexual image. But Howard Hughes really seized on her body and her looks and decided to make them front and center, not only in the movie but, even more significantly, in the publicity for the movie.

So there were posters made for "Hell's Angels" that feature Jean Harlow in a dress that's falling off at the center of airplanes crashing into flames. So it gives you this idea that this gorgeous woman, with her voluptuous breasts and milky white skin and cloud of blonde hair, was bringing these fighter pilots to the death.

GROSS: And he was trying to be kind of like the auteur of sexuality in that film. Like, he helped design Jean Harlow's gown. He wanted it to be kind of flimsy and really revealing. But it wasn't revealing enough. So what did he do?

LONGWORTH: He took a pair of scissors, and he cut it down the middle.

GROSS: To reveal more of her bosom.

LONGWORTH: To reveal more of her cleavage, yes.

GROSS: You said she didn't think of herself as very sexy. Was she comfortable with the role that he cast her in and with the emphasis on her breasts and her sexuality, on her body?

LONGWORTH: No, she was extremely uncomfortable. And she actually felt humiliated on set, especially - I mean, there was one scene where Hughes was directing her. And she was wearing, like, a negligee that wrapped around. And he just kept asking her to open it wider and wider and wider. And observers on the set, other people working on the film, they really began to empathize with Jean Harlow because it was so clear that she felt humiliated just making this movie. And then to have it be promoted as her being this - this dangerous bombshell was almost like a joke to her. She couldn't understand why - how anybody could see her that way. But then it became such a part of her star persona, it was almost the only thing people saw.

GROSS: So when Howard Hughes cast young actresses, like Jean Harlow, typically did he expect to sleep with that actress too? You say that you don't think Jean Harlow had any kind of intimate relationship with Howard Hughes. But to what extent did he use his power in Hollywood as a casting couch?

LONGWORTH: I think that came a little bit later. Certainly, when he was the owner of RKO studios it seemed that he was getting studio contracts for women based on a sexual relationship they had already had or the promise of a sexual relationship to come. But in the early 1930s, he was - it seems that he was basically faithful to Billie Dove once they got together.

GROSS: But that didn't last too long.

LONGWORTH: No, I mean, they're - the dates are a little fuzzy. But it looks like they were together for about three years.

GROSS: Let me reintroduce you here, and then we'll talk some more. If you're just joining us, my guest is Karina Longworth. And she is the host of the podcast "You Must Remember This," which focuses on the classical era of Hollywood, Hollywood's first century. And now she has a new book called "Seduction: Sex, Lies, And Stardom In Howard Hughes's Hollywood." We'll be right back after a break. This is FRESH AIR.


GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. And if you're just joining us, my guest is Karina Longworth. You may know her as the host of the Hollywood podcast "You Must Remember This," which is about the first hundred years of Hollywood. And she's also the author of the new book "Seduction: Sex, Lies, And Stardom In Howard Hughes's Hollywood."

So let's talk about another actress whose image he created, and that's Jane Russell. And her first movie was one of the two movies he actually directed, "The Outlaw." And this movie was promoted for years. He took years and years to finish the film and then to finally release the film. And there were problems releasing it because it violated the Hollywood morality code of the time.

LONGWORTH: I should interrupt you. The film itself did not violate the morality code. What the censorship board pushed back against after they had already given their seal of approval to the film itself was the publicity. The thing that they pushed back against were these sort of cartoon images of Jane Russell's cleavage.

But in the case of "The Outlaw," there is a climactic early scene in the movie in which Jane Russell's character is raped in a barn in, like, a pile of hay. And, you know, sort of unfortunately, to modernize, she then ends up falling in love with her rapist, and that becomes the story of the film. But a lot of the publicity that Howard Hughes released featured Jane Russell either reclining sexily in hay or actually featured a cartoon of a man on top of her pinning her down in this rape position.

GROSS: Now in the movie, we actually see him pin her down. And then everything else happens in the shadows. So we don't really see anything, which is how it was able to get by the Hollywood code.

LONGWORTH: But we do hear her yell no.


LONGWORTH: We do hear her ask him to stop, and he threatens her that if she doesn't stop struggling, she won't have any dress left.

GROSS: Right, and then so Howard Hughes really wants to emphasize the sexuality of all of this. She had very large breasts, but he didn't think her bra was good enough. What was the problem that Howard Hughes perceived in Jane Russell's bra?

LONGWORTH: Just that you could see it through her clothes, and he wanted to create the illusion that her breasts were free underneath her blouse. So he designed what he thought was a better seamless aerodynamic bra for her to wear. And she put it on and felt ridiculous wearing it. So she ended up taking her original bra and covering it up with Kleenex so that you couldn't see it through her costume. And then Hughes couldn't tell the difference. He thought that she was wearing the bra that he designed for her.

GROSS: Oh, and you know how you were saying, like, the ad campaign was much more salacious than the movie itself? Talk about, like, the skywriting part of the campaign. This was amazing.

LONGWORTH: Yeah. So the production board was used to reviewing advertising that was in newspapers and magazines and on the radio. They weren't used to certain stunts that Howard Hughes invented. He sent out a blimp that was - instead of being sort of the usual, like, phallus shape of a blimp, it was much rounder. It was more of a circle. It looked more like a breast. And then he also sent out a skywriter to draw "The Outlaw" in the sky and then two circles with dots in the middle, which were clearly meant to evoke Jane Russell's breasts.

GROSS: Jane Russell, from how you describe it, really hated the image that was being created of her. I mean, she posed for still photographs to advertise this movie for years because it took so long for the movie to be made and for Howard Hughes to decide to actually release it. And she was Christian, and she didn't like this image.

And I just find it really fascinating that a man, Howard Hughes, forces her into this highly sexualized image which then becomes not only a lustful image for men in the audience, but I think for a lot of women - they think, well, this is what a sexy female looks like. I should try to look that way, too, 'cause women have always wanted to look like the movie stars they see. And so you get this, like, weird feedback loop with women trying to emulate women who didn't want to be the woman they were portraying.

LONGWORTH: Yeah. I think that the way that Hughes specifically used Jane Russell's sexuality made her feel uncomfortable. It wasn't presenting a sexual image itself because her - one of her favorite movies that she made was "Gentlemen Prefer Blondes." And she said that in that film, she was playing herself. And then her character in "Gentlemen Prefer Blondes" is kind of a man-eater.

But she has this song, which I write about in the - in "Gentlemen Prefer Blondes" called "Isn't Anyone Here For Love?" in which her own body is very covered up. And she's dancing and singing amongst these male dancers who are all shirtless and wearing nude-colored shorts. So they look like they're naked. So she enjoyed being the owner of the gaze more than she enjoyed being gazed at. So I think that's an important distinction.

GROSS: Well, the gaze in that scene is probably from gay men 'cause that scene's kind of famous...


GROSS: ...For all these, like, young attractive nearly naked men, like, jumping into the pool.

LONGWORTH: Right. And I do think that she was very aware of this kind of camp aspect to her persona. And she was fine with that. What she wasn't fine with was some of the things that Hughes asked her to do. Like, very early in her career, he had a photographer take pictures of her jumping up and down on a bed while wearing a nightgown.

GROSS: You know, he had OCD. At least later in life, we know he had OCD, even though it wasn't diagnosed then 'cause I don't think they had the terminology. I don't think it was a diagnosis then. But do you think his - the number of affairs he had over the years was in a way an expression of his obsessive compulsive disorder?

LONGWORTH: You know, I guess I don't know enough about obsessive compulsive disorder to be able to speak to that confidently. But what I will say is that, I think, that something that has been maybe overlooked in past writing about Howard Hughes is just the sheer number of head injuries he had over time. He got into a lot of plane crashes and a lot of car accidents. And he hit his head a lot. And so you really see his behavior starting to become more, shall we say, unconventional after his major plane crash in 1946 in which he should've died. And I just feel like knowing what we know now about concussions and head injuries and how that impacts the brain, I think that it can maybe help us understand some of his erratic behavior.

GROSS: You know, I have to say - reading your book, I was happy I was not an actress in the '30s or '40s or '50s during the studio system. It sounds like - I don't know how much you can generalize about what actresses went through during that period. But these actresses seem to, at least during part of their lives, have careers that were out of their control. And their sexuality was controlled by how men, including Howard Hughes, wanted to have these women perceived.

LONGWORTH: Absolutely. And, I mean, I think that was just part of what the studio system was all about. I mean, one of the ways it functioned as an economy had to do with taking stars who had no power and keeping them under contract and paying them basically just enough to keep them on contract. There is a quote from Ava Gardner in the book where she talks about how the average contract starlet - because she was forced to always look good, always be wearing new clothes and have her hair done and all of that - they'd get to the end of the month, and they'd realize that they needed to kind of find a sugar daddy to help them out just to continue to survive to the next month.

GROSS: One of Howard Hughes's problems that had a big effect on his personality and his life was he was a germaphobe. And it's interesting to me that he engaged in so much sexual activity with so many different women while being a germaphobe, which isn't to say, oh, like, women carry germs. But there are so many sexually transmitted diseases. And even then, like in the era before HIV, I mean, you know, syphilis was a pretty big deal.

LONGWORTH: And there is some speculation that Hughes might have contracted syphilis at some point. I haven't seen any documentation that makes me think that that was definitely true. But it is certainly something that people talk about in some books about him.

GROSS: I guess germaphobia has its own logic. Like, you write that even though he was this full-blown germaphobe, there was a period of his life when he was just a mess - you know, physically he was unclean. He wasn't taking care of himself. But that didn't figure into - his own personal hygiene didn't figure into his larger germaphobia.

LONGWORTH: Right. I mean, I think that a lot of his germaphobia was tied to a kind of xenophobia. He was afraid of outsiders. And he could be in a contained space, and he could be as dirty as he felt he needed to be within that space. But he didn't want anybody introducing any outside germs into that space.

GROSS: You tell a horrifying story - a horrifyingly racist story in the book where there is a period where he is screening movies in a screening room and finds out it had just been used for a screening party for the cast of "Porgy And Bess." And he doesn't want to ever go in that room again.

LONGWORTH: Yeah. And that was at Goldwyn Studios, which had been a studio lot where he had held an office for, I think at that point, over 30 years. And he never set foot on that studio lot again.

GROSS: Was he typically that racist in real life?

LONGWORTH: Yes, I believe so. There's quite a bit of documentation of him not wanting to have black people around him, not wanting to have them working for his company. He personally traced it back to an incident when he was a child, and there was a race riot in Houston where he grew up. And he developed what seems to have been a mortal fear of black people after that. But, I mean, it was a lifelong racism.

GROSS: My guess is Karina Longworth, author of the new book "Seduction: Sex, Lies And Stardom In Howard Hughes's Hollywood." She hosts the podcast "You Must Remember This." We'll talk more after a break. And we'll listen back to my 1991 interview with Stan Lee. He died yesterday. He co-created Marvel superhero characters like "Spider-Man," the "X-Men" and "Black Panther." This is FRESH AIR.


GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. Let's get back to my interview with Karina Longworth who hosts the podcast "You Must Remember This" about Hollywood's first century. Her new book "Seduction" is about movie mogul Howard Hughes, who was famous for his affairs with many beautiful and famous actresses and turning some of them into sex symbols. Longworth says she wanted to tell Hughes' story from the women's perspective. In the late 1940s around the time of the Hollywood blacklist, when writers, directors and actors were being denied work for being accused of having communist ties or sympathies, Hughes acquired a controlling share of the film studio RKO Pictures.

So Howard Hughes was part of the blacklisting. I mean, he tried to purge his studio RKO from anybody who might have, you know, communist sympathies.

LONGWORTH: Yes. He was one of the most fervent anti-communists in Hollywood during the blacklist era. You know, he had this image of himself as being one of the great capitalists. So on some sense, it's just binary - capitalism cannot coexist with communism. But I also think that there was this thing where he really thought of communists as an infestation in Hollywood.

And then the other side of that is that the studio RKO was not doing well at the time, and there may have been part of him that just needed to kind of shut down production and create a distraction. So some people think, including Paul Jarrico who he was engaged in a lawsuit with at the time - Paul Jarrico was a screenwriter who Hughes fired from RKO after Jarrico refused to speak to the House Un-American Activities Committee. Paul Jericho believed that Hughes had shut down RKO as a publicity stunt to distract away from the fact that RKO's movies weren't doing well.

GROSS: So in the late 1940s, Howard Hughes buys RKO. So how did he do as an actual studio head?

LONGWORTH: So most people think that he, basically, destroyed RKO Studios. When he bought it, it was profitable. And then when he ended up divesting it in the mid-1950s, it was a shell of what it had formerly been. Throughout the time when he owned it and operated it, he had a really hard time producing and releasing enough movies to maintain a profit.

And this has to do with his personal perfectionism. He would send a movie into production, and then he would fire director after director. He would be unhappy with the dailies. He would make casting changes. And then sometimes, movies would be finished, and they would just sit on a shelf for months or even years because he wasn't sure what to call the film. Like, he would change the title over and over again or he would wait for inspiration to strike him in terms of marketing.

And he ended up being sued by a lot of the shareholders for RKO because they felt that he was just pilfering away their money. And in two specific lawsuits, he was accused of using the studio as kind of a shell corporation so that he could just, basically, meet women and pay them off. One of the lawsuits specifically cited Jane Russell as a waste of assets. And another one named four actresses who had been under contract to RKO but who had never actually filmed a film for the studio.

GROSS: You suggest - and I think a lot of people suggest this - that a lot of his problems came from those plane crashes, that they could have affected him mentally as well as physically, and also led to a dependence on drugs like codeine.


GROSS: So what are some of the problems he had both as a filmmaker and just as a person and in his relationships that you think might be traced back to the plane crashes?

LONGWORTH: Well, both the acquisition of RKO and the mismanagement of that studio and some of this compulsive starlet juggling that we've talked about, these things, like, accelerate after the 1946 crash. All of the RKO stuff happens after the 1946 crash. But also, after that point, it's when he's involved with many women at one time and seems to be pathologically juggling them. He seems to be getting his excitement out of having multiple women who he's telling all kinds of lies to rather than actually getting sexual excitement.

GROSS: Yeah. You describe him living - liking the Beverly Hills Hotel because he could have different women in different bungalows. And they wouldn't know that the others were there. All the women were unaware of the other women. So he'd have, in the central location, all these different women for him to choose from.

LONGWORTH: Right. And then he would be telling them all elaborate lies. When he couldn't be with them or when he would choose to be with another woman, he would be like, I'm in New York, but I'm going to fly in tomorrow. And meanwhile, he would be in the next bungalow just on the phone with them.

GROSS: You started a series on The Many Loves Of Howard Hughes before the #MeToo movement. And your book is being published after the #MeToo movement has gotten going. Did the #MeToo movement change the context of what you were writing in any way? Like, did you see what you were uncovering any differently or did it take on, you know, new meaning for you?

LONGWORTH: It really didn't at all. The book is what I planned to write in 2015 when I first sold it. The thing that has changed is the world that it's being released into. And so I - you know, I think it's good that people seem more interested and more receptive to having these conversations now than they did three years ago.

GROSS: As somebody who studies the golden age of Hollywood, so to speak, what was your reaction when women started coming forward talking about Harvey Weinstein, talking about other people in Hollywood who had tried to control them sexually?

LONGWORTH: I think the conversation itself is revolutionary. The thing that I've come to understand from studying the 20th century of Hollywood is that these things have always happened, and they were never talked about publicly. They were things that women were meant to believe that they had to accept as a tradeoff in order to get the benefits of stardom or working in the industry, and that if they weren't receptive to that tradeoff, they could go find another job. So just the fact that we're having a conversation is completely revolutionary.

GROSS: The language has changed, too. I mean, like, you wouldn't use the word playboy and ladies' man anymore.

LONGWORTH: But that's so new. I mean, it's - we have only really stopped using terms like playboy, I think, in the past couple of years. When I first...

GROSS: Yeah, that's what I mean. Like, with the #MeToo movement, like, you - I don't think you'd use that word right now.

LONGWORTH: Yeah. I mean, when I first started writing the proposal for this book, I think that there was more of an appetite for a book that took a playboy seriously at face value and thought that that was something to kind of cheer on and a reason to be excited about Howard Hughes. And I was always interested in telling the story from the other perspective. I was always interested in telling the story of what it would feel like to be a woman who is just on that list of conquests.

GROSS: So the first time I heard your podcast, You Must Remember This, I didn't know what to expect. I heard it was great. And if you love old Hollywood, it's a great podcast. And I love old Hollywood, so I figured I should try it out. And you were basically, like, reading an extended essay. And I thought, like, when does the interview start?

LONGWORTH: (Laughter).

GROSS: And I realized, no, there's not going to be an interview. Is this just going to be Karina just, like, reading, you know, her very well-researched essay, which is, like, very lively written. And that's what it is (laughter). So it really goes against what, like, good production values are supposed to be with lots of different...

LONGWORTH: (Laughter).

GROSS: ...Elements woven around them. But, you know, like, those of us who love the podcast, like, we want to hear you tell the story of what happened to the actors and actresses and directors and movies. So what made you think you could do a podcast with you just, like, reading what you'd written?

LONGWORTH: Well, maybe it's because I don't come from radio, so I didn't know what the rules were. I didn't know that I was breaking the rules. I started the podcast in 2014. I had quit my film criticism job. I had a part-time teaching job, but I wasn't really sure what I was going to do with my career. All I knew is that I really did want to refocus and be talking about old movies rather than new movies.

And so I just kind of created the podcast as kind of a proof of concept to show that I could do this research and that maybe there was unexpected or unusual ways of disseminating my research and my writing. And then it kind of took on a life of its own. So yeah, I didn't know that I was violating the rules of good production (laughter). I just kind of heard it in my head and then I made it.

GROSS: Karina Longworth, thank you so much for talking with us and for your book and your podcast.

LONGWORTH: Thank you so much, Terry.

GROSS: Karina Longworth hosts the podcast You Must Remember This about the secret and forgotten histories of Hollywood's first century. Her new book is called "Seduction: Sex, Lies, And Stardom In Howard Hughes's Hollywood." After we take a short break, we'll listen back to my 1991 interview with Stan Lee, co-creator of Spider-Man, Black Panther, the Incredible Hulk and other Marvel comic superheroes. He died yesterday at the age of 95. This is FRESH AIR.

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