Karina Longworth on the Women Caught in Howard Hughes’ Hollywood Web of Gossip

Howard Hughes used gossip, spies and money to control Hollywood’s women for nearly 60 years. Karina Longworth critically examines the Golden Age’s gossip to stop his false narratives from becoming our history.

Rae Nudson | Longreads | November 2018 | 13 minutes (3,545 words)

 

Listening to Karina Longworth’s conspiratorial drawl on her podcast “You Must Remember This” feels like you’re about to hear some really great gossip at a party. It’s my favorite podcast, partly because I love stories about old Hollywood, which she studiously researches and shares, featuring legendary figures like Clara Bow, Marilyn Monroe, and John Wayne. But mostly I love it because of the way Longworth critically views each of her sources and dissects old studio narratives to discover the story closest to the truth.

Her new book, Seduction: Sex, Lies, and Stardom in Howard Hughes’s Hollywood, takes that sharp critical thinking and applies it to pilot turned filmmaker turned hermit Howard Hughes and the women he groomed and abused during his lifetime. Step by step, Longworth illustrates how Hughes created and maintained his millionaire playboy image, often at the expense of the careers and well-being of the long line of women he used to prop up his lifestyle. Hughes’ actions are sometimes so horrifying it sounds like an urban legend, told to would-be starlets to warn them of the horrors of men and Hollywood.

Hughes basically held women hostage, stealing years of their lives and careers by keeping would-be actresses off the screen and in his debt. He kept a staff of people to spy on and manipulate young women, like Billie Dove, Ginger Rogers, and countless others. He held meetings with censors where he calculated just how much of Jane Russell’s breasts he’d be able to show on screen in the film The Outlaw. One woman, a 19-year-old named Rene Rosseau, attempted suicide a few months after arriving in Hollywood, saying that Hughes keeping her from working was partly to blame. She survived, but her career didn’t.

Longworth uses these stories of the women involved with Hughes to show what being a woman in Hollywood was like during its Golden Era. Though there was sometimes glamour, more often there was isolation and dependency on men in power, who often abused it. These women are all connected through Hughes, but Longworth’s empathy is with them and their stories, not his.

Listeners and readers of Longworth can begin to recognize how people in power spin stories and control narratives to maintain the status quo — not just in the film industry, but in any power structure. In reality, those who are able to critically examine gossip are best placed to recognize and fight against false narratives, and understand the implications of bending the truth.

I spoke with Longworth over the phone, and we discussed digging through FBI files, the joy of discovering new opinions about old movies, how gossip can be used to protect people in power, and how women eventually took some of that power back.

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Rae Nudson: When you’re looking at a story like Howard Hughes, where there is a lot of rumor and talk about him, where do you start to look for what actually happened?

Karina Longworth: Well, I think that Howard Hughes might be a slightly more extreme example because he was very much written about and not very well known. This is just kind of what I do all the time, for the podcast. I just read every source I can find and often times they conflict or some seem more credible than others, and then it’s just a process of trying to use all of the information that I have about the historical context and the context of Hollywood to try to determine what is most likely the truth. And whenever I have any kind of doubt, I just try to be really transparent about that.

I feel like with his story in particular, some of the stuff he did is so ludicrous that it sounds like it might not be real. How do you hold onto the truth when things are veering into sounding like a conspiracy theory?

Well, if you’re talking about the stuff with him having scouts that went around the country looking for women and constantly watching women and things like that, those are some of the most well-documented stories in the book. A lot of people who worked for Hughes, after he died, wrote their own books or wrote, like, tell-alls in Playboy magazine. The FBI has a file on Hughes, and it had a file on Johnny Meyer, who was a quote-unquote “publicist” who Hughes hired away from Warner Brothers. There are hundreds of pages in the Johnny Meyer file where the FBI has witnesses who call Johnny Meyer a pimp. So when you have just such an accumulation of detail, it’s easier to believe. I think some of the harder things to parse are people’s emotional responses to things. Especially when it comes to actresses writing their own stories, they often have an image to protect. So I’ve trusted the FBI — even though I’m skeptical of the FBI — I trust an FBI file more than I trust say, a Ginger Rogers autobiography.

It was never intended to be a biography of Hughes…. It was always intended to be a group portrait of these actresses whose common thread between them is that they were involved with Hughes.

What are your criteria for judging that credibility? Like why is the FBI more credible than someone like Ginger Rogers?

You know, I don’t have a ton of experience with FBI files, but in terms of these FBI files, they’re compiling observations from many, many, many sources, and all of these sources are telling them the same type of thing. All of those sources could be lying, but it seems a little bit less likely that you have multiple sources who were saying basically the same thing that they’re all making it up. Whereas when it comes to an actress’s autobiography, I don’t think that in most cases they’re consciously making stuff up, either. But they do have the vagaries of memory to contend with. And in a lot of cases there’s always been a gulf between who they really were and who they presented to the public. So they’re negotiating that. Every story is different, and you have to use your judgment on every story in a different way. And I just do the best I can to try to figure out what is the common sense version of the truth as best as I can. And then when I can’t figure it out, I just try to present multiple sides.

Your work especially illustrates how gossip can be used to protect the powerful. But whisper networks and gossip can also be a way to help protect victims, or get a message out when the official account maybe isn’t exactly what happened.

I don’t want to confuse gossip, as in gossip columns, with just people talking to each other. There’s a line in the book from Ava Gardner where she had heard all of these things about Howard from “the powder room” — just girls talking in the bathroom, basically. And she says you get all sides of the story in the powder room. So there certainly were people who talked to one another. There were whisper networks where people were telling each other their experiences. But I don’t know necessarily that all of that is more reliable than anything else.


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Was there any time when you were researching that you came across anything that really surprised you, or did you kind of understand the depths of what you were going to find before you started?

A lot of things were surprising, but if you want to just talk about very specific things, for me the biggest shock was the information about Ida Lupino’s collaboration with the FBI during the blacklist, which is well documented in her FBI file and which goes against certainly her best biographer’s account of her relationship to the black list and her political life in general, and it goes against public statements that she made where she painted herself as a New Deal Democrat. So that was extremely surprising to me, and I just tried to analyze it and contextualize it as much as possible.

And then there were a lot of smaller scale surprises. Like I personally was surprised to find memos from Howard Hughes’ publicist talking about how bad Jane Russell looked the summer after she had an illegal abortion. They’re not talking about the abortion, but they are like, “Why is she sick? Why does she look so bad? Why is she late for rehearsals?” And I know from putting together the other materials that that is when she was recovering from a botched abortion that made her really, really sick. Finding things like details that have never been connected before is always surprising and, to some extent, gratifying.

Do you think that that’s just because of the huge amount of research that you’ve done that you’re able to make those connections where other people couldn’t?

Sure. I don’t want to criticize people who have written books about these subjects before because I think in a lot of cases they were going off of the information that was available to them. It’s not like they didn’t do enough research. I don’t know when Ida Lupino’s FBI file was made public. I think I’m the first person to write about it.

Is there a certain source that you turn to first when you’re trying to discover the real stories about celebrities?

It really depends. I don’t think that there’s necessarily one way of doing things, but usually what I do is I try to look and see what biographies have been written about a person, and I know that some authors are more credible than others, and I try to read the ones that are by credible authors and avoid the ones by people who I don’t think of as being as critical. And then I always spend a lot of time at the Academy library here in Los Angeles where they have all kinds of files ranging from newspaper clippings to publicists’ files to in some cases people’s unpublished memoirs. No matter what project I’m working on, I just try to read as much as I have time to read. And luckily for this book, I started working on it in the spring of 2015. So I had a lot of time to be able to walk down paths that didn’t necessarily lead anywhere, which you have to do to do this kind of research. For the podcast, I often don’t have that time, so I’m mostly reading previously published sources.

For me, the thing that I feel like is an achievement is the scope of it, and how I was able to wrap my head around events happening in Hollywood in the early ’20s all the way through the ’80s.

Do you view Seduction as a biography of Howard Hughes?

No, it was never intended to be a biography of Hughes. And I don’t think that there’s much biographical information that is new or unearthed by me. It was never intended to be that. It was always intended to be a group portrait of these actresses whose common thread between them is that they were involved with Hughes.

That makes sense because I feel like a lot of stories about victims of famous men are still centered around the man, but I feel like your book circumvented that almost because it focused so much on these women and their whole lives. Was it important to you to frame the book that way?

Absolutely. I’ve always said even in the first conversations I had with my agent and my publisher that what it was really about was the experience of being a woman in Hollywood from the 1920s through the end of the ’50s, which is this period that historians call the classical Hollywood era, and which just so happens to be exactly the period of time that Howard Hughes was active in Hollywood. So you can use him as a way in, as a Trojan horse to this period, and as a way to contain the stories. I could’ve focused on two dozen women very easily, but I had to pare it down to the ones that were the most interesting to me and the ones that I felt like could help me talk about the widest range of things and time periods.

Do you think that your work as a film critic influenced your work as a historian?

I think that the work I do as a historian includes elements of criticism for sure. I think a lot of what I do is just kind of an excuse to watch movies and to be able to discover great films and share them with people. Certainly on the podcast there will often be segments of every episode where I’m just kind of talking about what happens in a movie and why I think it’s great. And there were elements like that in the book, too. I get really excited about discovering a movie that I’ve never seen or that I had had an impression of that turns out to be inaccurate and sharing that with people, and that’s more exciting to me than, like, the sex stories. [But] the sex stories [will grab people’s attention and] are how people will find the writing about a movie like The Barefoot Contessa and Wait till the Sun Shines, Nellie.

I’m really interested in Howard Hughes’s staff. It seems like he couldn’t have done what he did without his staff, and the staff just went along it. Do you think they saw the full scope of what he was doing?

I think in a lot of cases people were just kind of cogs in a machine. Especially later on when he starts really getting involved with producing weapons and airplanes for war. Then everything starts to balloon, and he has more employees and he has his hands in so many different places, and he’s just really overextended. And so, then, I’m not sure he always knew what everybody was doing. And certainly one employee might not know the whole picture of what was going on.

You know what, though, when it started, it was a pretty small enterprise. It was like he had Noah Dietrich to basically manage his businesses, and then he had this film production company that was kind of, from what I can tell, just him and this publicist, Lincoln Quarberg. And he would yacht around the world while Quarberg was left to answer all of the telegrams from United Artists and from the production code office and to put out all these fires. But I think that Hughes was only interested in doing things that he was interested in, when he was interested in doing them. And then he would delegate everything else to other people, including finding women to have sex with and making the first move on them.

Do you have like a favorite story that you told in this book?

There’s so much. It’s exciting to be able to find something like Faith Domergue’s unpublished memoirs and to be able to get into her head and empathize with her plight. I wish that she had a body of work that was better known and more worthy of being known, but the couple of movies that she made that are really good, are really good. There’s just so much, but for me, the things that are the most exciting are watching the movies and being able to discover the movies and to be able to bring in the context of a person’s life into the analysis of the movies.

Why do you think it’s important to be able to critically interpret Hollywood gossip?

A lot of that stuff like Louella Parsons and Hedda Hopper columns, they were in every newspaper. And I think most people just would read it as like a fun thing, a distraction. And we do that today. People are like, “Oh Ariana and Pete broke up.” And it’s fun to know these things, but people don’t really think very hard about it. And 99 out of 100 cases, there probably isn’t really a reason to think too hard about what was really going on in Ariana and Pete’s apartment, or whatever. But if you are trying to tell the story of a specific period in popular culture in Hollywood, then in some cases it does become useful to understand why certain stories were being presented to the public in a way that was different from what was going on. And certainly in the case of Howard Hughes, you have somebody who has a lot of money and a lot of influence and who concentrated a lot of his power on making sure that stories about himself and about people he was involved with were told in a specific way and that things that he didn’t want out there, didn’t get out there. And so that becomes, like, why are you doing that? What are you trying to hide? And a lot of what he was trying to hide is in my book.

There’s one man who’s pulling a lot of these strings, and he starts pulling strings in 1925, and then he just pulls more and more and more strings over time.

Do you think that people with less money and power than him would do the same things?

If you don’t have a lot of power, then you probably don’t have access to getting the gossip columnists to spin things the way you want them to. And so your version of the story doesn’t get told, or the story that you don’t want told gets told. And so I think that certainly these are tools that the powerful can use against the powerless that can reinforce those power dynamics.

I think your book illustrates that in the way Hughes used that power against women that couldn’t talk back, or couldn’t spin the stories the way they needed to.

Right. And I mean you see Faith Domergue is an example — where you see her picking up the phone and calling these gossip columnists and being like, “That thing you’ve heard about Howard being involved with Lana Turner is not correct.” And the gossip columnists who were being paid off by Howard Hughes will report this, but in this completely mocking way where it’s like, “poor little Faith.” So, it’s crazy. It’s really sad to see those dynamics. Like as soon as you have an understanding of the inner workings and just the slightest bit of information about what’s going on behind the scenes, it becomes really sad.

For me, personally, watching you think that through helps me learn how to think critically myself, and I can apply that to not just Hollywood gossip but to politics, to any kind of power.

I think that, in any sphere of the world, once you start really thinking skeptically, then it’s hard to turn that off. I remember being in graduate school in a film theory class, and toward the end of the semester after we had gone through a lot of different rigorous film theory and film philosophy, we started to talking about this guy Stanley Cavell, who is a film theorist and philosopher whose whole thing is skepticism. And I remember the professor being like, “I’m going to teach you about this stuff, but I think skeptics are really weird.” And I actually had an awakening learning about Stanley Cavell, where it unlocked something for me that made me really understand why I was studying cinema and what I was interested in. And I think some people think that skepticism is really weird. And then for some of us it helps us see the world in a way that makes sense.

Is there anything you want people to know about this book that you haven’t been able to talk about yet or that you think people might have missed?

It’s interesting to think about what the conversation about the book would be if it had come out two years ago. Now people just want to talk about Me Too, and they want to talk about those themes of the book, which is great. I’m happy to talk about that stuff, and that stuff is definitely in the book. But I wonder what would have been more interesting to people if we weren’t already having this public conversation. For me, the thing that I feel like is an achievement is the scope of it, and how I was able to wrap my head around events happening in Hollywood in the early ’20s all the way through the ’80s. So for me, I hope that in focusing on some of the micro themes, which are very important, you don’t lose the forest for the trees.

The scope is super impressive, I think. And I think it’s really interesting to show how cycles repeat themselves through those 60 years. Do you feel like this story shows more of the same, or do you feel like it shows an evolution?

It was definitely an evolution. I think certain experiences repeat themselves, but some of that has to do with the fact that there’s one man who’s pulling a lot of these strings, and he starts pulling strings in 1925, and then he just pulls more and more and more strings over time.

Kind of a spoiler, but I feel like at the end of the book, the student has become the master, in a way. These women that were kind of subject to Howard’s manipulations and his use of the media and his ability to conjure things out of thin air and have them become received as truths — the women who saw him doing this were able to learn how to do it for themselves.

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Rae Nudson is a writer based in Chicago with bylines at Hazlitt, The Cut, Paste Magazine, and more. She writes about about fashion, culture, mental health, history, and women’s lives.

Editor: Dana Snitzky