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314: The Aviator with James B. Steele

In the 2004 biographical drama The Aviator, Leonardo DiCaprio portrays the eccentric and brilliant Howard Hughes, a maverick filmmaker and aviation tycoon who revolutionized Hollywood and the airline industry. The film chronicles Hughes’ obsessive pursuit of perfection and his struggle with mental illness, offering a captivating glimpse into the life of one of the 20th century’s most fascinating and enigmatic figures.

Today, we’ll learn compare the true story with the movie’s version along with legendary journalist and Howard Hughes biographer James B. Steele.

Historical Accuracy: B+

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Footage of Hughes crash mentioned in the episode

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Note: This transcript is automatically generated. There will be mistakes, so please don’t use them for quotes. It is provided for reference use to find things better in the audio.

Dan LeFebvre  02:46

Let’s start today with a quick overview of how well The Aviator captured the essence of Howard Hughes life. If you were to give the movie a letter grade for its historical accuracy, what would it get?


James B. Steele  02:58

I will give it really a B, B+, perhaps, because I think The Aviator only took care of about about half of his life. But the half had dealt with, I think, projected very well, where he was going, who he was, what his good points were, what his weaknesses were. So I think it was I think he was very, very successful in capturing that. And also foreshadowing, really what he was going to become, I mean, we see in the end of it, those overtones of the mental illness that would eventually be so destructive in his life. You can see that advancing, you can see him being conscious of it in a way. So I think that was very accurate. The aviation sequences, similarly very good. And the same with the with the movies. So I thought as those those kinds of movies go, it was really very, really excellent. There were a couple of things that conflated in it. That didn’t bother me, there was one was like, when he was trying to buy the prop planes for TWA. It was talking about them trying to raise the money. Actually, that was the jet planes about 15 years after that. But big deal. I mean, it’s this thing unset he had trouble coming, making a decision. And that was one hours great weaknesses his whole life. He had trouble making a decision obsessed over details. Sometimes it worked out okay. But sometimes not.


Dan LeFebvre  03:36

You talked about how the movie doesn’t tell his whole life, and we don’t really see in the movie, how he gets his fortune. All it shows in the beginning is there’s a quick scene with him as a child, then it kind of fast forwards to Hollywood 1927 and he’s already rich. Now, there are some clues that the movie says through dialogue that suggests that he made his fortune through drill bits in Houston, Texas, but can you fill in some historical context around Howard Hughes early years and how he got his fortune before the timeline of the movie?


James B. Steele  04:58

It’s really a great question, because Hughes’ fortune, he owed entirely to his father. His father’s was the one who invented the drill bit, founded the company called us to a company. Prior to this drill bit, anytime you drill for oil, the drills would always broke shatter. When they hit a very solid rock formation, he developed a kind of rotary drill that he didn’t patented. And that became the foundation of the oil industry, both in the US internationally for like decades. And the US Tool Company, which his father founded, was the golden goose that really funded everything Howard wanted to do, whether it was movies, aviation, entertainment, buying politicians, I mean, whatever it was, the Tool Company was the basis of the Fortune. And the interesting thing about it is he was he was a middleware, and he tended to meddle in all his companies. Sometimes it was for good causes to make the retrieve the kind of perfection he wanted. Other times he was just a meddler. He always left the tool company alone. It was kind of his father’s monument to his father’s creativity, and genius, and so forth. And he just left it alone. Plus, urine in your out provided him the money for all his other whips.


Dan LeFebvre  06:22

Yeah, yeah, I guess the impression I got from the movie was almost that he was the one that founded that, so But it’s interesting. So he grew up in, in riches, basically, he


James B. Steele  06:33

grew up with riches and interesting thing about the Tool Company. His father died when he was 18. His mother died a year or two before that. So he’s basically an orphan at a very young age. He had an uncle, he had grandparents exiga, to locals. And the assumption was the family would kind of work with Howard who oversee things to make sure he came along, right away after his father’s death, insisted on buying up all his other relatives. There had never been any sign in Howard of this streak of independence, that suddenly exhibited itself upon the death of his father. It was a very bitter thing. The rest of the family was very upset by this, not because they were losing money or anything like that, but they thought it this is young man, we need to be here, watch over and make sure somebody doesn’t take advantage of Howard, who had not shown any streak of independence like that, or said, No, this is my company, I’m going to buy you out. I’m going to read things my way from now on. So right from the very beginning, Howard cuts off his family in a way, decides he’s going to go it alone. And he took to heart something his father had told him just sort of innocently, when they said, Howard, whatever you do, don’t ever have a part. You know, they’re a pain. Go you go it alone, do it yourself. But I think the family never for one minute, thought that they were going he was going to invoke that with them. I mean, his uncles and grandparents and so forth. So right from the beginning, Howard sort of set the pace the course that he would really follow his whole life. It was essentially a loner, and even from the very beginning,


Dan LeFebvre  08:12

I guess I didn’t even think about it until you mentioned that, but we don’t really see any of his other family or anything like that in the movie, and not even any siblings. So I’m assuming you’re talking about kind of extended family. I’m assuming he didn’t have any siblings and or anything like that. No,


James B. Steele  08:24

he was an only child. But his uncle, his father’s brother, was a pretty famous writer, and screenwriter in Hollywood. And he was the fellow who introduced both Howard senior and our junior to Hollywood. And what a glamorous life that was out there. So the family had a lot of talented, another uncle had been one of the founders of the Cleveland Orchestra. I mean, there’s all kinds of interesting things in the family. There. Of course, I’m not knocking the movie on this. There’s only so much you can put in a movie. But that’s what’s interesting about the whole beginning of Howard’s life who these people were, how he basically kind of tossed them aside and said, I’m going alone. This is my company. how science


Dan LeFebvre  09:13

is speaking of the movie, if we go back in the beginning of the movie chose Howard Hughes is he’s working on this massive film project of his own called Hells Angels. And according the movie consists of like 137 pilots 87 airplanes. Here’s there’s a line in there where he says it’s the largest private Air Force has like 35 cameramen, 2000 extras 24 cameras, or maybe 26. There is another scene where he’s trying to find two extra cameras from MGM for a big dog fight scene. How old is the aviator show? The scale of making of Hells Angels.


James B. Steele  09:49

I think the aviator did a great job of conveying the magnitude of this project. I mean, Hollywood had never seen anything like Hells Angels, even before A picture Eric was shown. I mean, just the whole production. He was it had his men scour Europe for World War One planes, had them shipped over to the US. He hired aces from World War One. Howard was just totally caught up in aviation web, what the opportunities that presented. And he thought this war was so different than any previous work, because of the emergence of planes and what role they had had in World War One. So he wanted to he wanted to really glorify their work, show what they’ve done to capture the drama of that particular thing. So he, like as a scoured Europe, what these planes hired the pilots. And some of the aerial sequences in Hells Angels are just absolutely astonishing. And they hold up to this day, I actually watched the movie again, but a couple of years ago with some friends. And then the dogfights or the fights between the German and the Allied planes are just astonishing. And there’s an interesting thing about those those fights I should mention. He was he was always a perfectionist. And when he was shooting these aerial scenes, he was in LA. Well, LA is beautiful for its cloudless sky. It’s wonderful climate. And he said, to really do this, right, we need to show this with clouds in the background. This is Western Europe, this isn’t la that we’re shooting this for. And when no clouds appeared, at certain point, he got so frustrated, let’s move the entire thing to Northern California, where they’re more clouds. So they then shot most of those sequences and those really dramatic moves that show up in the movie somewhere in the Bay Area. Because he finally got those white puffy clouds that gave some contrast to these planes that riprap. So here you have it this typical huge, he doesn’t spare a cent, to make a production to churn this thing out. If he has to start it over again, no problem. We’ll do that. Money is no object, again, because of this golden goose back in Houston, that just keeps churning out the profits.


Dan LeFebvre  12:06

I think we even see a little bit of that in the aviator where he sees Howard Hughes sees some of the footage of the planes in the sky, and there’s no clouds. So he’s like, you can’t see how fast they’re going. And so he hires a professor fits in Holmes character to find me some clouds.


James B. Steele  12:24

And I thought that was one of the wonderful realistic and very accurate things that they didn’t. And it’s it was a very powerful thing that in his life, and which made the thing much more realistic. So but that is a key to his personality. He was very obsessive about detail. And some of the detail it kind of went over the edge with sometimes just as detailed people do. I mean, I’ve got touch down on myself, so I’m interested. But the other side of that is you create this amazing product. And that’s really what he did with health insurance.


Dan LeFebvre  13:03

is speaking of the the details, no money is no object. And then earlier when he talked about him having trouble making a decision in the movie, not Hells Angels, but in the aviator, we see the premiere of Hells Angels, and it seems to be a huge success. But despite this, Howard says that they have to reshoot the entire thing for sound because that’s a new thing in movies. Now it adds another year and another 1.7 million to the project. Did he really reshoot Hells Angels for sound after it was already done like we see in the aid. He


James B. Steele  13:34

really did a reshot the scenes between the actors, the actresses, because here’s what happened. And he began the movie was still the silent era. So nobody’s talking on film. And the actress who played the female lead was a beautiful woman, a Norwegian actress. Well, by the time that it was done, sound had made its appearance in movies. And he realized he’s got to convert this thing to sound. Well, but he can’t do it with this Norwegian actress who has this really thick tremendous accent that American audiences will be laughing in their seats over this woman talking to American pliers. So he looks around and he finds this young, very attractive woman by the name of Jean Harlow. And they bring her into the production as that there’s the female bombshell basically, who’s friends with the pilots. And that’s the launch of her career. So all of those see all of those scenes were sounded or reshot from the very beginning. But it turned out again to be from a production standpoint, from an artistic standpoint, a great step. That’s what created the Hells Angels we know today is a silent film. Even though the aerial sequences are amazing, would not really not work. So yes, he did this and of course was a tremendous cost. i By the way, I have never seen figure for what Hells Angels costs. I mean, I’ve seen motors better route here and there. It was obviously astronomical, clearly never earned its money back. But that that wasn’t a port issues. What was important to us was this product itself getting it right. dramatizing this great bit of European and world history in American history of these fighter pilots, and what they did to help win the war. That’s what was important to glorifying aviation for a final, but they did. So as long as he could afford it. He spent the money. And that kind of was his philosophy, basically, his whole life.


Dan LeFebvre  15:41

Yeah, and that’s one of those things where as I was watching the abs, you mentioned, there, it mentions, you know, another 1.7 million or you mentioned this, this money, which these days, we think of, you know, couple million dollars for a movie is not that big of a deal or a year to make it or, you know, those sorts of things, we don’t really think about it. But to put it in the historical context of of that time, that’s just movies didn’t cost that much. They didn’t take that long.


James B. Steele  16:06

They didn’t cost that much. And I probably should have run out an inflation calculator on their 1.7 5 million and see what that is today. But obviously, it’s still significant money. But the fact is, he had no problems but spending. What what he wanted, as long as Houston delivered, he would spend, and the result was a product that helped put him into the history books, both with movies, aviation, and as one of these great unique characters in American life,


Dan LeFebvre  16:39

or something that we see in the movie. Well, Howard Hughes is working on Hells Angels are scenes of him working with his mechanic, Glenn Odenkirk. He’s working on planes that they’re using for the film. There’s also a scene where we see the guy running Howard’s business, Noah Dietrich, telling him that he was tools is incorporated in Texas, so they have to see the bills. And then they’re starting to question the mounting costs of the movie. So Howard response in the movie is to have Noah start up a new division in the company in California call it Hughes Aircraft. And then after the movie, the Hells Angels movie is over. We see Odin Kircher, OD as they call him in the movie, continuing to work with Noah and Howard as they’re now making airplanes. We do still see Howard Hughes making other films. But from these plot points in the movie I just mentioned, I kind of walked away from the aviator thinking that the movie Hells Angels was a big reason behind Howard Hughes interest in fixing and tinkering with airplanes. So it’d be a natural transition into while he’s already started this company called Hughes Aircraft for Hells Angels. And so once the film’s over, start working on airplanes. Did the aviator do a good job depicting Howard he was transitioned from making films to making airplanes. I


James B. Steele  17:52

think sometimes you have to have these transitions in the movie in particular, I think I think Howard was always interested in aviation, though. I mean, he his father, he took his first flight and when his father was alive, basically when he was I think 16 or 17. It’s something up in New England. One point I think the bug bit him then Troy had always been interested that he was a pilot himself in the making of Hells Angels. One of the little known episodes in it other three pilots were killed in the filming of those incredibly traumatic aerial sequences. He was himself was almost killed, which is one of the little known facts that movie he got so interested in the process about how to design these aerial things, he went up and went playing himself. And I think he banked too much in one direction, whatever it was, he crashed landed. It was reported at the time that he walked away. That was not true. They pulled him unconscious from the wreck, put in real hospital and he had a facial surgery. In fact, no, Dietrich later said he always had kind of a dent in one side of his face as a result of that crash. So he’d always been interested in aviation. I think what’s so interesting about Hells Angels and the aviation is, and this is a key also to Howard’s personal. These are the two of the most probably the two most dramatic emerging fields in the world and in America at the time, movies and aviation, both glamorous, both dramatic, both with tremendous futures ahead of them, that you’re moving from Silent to sound in the movies. Almost yearly, the technology of planes was developing and evolving. And Howard himself was very, very much interested, which is why he hired a lot of really very talented engineers and designers. For Hughes Aircraft, which originally was an aircraft manufacturing company, then it evolved over time into a defense contract for satellites, things of that sort had nothing to do with building plants. But again, these were this was his interest. He loved these two fields and Probably he loved aviation the most. Because this had the most science involved with it. His famous round the world flight in 1938, was a marvel of scientific achievement. He flew around the world record time, but the plane he flew in, had all the latest equipment, all the various gauges, everything you could think of, for that kind of a flight. So he’s very scientifically minded in that sense. He wanted to make a splash. But he also wanted to do it in such a way that would advance aviation and science. I


Dan LeFebvre  20:42

didn’t think about it until you mentioned that, that movies and airplanes at the time were kind of the cutting edge like there was a and it makes, I’m assuming then that Howard, maybe that was something that kind of drew him to those two elements was just that this, nobody’s really doing any of this at all. I mean, not at all. But you know, to that scale, at least, to that scale.


James B. Steele  21:04

And the funny thing, and the interesting thing about Howard, he was very, even when he was young, he was somewhat reclusive, and shy. But it’s interesting, he then sort of is fascinated and drawn to the two fields that are getting the most publicity. So it’s like, part of his part of his personality is very secretive in a way and very much to himself. But he’s drawn to that kind of attention. And his whole life, he’s doing things that call attention, even though he doesn’t personally want to be the center of that attention. He wants, what he does, what he achieves, what records he sets, he wants those to be the guide kind of the guiding force of his life. And so I think, you know, one of the things that’s so interesting about the aviation is he really was a pioneer back in the 30s. With folks at Hughes Aircraft, designing planes for speed, or long distance, ultimately designed when he was later with his with TWA. So it was a tremendous field that he saw great promise him. I think before a lot of people did.


Dan LeFebvre  22:20

I want to ask about an another scene kind of in the movie, solidifying his focus on airplanes, but it also showcases his attitude toward money. It happens while he’s talking with Jack Fry from TWA airlines about a new kind of airplane that can fly about 20,000 feet. Higher up means less turbulence and more people are likely to fly with a smooth flight, but then jack points out that TWA just isn’t doing well financially. So they can’t afford that kind of plane. And then Howard just kind of thinks about it for a few seconds. And then he’s like, Okay, well, I’ll buy TWA for $15 million, call up Noah and start Tom to start buying was the real Howard Hughes just as Cavalier with his money as the movie seems to suggest this spur of the moment decision to buy TWA up to a


James B. Steele  23:03

point that that’s a fairly accurate representation of the way he did function. I’m not too sure that example is exactly right. But But the notion that that’s the way he function is is very accurate. He did have spur of the moment ideas and if there was enough cash around you, as somebody to start buy it, and it does start buying TWA stock very slowly and eventually own 75% of the airline. TWA, I’m really glad you brought this up though, because TWA, which sadly does not exist anymore, was one of the real great loves of Hughes’s life. And this is just really part of his being he loved that airline. He loved everything about it. He was involved in the design of the planes, the character and the quality of the interior the planes. The stewardesses mean he was constantly inviting Hollywood personalities to ride free on the planes. TWA was this tremendous Global Messenger messenger originally just a domestic and he would jack fries, were instrumental in designing went up TWA is iconic your planes, the constellation with a three fins and its sleek body. Anyone who’s watching or listening to this, I urge them to just go on the web and look up the constellation if they’re not familiar with how what this plane looks like. I know it’s the most beautiful plane ever built. I mean, it’s just so sleek, so dramatic prop to prop plane, but even so it just kind of sums up his interests and what he saw for TWA. So the other thing that’s so sad about TWA is in addition to this kind of love of his life, which it really was, and also sadly later in life, which you don’t see in the movie becomes part of his tragedy, when he’s not able, because of growing mental illness, to deal with some of the demands of Trent of converting the airline, into a jet fleet as well. His procrastination instincts, his inability to make a decision, his attention to detail, etc, all of these things, erode him and ultimately lead to his second major breakdown, which was not seen in the movie. But part of it part of the later story, so, TWA was just pivotal to him. And you can’t tell you can’t tell his story without thinking about that early. Was


Dan LeFebvre  25:38

that unusual at that time for I mean, him owning TWA to also be involved in the design of the aircraft and that sort of thing. I wouldn’t imagine somebody owning an airline today is involved in the design of the aircraft.


James B. Steele  25:52

Right. Hey, Rob, very good question, then a good very good observation. I mean, that’s what was unique about you see Natalie only URL, basically, every bit of it was that his kind of beck and call, I’ll never forget, and doing the research on the book. There was one little story I ran across it, the guy who was working on the publicity office of TWA, which was then headquartered in Kansas City. And he was had one of his minions called guys get to La right away. Gotta get to LA. They send him to some restaurant to wait for details. Nothing ever happens. They call him a day later say, Okay, go back to Kansas City. He was changed his mind about something. And it was just this whim. Sometimes it was money. Sometimes it was the way he moved people around without thinking about maybe their lives as well. But you’re right, you just don’t have somebody running an enterprise of that size, that intimate involved in the details. And we’re down to, I think my memory has even got involved in what the uniforms of the flight attendants look like. And maybe that was typically us. When he got into something, he was obsessed with every conceivable detail of the operation.


Dan LeFebvre  27:09

Did he see it as a reflection of himself? Or was he just like his image out there? Or was it truly kind of like with Hells Angels was it you know, this? He wanted to and Hells Angels want to tell the story but you know, in with TWA wanted to be the best or whatever that may what what was that kind of driver there? Do? You know?


James B. Steele  27:27

I know it gets a little vague. I think in the case of Hells Angels. He wanted the best he wanted. He knew how dramatic the story was. And he didn’t think the public really understood at that time that the incredible rule that pilots in these planes had had in the whole war story, because it was the first time planes had ever gotten us into war. So yes, he wanted to do that. But at the same time, he was an obsessive compulsive. And he was enraptured with detail. And sometimes it had a good result in terms of a good product, but other times it didn’t. He was later on beyond the this beyond the movie, when he he was aircraft had become a defense contractor. He had been dealing with a couple of contracts with the Air Force and so forth. And they were threatening to cancel some contracts. And the whole management Hughes Aircraft couldn’t get us to focus on the issue. We’ve got to do something here. How are they breathing down our neck? We don’t want to lose these contracts. We got all of these talented people lined up to do this work. So what’s Howard do he Commission’s a study of what kinds of candy bars are being sold, and the company’s vending machines just totally obsessed with minutiae subtypes. So this is, you know, this is his story, both great things and yet really going down rabbit holes part of the time, but we


Dan LeFebvre  29:04

have talked a lot about Howard Hughes work so far, and the movie does show some of his personal life as well though. One of the major relationships that we see throughout the movie is with the actress Katharine Hepburn. Now if we’re to believe the movie, they truly seem to be in love, at least for a while. Then Catherine mentioned something about how they’re too similar. She falls in love with Spencer Tracy and leaves Howard. Although even after they separate, it still seems like they care for each other. We see Howard buying some racy photos of Spencer Tracy and Katharine Hepburn to keep them out of the press. And we see Katherine coming to visit Howard near the end of the movie. How well do you think the movie did showing the relationship between Howard Hughes and Katharine Hepburn?


James B. Steele  29:44

I think it probably might have made a little bit more of that relationship than was there. It’s still the reason I say that. I don’t know that any of us could definitively tell. Tell somebody exactly how deep that Relationships has been all the work we did suggested that they definitely were friends and that they were attracted to each other, the depth of that attraction was never been totally clear. And when the merit when the relationship did eventually fall apart, or the each went their separate ways, I remember we ran across one or two actresses who were really close friends of Kate, who said that she just kind of eventually became kind of bored with it, which is probably too strong a statement. But I think it suggests that it was never quite as deep maybe as the movie would have, have had it. But the fact of the matter is, I don’t think we really know. I mean, she was one of the most private people, actresses who ever lived. And some stuff may have come out even since we wrote our book, but my gut feeling is it was not his deepest is portrayed. The thing about Howard, he wanted to be seen when he was in his era when he was very public. He wanted to be seen with famous people, especially famous actresses and actors. So all in his in his 20s. He is frequently found at the Hearst Castle at San Simeon for these famous Hollywood parties that the whole Hollywood crowd engaged in and there’s plenty of photos of them and where he’s dressed is in a German Alpine suit, hat and so on there, all these kinds of things later, we would never associate with him. But he was part of that whole crowded, and he loved the drama, the the kind of the pizzazz, that Hollywood was starting to engineer, then that which is still of course has to this day, but movies have to this day. So he liked to be seen with a lot of these women, famous women. And there were a whole string of them over over tongue. But I remember talking to one producer, early in the research on our book, and asked him about these general questions, Howard, the women, and he was somebody who lived through that whole period. And he felt most of this was overdone. That this was Howard’s way of saying he’s a ladies man. But that really wasn’t that important to him. But what was important to him was that the world thought he was a ladies man. And that same thing is true of a lot of things with Howard. He wasn’t a very good businessman part of their time. But it was important to him that the rule thought he was a great businessman. So image was everything, Howard, more than what he actually lived up.


Dan LeFebvre  32:31

Do you think some of that was to help with his businesses to like, movie like Hells Angels? You know, keep going back to that when he made other movies, obviously, but like making movies, the popularity, you know, being out and see in the media and all that. That helps.


James B. Steele  32:47

Absolutely. I mean, it makes you a national figure. I mean, he became a national figure, in a way his father never was, even though his father’s company was bankrolling. So and he liked that he liked being out there. He liked publicity about himself. He didn’t necessarily want to hold a press conference or be in public. But he liked the fact that his name was there, his his presence in effect. So I think that was a tremendous part of his personality. He liked that he just, he himself didn’t want to actually be in the limelight, personally, but he wanted his, his being to be there. His companies what he did, he wanted publicity for all of them. Okay,


Dan LeFebvre  33:30

okay. Speaking of the movies, if we go back to the aviator, it doesn’t really focus on much other than Hells Angels. But there is a scene where we see some controversy about another one of Howard Hughes movies called the Outlaw, as, as the movie puts it, it’s a film about sex. The Motion Picture Association center surfboard, tries to stop it. There’s even a scene it was funny where Howard Hughes has Professor Fitz there was the in Holmes character, the meteorologist you’re gonna find clouds. He Howard tells him to pretend to be a mathematician and measure the prominence of the memories, as the movie puts it for Jane Russell, the leading lady in the outlaw compared to other films at the time. And while the movie doesn’t show the same controversy around Howard’s other films, does talk about how the outlaw was doing for westerns, what Scarface did for the gangster pictures by putting blood and guts on the screen. Now, of course, we talked about the sheer scale of Hells Angels, which caused a lot of media buzz around that. So kind of collectively, as I was watching this and watching the, you know, the outlaw being questioned by the MPAA censorship board. I got the sense that Howard Hughes liked the controversy around his films that the aviator do a good job showing those controversies.


James B. Steele  34:40

I think it did. I mean, he loved the controversy, and he intentionally sort of threw gas on the fire in a number of times. Nothing made him happier than for the Catholic Church to condemn one of his movies, because that immediately felt translated into box office receipts. So there’s no doubt he really, he really enjoyed being controversial. And being kind of a bomb thrower on those kinds of issues. I mean, I think everybody agrees that it was a very mediocre movie. But this certainly stirred up tremendous interest. And that was his modus in his in his later film career, most of his later movies. I mean, none of them ever attained, really, in my book anyway, I mean, I’m not a film critic, but at least the ones I’ve seen, none of them ever really attained. What he did, and Hells Angels, which is really his first film, not the person when he finance but the first film that he directed, and was hands on from beginning to end. All the later ones the Outlaw. There were a whole series of others. Some of the names I can’t remember right now, but there was one. What I remember, was called jet pilot, with John Wayne and Janet Leigh, Tony Curtis, his wife at the time, I believe. And he futzing around with this for years on once again, it was URL sequences with jets and other kinds of things. By the time the movie came out, like years later, it was terribly outdated. I mean, one film critic said that sorry, and silly and anyway, but that’s when his obsessiveness and gotten the best of me. So most of those later, movies really weren’t, weren’t that good. And it was kind of a sad commentary on how I think in some ways his obsessiveness undermined his ability to do those kinds of things later in life, but, but he did like the controversy.


Dan LeFebvre  36:40

I guess that goes back to his what liking to be in the public eye and having that his name in the, in the press there. Yeah,


James B. Steele  36:46

exactly. Exactly. And it just got ingrained in the American public. Well, there’s this rich man, he’s doing all these things now live. Now look, what he’s up to. You never saw him. For the most part, there were rare, public appearances. But all of that built the image built kind of the myth of the larger than life for you. He very much wanted to be,


Dan LeFebvre  37:09

since the theater doesn’t really focus on some of the other movies, it does show them but we don’t see Howard Hughes as involved in them as he is with Hells Angels was he actually involved in those movies at the same time, as you know, with TWA and all these other things that he’s he’s got so much on his plate


James B. Steele  37:25

he was involved in but there were other things on his plate. That’s a good way to put it. Sony wasn’t, you know, of his time, he couldn’t devote as much to them as he could, which was one of the problems, because he insisted on making a lot of these decisions, even though he didn’t have time to make the decision and sorry, became obsessed with the details and couldn’t reach a final decision. So yeah, there were a lot of other things in the TWA battle that was not even touched on in the movie went on for really 20 years, one way or another, and was sapped a lot of his energy, needless to say. So none of those late movies ever attained what the early, partly because he didn’t have time to devote to them, partly because he was distracted. And he, every time he hired somebody who was good half the time these people would walk off the job because of interference by him. So that’s one of the things that haunted him most of his life. He was constantly losing CEOs, managers, directors, because he was a meddler.


Dan LeFebvre  38:34

You mentioned the TWA What was that that the the movie doesn’t show after


James B. Steele  38:40

you gain control over he. Later on, and this is way up to the movie.


James B. Steele  38:50

He had to make the trend TWA had to make the transition to the jet age. And other airlines were ahead of it had already ordered Boeing seven Oh sevens. Boeing was really the first one to really build the Jets. And he didn’t want to just go up to Boeing as another customer. So he talked to another company and to building the Jets company called Convair, which had built prop planes for years. And the cost of them and some of the design problems with the original fleet couldn’t even fly from coast to coast. Under under undermine TWA tremendously. And then the minority stockholders sued him. And the litigation went on for years and years and years. And fact one of the things that may prevent a lot of richness in our book was that lawsuit these TWA stockholders filed because he was was forced to divulge all kinds of private things about his empire that he never wanted out. Talk to us. So he got himself into trouble losing some of his own privacy and secrecy because of his own missteps.


Dan LeFebvre  40:09

Okay, okay because we do in the movie we do see TWA kind of TWA vs pan-am is kind of the battle that we see between the two airlines there. So I guess it sounds like he had a lot of battles to fight with TWA.


James B. Steele  40:21

He did. Exactly.


Dan LeFebvre  40:24

If we go back to the movies storyline in July of 1946, Howard takes a prototype spy plane called the XF Lebanon test flight, the flight lasts for an hour, 45 minutes, just as he’s about to land, the starboard engine sputters and blows out smoke, the plane ends up crashing into a residential area, it slices through people’s homes, we can’t see any people killed on the ground, but to horrible crash nearly kills Howard Hughes, he manages to survive. But now without serious burns that landed in the hospital. Did that crash really happen with the XF 11, the way the movie shows?


James B. Steele  40:57

That is one of the most realistic incidents in the movie, really, of any movie of any crash I’ve ever seen. And I think it’s an absolute depiction of what happened. When the plane landed, sheared off the top of one house crashed into another couple of houses. One of the great miracles was that nobody was in these houses. And the only person hurt in the crash was shoes himself was almost killed. And that crash in that plane are really a key that you Howard for various reasons. One is the injuries were so severe, that he did become addicted to painkillers. And he was actually lucky to live lucky to live. He had all kinds of broken bones and other kinds of problems. And it was a miracle that he actually survived. The other part of it is, you know, this was one of the war contracts that he had to contribute to the war effort. And he’d failed to deliver this plane by the end of the war. I mean, it had not been able to do that. So in a way he had failed the contract even even though it was a beautiful kind of plane. The crash itself, it is really indicative. It almost sums up Howard, perfect. Here’s this, it’s a beautiful plane, the XF 11 has got two engines with rotating props on each in each engine. The Air Force’s commissioned an Air Force lays down very strict rules about how long the test flight should be. They say it should be 45 minutes. And the plane should be loaded with 800 gallons of fuel. What’s Howard do, he loads it with twice that price that much fuel. So right away, he’s thinking, I’m not going to be up there for 45 minutes, I’m going to see how this goes. And I’ll push it. I mean, the same thing had happened to him earlier. In the 30s, when he was test flying a racer, he went too long ran out of gas, I think plane crash didn’t hurt him, Ben. But he’s always pushing the envelope, his core always going a little further than he should in some cases. And if he had taken that flight up, they except for 11 and landed it as the Air Force had wanted. There would have been no crash. But the fact is, he went too long. And as my understanding of my limited knowledge of the planes that upon these test flights, they don’t want to push him real hard. They want the plane to come down. They want to see how everything has behaved and wanna see how the engines perform. Is there something that isn’t right here is there’s too much of the stress here. They’re somewhere else. That’s why they limit the amount of time they’re up there. But Howard went 30 minutes beyond. And as a result, at the end of that 30 minutes, the starboard engine conked out when other propellers began malfunctioning. The plane began to drag that side and then began quickly losing altitude and then crashed in Beverly Hills of all places rather than try couldn’t even get back to his home field. So here you have Howard, some beautiful plane they’ve designed. It has all kinds of possibilities. He Himself wants to be the test pilot because he’s built his thing and kind of designed it parts of the society. He does the test flight he goes too long because why? He has this history of recklessness of pushing the envelope. Sometimes I blow works. Sometimes he doesn’t. But he’s having so much fun up there pine he doesn’t want to quit. And it turns out to be a disaster and he was lucky to live. The Airforce put a total blame for the flight on pilot air. And he went to law they there was so but again that’s why I say it sums up power That’s what made him so interesting. And also so destructive Ubuntu himself. Well, it gets.


Dan LeFebvre  45:06

You mentioned crash earlier in the 30s. I think we move it, we do see a crash. And he’s trying to do it like a speed record in 1935. He ends up crashing and just beat failed was that the way through? Right?


James B. Steele  45:18

Almost the same thing happened there. He, he was having so much fun. The plane was behaving so well. He forgot to look at his gas gauge. And he ran out of gas. And fortunately wasn’t, it was able to land on the soft landing. He was unhurt in that particular flight. But over the years, he had a half a dozen plane crashes, of varying shorts. The XF 11 was the most dramatic, but there were a number of others. I think


Dan LeFebvre  45:49

there’s a line of dialogue in the movie where we see od mentioning that we have 20 test pilots on staff and he’s still up there flying the planes first, what would be fair to say he was an adrenaline junkie.


James B. Steele  46:00

I wouldn’t say so. Well, I mean, the first thing is he loved to fly. And he loved to be the first one to fly one of these planes. Every one of the planes we build it for for speed and the 30s. Gotta had some other test pilot, who was the pilot on his round the world flight that were I think six or seven other crew members, but he was the pilot. So Howard, that’s how we’re also knew that that would bring attention to himself, and then burnish his image even more. So that all goes back to his love of being the center of attention. In terms of the public mine, but not necessarily having to stand. Yeah,


Dan LeFebvre  46:45

yeah. And maybe with some of the crashes being in the public’s attention for the wrong reasons.


James B. Steele  46:51

Right. Exactly.


Dan LeFebvre  46:56

One of the key plot points from the movie we haven’t talked about yet is something that calls the community airline bill or CIB. And the bill ties together a lot of things that we have talked about, but I’m gonna see if I can kind of summarize the way movie sets this up. After Howard bought TWA. He wanted to build planes that could fly across the Atlantic and post World War Two era. So he rebrands trans continental and Western airlines, which is what TWA stood for to Transworld airlines be more global. And then in the process, it turns TWA into a big competitor with another major airlines who wants to fly across the Atlantic we talked about a little bit that being Pan Am on movie we see the president of Panem one trip being a constant thorn in Howard side throughout a lot of the movie, but the competition really heats up when Senator Brewster from Maine wants to pass the CIB. The basic concept of that bill is to make one airline handle all international travel for the United States. The airline just happens to be Panem. Basically, it will give Panama monopoly although Brewster very in the movie, at least he very clearly doesn’t like using that term. If we’re to believe the movies version of history, the CIB Bill was even written by Panem. We even see Senator brucer get the FBI start reading Howard Hughes home trying to find things on him. The senator says he’ll back off if on the investigation if Howard agrees to sell TWA to Panem. Howard refuses. So near the end of the movie, we see snippets of like a multi day Senate hearing from 1947 where Howard is called to answer questions like why he failed to deliver money, the airplanes the XF 11. We talked about what she movie says the Air Force paid 43 million for 100 of them but they never received any. At the hearing though Howard brings up a lot of points about how Brewster is in league with one trip and pan-am the CIB bill, and there are a lot of other airlines who wouldn’t be able to follow through with their orders either. And the end, Howard seems to turn the hearing around on Senator Brewster and the CIB bill fails to pass. How well do you think the movie did setting up and explaining this community airline bill?


James B. Steele  48:59

I think it did a pretty good job on this. I think the main thing which it really did was it showed you had these two powerful men who are competitors in this new emerging international air travel field. And Brewster, I’m sorry, trip through Brewster was using Howard’s poor performance, frankly, in World War Two about producing the aircraft he was commissioned to produce. They were going to use that as the lever to knock him down and get all these other things for themselves. It backfired tremendously. And I think the hearing that we see in the movie is I mean, I’ve actually watched the the videotape of the actual hearing. I mean, that’s one of the things that’s available, one of the few things where you can see he was functional, as he was capable of doing and he’s absolutely brilliant in this thing. I mean, here’s a guy who’s shy doesn’t really like to be in the public. He’s in front of these senators. And he’s excoriating them. He’s the, he’s talking about. I’m just a businessman out there trying to make a living trying to build good aircraft that produce good product and so forth. And you’re here in here haranguing me about this, that and the other. I mean, he was totally at fault. Howard was, he had not delivered on these planes. He spent millions and millions of dollars in government money, a lot of his own money, too. But the fact of the matter is he had not come through as the contracts had said he should. And yet rather than being held up as a failure, as a government contractor, or someone who would run off with public’s money, he turns his whole thing around and says, You guys are the flunkies you’re coming after me. It is honest businessman who’s trying to do all of these things. And for the favor of one trip, a Pan American Airlines, so I’m just not going to stand for that. So as an absolute brilliant performance, capable of the finest Hollywood actor, and it’s added to the amazing thing people forget, he is always slightly removed from his near fatal crash of like, I can’t remember the number of months before night but it wasn’t very long before that he’d almost been killed. So here he is showing up as a Galahad with his sword going to fight these guys on the Dyess who are all flunkies because you’re all lousy politicians are trying to interfere in my life. It’s an absolute bravura performance of the highest order. And if the movie conveyed that antagonism between trip and who’s very, very well, and also how well Howard hadn’t had shut down the investigation investigation. I mean, I thought I thought that was very accurate in just about every way. There were a couple of little details here and there that I’m not familiar with. But generally speaking, importable was very good. It


Dan LeFebvre  51:58

sounds like, as you were saying, it made me think of when we’re talking about the other movies and other things that he’s done that by the time they came out, they were outdated. It almost sounds like maybe it was another thing of like he’s just used to doing taking however long it takes to get this done the way he wants it done. It doesn’t really work with contracts, especially


James B. Steele  52:19

government contracts with taxpayers money, they you’re vulnerable in that area, if you don’t deliver, and you don’t have a good excuse as to why he didn’t deliver. And he didn’t have to do that. mean they dragged out all kinds of things that could be smirked his reputation, but his performance at the witness table is just over. And that’s what people saw on the news in all the news reels at the time. So it’s absolutely astonishing performance, given how vulnerable he really was.


Dan LeFebvre  52:54

Speaking of airplanes that take too long to build another plot point that we see throughout the movie, it finishes at the at the very end. It’s another prototype plane, the Hercules, and according to the movie, the need for this plane comes because Americans are losing ships to German U boats in the Atlantic. So the idea is to fly troops and supplies over the water and said the Hercules is going to be the largest plane ever built. It’s five storeys tall is wingspan longer than a football field capable of transporting a dozen Sherman tank 700 Soldiers across the Atlantic according to the movie, but it takes too long to build. And when the World War Two is over, the US government cancels their Hercules order. But then in the movie, Howard decides to finish building it on his own dime. And in 1947, we see him again, personally doing the first test flight. Well, I guess according to the movie, it was a taxi experiment and Howard and his team were doing in November of 1947. He said he wasn’t going to try to take it in the air until next spring. But then as he’s going in the movie, we see Howard having these flashbacks with the Senate hearing and he’s taxing on the water. And so it seems like okay, he makes the decision to going to try to make her fly. And she does that the plane flies. We don’t really see for how long actually timed I timed how long it was in the movie. It says there’s 58 seconds from when it goes airborne and airborne until the movie cuts to the next scene. So it doesn’t really show exactly how long it was. But how historically accurate was the movies plotline around the Hercules? I


James B. Steele  54:22

again, I think this was very, very accurate. I mean, in the Senate hearing. And I can’t remember if the movie got into this or not. But in the actual Senate hearing the senators kept berating him about these planes that either didn’t function or never flew or whatever. And that stuck in his craw. I mean, the minute he left the Senate hearing, he thought I want to see if we can get the Hercules to fly. How can we finish it? Can we do what we need to do? All his energy went into. So that was a goal he had almost from the very beginning of leaving the Senate here. I’ll show these us scummy politicians up there, you know whose boss that I, this plane will fly. So everything was directed in that in that direction. And I suspect, though it’s ever been nailed down for certain that he always intended to try to take it up in the air that it was, yeah, it was built as a taxing experiment. But when he got out far enough in Long Beach Harbor, and there wasn’t anything, any obstacle ahead of him, he gave it some more gas and lifted off. I think it I can’t remember exactly. I think it flew for about a mile, maybe two miles, something like there wasn’t long, and it was only a little bit off the water, but it did fly. And that was a big deal to Howard. And of all his, of all the things he’d built over the years, the Hercules, which had this pejorative, nameless Spruce Goose was one of those one of his projects, maybe closer to his heart than anything. The building of this plane was an absolute engineering marvel, I mean, there’s a shortage of metal, this entire plane is built out of wood. If you have a piece of metal that such as a part of the wing, you know exactly how much that metal weighs. And if you have another part just like it, it should weigh the same thing. That’s not true of wood. Wood has a different density. So the engineering building challenge of putting together this thing of the size, it was the largest plane ever built, I think it was something surpassed it. Two or three years ago, maybe a Russian plane, I’m not sure exactly. Largest plane ever built for eons. But just the engineering, the building lift was an incredible achievement. And so the fact that flew even for little Howard viewed as a triumph, and also the fact that showed we’re going to build bigger and bigger planes in America. So all of these things flew into it. One last thing about he, Hercules was so close to his heart, because of the energy he had put into all of the decisions to build it. I mean, think of this thing you described it perfectly five storeys, tall, all made out of wood. Just finding the wood and getting that all of this stuff is tremendous challenge. He, after it, he fluid in went back to Long Beach Harbor, where it sat anchored for really until his death. The highest compliment he could give you if you were a visitor before he slipped out of sight was to give you a tour of the of the Hercules and anybody who was accorded that it was like the highest honor to just see the inside of the control panel to the storage areas, all of those things. So Hercules was part of Howard’s whole persona. I mean, it was part of it represented his courage, his defiance of things, the triumph of engineering and design. he cherished that plane to the end of his life, spent a fortune maintaining it, all of his through those years. But nothing was really more important to him in the latter part of his life than what he had done with that play. You


Dan LeFebvre  58:26

mentioned the nickname for the Spruce Goose. And in the movie we see it’s Senator Brewster who came up with that nickname. So I was kind of confused in the movie if, if Howard Hughes Hey, he seems to hate the nickname I should say that. But I wasn’t sure if he hated the nickname but just because of the nickname or if it was because Senator Brewster came up with it. Did he actually hate that nickname?


James B. Steele  58:45

He hated the name. He hated the name because it did seem to minimize the creation. I mean, Hercules, Hercules, Hercules, strong, big, powerful Spruce Goose. I mean, Goose I’ve got nothing against goose’s but geese, but they’re not exactly. You don’t see the Goose on the on the American emblem of, of birds that we want to salute in this country. So I think so he hated the name. I’m not sure exactly who came up with it. But he hated despise that. And I don’t even think you use the term flying boat. I think he used just Hercules.


Dan LeFebvre  59:32

There’s one more major plot point that we see throughout the entire movie I want to ask you about its Howard Hughes germophobia. We see it shown in the movie with the opening scene with Howard is a young boy. And his mother suggests that he’s not safe from illness. And then throughout the whole movie, we see it kind of growing in little bits here and there. There’s a scene with Errol Flynn who eats something off of his plate. So how would you stop eating at all? Or when he seems to trust Katharine Hepburn enough to drink some milk out of a jar after her and then after she leaves him he He burns, all the clothing she’s ever touched even the clothes that he’s wearing after she leaves. And then it’s used with speaking of Senator Brewster, he uses it against him, purposely puts a thumbprint on his glass when he tries to blackmail him into selling TWA. And then, of course, there’s that sequence in the aviator, where Howard seclude himself into the theater for a long time refuses to let anybody in. We even see it grow into what I’m guessing is OCD of some sort, where Howard starts to go into fits of repeating a phrase uncontrollably. There’s some scenes where he covers his mouth with his hands to try to get himself to stop saying things. The very last scene in the movie, after the Hercules testflight is Leonardo DiCaprio keeps repeating the way of the future over and over and he can’t seem to stop. Do you think the movie did a good job portraying Howard Hughes germophobia and OCD throughout his life?


James B. Steele  1:00:50

I think it did in the John Logan, who wrote the screenplay, said some nice things about our work in terms and in part, I think about those parts of it because when we began our research, to tell you the truth, we were just a little bit skeptical of some of the stories we’d heard about the germs like maybe they’re exaggerated. Well, it turned out by the end of our research that they were not exaggerating. I mean, he really had this fear. And the foreshadowing in the beginning with his mistake from his mother, we, that’s a really major part of the early, early part of our book, because we found some letters that she’d written to a Scoutmaster than a camp Howard was at during the summertime, just letter after letter, let’s make sure my boy doesn’t have a cough. If he has a cough, let me know we’ll get him out of camp. And I understand that other boys sick there. I mean, just tremendous. germophobia the mother really, really worried about everything. So from an early age, he sort of became aware of this concept. And, and he also had a weak constitution in a number of ways. He had some allergies and succumb to some things. Anyway. So, but as time went on, this got worse. It was an obsessive compulsive disorder that just got worse and worse is life is is you went through life. And what happened was, you know, a lot of people have low CD issues. But when you’re as rich as Howard, you can surround yourself with flunkies who will cater to every one of these whips. And that’s what he did the last 15 to 20 years of his life. I mean, the fellow who ran Las Vegas for him, Robert Bayh, who never saw him in person, I communicated by a by memo phone call. I mean, he shut himself off from the world the last 15 to 20 years. It was a gradual thing throughout the 50s, or people he had once seen, can no longer see you have to communicate through one of the aides. So he only had half a dozen people around him who ever saw him, they ended the out, because he could control that. Make sure that they were sanitary. He had memos, 567 Page memos, about how to control what he called the backflow of germs. In other words, if somebody had a cold, it don’t get them anywhere near you, or anybody around here, your wife, your kids. What’s What’s the Huawei put up, make sure that doesn’t come back to me. Big thing with there’s one. Some of these things it say they were comical if they weren’t so sad. When they longtime head of Lockheed Aircraft, who we’d known for decades. He said to one of his aides, we need to send flowers to his funeral. But we don’t want that florist sending a bill to us. Somebody needs to have an intermediary to pay him. Under no circumstances, any part of that flowers in your part of that get back to us. That’s the way we’ll present backflow because he was obsessed with this longtime friend who died he thought he had some kind of infectious disease. He didn’t need that for cancer. But he was so obsessed with that whole concept. So I think it does a good job of foreshadowing. By the time you know, 15 or 20 years after where the movie ended. Howard’s on a lot worse shape is really completely isolating himself. Holloway, a handful of people say he’s controlling everything around him, even though he lives in a dozen places. So when those next few years, one place or another. And anybody who said they saw him during those 15 years is basically like, I mean, he sealed himself off completely. Other than this, these handful of guys who answered with every whim and that’s what becomes that’s what becomes so sad about his story, I think in the end when he was young, dashing, handsome, most of his marbles other than his obsessiveness He doesn’t need anybody they can buy when he needs. And somebody crosses me find somebody else who does the work for that person. But when you’re older, and you’re vulnerable, do you need somebody, and he didn’t have anybody. Because he’d cut off everybody. And the ones around him, really didn’t care that much about him. They’re just working for him. They’re gonna get checked, they’re getting paid. And so when he needed somebody to stand up and say, How are you we need to get you to hospital, we need to get you somewhere, he’ll put this that there was nobody, because he cut himself off. That’s part of this tragedy.


Dan LeFebvre  1:05:39

That was I mean, there’s, I was gonna ask him about that, since he has unlimited funds, basically, did he have medical personnel that were around him? I mean, even to help, as you’re saying, the backflow of germs, I would imagine. He’s hiring meteorologists in the movie to find the clouds like I would imagine, maybe he went, Oh, yeah.


James B. Steele  1:05:55

And he’d been unfortunately, you know, the medical staff around him. Were just doing what he wanted. They were writing the prescriptions for coding and other pills that he wanted him to the final result is this. He was was six, three. He weighed 94 pounds when he died. And he had broken off and one of his arms needles, that he had clearly used to inject himself accoding him reboil this stuff died and take it as if somehow admitted liquid.


James B. Steele  1:06:33

He didn’t take the pills. And we obtained an x ray. From the autopsy, the choden is, so it isn’t like hearsay.


James B. Steele  1:06:46

So you’re 94 pounds, you’re six, three was? What can I say? They’d like to have the highest order in one way or another just no doubt about it.


Dan LeFebvre  1:06:57

It says the movie doesn’t it ends after the Hercules testflight in 47. And we’ve kind of talked a little bit about the end of his life. But was there anything else that the movie missed out on at the after the timeline of the movie?


James B. Steele  1:07:08

And that’s, that’s a really good question. I mean, he was on this descent into complete seclusion, but he was still pretty active. The TWA battle for control a TWA consumed him for the next decade and a half. He made a few Floki movies, the 50s were really a wash out, I mean, was really in bad shape there with the drug use and the seclusion and all of these prompts. He kind of got revitalized when he bought Las Vegas. In the 60s. The opportunity to kind of be the Lord of the desert occurred him there let’s let’s have a respectable American businessmen who will know about coming here and buy these things that have been in law written with the mob and clean up Las Vegas and things of that sort. He


Dan LeFebvre  1:07:56

bought he bought the city he said he bought Las Vegas like he bought that. It was


James B. Steele  1:08:00

a number of casinos. Bought a TV station there. developed the close ties with all kinds of Nevada politicians gave them money. And they viewed him as a plus based on what had been a very tawdry image of Vegas because of Chicago and I think Kansas City money and Cleveland money up from the Mott, if I’m not mistaken. So all this was a plus for the city. And Howard wrote that like and he suddenly he’s revitalized. Now he’s not going out in public. He shut up on the top floor of the Desert Inn. casino where nobody can get to him. Nobody can see him. Nope, in Vegas every season. They get memos from him. They get a phone call every once awhile, but they never seen. But this kind of energizes. And this lasts for about, I guess six years, five or six years there. And then when the Vegas stuff starts falling apart for the guy who ran it for him for a while they in and out they parted ways and other things. Howard himself was increasingly losing touch with things. So many parts of the empire were sort of taking advantage of things running on their own. I’m sure some things were skimmed off here and there and so forth. And then in subsidy, I guess 7271 72 He then starts his peripatetic stays around the world. He’s in London is in Vancouver, is in Managua, Nicaragua, he’s in the Bahamas. Then he goes to Mexico, and every one of these places, they take the top floor of some resort hotel. And that’s used his new domain every one of these places. But during this whole time, he’s deteriorating very rapidly. Even even further, he sells who used to accompany during this when he’s living in Nicaragua. And that, of course, brings a lot of money into the Empire as well. But it’s a sad life really. On the 50s, on in many ways, with the one exception of that, that Vegas period, where he has become so interested later is how the rest of the Empire functions without it. And that’s what allowed the book deals with. Because, you know, he sends memos here and there about how to do this then the other thing, but a lot of it’s ignored. A lot of it’s just disrespectful. The one thing though, which is really interesting. He was obsessed by the nuclear testing in Nevada. And at the time, people kind of thought, well, it’s kind of a buddy thing to be worried about? Well, I think you can argue Howard was really onto something there. I mean, in a way, it’s kind of an expansion of the germ phobia, you have these things out there. But I certainly in retrospect, can’t argue with his concern on that, because we’ve never learned what to do with nuclear waste radioactive waste in this country. To this day, we have. So it’s, unfortunately a sad story as it goes on in that regard. But there’s an interesting part of the story I’d like to just tell you about because it fascinated us from the very beginning, as he deteriorated mentally, and he really did with his obsessive compulsive memos, and how to deliver food to him how not to open a door, I mean, all kinds of crazy stuff. When he had to, he could pretend like he was completely sane and rational. And there’s the famous incident of the Clifford Irving biography, auto were Clifford urban, supposedly was writing Howard Hughes, his autobiography, total fraud, said he’d met with us and all these kinds of things. Well, this, this flushed us out in the open in the sense that he had a press conference 1972 Or he had four or five people who had known him back when he was public. And they all ask him questions with this hookup. He was living in the Bahamas at the time. And they said that the story is Howard about having these long fingernails and long hair and all of these things. What used laughs on air, so well, how can I sign the documents I need to sign as running my business side. You know, that’s, that’s very funny. And I made light of the whole thing, when in fact, that is exactly what use was like. But he could rise up to the moment, as sick as he was, and pretend to be normal. It was worth it in the oddities about his obsessive compulsive disorder. Most people were that OCD, they can’t do that. They’re just kind of wacko. But he knew that would not be right with the public, to not be right with this particular thing. So that’s why, to me was a case study unto Himself in terms of that mental illness. And why he, to the end of his life became so. So interesting. Yeah,


Dan LeFebvre  1:12:55

yeah. You mentioned your book there, I really appreciate you coming on to chat about the aviator. So for anyone listening to this or watching this, who wants to learn more about the true story, I would recommend picking up Howard Hughes, his life and madness, which you co wrote with Donald Bartlett. I’ll make sure to add a link to that in the show notes for this episode. But my last question for you is kind of a two parter. The first part is for listeners who want to learn more about the true story we’ve been talking about today. And just ask if you have a favorite story from the book that’s not in the movie to give listeners a peek into that. And then the second part is that biography came out in 2004. So can you give us a peek into more recent work?


James B. Steele  1:13:29

Sure. On your first question, I’m really glad you asked that there are, obviously in a book, there’s a lot of things that a movie can’t cover. And I’m not criticizing the movie, as I look at the movie was very good. But one of the incidents, and it’s not a big part of the book. But I’ve never forgotten the story. Because I happen to have written this part of the book. The first transcontinental flight that Hughes did in 1936, we set a new speed record is to me one of the most dramatic little incidents in his big, amazing life. He’s built his plane, he’s engineered this plane in California, he’s gonna fly to New York, New Jersey, slash New York. The planes got the latest equipment on it. They’ve test run at they’ve done all kinds of things. He was pretty good about that. And he was going to be the pilot. And it was just him. It was a solo flight. So they’re already January 1936. They’re going to fly from LA. to Newark. He takes off and right away, somehow his antenna snaps off. So he doesn’t have radio contact with the ground. And la minute where else across the country. You’re talking 3000 miles you won’t contact. long wait, you’ve been playing nowadays. So it goes through a lot of cloud cover for a while and it’s rough. And then he hits a windstorm somewhere. The snacks the needle off his compass. So now he knows he has doesn’t have radio contact. He doesn’t know exactly where he’s going. Fortunately, he gets out of the clouds. And he spreads a map on his knees of the route that he was going to take. And he’s guessing at this point, and the city will show up here, the city will show up here, you’ll see the lights of the cities. Unfortunately, it was a clear night. But here he is at the control of this plane, just himself, and a map on his knees, watching for lights of cities as it grows across the country. Nine hours later, and plus hours later, he lands at Newark. And he’s set a new transcontinental record. single pilot fly. It’s not a big part of the book. But it’s just tip. I mean, the guy really was, in those early years, an incredibly heroic figure. He made nothing Elvis at the time the speaker. But when he dealt back to the details, he saw exactly what had happened there. And I just I’ve in my own mind, I mean, I’m not a pilot, but I can just imagine it sitting thing was cockpit of this little plane, the engine whirring in front of you. When think of the energy, it takes the whole something like that for nine hours. And at the same time, have a mat spread out on your lap. And still trying to figure out well, is that Columbus, Ohio? Or is that Cincinnati?


Dan LeFebvre  1:16:38

I need GPS in my car [laughs]


James B. Steele  1:16:42

I mean, we’re so used to not having to do anything anymore. So it’s there’s a lot of incidents in the book like that. But I’ve never forgotten that one because it just kind of sums up the guy in so many ways. After he was one of the things that we covered in the latter part of the book was a lot of the influence us had on the political system politicians. So that I always were very, very interested in this subsequently wrote books about political influence on Capitol Hill. Back in 1991, or 92, wrote a book on the economic pressures on the middle class America, fomented by policies in Washington largely, and what should be done about this. So we’ve done an awful lot of things about growing income inequality. So a range of things over the years of everything and one book about health care the American healthcare system. So I have had a very fortunate career in that sense to look at a lot of these different issues. But I have to tell you that to this day, the single largest project we ever did was to Hughes biography. I mean, just in terms of the length of the mammoth size of the research involved there. So it, it kind of stands alone on the kinds of stuff we’ve done over the years.


Dan LeFebvre  1:18:02

And tasking, we’ll make sure to add a link to that in the show notes. Thank you again, so much for your time. Dan,


James B. Steele  1:18:07

this has been great being with you and really wonderful questions about it. Fantastic guy. Thanks so much.



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