Howard Hughes, one of the greatest skirt chasers in Hollywood history had, at roughly the same time, the hots for two very different screen stars: Joan Fontaine (above) and Janet Leigh (below)
Leigh was a young actress under an MGM contract when she encountered Hughes for the first time in the summer of 1948. A tall, thin man, fortyish…sparse dark hair and a small mustache and…dressed (rather oddly I thought) in white pants, open white shirt, a not new, ill-fitting sports coat, and white tennis shows, Leigh recalled in her autobiography.
His voice was also a surprise — not a booming, authoritative sound associated with power. Instead — a high, soft quality came forth … Actually, I couldn’t see what the fuss was all about. The whole encounter was rather bland and brief and soon forgotten — at least by me.
But not by Hughes. He was soon angling to get into Janet’s life, among other areas, by setting up staged social encounters using other women as decoys. Then Howard employed one of his standard tricks: taking Leigh on a surprise airplane ride to an unknown destination. And, she got to sit next to the aviator-mogul in the cockpit.
One surprise destination turned out to be the Grand Canyon, followed by a dinner visit to the Desert Inn Hotel in Las Vegas. The trip for the young and single Janet — still living with her doting parents who were expecting her home that night – was a nightmare. When she finally did get home, she vowed to sever the Hughes connection.
The sticky thing was that Howard, 43 , took over RKO in 1948. When MGM decided to loan Janet out to RKO on a three-picture deal, she was apprehensive. She was right. Myriad production hassles most caused by Hughes’ byzantine bungling in the making of the 1951 musical Two Tickets To Broadway (with Janet opposite Tony Martin) got to the actress.
I was close to a nervous breakdown. Yes, I was on salary. But the work, the harassment, the frustration had taken its toll.
The menacing intrusion on my life and career had reached the point of no return. Hughes repelled me. Any intimation of physical contact had induced lightning bolts of disgust. (In a subsequent rant at Hughes in his office, Leigh threw the desk telephone at him.)
Hughes had only a tad better luck with the older, married and more sophisticated Joan Fontaine.
In her recollections of the mogul, Fontaine hit the nail on the head. She was put off by the fact that everything seemed to be a ‘deal,’ a business arrangement, regardless of the picture he had tried to paint of our future together. Then why did Fontaine entertain Hughes’ romantic blandishments? Money is sexy and he certainly had a blinding overabundance of cash.
Hughes had been proposing to her for more than 10 years prior to the time that Joan signed on to costar in director Nicholas Ray’s 1950 film noir drama Born To Be Bad, opposite Robert Ryan. The studio was — RKO — which was by then a Howard Hughes property. Fontaine found herself under personal contract to the mogul.
To further complicate matters, Fontaine’s second marriage, to producer-screenwriter William Dozier, was crumbling in a hurry. (And guess where Dozier was angling at the time for a job! Yup, at RKO.) I was never in love with Howard. As a matter of fact, I was a little afraid of him.
The romance petered out inconclusively, although Joan noted that Dozier did get his old office back at RKO. As for Joan, I was one of the few girls pursued by Howard Hughes who never had an affair with him.
Well, we guess that makes at least two of you, Joan.