Howard Hughes once owned that once venerable film studio, RKO Pictures. People often asked if he bought that studio just to pursue his career as Hollywood’s most dedicated seducer.
One of Hughes’ longtime associates, Noah Dietrich, put Hughes in perspective with this observation:
Howard’s involvement with RKO had other motivations than the pursuit of profit and furtherance of the art of cinema.
It also aided the exercise of his libido. I was never certain throughout Howard’s long association with the motion picture industry whether his amours were an offshoot of that activity or film production was a screen for his romantic adventures.
Howard was 43 when he took over RKO in 1948. His first marriage ended in 1929, and his second (to actress Jean Peters) didn’t begin until 1957. He was tall (6 feet-4 inches), lean and physically far more presentable than other movie moguls of the time.
After his near-death plane crash in Beverly Hills two years prior to his RKO purchase, Hughes’ ample supply of personal quirks became more pronounced. His hearing problem worsened. He became more reclusive, which meant his many female liaisons were conducted under unusually complicated circumstances.
Joan Fontaine in her 1978 autobiography recalls that she was often proposed to by Hughes. (Howard was given to proffering marriage offers willy-nilly.) She writes:
I was never in love with Howard. As a matter of fact, I was a little afraid of him. Certainly one could not be relaxed and at ease with a man of so much wealth, power, and influence. He had no humor, no gaiety, no sense of joy, no vivacity that was apparent to me.
Everything seemed to be a ‘deal,’ a business arrangement, regardless of the picture he had tried to paint of our future together.
Why then did Fontaine entertain Hughes’ romantic blandishments? Money is sexy and he certainly had a blinding overabundance of cash.
Fontaine was hardly the only actress fascinated but not necessarily involved romantically with Hughes. Add to that list Jane Russell, the bosomy actress Hughes “discovered” and notoriously cast in her maiden movie, the “sex-western” titled The Outlaw (completed in 1941 but not released until 1943).
Did she ever sleep with Hughes? Jane said, absolutely not.
She found him likable, kooky and timid. I often hollered at Howard, and I think in a funny kind of way I scared him. Hughes would later confide to friends, that woman terrified me. The mogul made one serious pass, according to Jane, but got nowhere.
Hughes did volunteer during the making of “The Outlaw” to design a fitted bra for Russell. “I found it uncomfortable and ridiculous,” she wrote.
According to the actress’ 1984 autobiography, the powerful agent Lew Wasserman, who represented Jane at one point, asked her: “Look, are you sleeping with this guy or what?” A stunned Russell responded, “No, Lew, my God! He’s my friend.”
It is more or less a matter of record (check out director Martin Scorsese’s superb 2004 Hughes biopic The Aviator) that Howard and Katharine Hepburn were seriously involved in every sense. She reportedly kept a stash of love letters exchanged between the two until she died.
According to one of her biographers, the big Fifties star Susan Hayward and Hughes were definitely an item probably in 1953, after the actress had survived a bruising divorce. Hughes usually bed only once a beauty he admired even though their dates might continue for weeks or even months more.
Whether this pattern held for Hughes’ affair with Ava Gardner is a matter of conjecture. While she was still married to her first husband, Mickey Rooney, Gardner was presented with an engagement ring. According to her biographer Lee Server, Ava responded with, ‘Don’t be silly, Howard.’
Then there is the case of Jean Simmons. Hughes had her under contract at RKO but was less interested in her movie career than in bedding the British actress despite her marriage at the time to Stewart Granger — who loathed the mogul.
Curiously, Simmons would later say that she didn’t, at the time, notice Hughes’ dishonorable intentions. Instead, she claimed he had acted gentlemanly, warning her that Granger was after her money.
The objects of Hughes’ intentions totaled more than 50 actresses including Lana Turner, Bette Davis, Joan Crawford, Ginger Rogers (pictured below) Elizabeth Taylor, Janet Leigh, Faith Domergue and Jane Greer (pictured above)
Perhaps, for Hughes, it was the pursuit that was all-important, the knowledge that he could go after what he wanted — and get it, writes Susan Hayward biographer Beverly Linet.
Certainly, by all accounts, the women pursued did not mind, Paradoxically, no lady linked with Hughes has ever had an unkind word to say about him — not even after his death (in 1976, at the age of 71).