SEDUCTION: Sex, Lies, and Stardom in Howard Hughes's Hollywood, by Karina Longworth. Custom House, 543 pp., $29.99.
Karina Longworth’s “Seduction: Sex, Lies, and Stardom in Howard Hughes’s Hollywood” is a big, messy, sometimes fascinating, sometimes tedious account of a Hollywood culture of sexual entitlement, embodied by its most flamboyant practitioner — eccentric multimillionaire playboy Howard Hughes.
Over a long career as a Hollywood producer and string-puller from the 1920s into the 1950s, Hughes brazenly used his star-making power to court and bed a steady stream of “young women who believed that to be under contract to Howard Hughes was to have their future in sure hands.” Karina Longworth, the creator and host of the popular podcast “You Must Remember This,” casts Hughes as a precursor to rapacious men like Harvey Weinstein, and his career a forerunner to the institutionalized entitlement that eventually triggered the #MeToo movement.
“As we move into an era in which there is frank public discussion of the . . . abuse of women by men in positions of power, it’s time to rethink stories that lionize playboys,” Longworth writes; one way to do so is “by exploring a playboy’s relationship with some of the women in his life from the perspective of those women.”
Even by the lupine standards of the day, Hughes’s sexual tactics were chilling. He had the women in his life chauffeured and guarded by a veritable army of minions, who also acted as pimps and spies; he exercised complete control over what they ate, what they wore and where they went. Those who were not summoned to his private quarters were cast into a netherworld of aimless waiting, until they finally gave up and left Hollywood in despair; at least one attempted suicide.
Some of these women, of course, were stars who eventually escaped Hughes’s clutches and went on to long and productive careers. Jane Russell, in particular, seems to have given as good as she got, and Ida Lupino managed to leverage Hughes’s affection for her into support for her work as a director — a rarity for a woman in a very male world. Ava Gardner comes across as bawdy and profane, whereas Katharine Hepburn seems to have retained a dotty fondness for their brief entanglement.
Most bizarre of all was the behavior of Terry Moore, who claimed that Hughes and she were married on board a ship in 1949, and that furthermore, they had never divorced, which meant that she was entitled to a portion of his estate. The merry-go-round came to an end in 1957, when Hughes finally married Jean Peters, one of his later discoveries. By this time, though, his mental health begun to spin out of control, and the starmaking phase of his career was over.
“Seduction” is a sprawling, many-faceted story, one teeming with famous names, and despite Longworth’s passion and energy the narrative drags at times. When she abandons the dizzying roundelay of names and dates and meetings and trips to focus on the films themselves, she is consistently smart and perceptive, providing succinct, technically astute analyses with a bracing feminist zing. An Ida Lupino flick ends when the heroine “is revealed to be insane — a very 1940s Hollywood way of defanging threatening female desire and vengeance,” whereas a hack “moralist director . . . uses mise-en-scѐne to tell the audience that” a particularly hapless ingénue “can’t be trusted to make her own decisions about sex and men.”
Longworth notes that even a bit of popular fluff like “Gentlemen Prefer Blondes” was “ideologically potent” in that it showed Jane Russell, who had suffered years of debasement and humiliation at Hughes’s hands, embracing her sexuality “as a source of fun and pleasure, without the horrible consequences usually dealt to sexually active women during the Code era.”
Longworth has immense affection for the period she documents, and she seems, impossibly, to have read everything ever written about these endlessly famous people. She has obviously done a staggering amount of research; indeed, one gets the sense of a superabundance of material that spiraled out of the author’s command. One must ask, could an editor have tightened it up?
Like its subject, the book becomes stranger and sadder as it nears its close, with Hughes’s death, drug-addled and emaciated, aboard one of his own planes, en route to Houston. His end had a certain Gatsby-like irony to it. “There were no vestiges of Hughes’s Hollywood life at his funeral,” Longworth writes. “No actresses were in attendance.”