A With Howard Hughes' Biographer James Steele
John Logan, screenwriter of The Aviator, cited the biography Empire by Donald Bartlett and James Steele as a valuable resource during the long process of getting Howard Hughes' life in cinematic shape. The book by the current Time editors-at-large, first published in 1979, is being reissued by Norton as Howard Hughes: His Life and Madness in concert with the Martin Scorsese film opening December 17th. Steele talked with Patrick Sauer about Hughes, one of America's true eccentrics who happens to be one of its most fascinating entrepreneurs.
Q: How would you describe Howard Hughes as a person?
Steele: Hughes was a complete go-it-aloner, nobody told Howard what to do. He craved attention and liked being in the spotlight, but was also shy and would recoil when he got it. Hughes was driven by a desire to achieve and part of that passion was what made him an appealing young man. Hughes was extremely rich but unassuming: After every speech during the round-the-world flight he would give all the credit to his crew. He didn't sit on his wealth. It's hard not admire how he marched to the beat of his own drummer, even though Hughes was not someone to feel warm and fuzzy about. The sad part was late in life when he needed someone--and there wasn't anyone around.
Q: How about as an entrepreneur?
Steele: He was a classic entrepreneur in the sense that he wasn't beholden to anybody because he had the money. Donald [Bartlett] and I weren't so sure Hughes was a "genius" but he was good at pulling talented people together to build his aircraft. He had allure and a lot of people wanted to work with him, but he drove them crazy with his meddling.
Q: What don't people know about Howard Hughes?
Steele: I don't think Hughes gets enough credit for all of the industries he was involved in, the movies, aviation, electronics, aerospace, and even defense contracting. He was always on the cutting-edge of technology. Hughes launched the first communication satellite and the first soft landing on the moon was one of his spacecraft. Not all of Howard's ideas worked, he made a $90-million mistake in the late 1960s manufacturing military helicopters, but one thing Americans admire is when the rich put their fortunes toward something productive.
Q: Is there an anecdote that sums Hughes up?
Steele: The story of the Spruce Goose is a good example of Hughes' contradictions. Nobody had ever built an airplane of this size. [Ed Note: It weighed 200 tons and was 219 feet long.] Since World War II was going on, Hughes couldn't acquire enough metal. That didn't stop him. He built it out of spruce plywood even though everyone said it was impossible. Hughes got it done, although his micromanaging was the main reason it took so long to build. It was only flown once, by Hughes, 70 feet above the Long Beach Harbor in 1947. Hughes was ridiculed in Senate hearings because for all intents and purposes, the Spruce Goose had no practical applications.
Q: Where do you think Hughes ranks in the history books?
Steele: I don't think he ranks up there with Henry Ford or Steve Jobs, Hughes is probably more significant as a reminder of what individual enterprise can do. However, it's nice to have individual characters in America and Howard Hughes was one of the best.