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The One-Question Q&A with: Geoff Schumacher, Howard Hughes biographer

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Howard Hughes is an important historical figure. But does his story speak to our modern condition in some way?

In the midst of this pandemic, Hughes’ prescient germ phobia might seem like the obvious answer. But there's another facet of his life that still resonates today. Hughes was a rich and famous man who, in the late 1950s, decided he would no longer be seen in public. In part this was a product of the physical and psychological effects of his growing dependence on painkillers. He stopped going out, conducting business by phone or memo. He surrounded himself with a cadre of personal aides, young men who delivered his meals, managed his hour-to-hour needs — and never questioned his orders. Living in this self-imposed bubble, Hughes became dependent not only on drugs but on his aides and the handful of executives and lawyers who ran his companies. Some of the executives found that they could manipulate Hughes to do what they wanted. They employed the doctors and the aides, and

nobody questioned whether they had Hughes’ best interests at heart. The aides, yes-men who reveled in being close to such a famous and powerful person, watched as Hughes’ health deteriorated, saying nothing. The doctors, some of whom certainly recognized a tragedy in the making, defended their lack of action on grounds that Hughes was a “difficult patient.” In the end, Hughes, once an athletic 6-foot, 4-inch man, was confined to a bed. When he died in 1976, he weighed 90 pounds and had broken needles in his arms. He died of gross manipulation and medical neglect. He created a sequestered environment in which neither his friends nor the people around him had the guts to blow the whistle on what was happening. No life stories are exactly alike, but what happened to Hughes is not unlike what happened to Elvis Presley in 1977 and Michael Jackson in 2009. All three had difficulty living normal lives. All three had access to whatever pharmaceuticals they wanted and took full and reckless advantage of that privilege. All three were surrounded by enablers. Their doctors kept the prescriptions coming, no matter how ill- advised, and all three died ugly. Who among our 21 st-century power brokers and mega-celebrities will be next?

Sponsor Message

Howard Hughes: Power, Paranoia, and Palace Intrigue (revised and expanded), by Geoff Schumacher, University of Nevada Press, $29.95