Saturday, June 21, 2014

From Time magazine, 1976: Howard Hughes once sat on a toilet for 72 hours...and other stories of his final years

The joke is that a poor person is crazy, a rich person is eccentric. Such seems to be true of Howard Hughes and his mental illnesses, which led to his seclusion and bizarre behavior during the final years of his life. He was often referred to in the press as “an eccentric billionaire.”

His problems had always been there, usually manifested in his obsessive-compulsive disorder.

According to some biographical information about Hughes, his germophobia could have been brought on by his mother, who was in deathly fear of her young son developing polio. She reputedly checked him every day for signs of illness.

Other sources speculate that Hughes’ late in life habits of sitting naked in the dark watching movies, his poor hygiene and disregard of personal appearance (hair and beard grown long and tangled, finger-and-toenails uncut) may have been as a result of allodynia, which is pain upon being touched. Hughes survived several air crashes over the years, and some think that as a trade-off for his survival the crashes may have left him with a lifetime of pain. It would also have contributed to his addiction to codeine, with which he injected himself. Codeine would explain his chronic constipation (mentioned in the article below), and the famous story of him sitting on a toilet for 72 hours.

Hughes died weighing 90 pounds, in an emaciated state resembling survivors of the Nazi death camps. Official cause of death was kidney failure, but his death was also caused by neglect and not being under medical care. His quality of life might have been improved had he allowed himself to be put under the care of professionals. That would be where the eccentricity of a rich person’s mental illness would come in. He could afford to live like he chose to live, and no one could do anything about it. He gave orders, others obeyed them. Hughes seems more like an emperor with whom no one dares disagree. If one of the richest men in America wants to sit naked in a dark hotel room watching Ice Station Zebra over and over, then by golly, who is going to tell him he can’t?

The article from Time, December 13, 1976, has an excerpt from the book, Howard Hughes, the Hidden Years by James R. Phelan, published shortly after Hughes’ death. It uses descriptions of those years by two aides who were with Hughes at the time. There were rumors in the years leading up to Hughes’ demise as to his physical deterioration. It took his death and the attendant interest in Hughes, which had pretty much accompanied his whole life as a playboy, movie-maker and aviator, to bring the public the full picture and details of his serious medical problems, including mental illness.

Author James R. Phelan died in 1997 at age 85. Over many years he wrote extensively of Hughes and his business affairs. The book excerpted in the article, Howard Hughes, The Hidden Years, was a best seller in its time, but is now out of print. Various editions are available through third party booksellers on and other sites that offer out-of-print books.

Copyright © 1976 Time, Inc.

Monday, June 16, 2014

Found bookmark — the busty snapshot

I wrote this originally in 2006. I have revised it slightly for this re-posting.

A few years ago I found a book at a thrift store. Well, that's not a big deal...I've found hundreds of books at thrift stores.  It took me over a year to get around to actually opening this book* but when I did out fell this snapshot:

On the back of the snapshot is the notation “Taken in May, 1953. Marlene C. and me. Same gym class.”

I took the picture to my friend Sherry, who works in the school district accounting office.

“Say,” I said to her after handing her the picture, “there are a couple of points of interest in this picture.”

“There sure are,” she snorted.

“First of all, they had some great gym outfits 50 years ago, huh? And then, isn't that Joan, who works down the hall from us in the public relations department? Joan approximately 50 years younger, that is.”

Sherry said, “Sure looks like her.“

I have to mention we weren't talking about the Marilyn Monroe/Mamie Van Doren/Jayne Mansfield wannabe, we were talking about the girl to her left, grinning her toothy grin, cat-eye glasses on beaky nose. We think it is the lady who had worked with us for years...who had a doctorate, was a teacher, writer, and all around smart lady. I looked at the picture, again. I didn't want to take it to Joan and have her say, “That's mine! I wondered where that was! Give it back to me!” So I never actually asked her if it was her, and if her booby buddy was actually a friend, or if this photo was someone’s idea of a joke.

Over the years I've had some experiences like this. Finding things, I mean. Some mean something, some don't. Sherry's other comment about the picture was, “What's up with the pointy bra?” What's “up,” indeed! Sherry isn't old enough to remember pointy bras, courtesy of the inventor, Howard Hughes, as we were always told. Nowadays the mechanical engineering on those things is amazing, but in those days it was a little more primitive.

The lady on the left, who we supposed was Joan, retired a few years ago. By my reckoning, if in 1953 she was 17 or 18 as she appears in the picture, she'd be about 80 now, which would certainly be the same age as our Joan. As for the other girl, well...I hope gravity has been kind to her. Usually what goes up after a time comes down. Maybe I knew her, too, but at 80 wouldn't have recognized her.

As it is, I have this, once a forgotten bookmark, now a great found item, a gem of a snapshot pinned onto a corkboard in my computer room.

*The Savage God by Al Alvarez

Wednesday, June 04, 2014

All choked up from watching The Godfather

Luca Brasi (Lenny Montana), not very articulate to begin with, doesn’t have anything intelligent to say in this scene.

I watched The Godfather on DVD the other day. I have seen it several times since its original theatrical release in 1972. Since it is in my all-time top ten list of great movies, I watch it every few years to reassure myself it hasn’t lost anything.

Something I read years ago was the impact the movie had on the real Five Families of New York. They took it as a template for how a Mafia family should be. Life imitated art, when everyone supposed it was the other way around. Even The Sopranos, which updated the Mafia for a nineties audience, referenced The Godfather many times. Steven Van Zandt as Silvio Dante did an impression of Al Pacino from The Godfather Part II: “Every time I try to get out, they pull me back in.”

All things considered, Pacino did a very reserved performance in The Godfather. I don’t believe director Francis Ford Coppola allowed him to chew scenery as he has done in several movies. This was Pacino’s star turn and put him in the upper ranks of movie actors.

Michael Corleone gets to think about his next move while eating dinner with Capt. McClusky and Solozzo, who has already tried to hit Michael’s father, unsuccessfully. Michael is wondering, "Did Clemenza tell me to drop the gun first or shoot first and then drop the gun?” It’s Michael’s first hit. You can’t blame him for being nervous.

In one incredible anecdote about the movie I read years ago, Rod Steiger contacted the casting director about a part. Assuming he was aiming for the part of the Godfather, they told him the part of Don Corleone had already been taken by Brando. Steiger said he was looking to play Michael. The last time he and Brando were in a movie together was On the Waterfront in 1954, and I think he may have been just a tad too old — by at least a few decades — for Michael.

Corrupt Captain McClusky meets his demise by being shot by Michael. Sterling Hayden, who played McClusky, was something of a reluctant star. He had been in a lot of movies, always a wonder to me since I don't think he could act. But he kept getting offers. I think he took the jobs in order to get money for his true love, his sail boat.

Michael escapes to Italy to lie low until the heat dies down. While there he is “hit by the thunderbolt” and falls in love with and marries the fresh young Apollonia.

Honk! Tweet! Yow-za! Michael gets a first glimmer of his bride’s nubile beauty. Poor Apollonia has a bad end in the movie, getting blown up in Michael’s car. I tried to say something significant about the idea of dragging an innocent virgin into the seedy world of organized crime, and ultimate retribution by her new husband’s enemies, but frankly I couldn’t come up with anything interesting enough to say.* Especially after seeing actress Simonetta Steffanelli’s 18-year-old boobs, which say it all. When Steffanelli was asked why she didn’t make more Hollywood movies she said, “They just wanted to expose my body, and I wouldn’t do that.” Instead she posed for Penthouse in 1973. Hey, it is always good for an actress to have high standards.

Something I noticed about The Godfather is the absence of a lot of profanity. Unlike later movies where the word ‘fuck’ stands in for nouns, verbs, adjectives and all other forms of speech, this movie does not descend to that level. I was glad of it. The word is seriously overused in movies and cable TV shows nowadays. I haven’t seen Wolf of Wall Street but heard that they used the word over 500 times. I was in the Army for two years, and I bet I didn’t say that word half that many times in my whole Army career. My feeling is that it is a word that should be reserved for when it is really needed,* not used every other word  in every sentence.

The Godfather does have some violent scenes, which still have impact even though the movie is 42 years old. It’s because it isn’t an action picture, where the hero can have twenty guys shooting machine guns at him and not be hit, yet hit a villain with every shot he takes.

In the real world of 1972 we saw some criminal activity on the very highest levels, which made the Corleone family look like amateurs.

The Godfather holds up well. But I believe it is in the shadow of its sequel, The Godfather Part II. Robert De Niro as the young Vito Corleone had his own star turn in that movie. The scenes shot in Italy and later in New York’s Little Italy are masterpieces. De Niro had been getting attention before that movie. I first saw him in Bloody Mama in 1970, then Bang the Drum Slowly in 1973 and was impressed.

But, Godfather Part II will be the subject of another posting, another time. Until then, “Don’t ask me about my business...don’t ever ask me about my business...”

*Is it interesting if I say that Michael was something of a virgin himself, in the ways of his criminal family that is, when he made his first hit?

*Don’t ask me to describe when the word is really needed. I know it when an occasion presents itself.