One of the most fascinating and tortured movies I have watched is ‘The Aviator’, a look at the life of Howard Hughes.
Howard Hughes’ father invented a revolutionary drill bit that, within ten years, was used in 75 percent of the world’s oil wells, allowing them to drill deeper to previously unreachable oil fields. Standard Oil used fifteen thousand of these Hughes drill bits, leased out from Hughes at $30,000 per well.
At age eleven, Howard built the first wireless broadcasting set in Houston so that he could communicate with ships in the Gulf of Mexico.
With the ‘Hells Angels’ talking movie, Hughes created the first ‘talking movie’ blockbuster, astounding his critics who were convinced that this Texan upstart would lose his shirt.
Hughes once said to his top assistant Noah Dietrich: “I intend to be the greatest golfer in the world, the finest film producer in Hollywood, the greatest pilot in the world, and the richest man in the world.” On his death bed, Hughes commented: “I want to be remembered for only one thing – my contribution to aviation.”
As I watched ‘The Aviator’ movie and read several biographies on Howard Hughes, I kept being reminded of Jesus’ comment: ‘What does it profit a person to gain the whole world and yet lose your soul?’ What can a person give in exchange for his soul? (Mark 8:36-37) Brown & Broeske noted in their HH biography, “Hughes acted as if he owned the whole world.”
Hughes ordered RKO Film Executive, William Fadiman, to cut his staff by 25 percent. When Fadiman started to protest, Hughes quickly cut him off. “I know what you’re going to tell me. You’re going to tell me, probably, that you know someone who has cancer or someone who just got married or just had a baby, and that you can’t do that to those people…A corporation has no soul. I can’t know about those things and be a corporation.”
“We brought nothing into this world and it is certain that we can carry nothing out”, intoned Reverend Robert T. Gibson during Howard Hughes funeral at Houston’s Christ Church Cathedral. Howard Hughes was baptized in an Anglican/Episcopal Church, married in an Anglican/Episcopal Church, and buried in an Anglican/Episcopal Church. He was truly part of the hatched/matched/&/dispatched crowd. But nowhere is there any clear indication that a living faith in Jesus Christ ever impacted Hughes’ soul.
Howard Hughes, as North America’s first billionaire, had everything, and yet was deeply lacking. Brilliantly gifted technologically, he was profoundly crippled in his abilities to sustain the very relationships that make life worth living. Tragically enmeshed in his mother’s apron strings well after her death, Hughes was never able to leave and cleave, never able to commit to a lifelong relationship. It was a dark, troubling relationship that a counselor would later describe as ‘emotionally incestuous’.
Much like Howard Hughes’ womanizing father, Howard found it difficult to connect with women as real human beings. Brown & Broeske wrote that Hughes ‘saw women as possessions. He had to have total control. They were under his command like prisoners’. Faith Domergue, one of his younger conquests, said of herself: “I felt like a butterfly on a pin – beautiful, vibrant, and utterly trapped.” Noah Dietrich his right-hand man said of Hughes that “When it came to women he really cared for (like Kate Hepburn or Ginger Rogers), he sabotaged every time. He simply could not be faithful.” In the divorce petition by his first wife Ella Hughes, she called Hughes ‘irritable, cross, cruelly critical, and inconsiderate, rendering living together inappropriate.’ Brown & Broeske commented that “Hughes always believed that the problems (with women) could all be solved by externals: fur coats, new houses, expensive cars, and showers of jewelry.” For all of Hughes’ money and all of his lovers, Howard Hughes became lonelier and lonelier. Kathryn Grayson one of his Hollywood paramours said that Hughes seemed to be ‘the loneliest man in the world.’
Howard Hughes’ life is living proof that possessions and things are not where it is at. It has been said that life’s temptations can be summarized in three categories: sex, money, and power. None of these are wrong in themselves, but all of them can be destructive if we forget their purposes and parameters, such as family, marriage and service to our community. Jesus in Luke 14:33 memorably said that ‘anyone who does not give up everything he has cannot be my disciple.’ Howard Hughes’ tortured life reminds us that anything that we cling to will ultimately destroy us. Everything needs to be surrendered back to our Maker. As we choose, no matter how painfully, to ‘let go and let God’, we rediscover our soul. And as the Great Physician puts it, what can a person give in exchange for his soul?
The Rev. Dr. Ed Hird, Rector
BSW, MDiv, DMin
-previously published in the Deep Cove Crier
-award-winning author of the book Battle for the Soul of Canada
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