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The Secret Life
By Charles Higham
St. Martin's Press Copyright © 2004 Charles Higham
All rights reserved.
Dark, Tangled Roots
Even his birth details were falsified. He was not born in Houston, Texas, on Christmas Eve, December 24, 1905, but in the oil town of Humble, in the same state, on September 24. The date survives today in the baptismal registration of the parish ledger of St. John's, Keokuk, Iowa.
No birth certificate was entered for him; the day he was born, there was a thunderstorm, and the doctor and midwife were unable to make the journey to Houston through washed-out roads to register him. So they let the matter lie; at risk to his immortal soul, since Episcopalians believed an unbaptized baby went to hell, he was not taken to his grandfather's home in Keokuk for baptism until months later, apparently because his nervous mother feared he might die on the train.
Lie after lie surrounded his infancy. He was supposed to be one of triplets, the other two brothers exchanged for him, for sinister reasons, throughout his lifetime; he was supposed to be his mother's sister's illegitimate child, but she was only eleven at the time; he was supposed to be a substitute baby, brought in at midnight to Houston by rail to replace one who had died or been murdered. He delighted in these tall tales, which persist until today.
His father was the outlaw wildcatter Howard Robard Hughes; his mother, the neurotic Dallas heiress Allene Gano. He would always be half outlaw, defying justice; half fragile, self-centered neurasthenic. Two men helped shape him also: his grandfather, the monomaniac Iowa judge Felix Hughes, and his brilliant Jekyll-and-Hyde uncle, the celebrated best-selling novelist and Broadway playwright Rupert Hughes.
Judge Hughes had several children, the two youngest of whom died in infancy. His only daughter, Greta, and his youngest son, Felix, were musical; Greta became an opera singer, and Felix the founder of the Cleveland Orchestra and the top singing coach of the early days of talking pictures. Rupert was said to be a sadist, murderer, and committer of incest. He was accused of physically torturing his wife, whom he spectacularly divorced in 1903 in the most notorious case of a decade; the New York papers headlined the story on the front pages for weeks as Rupert accused his wife of ten adulteries and she charged him with bedding as many women.
In later years, as Howard Jr. grew up, Rupert was said to own a circular graveyard in New England, filled with the bodies of people he had murdered; he was supposed to have drowned his daughter and replaced her with a double, and to have made love to his sister Greta.
Howard's father, "Bo" Hughes, was almost as colorful as Rupert. Unlike Howard in looks, which gave rise to the usual number of suspicions, he was oval-faced and dreamy-eyed, tall, and strapping compared with his more delicate son. Like Rupert, he was brutal; as a boy, he beat up young girls, slashed male children with knives, and staged cockfights, illegal at the time, in which the spurred roosters tore each other to pieces. Dismissed for bad behavior from college after college, he sank to being a ticket collector on his grandpa Hughes's railroad. He bummed his way around Europe, and was in the Midwest and South as telegraph operator, reporter, and zinc miner.
Bo Hughes wound up penniless in Joplin, Missouri, in 1899, sweating eighteen hours a day, stripped to the waist, in a lead mine. Run out of town on a rail by the angry father of a girl he had seduced, he dreamed of striking oil. He caught the fever that seized tens of thousands of Americans in those days; and then something amazing happened.
On January 10, 1901, at Spindletop, Texas, near Beaumont, oil burst up through the ground in a thousand-foot spume. The rush was on. Bo was among the first to grab up leases.
At Beaumont's only "hotel," a glorified shack called the Crosby House, he caroused with fellow wildcatters Walter Sharp, soon to be his closest friend and partner, and Walter's half-brother Jim. Walter was tall, over six feet three, raw-boned and rangy, with red hair, burning eyes, and a wide frog mouth. Shorter, handsomer, dark and swarthy, Jim was part Mexican, and a small-time Billy the Kid.
The three outlaws grabbed up land at a few dollars an acre, selling it days later for hundreds. They often reneged on their payments and were pursued by angry creditors, whom they disposed of with their fists.
Squandering his money on prostitutes and gambling, Bo rode around town with a Winchester rifle and a hickory stick strapped to his saddle, using both so frequently on his rival wildcatters that he was run out of town.
Bo moved with the Sharps to Houston. Using Walter's money, Bo founded the Texas Fuel Oil Company in 1903, which later became Texaco.
He was broke within six months. When he built a new derrick at Spindletop, he had to barter his diamond tie pin and watch to make a down payment.
On a visit to Dallas in 1903, he fell in love with the darkly pretty Allene Gano; high-strung, a hypochondriac, she was terrified of small animals, especially cats. She was obsessed with the perils of mosquitos, flies, roaches, and beetles.
The couple fell in love. They were ill-matched. The Ganos were monarchs of Dallas society, rich from Kentucky horse farms, wheat lands, and city real estate. Bo Hughes had little. But his relationship to his illustrious father the judge and to his brother Rupert, who was publishing one best-seller after another, proved influential. The Ganos yielded, and the couple were married after five months' courtship, during which Bo was frequently absent in Houston. The couple was wed at the bride's parents' house at the intersection of Masten and San Jacinto streets in Dallas, at 8:30 on the evening of May 24, 1904.
The Ganos spared no expense for the ceremony, which was featured in the social columns. The living room was decorated with arches of bride roses and sweet peas; the couple entered through an aisle of American Beauty roses hung with red and pink ribbons. The large, airy reception rooms were crowded with pink and white flowers; flower baskets clustered in the chandeliers. Allene made a picture in Bruges lace and mousseline de soie, with a lace-and-tulle veil, carrying a bouquet of lilies of the valley. The groom's sister, Greta, sang "Memories." So great was Judge Hughes's influence that his friend the Reverend R. C. McIlwain was brought all the way from Keokuk, with three changes of train, to preside; General Gano remarried the couple in the Baptist faith.
The Hugheses traveled to St. Louis to visit friends, continuing to Europe for an extended six-month honeymoon. Bo bragged later that he spent $10,000 (it was his wife's money) on a journey that stretched to 10,000 miles. The couple came back to Houston, where they took rooms at the expensive and fashionable Rice Hotel. But they had run out of cash; no sooner were they settled than the manager asked them to quit for nonpayment. Charlie Lane, Walter Sharp's secretary and bookkeeper, was dispatched to the hotel to pay the $150 owing, as the unhappy newlyweds sat on their luggage in the lobby. Again they fell behind, and again they were forced to leave. They moved to an airy, white wooden house at 1404 Crawford Street, a fashionable but still unpaved street where many socially prominent families lived.
Allene was afraid of germs spreading from the dreaded Buffalo Bayou, an immense and loathsome pool of filth, the water link between Houston and the Gulf of Mexico. Brown and brackish, the Bayou was littered with putrefying cattle that had been discarded for lack of quality from the nearby stockyards. No one bothered to sweep up the dead birds and fish that lay stinking with corruption in the water and mud. Frequently, people would find their pipes blocked by drifting snakes or eels.
Filters did not exist then, and often, when a tap was turned on, brown water coughed out of it, emitting a stench; anyone who took the chance of drinking it could be poisoned. Even the milk tended to be contaminated, and smallpox and typhoid epidemics were frequent. Not only was Houston slovenly to the point that no one took care of the water problem, and hung over with constant banks of smoky clouds that seemed to sweat the rain, but it was a moral cesspool as well. Prostitutes roamed the streets of the squalid districts, drunkenness was endemic, and there were constant fistfights. To escape, Bo and Allene moved to Humble in 1905, where Howard Jr., known as Sonny, was born.
Following his son's birth, Bo learned of a strike at Shreveport, Louisiana. He took off with wife and baby to that city, putting up at the Caddo Hotel. Howard Jr.'s earliest memories were (he claimed) the sounds of whistles and the sirens of the Red River steamboats, with their echoes of the great days of King Cotton. For decades, prospectors had threaded through the inlets and bayous, squandering fortunes on derrick after derrick that collapsed in soft soil, cursing as gushers turned to salt water, watching slicks of green-gold liquid sweating out into the shallows. When Bo Hughes and his family arrived in Shreveport in early 1907, the stench of sulfur from the tidal marshes blended with the odor of mud and silt and oil: the tarry, unmistakable smell of new strikes. Not even flowers and trees could survive for long in that region: black rot, canker, and elm disease were everywhere.
It was a nightmare for Allene, with her sensitivity, delicacy, and fear of contagion. Cases of yellow fever were reported at the time; as she took Sonny out in a carriage, the first words they saw were QUARANTINED — KEEP OUT, painted on the doors of houses. Allene and her baby found it difficult to sleep at night: from dusk to dawn, the sky was lit a garish orange-crimson as brilliant as at high noon, from the gas-lake fires lit for miles and burned away because nobody saw gas as having any value in an age when electric light was taking over. Not even the thickest curtains at the Caddo Hotel could blot out the light. And the noise of drills, as men worked all night to lay down new streets or build new buildings and mud was churned up for asphalt, added to her misery.
Bo became Postmaster and Deputy Sheriff of nearby Oil City on July 1, 1907. Since there was no jail, he chained prisoners to trees before shipping them off to Shreveport. He put roughnecks in charge of the post office and the arrest details; the result was rampant thievery. When Sonny was two, Bo rushed off to Pierce Junction, Texas, following an oil strike; he continued on to Goose Creek. His fishtail drilling bits broke off, and he was seized by an obsession: he must fashion a bit that would cut through rock and quicksand.
In 1908, on one of his visits to Houston, he got wind of two recently patented bits: one designed by Erich Hoffner, a German in Providence, Rhode Island, and the other by oilman John S. Wynn in Beaumont. He borrowed $12,000 from Walter Sharp, took off to Rhode Island, and bought the first bit for $2,500; Wynn sold him the second one for $9,000. He spent weeks setting up a machine shop in a dirt-floored, rented shack in Houston, testing out the bits. He and Walter Sharp worked eighteen hours a day, trying to blend the two patents. Sharp would stretch out his long legs on the leather office couch, dreaming up ideas, while Bo would pace up and down, then rush to his drawing board with a new concept.
In a Shreveport saloon in October, 1908, Hughes ran into a millwright, Granville (Granny) Humasson, who showed him a sketch for a drill formed like two pine cones, one part moving clockwise and the other counterclockwise, and based on the concept of a coffee grinder. Hughes bought the patent for a mere $1,200, and sold it to his partner for $1,500. Then he took off to Keokuk, where, at dinner one night, he noticed the butter pats on a silver dish. The ribbing on the pats gave him an idea. Suppose he could create a bit that not only had two cone-shaped sections revolving in opposite directions, but could be ribbed like the butter pats? When dinner was over, he cleared the table, sketched away furiously, and then yelled, "Eureka!", so that the whole family came running out to see what he had done. He had provided the cones with 166 cutting edges. The cook walked in, carrying an egg beater. He yelled with joy when he saw it. By November 20, 1908, he had invented the Hughes tool bit, which, improved yearly for most of a decade, marketed all over the world, formed the basis of the countless millions of the Hughes fortune.
He brought his family back to Houston, moving them into 916 Crawford Street. No sooner had he settled into offices than the sheriff arrived at his office with a warrant for his arrest. The Oil City Post Office account was $450 short. Walter Sharp paid the money out of the office safe, plus a bribe, and the sheriff went home.
In 1909, when Sonny Hughes was four, Bo formed the Sharp-Hughes Tool Company. The problem was marketing the new bit. Resistance to it was strong. Jim Sharp came in handy; he shot the ground from under reluctant buyers' feet until they gave in. Once a prospector bought a bit, Hughes sent him an engraved gold cigarette case. But even though the bit began to take off, Hughes lost his money again in gambling, whoring, and ordering expensive equipment on the company accounts. When he bought an expensive Pierce Arrow automobile, he lost it in a bet to Jim Sharp. He was $10,000 in the red by 1910.
By the time he was four, Bo and Allene Hughes knew that delicate, nervous Sonny was afflicted. He had inherited deafness, as his Uncle Rupert had, from generations of Hugheses. Hereditary otosclerosis was a condition of the ear that would grow progressively worse for a lifetime. The result of a child's finding he had that condition was that he would become introspective, isolated, and feel a piercing sense of inferiority. It is remarkable that Hughes overcame the handicap as strongly as he did, in the rough and tumble world of childhood. He was, and remained, controlling of his tiny universe.
At the age of five, Sonny was sent by his mother to kindergarten. Jenny M. Eichler's University, a comical name for the tiny school, was located in Christ Church Episcopal's parish house. The German Mrs. Eichler, with her strict discipline, fascinated the child. Among his fellow students in a class of thirteen were Dudley Sharp, his best friend, Walter's second son; and the pretty young Ella Rice, daughter of Peter Rice, of the poorer branch of the wealthy Houston family which had founded the Rice Institute. A skeleton rattled in the Rice family closet. There was talk among the children of Ella's great-uncle William Rice's being murdered in 1900 by his valet and his lawyer. One day, Ella would marry Sonny.
Young Howard was always late for school; this annoyed Mrs. Eichler, who tried in vain to make him wear a watch. He was shy, handsome, polite; a "perfect little gentleman," as another fellow pupil, the radio playwright Elizabeth Dillingham, remembered him years later.
Both Allene and Estelle Sharp were strict, recalls Mary Cullinan, the daughter of Hughes's partner Joe Cullinan. Much of young Howard's time was spent with Mary and Dudley Sharp at the Walter Sharp home on Main and Elgin, a romantic house, covered in creeping vines, filled with the delicious scent of sandalwood. There Howard, Mary, and Dudley built a shed; he was always inventing things in it. Mary says, "Howard had to be ahead in everything; he constantly challenged himself. We'd be at the back of the estate; he'd have us jump off a high swing and see who would jump the furthest and it was usually him! We'd race each other; he'd always come first. But I was a tomboy and gave him a good run for his money!"
At age eight, Sonny attended Dr. James Richardson's exclusive school, Prosser's Academy. Richardson wasn't impressed with him; years later, when asked by another head teacher for a report, Richardson stated that Sonny was uppity, snobbish, refused to join in manly pursuits, and preferred to spend most of his time with the little girls, resulting in the boys calling him a "sissy." He showed an unhealthy interest in his mother's diamonds, and would borrow them to show his schoolgirl friends. It is a safe bet he received kicks in the behind from the boys for his behavior.
That year, the family suffered a shock: Walter Sharp, who had been ailing for some time, died in Chicago of kidney disease, brought on by years of drinking. The solemn funeral gave Sonny his first taste of the meaning of death. He was afraid of it for the rest of his life.
Walter Sharp's partners struggled over the company. Two resigned in protest over Bo Hughes's controlling methods. But his inventive genius, as he obsessively produced newer and better oil bits, propelled them into wealth. When partner Joseph Cullinan walked out on February 8, 1913, after several quarrels with Bo, Hughes Sr. became the dominant figure of the company. On October 30, 1914, he moved his wife and son into Apartment Three of the expensive and lavish Burlington Apartments, whose owners rolled out a red carpet when the occupants arrived. Allene, housed in her first comfortable residence to date, was at last able to face up to her family in Dallas, found herself in the Houston Blue Book, and joined the Country Club.
Excerpted from Howard Hughes by Charles Higham. Copyright © 2004 Charles Higham. Excerpted by permission of St. Martin's Press.
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