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Seen and Unseen
Talking heads, 1980

He would see faces in movies, on TV
In magazines and in books
He thought that some of these faces might be right for him
And that through the years
By keeping an ideal facial structure fixed in his mind
Or somewhere in the back of his mind
That he might, by force of will
Cause his face to approach those of his ideal
The change would be very subtle
It may take ten years or so
Gradually his face would change it’s shape
A more hooked nose
Wider, thinner lips
Beady eyes
A larger forehead
He imagined that this was an ability he shared with most other people
That they had also molded their faces according to some ideal
Maybe they imagined they imagined their new face
Would better suit their personality
Or maybe they imagined that their personality
Would be forced to change, to fit the new appearance
This is why first impressions are often correct
Although some people might have made mistakes
They might have arrived to an appearance that bears no relationship to them
They might have picked an ideal appearance based on some childish whim
Or a momentary impulse
Some may have gotten half way there
And then changed their minds
He wonders if he too might have made a similar mistake

7000 Romaine
Joan Didion, 1968

            Seven thousand Romaine Street is in that part of Los Angeles familiar to admirers of Raymond Chandler and U Dashiell Hammett: the underside of Hollywood, south of Sunset Boulevard, a middle-class slum of “model studios” and warehouses and two-family bungalows. Because Paramount and Columbia and Desilu and the Samuel Goldwyn studios are nearby, many of the people who live around here have some tenuous connection with the motion-picture industry. They once processed fan photographs, say, or knew Jean Harlow’s manicurist. 7000 Romaine looks itself like a faded movie exterior, a pastel building with chipped art moderne detailing, the windows now either boarded or paned with chicken-wire glass and, at the entrance, among the dusty oleander, a rubber mat that reads WELCOME.

            Actually no one is welcome, for 7000 Romaine belongs to Howard Hughes, and the door is locked. That the Hughes “communications center” should lie here in the dull sunlight of Hammett-Chandler country is one of those circumstances that satisfy one’s suspicion that life is indeed a scenario, for the Hughes empire has been in our time the only industrial complex in the world-involving, over the years, machinery manufacture, foreign oil-tool subsidiaries, a brewery, two airlines, immense real-estate holdings, a major motion-picture studio, and an electronics and missile operation-run by a man whose modus operandi most closely resembles that of a character in The Big Sleep.

            As it happens, I live not far from 7000 Romaine, and I make a point of driving past it every now and then, I suppose in the same spirit that Arthurian scholars visit the Cornish coast. I am interested in the folklore of Howard Hughes, in the way people react to him, in the terms they use when they talk about him. Let me give you an example. A few weeks ago I lunched with an old friend at the Beverly Hills Hotel. One of the other guests was a well-married woman in her thirties who had once been a Hughes contract starlet, and another was a costume designer who had worked on a lot of Hughes pictures and who still receives a weekly salary from 7000 Romaine, on the understanding that he work for no one else. He has done nothing but cash that weekly check for some years now. They sat there in the sun, the one-time starlet and the sometime costume designer for a man whose public appearances are now somewhat less frequent than those of The Shadow, and they talked about him. They wondered how he was and why he was devoting 1967 to buying up Las Vegas.

            “You can’t tell me it’s like they say, that he bought the Desert Inn just because the high rollers were coming in and they wouldn’t let him keep the penthouse,” the ex-starlet mused, fingering a diamond as big as the Ritz. "It must be part of some larger mission.”

            The phrase was exactly right. Anyone who skims the financial press knows that Hughes never has business “transactions,” or "negotiations”; he has “missions.” His central mission, as Fortune once put it in a series of love letters, has always been “to preserve his power as the proprietor of the largest pool of industrial wealth still under the absolute control of a single individual.” Nor does Hughes have business “associates”; he has only “adversaries.” When the adversaries “appear to be” threatening his absolute control, Hughes “might or might not” take action. It is such phrases as “appear to be” and “might or might not,” peculiar to business reportage involving Hughes, that suggested the special mood of a Hughes mission. And here is what the action might or might not be: Hughes might warn, at the critical moment, “You’re holding a gun to my head.” If there is one thing Hughes dislikes, it is a gun to his head (generally this means a request for an appearance, or a discussion of policy), and at least one president of T.W.A., a company which, as Hughes ran it, bore an operational similarity only to the government of Honduras, departed on this note.

            The stories are endless, infinitely familiar, traded by the faithful like baseball cards, fondled until they fray around the edges and blur into the apocryphal. There is the one about the barber, Eddie Alexander, who was paid handsomely to remain on “day and night standby” in case Hughes wanted a haircut. "Just checking, Eddie,” Hughes once said when hecalled Alexander at two in the morning. “Just wanted to see if you were standing by.” There was the time Convair wanted to sell Hughes 340 transports and Hughes insisted that, to insure “secrecy,” the mission be discussed only between midnight and dawn, by flashlight, in the Palm Springs Municipal Dump. There was the evening when both Hughes and Greg Bautzer, then his lawyer, went incommunicado while, in the conference room of the Chemical Bank in New York, the money men waited to lend T.W.A. $165 million. There they were, $165 million in hand, the men from two of the country’s biggest insurance companies and nine of its most powerful banks, all waiting, and it was 7 p.m. of the last day the deal could be made and the bankers found themselves talking by phone not to Hughes, not even to Bautzer, but to Bautzer’s wife, the movie star Dana Wynter. “I hope he takes it in pennies,” a Wall Street broker said when Hughes, six years later, sold T.W.A. for $546 million, “and drops it on his toes.”

            Then there are the more recent stories. Howard Hughes is en route to Boston aboard the Super Chief with the Bel Air Patrol riding shotgun. Howard Hughes is in Peter Bent Brigham Hospital. Howard Hughes commandeers the fifth floor of the Boston Ritz. Howard Hughes is or is not buying 37% percent of Columbia Pictures through the Swiss Banque de Paris. Howard Hughes is ill. Howard Hughes is dead. No, Howard Hughes is in Las Vegas. Howard Hughes pays $13 million for the Desert Inn. $15 million for the Sands. Gives the State of Nevada $6 million for a medical school. Negotiates for ranches, Alamo Airways, the North Las Vegas Air Terminal, more ranches, the rest of the Strip. By July of 1967 Howard Hughes is the largest single landholder in Clark County, Nevada. “Howard likes Las Vegas,” an acquaintance of Hughes’s once explained, “because he likes to be able to find a restaurant open in case he wants a sandwich.”

            Why do we like those stories so? Why do we tell them over and over? Why have we made a folk hero of a man who is the antithesis of all our official heroes, a haunted millionaire out of the West, trailing a legend of desperation and power and white sneakers? But then we have always done that. Our favorite people and our favorite stories become so not by any inherent virtue, but because they illustrate something deep in the grain, something unadmitted. Shoeless Joe Jackson, Warren Gamaliel Harding, the Titanic: how the mighty are fallen. Charles Lindbergh, Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald, Marilyn Monroe: the beautiful and damned. And Howard Hughes. That we have made a hero of Howard Hughes tells us something interesting about ourselves, something only dimly remembered, tells us that the secret point of money and power in America is neither the things that money can buy nor power for power’s sake (Americans are uneasy with their possessions, guilty about power, all of which is difficult for Europeans to perceive because they are themselves so truly materialistic, so versed in the uses of power), but absolute personal freedom, mobility, privacy. It is the instinct which drove America to the Pacific, all through the nineteenth century, the desire to be able to find a restaurant open in case you want a sandwich, to be a free agent, live by one’s own rules.

            Of course we do not admit that. The instinct is socially suicidal, and because we recognize that this is so we have developed workable ways of saying one thing and believing quite another. A long time ago, Lionel Trilling pointed out what he called “the fatal separation” between the ideas of our educated liberal class and the deep places of the imagination.” “I mean only," he wrote, “that our educated class has a ready if mild suspiciousness of the profit motive, a belief in progress, science, social legislation, planning and international cooperation. … Those beliefs do great credit to those who hold them. Yet it is a comment, if not on our beliefs then on our way of holding them, that not a single first-rate writer has emerged to deal with these ideas, and the emotions that are consonant with them, in a great literary way.” Officially we admire men who exemplify those ideas. We admire the Adlai Stevenson character, the rational man, the enlightened man, the man not dependent upon the potentially psychopathic mode of action. Among rich men, we officially admire Paul Mellon, a socially responsible inheritor in the European mold. There has always been that divergence between our official and our unofficial heroes. It is impossible to think of Howard Hughes without seeing the apparently bottomless gulf between what we say we want and what we do want, between what we officially admire and secretly desire, between, in the largest sense, the people we marry and the people we love. In a nation which increasingly appears to prize social virtues, Howard Hughes remains not merely antisocial but grandly, brilliantly, surpassingly, asocial. He is the last private man, the dream we no longer admit.

    Notes on Desire
I Flattering Delusions
II The Funhouse
III Just Called to Say I Love You
IV American Psycho
V Models
VI Good Old Neon
VII Living Like Weasles
VII Goodbye