Book review: Howard Hughes: Power, Paranoia, and Palace Intrigue

Geoff Schumacher. Howard Hughes: Power, Paranoia, and Palace Intrigue. Las Vegas: Stephens Press, 2008. Hardcover, 292 pp.

More than four dozens books about Howard Hughes have been published since the 1960s. It would seem that there’s little more we can learn about his life. Why, then, should you bother to read another book about Hughes? Because, in addition to being well-written and entertaining, it’s the most exact summary of his documented life to date, and because it also has some thoughtful theories on mysteries that still swirl around the erstwhile aviator.

Schumacher’s book is a hybrid. In some regards, it’s a synthesis of the plethora of previous Hughes works. Schumacher combed through what must have been an endless array of news clippings and tomes of Hughesiana. But he also availed himself of rare and unique primary sources at UNLV Special Collections, the Nevada State Museum and Historical Society, and the treasure troves of private collectors. His thoroughness definitely shows. I doubt there’s much about Hughes–particularly his four Las Vegas years–that Schumacher doesn’t touch on.

The book starts with a quick summary of Hughes B.V. (before Vegas), then discusses his lesser-known earlier stays in Las Vegas, including his 1943 Lake Mead crash and his purchase of the “Green House,” which is still intact on the land of KLAS-TV, in 1953. Then he brings in the story of Hughes’ right hand, Bob Maheu. Maheu’s story has been well-documented, but seems to gain something by being placed in the context of Hughes.

Here’s where business really starts to pick up. As the Hughes roller coaster inches higher up the initial slope, Schumacher stops to describe “what Vegas saw” with a quick chronological survey of contemporary media coverage the Hughes Las Vegas years (1966-1970). The he dives into the real substance of the book–detailed chapters on Hughes in Vegas. These run the gamut from profiles of significant figures such as Hank Greenspun, Paul Winn, and John Meier, to discussions of key topics: the Clifford Irving hoax biography, the Palace Coup that brought Maheu down, and the sometimes-outlandish fight over the estate in the face of competing Hughes wills, none of which was proved authentic. Melvin Dummar’s tragicomic tale–more tragedy than comedy, it now seems–gets ample space, and probably its best analysis yet.

Schumacher then jumps tracks, switching from biographer to critic with a section called “Hughesiana” that features a mix of non-Vegas profiles (Jane Russell, Rupert Hughes, and the RKO fiasco) and extended takes on “Weird Tales” (obscure Hughes texts) and “the Fictional Hughes,” which is an up-to-date consideration of the reams of paper and reels celluloid fantasy that Hughes has inspired.

The book’s key strength is Schumacher’s attention to detail and thoughtful use of his sources. Without an axe to grind, he is able to write a dispassionate book about the eccentric billionaire, a decided rarity. One of the mavens quoted on the back cover commented that few Hughes books are “as lucid as this one.” I think that is an astute judgment by an extremely insightful critic. Since Hughes was far from balanced, he invites wild speculation and still, more than thirty years after his death, an almost messianic fervior. Schumacher immersed himself in his sources without becoming captured by them–a hard task, indeed, where Hughes in concerned.

If you enjoy books about Las Vegas, I’d say that there is room in your library for this book. Unless you are a Hughes-obsessed maniac, I guarantee that you’ll learn something new from it, and you’ll probably find, as I did, that Schumacher is able to make some intelligent guesses that make sense of some of the enigma surrounding Hughes–the Mormon will saga, in particular. Barring the discovery of authentic new documents or revelatory confessions from heretofore silent associates, this book will likely be the last word on Hughes in Vegas.