• U.S.

Business: A Midnight Ride with Howard Hughes

8 minute read

The last journalist known to have met and talked -with Howard Hughes is TIME’S Frank McCulloch. The year was 1958. McCulloch, then Time-Life bureau chief in Los Angeles, was asked by editors in New York to interview Hughes about his difficulties in raising money to buy some of the first jets for Trans World Airlines. It seemed an impossible assignment: Hughes had not dealt personally with any journalist−or with many of his own $100,000-a-year executives−in more than a decade. McCulloch tried anyway, and succeeded. Now TIME’S New York bureau chief, he recalls what happened:

I ASSEMBLED a list of about 50 questions, and passed them on to a Hughes aide. About 48 hours later, the phone rang at 11 a.m., and the flat, nasal voice at the other end identified itself as that of Howard Hughes. That started weeks of titillation, intrigue, maneuvering, exhaustion and sheer damn foolishness. We were on a first-name basis after the second call, but his calls never seemed to have an end or a beginning. They were, in essence, monologues, in which he made a case for holding off the story until new financing for TWA could be arranged. The theme was always the same.

Gradually, the monologues−interrupted on occasion with plaintive questions from Howard as to whether I was recording the conversation, which I was not, or taking notes, which I was, frantically−shifted from daylight to dark, and from premidnight to early morning hours. One night, I vowed to accept no calls, and my wife agreed that she would handle Howard. We fell into bed exhausted and waited for the calls we knew would come. The first came at 11.

“Mr. Hughes,” my wife explained, “Frank is exhausted. He went to bed early, and I think he should get a good night’s rest, don’t you?” “Good heavens, yes, Mrs. McCulloch, and I’m sorry to have been so thoughtless. A pleasant good night. Rest well.” Of course the phone rang again precisely 30 minutes later. Instantly, Hughes was apologetic. In the press of all the things he was doing, he had simply forgotten the earlier conversation. Good night again.

By the time the third call came at 1 a.m., I was so tense that I soared straight to the ceiling at the sound of the bell, grabbed the phone, and yelled hello. After establishing that it was truly I, Hughes wanted to know if I didn’t feel better rested than I had at 11. Then he suggested that I should drive to the intersection of Olympic and Sepulveda boulevards, park at the southwest corner, blink my lights twice, and wait for a two-tone, 1954 Mercury sedan to come alongside. Then?−but he had rung off.

I headed for Olympic and Sepulveda at an imprudent speed. The Mercury did appear. The driver politely invited me to get in the back seat. We made our way by back roads to the unfinished western end of Los Angeles International Airport. There the driver left me stranded in the middle of an unfinished runway. I became aware that I was actually standing in a half-moon of parked automobiles.

In a few minutes, a lanky six-footer came ambling out of the dark, asked my name and stood there. I stuck out my hand, and said, “Good to meet you personally, Howard.” The figure beat a hasty retreat, clutching his right hand to his chest. “Oh,” he explained, “I can’t shake hands. I was just sitting over there in my car, making a telephone call and eating a hot dog, and I got mustard on my hand.” “Well,” I said, “I certainly wouldn’t want to shake hands under those conditions.” “What’s more,” said Howard, “I was shaving, and I cut my hand.” Presumably, that had put both mustard and blood on his hand. (Hughes is dreadfully afraid of picking up germs through human contact.)

Hughes asked if I would like to take a ride. Of course. Right behind me, looming up in the dark was Boeing’s prototype of the 707. Howard and I boarded and went to the pilot’s compartment, where he indicated I should take the engineer’s seat, behind the copilot’s seat. Shortly, two more people boarded. One was the copilot. The other was Jean Peters, Hughes’ wife. She took the seat across from me. The semicircle of automobiles turned on their lights, illuminating part of the lumpy runway. Howard−dressed in nondescript gray slacks, white shirt and loafers but no socks−kicked on the engines. Away we went−to, I am certain, the utter astonishment, if not horror, of the unapprised men in the airport control tower.

We flew for four hours, down the Baja California coast, back up through Arizona, across Las Vegas. Jean Peters and I talked amiably. She was most interested in Disneyland and the state of the 20th Century-Fox lot, both of which, I assumed, she had not been allowed to visit since her marriage. Howard chimed in with praise of the 707. At his invitation, I took the copilot’s seat, and he calmly told me that I now had control of the airplane. That was somewhere over the Arizona desert at about 30,000 feet; I had never so much as piloted a Piper Cub.

We hurtled back into the Los Angeles airport at sunup. As Howard made what seemed approximately a 90° approach, the copilot all but had a spasm and kept saying, in increasingly urgent tones, “You need more flap!” Howard, calmly: “I’ve got it, I’ve got it, just let me handle it.”

We hit awfully hard−again without having so much as acknowledged the existence of the tower−bounced about five times, and rolled to a screeching, dusty halt just short of the last fence at the southwest edge of the airport. The 707’s door was opened, a ramp rolled up. Jean and Howard, without another word, jumped into a waiting Cadillac and disappeared.

The purpose of the midnight ride did not come clear to me until much later. What Howard was trying to show me, though he never articulated it, was that the 707 was a helluva airplane, and if he could just get the money he needed to buy enough of them, he could bail TWA out.

Before long, Howard and I were back on the telephone. He pleaded for more time before the story on his financial troubles ran. The editors were not impressed. I decided to put the case in the hands of the late Henry Luce, who was then in Phoenix.

Very cagily−since by this time I was certain that Howard knew every detail about my every move−I booked to Phoenix not on TWA but on United. When I got there, I rented not a Hertz or an Avis but a local firm’s car. I drove to the Luce home not by established routes but by enormous circles. Then I drove to the back of the circular driveway and hid my rented Ford behind a large lilac bush.

Harry Luce stood with the other editors; we would go ahead with the story. I sighed deeply and told Harry that Hughes probably already knew that. “Ridiculous,” he scoffed, and gave me a lecture about having become overwrought about this story. I left the house and made my way to the lilac bush and my rented, locked Ford. As I slipped the key in the door, I noticed with a start that there was something white slipped beneath the rim of the horn. It was a business card, printed with the name of the TWA manager in Phoenix. On the other side was a message: “Mr. McCulloch−please call Mr. Hughes immediately.”

I went back and showed Harry Luce the card. It was the only occasion on which I saw him completely thunderstruck.

Howard has been in touch several times since then. When our son was born, though we made no announcement of the event, he sent an enormous bouquet of tropical plants to the hospital. There were other surprise gifts of flowers from Hughes’ aides when we went on vacation. In 1966, when I was in New York for a brief visit from Viet Nam, I had a call. Could I come through Los Angeles on the way back out? Howard wanted to talk with me. I got to Los Angeles, checked in at a hotel, made my presence known to a Hughes aide−and waited. But the next morning a headline caught my eye: the Buddhist riots were flaring again in Saigon and Danang. I didn’t even call the aide” back. Within two hours, I was on the next flight to Asia. I do wonder, though, what it was that Howard wanted to talk about.

More Must-Reads from TIME

Contact us at letters@time.com