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Howard Hughes, Swashbuckler
Americaâ€™s military involvement in World War I was not a given. Only in April 1917, after three years of warfare in Europe and renewed U-boat attacks on American shipping, did President Woodrow Wilson ask Congress to declare war on Germany. At the time, the U.S. Army was sorely lackingâ€” 200,000 lax regulars and 400,000 National Guard troops more suited to quelling labor strife than engaging in deadly trench warfare. Eventually, three million men would be drafted into a total a force of almost four million, many of them first-generation immigrants, including Germans still speaking their native tongue.
By the time of Americaâ€™s decision to enter the war, the collapse of czarist Russia in the east had enabled Germany to augment its depleted western ranks with an additional million troops. Germany hadnâ€™t achieved its visions of empire, but a decisive blow before the Americans could arrive in force might allow it to garner a favorable armistice and ensure its standing among the major powers.
SONS OF FREEDOM
By Geoffrey Wawro
Basic, 596 pages, $35
NEVER IN FINER COMPANY
By Edward G. Lengel
Da Capo, 358 pages, $28
In â€œSons of Freedom: The Forgotten American Soldiers Who Defeated Germany in World War I,â€ Geoffrey Wawro, a professor of history and director of the Military History Center at the University of North Texas, states forcefully: â€œHad the Americans not entered the war and deployed two million troops to France, the Allies would almost certainly have lostâ€ and â€œthe global balance of power would have tipped heavily in Berlinâ€™s favor.â€ He admits that the strength of his conclusion surprised even him and that he came to it only after extensive research in the national archives of the belligerents.
In the spring of 1918, Gen. Erich Ludendorff orchestrated a series of German offensives to divide and defeat the worn-out British and French armies. Midway through these offensives, German troops got a taste of a new fury. The American 1st Infantry Division, soon the storied â€œBig Red One,â€ attacked at Cantigny in northern France. â€œIt was,â€ Mr. Wawro notes, â€œthe warâ€™s first American attack delivered with courage and precision, and it was the only Allied offensive operation at a time when the British and French were barely holding on.â€
More came quickly. As Ludendorff aimed for Paris in what became the Second Battle of the Marne, Gen. John J. Pershing, commander of the American Expeditionary Forces, deployed the newly arrived U.S. 2nd and 3rd Divisions to stop the German assault at ChÃ¢teau-Thierry, a town on the Marne River, and a nearby forest called Belleau Wood. The attackers were stunned by the ferocity of the American resistance. â€œWithout the Americans,â€ many German officers insisted, â€œwe would have been in Paris by July.â€
Ludendorff accelerated the timing of his final offensiveâ€”â€œthe Peace Offensiveâ€â€”in hopes that it would encourage an armistice before more Americans entered the lines. But once opened, there was no turning off the American spigot. By the late summer of 1918, 1.2 million American troops were in France, with 250,000 more arriving every month.
Their learning curve was steep. Training was frequently cut short, and experience had to be gained in place. Across a barbed-wire-laced maze of trenches, baptisms under fire were abrupt and deadly, coming from the new weaponry of poison gas, machine guns, airplanes and heavy artillery. Artillery, including a battery commanded by Capt. Harry Truman, rarely seemed to be in the right place. Tanks commanded by Lt. Col. George Patton suffered mechanical breakdowns or tumbled into ditches.
But out of this crucible came competence that proved decisive in what came to be called the Hundred Days. With Ludendorffâ€™s offensives thwarted, Pershing consolidated his divisions into an all-American sector near Verdun on the eastern end of the Allied line. While questioning some of Pershingâ€™s tactical skills, Mr. Wawro nonetheless credits his relentless commitment to keeping the U.S. Army together under one command rather than parceling its units out as replacements to the British and French. Ultimately, American success in this sector would seal the fate of the German army.
Pershing and his â€œdoughboysâ€ beat back a threatening bulge in the German lines at Saint-Mihiel and then turned north, intent on cutting key rail lines that fed and supplied German troops farther west. The American line of attack pointed straight toward dense German defenses between the Argonne Forest and the Meuse River.
Once the Meuse-Argonne offensive got underway on Sept. 26, 1918, it was all or nothing. There were no stopping places. Lamenting the bristling defenses arrayed against them, one doughboy swore: â€œEvery goddam German there who didnâ€™t have a machine gun had a cannon.â€ Throughout his narrativeâ€”both a stirring story and a careful work of military historyâ€”Mr. Wawro is adept at explaining tactics and keeping generals and units on both sides straight.
Among the units attacking headlong into the Argonne Forest was the 77th â€œMetropolitanâ€ Division. Few stories are as well known as that of the 600 men from the division who found themselves, in the first week of October, cut off from their lines. They became â€œthe lost battalion.â€ In retelling their story in â€œNever in Finer Company: The Men of the Great Warâ€™s Lost Battalion,â€ Edward G. Lengel, whose books include â€œTo Conquer Hell: The Meuse-Argonne, 1918â€ (2008), focuses on the ranking officer, Maj. Charles Whittlesey, and his steady second in command, Capt. George McMurtry.
Whittlesey was a scholarly New York attorney more at home peering through thick eyeglasses at law books than at enemy trenches. McMurtry was a stockbroker whose solid build attested to the prep-school boxing champion he had been. Both men had volunteered for a reserve officer training program before America entered the war.
Recruited from the sidewalks of New York, the 77th Division was â€œalmost ridiculousâ€ in its diversity, Mr. Lengel writes. There were â€œJews (one out of every four men, according to a census), Chinese, Poles, Italians, Irish, Greeks, Russians, Germans, and Anglo-Saxons.â€ The only New Yorkers missing, he notes, were African-Americans, barred by the Armyâ€™s segregation policies. (Many New York blacks did, however, serve in the segregated 93rd Divisionâ€™s regiment of â€œHarlem Hellfighters.â€)
Maj. Gen. Robert Alexander, in command of the 77th Division barely a month, was explicit in his orders: Push forward; ignore your flanks; focus on the objective. Whittlesey and his doughboys did just that and became not so much â€œlostâ€ as outflanked and surrounded by German troops. Entrapped in the Argonneâ€™s tangle of deep ravines, they faced a nightmare of pounding artillery bombardments (some from friendly fire), rattling machine guns, scarce water, little sleep, and no food. Men died outright; others succumbed to wounds after excruciating days. When relief finally arrived a week later, Whittlesey and McMurtry counted only 194 men, of the original 600, who had escaped the woods with them.
Shell-shocked by the loss of so many under his command, Whittlesey committed suicide three years later. McMurtry lived to the age of 82, dying in 1958, but he seemed to carry Whittleseyâ€™s burden as well as his own. â€œAs long as you and I live,â€ McMurtry told gatherings of Lost Battalion survivors, â€œwe will never be in finer company.â€
That could be said of all who served in the Meuse-Argonne during that bloody autumn. â€œThe three weeks after October 10,â€ Mr. Wawro writes in â€œSons of Freedom,â€ â€œwere the grittiest of the war, the Germans throwing in the last of their first-class divisions . . . and the three American corps measuring their daily advances in yards.â€ The Meuse-Argonne American Cemetery holds the largest number of American dead of any military cemetery in Europe.
Then, rather suddenly, it was over. British and French attacks all along the Allied lines had driven the Germans back, but it was the American thrust on the Meuse-Argonne front that threatened to surround a goodly portion of the German army. Faced with a similar collapse on the Austro-Hungarian front and widespread unrest at home, Germany once again looked for an armistice. Britain and France accepted Germanyâ€™s plea because they sensed that time was running out on their side, too.
Americaâ€™s European allies â€œknew America had saved them,â€ Mr. Wawro writes, â€œbut they deplored the political cost and its vast ramifications.â€ The Yanks that the British and French desperately needed in 1917 had crossed the ocean in force and become the trans-Atlantic power to be reckoned with in 1918 and beyond. â€œThe world,â€ Mr. Wawro concludes, â€œwould never be the same again.â€
â€”Mr. Bornemanâ€™s â€œBrothers Down Pearl Harbor and the Fate of the Many Brothers Aboard the USS Arizonaâ€ will be published in May.
The life of Howard Hughes is a 20th-century story; airplanes, money, movies, and sex. Itâ€™s usually presented as an enigmatic tragedy when it might play better as a rollicking Preston Sturges comedy. In her book â€œSeductionâ€ Karina Longworth finds her own unique purpose for Hughesâ€™s adventures: â€œItâ€™s time,â€ she writes, â€œto rethink stories that lionize playboysâ€ and â€œone way to beginâ€ is to study â€œa playboyâ€™s relationship with some of the women in his life from the perspective of those women.â€ This worthy purpose creates a book with two parallel tracks: one about Hughes and one about the lives and works of women in film. Ms. Longworth attempts to connect the biography of Hughes (1905-76) to the modern world of #MeToo awareness, a dubious scholarly idea but certainly a commercially viable (and highly readable) one.
The author of books on George Lucas, Al Pacino, and Meryl Streep, Ms. Longworth is the creator and host of the popular podcast â€œYou Must Remember This,â€ for which she uses her prodigious research skills to present â€œthe secret and/or forgotten histories of Hollywoodâ€™s first century.â€ The Hughes story is neither secret nor forgotten, having been covered in a fake autobiography by Clifford Irving in 1972, discussed in countless magazines (from Time to Confidential to Fortune to Modern Screen), reimagined in movies by Jonathan Demme (â€œMelvin and Howardâ€) and Martin Scorsese (â€œThe Aviatorâ€), and chronicled previously by various authors (including his long-time business associate Noah Dietrich).
By Karina Longworth
Custom House, 543 pages, $29.99
Thus the freshestâ€”and most interestingâ€”parts of â€œSeductionâ€ are those where Ms. Longworth refutes the idea that there were no women working in key jobs in early Hollywood. She presents Hollywood â€œas a place where women could immigrate in search of legitimate work and do it without the help or chaperoning of men.â€ Sheâ€™s right. When the film was officially born in 1895, it wasnâ€™t a boy. Itâ€™s long past time for the history of the mediumâ€™s women pioneers to be written: This book isnâ€™t that, but Ms. Longworth could write it if someone would let her.
The author is a dedicated film historian, and in â€œSeductionâ€ her basic love for Hollywood and its motley crew of shysters and stars is on full display. She uses Hughesâ€™s entire lifeâ€”not just his relations with womenâ€”as a platform from which to jump off into areas of historical interest. A discussion of Hughesâ€™s magnum directorial opus, â€œHellâ€™s Angelsâ€ (1930), corrects the exaggerated idea that sound ruined the careers of most silent stars. His production of the violent â€œScarfaceâ€ (1932) allows her to explain the demarcation between pre-Code and post-Code censorship. His relationship with Ginger Rogers veers off into a lengthy (and terrific) discussion of the film â€œKitty Foyleâ€ (1940), for which Rogers won an Oscar. Ms. Longworth says Rogers â€œis remembered as a trouperâ€ but also was a woman â€œwho believed in the ritual of marriageâ€ (she believed in it so much she went through it five times). When Hughes takes up with Katharine Hepburn, Ms. Longworth puts the much quoted â€œbox-office poisonâ€ label into accurate perspective, calling it â€œa work of hyperbolic propaganda.â€
Ms. Longworth makes a strong statement about not caring about the scandal from the past (â€œI donâ€™t think it mattersâ€), but she supplies plenty of it, some of which is connected to Hughes and some of which isnâ€™t. She is at her best writing about specific movie stars and specific films, such as the bizarro noir delight â€œHis Kind of Womanâ€ (1951), which she says Hughes â€œput his special touch onâ€ and boasted was his best picture. (Ms. Longworth says â€œthe boast was accurate.â€) She describes Jane Russell, a successful Hughes protÃ©gÃ©e and star of his controversial â€œThe Outlawâ€ (1943), as â€œa female Robert Mitchum,â€ saying the sultry and bosomy Russell was â€œHowardâ€™s idea of the girl next door.â€ She assesses Terry Moore, a second-string starlet who in the 1940s and â€™50s claimed to be Hughesâ€™s wife, as â€œuniquely talentless.â€ She even dares to criticize Americaâ€™s sacred cow, Hepburn herself, pointing out that Hepburn carved out her â€œlevel of liberation . . . thanks to her alliances with powerful men.â€ Ms. Longworth knows her stuff, although there are occasional minor errors. (For instance, K.T. Stevens was not the daughter of director George Stevens, but of director Sam Wood. Errol Flynnâ€™s statutory rape trial was in 1943, not 1934.)
Howard Hughes was born in Texas, the son of a man who grew rich selling drill bits and other tools to oilmen. Hughes inherited his familyâ€™s considerable wealth at age 18 and took it to Hollywood in 1925. Ms. Longworth calls him â€œa failure as both an artist and a mogul.â€ She sees him as a seducer, an abuser of male power. Although famous for relationships with the great beauties of his era (movie stars Billie Dove, Rogers and Hepburn, Ava Gardner and others), he married only twiceâ€”first in 1925 to a Houston girl of good family, Ella Rice, and then, in 1957, to a beauty-contest winner from the Midwest, Jean Peters, who had become a successful star briefly in the late 1940s.
As he aged, Hughes became known for â€œsponsoringâ€ young females he hoped to turn into stars, signing them to contracts and keeping them as virtual prisoners held hostage to his whims. One of these women, Faith Domergue, never made it to the top and spent her youth captive to Hughesâ€™s control. He kept a stable of informers, security guards and private detectives to spy on her, causing her to retaliate. In 1943 Domergue, tooling around Hollywood in a little red car Hughes had given her, spotted him driving his big black Buick with the gorgeous Ava Gardner sitting beside him. Domergue viciously rammed them, smugly saying later that â€œpoor little Ava seemed to bounce up and down in her seat like a yo-yo.â€ (This surely has to be the only time anyone ever referred to Gardner as â€œpoor little Ava.â€) Domergueâ€”with a straight faceâ€”once said Hughes told her, â€œYou are the child I should have had.â€
Ms. Longworth does not ignore the serious accomplishments of Hughesâ€™s life. He was a man of innovation, intelligence, and enterprise. Besides running an enormous business empire and designing airplanes (and cantilevered brassieres), Hughes earned his pilotâ€™s license in 1928. By 1933 he set a world land speed record and in 1936 a record nonstop transcontinental flight time. In 1946 he flew the test flight of the XF-11 he had designed for the government, crashing spectacularly in a near-fatal disaster.
â€œSeductionâ€ carefully traces the ups and downs of Hughesâ€™s career over decades that culminated in his personal decline. Ms. Longworth pinpoints 1942 as the year his workaholic habits began to become â€œunsustainable.â€ By late 1944, he began exhibiting â€œobsessive-compulsive tics.â€ Ms. Longworth pinpoints a July 1948 Time magazine cover story as the moment in which Hughes started to â€œlose control of his own story.â€ His behavior was erratic during his years as head of RKO, the movie studio he purchased in 1948 and sold in 1955; he became an â€œincreasingly eccentricâ€ mega-millionaire who had â€œbecome obsessed with eradicating Communists.â€ After his sale of RKO, Hughes receded from the public eye, and Ms. Longworth makes clear why she thinks he withdrew: a decline in both physical and mental health; head injuries suffered in plane crashes, especially the near-fatal one in 1946; the loss of his identity as a lone wolf after he married Peters; and the 1957 business resignation of Noah Dietrich, his reliable friend and business sidekick since 1925.
Ms. Longworth sheds as much light on Hughes as probably can be shed. She shrewdly calls him a man who knew that â€œthe gap between perception and reality could be made to disappear.â€ As early as 1947 Time described Hughes as â€œthe Hollywood playboy and planemaker about whom the public has heard very much but actually knows very little.â€ Itâ€™s an evaluation thatâ€™s still valid.
â€”Ms. Basinger is chairwoman of the department of film studies at Wesleyan University and the author, most recently, of â€œI Do and I Donâ€™t: A History of Marriage in the Movies.â€
In 1947, Howard Hughes was summoned to Washington to testify at a Senate hearing. Claude Pepper, Democrat of Florida, was in the chair, clearly angry about Hughes' conduct of munitions contracts, including flagrant non-performance. Three wooden flying boats had been commissioned for $18 million but not produced, people had been killed in crashes of test planes, and the newspapers were full of obscure allusions to unspecified wrong-doing in high places. Although the Hughes hearings were front page news for weeks, in those days it was only necessary to walk in and sit down if you wanted to watch them.
Under the circumstances, it would have been understandable if Hughes had been reduced to a trembling mumbler, probably advised to "take" the Fifth Amendment with every question. Congressional chairmen, particularly Claude Pepper,
quite regularly grandstand and bully the helpless witness at hearings like this, since it portrays them to the voters as heroic defenders of the public interest, and could even forward their chances of becoming a Presidential candidate. Hughes the scapegoat seemed to be in for a public flogging. The first step was to haul him before the committee and then keep him waiting for an hour or so, while the members attended to important public business, maybe even had to go for a roll-call vote or something. You could tell that things were not going according to the usual script when Hughes himself arrived quite late, accompanied by quite a large staff or retainers. When Pepper still delayed the hearing, Hughes called for a newspaper and elaborately read the comic pages.
The Texas swashbuckler didn't look the part. His accent and tailoring reflected a New England boarding school, and while his mustache resembled that of his friend Errol Flynn, he had a voice like a lion and lightning retorts that would do credit to Bill Buckley. Reminding the Chairman that he had been deafened in the crash of a racing plane, he asked him to repeat the question. Sorry, please repeat it again. And again, and again. Pepper was beside himself.
|The Spruce Goose|
Flustered, Pepper tried to reverse the treatment. Senator, I have already answered that question. Well, answer it again. No, I stand on my previous testimony. I forget what you said. Have the stenographer read it to you. Her transcript is not complete. Very well, my own secretary will read it back to you.
As if to demonstrate that he hadn't defrauded the government, Hughes, who always test-piloted his own planes, flew the H-4 about a mile in less than a minute during what was supposed to be a taxiing test on November 2, two months after his congressional testimony.
In another strange and unexplained footnote, the Glomar Explorer was a ship built in Philadelphia and used in Project Jennifer in an attempt to salvage a sunken Russian nuclear submarine and discover any secret technology it might contain. This was long past the time when Hughes was supposed to be disgraced and banished from Government contracts. The Senate hearings obviously had no effect on his status, and indeed might even have been entirely staged to mislead the Russians and others. Like so many things in his life, this episode has no readily obvious explanation.
Only in retrospect is it possible to see that Hughes was involved in lots of top-secret matters, and the bravado of his defiance -- not to say contempt of Congress -- might have had roots in some sure knowledge Pepper would not dare touch him. The CIA commissioned him to build the Glomar Explorer to find a sunken Russian submarine, using a phony story of manganese recovery. The supposed political victim of the much later Watergate break-in, Larry O'Brien, is said to have once been a Hughes employee; on the other hand, Hughes was very close to the Nixon Administration. There were inevitably many ties between his Las Vegas gambling empire and Cuban underworld figures, as well as Hollywood figures. Hughes was an owner of the Dallas movie theater where John Kennedy's murderer Lee Oswald tried to hide and was captured. It is not possible to judge Howard Hughes by the usual standards; this eccentric billionaire was capable of doing unimaginable things and it will be remarkable if spectacular news about him ends with his death.
A fair lady's image depends, Bernard Shaw told us, not on how she acts, but on how she is treated. The case in point is a beautiful Main Line heiress in The Philadelphia Story, who can choose any man she wants. What she cannot do, is escape grief for a wrong choice.
When Broadway and Hollywood paint your image, not believing your own press releases takes strength. Toward the end of the Great Depression around 1938, show business turned full and nasty attention to Philadelphia high society. Earlier, while author Christopher Morley was at Haverford College, Katharine Hepburn at Bryn Mawr College, and Grace Kelly at school on Schoolhouse Lane, Hollywood had picked up just enough authentic detail to be dangerous. Kitty Foyle and The Philadelphia Story are two fairly accurate snapshots of a complex society, but one cannot be fully understood without the other. Indeed, the real-life trivialities of Howard Hughes, Katharine Hepburn, Grace Kelly, and Ginger Rogers sharpen the outlines of the graceful gentlefolk they attempted to portray.
In 1938, Hepburn was a smash hit on Broadway with Philip Barry's Philadelphia Story, which essentially tells of the agonized turmoil of a Main Line princess, facing a three-way choice between a charming but worthless blue-blood, a self-made dullard, and a poor but noble New York magazine writer. (Just guess who the author was rooting for.) In real life, of course, Ms. Hepburn chose to spend four years with movie producer Howard Hughes the dare-devil Texan with a hundred starlets in his bedroom. Most of her competitors wanted a movie contract and/or a diamond bracelet, but Katy wanted the movie rights for Philadelphia Story, which Howard readily bought for her. Although other actresses played the role, she made herself into the image of a Philadelphia heiress, thereby nudging that Main Line image toward her own. At the time the image did not include much mention of Howard Hughes or actor Spencer Tracy, another long-time companion.
Meanwhile, Ginger Rogers, who was also engaged to Howard Hughes at one point, was making a great name for herself as the star of Christopher Morley's Kitty Foyle. Morley's Haverford experience taught him somewhat more respect for the Philadelphia Gentleman than Barry ever had, while his experience at the Curtis Publishing Company also made him appreciate the smart and plain-spoken Philadelphia girls from working-class districts. Highborn Philadelphia women are only sketchily imagined by Morley, except they somehow fail to appeal to his manly fictional cricket-player from the Main Line.
As matters turned out, Katy lost to Kitty. Although Hepburn was surely the more talented actress, eventually winning five Academy Awards, Ginger Rogers walked away with the 1940 Oscar for her interpretation of a working-class Philadelphia lady. Either way it turned out, of course, Howard Hughes was bound to be a happy fellow.
And yes, in 1956 Grace Kelly was the star of High Society, a renamed version of the Philadelphia Story for which, remember, Katherine Hepburn still controlled the rights. The film was a mediocre performance, just a little short of embarrassing. But however inexact all three of these portrayals may have been, there is little doubt that Philadelphia society moved a bit in their direction, involuntarily living up to an image created by three observers who seemed to their own observers to retain hostility traceable to their own undefined turmoils.
Philip Barry stacks the deck somewhat, portraying the leading lady as movie audiences during the Depression were likely to fantasize, indulging a luxury only a rich girl would supposedly be careless about. She rejects the colorless rich suitor out of hand. But while her remaining choice between a charming magazine writer and a charming playboy is made to seem a closer call, it really never makes our Philadelphia Cleopatra hesitate very long. In the single editorial comment, the play's author permits himself, is tucked the snarl, "She's a lifelong spinster, no matter how many times married." That's New York talking. Bitter, bitter.
|Philadelphia Gentlemen: The Making of a National Upper Class: E. Digby Baltzell ISBN-13: 978-0887387890||Amazon|
World War I's Only True Winner
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Inside the Star Factory
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Your author is probably the only person still alive who attended the Senate hearing of Howard Hughes. There is probably a lot to this story yet to emerge.
Show Biz Image: Hepburn, Rogers, Kelly
Hollywood presented a cartoon of the upper class during the Depression. World War II was soon to sober us up.