Book Excerpt: The Unlikely Romance of Katharine Hepburn and Howard Hughes

In her new book 'Seduction,' 'You Must Remember This' host Karina Longworth examines this 'Aviator'-immortalized coupling.

When Karina Longworth stumbled upon an Internet forum with a list of the women millionaire mogul Howard Hughes was alleged to have slept with — just names, nothing else — she knew she had a topic for her deservedly beloved Hollywood history podcast, You Must Remember This“In each of these names there’s a whole life and a whole story,” she told Terry Gross in a recent Fresh Air interview. So Longworth decided to tell those stories, first in a series of podcasts, and now in her new book Seduction: Sex, Lies, and Stardom in Howard Hughes’ Hollywood (out now from Custom House). Longworth started out as a film critic, and her podcast features some of the best film writing in any format, so it’s no surprise that the book is such a treat — witty, informative, wry, and challenging.

In this excerpt, she takes a look at the unlikely pairing of Hughes and Katharine Hepburn — a relationship dramatized in Martin Scorsese’s The Aviator, with Cate Blanchett winning an Oscar for her work as Hepburn.

For the first time in her life, she was in no hurry to get back to work. For years her Hollywood career had been slipping, and everyone in the movie industry in a position of power who could have helped her make a comeback had lost faith in her—everyone, that is, but her boyfriend. Although Hughes’s career as a film producer was for all intents and purposes dormant in 1938, his growing status as an aviation pioneer conferred on him a glowing spotlight. The nephew whom Rupert Hughes had once written off as “grasping [and] dishonorable” had become, as Rupert himself put it in a 1937 profile of Howard he wrote for Liberty magazine, “the most picturesque young man in the country today.” (Unable to mask his still-boiling resentment, Rupert added that he was now put “in the two paradoxical positions of being the poor uncle of a rich nephew, and the biographer of one who, instead of being dead, is only half my age. But what of it?”)

Katharine Hepburn seems like the actress of the 1930s least likely to embrace a myth of herself as the damsel in distress rescued by a dashing aviator—the inverse of the tragedy she had played in Christopher Strong—but this was the narrative spin on the Hughes-Hepburn romance as it appeared in the papers and fan magazines. Decades later, Hepburn’s documented memories of her time spent with Hughes, as if taking a cue from the headlines, were highly romantic, if not romanticized. “Howard was more glamorous than Hollywood films,” she swooned long after the end of the affair, “because his life and adventures were real.”

They were kindred spirits. Both had obsessions with health and cleanliness. (“I believe at that time, I was more obsessed [with germs] than he,” Katharine later said. “We each spent a lot of time washing our hands.”) Both used their power and wealth to buy freedom from societal strictures, and neither was used to anyone telling them no. In Hepburn’s memory, much of the relationship was about private thrills. They skinny-dipped, diving off the wing of a seaplane in the middle of Long Island Sound. They devised secret codes and pseudonyms for one another; Hughes would address telegrams to Hepburn’s secretary Emily Perkins, and sign his name as “Dan” or “Boss.”

And then there was the sex. “Howard was the best lover I ever had,” Hepburn disclosed. Of the “many reasons” the couple was “sexually a good fit,” according to Hepburn? “We weren’t inhibited people. We certainly weren’t inhibited about our bodies. . . . Howard was not shy about sex. I think it was the only thing he wasn’t shy about. He wasn’t short of testosterone. He didn’t like a fragile woman. I was practically a professional athlete.”

Lust aside, the most important thing Hepburn and Hughes had in common, at least at this stage of their lives, was that both took pleasure in a tug-of-war with the press. Both Hughes and Hepburn, she wrote, “had a wild desire to be famous.” Yet while they craved even more fame than they had, they also hated crowds and strangers. Both wanted to be the most talked-about and celebrated person in their respective fields, without ever having to reveal themselves to anyone outside of their immediate circle. Together they thrilled to outrunning and deceiving reporters and photographers, and were delighted when their names and photos made it into the papers anyway. As Hepburn put it, “I don’t think either one of us would have liked it if no one noticed us.” Such desires fed their desire for one another; each considered the other an “appropriate companion” for a person of high profile such as themselves. “He was sort of the top of the available men,” Hepburn summed it up. “And I of the women.”

From SEDUCTION by Karina Longworth, published by Custom House. Copyright © 2018 by Karina Longworth. Reprinted courtesy of HarperCollins Publishers.  More information here.