Howard Hughes's Affair with Actress Ginger Rogers Was Far From a Storybook Romance
Sex and power have always been intertwined—especially, it seems, in the entertainment industry. Howard Hughes, a famous pilot, businessman, and film director, was as notorious for this as anyone else. The following excerpt from Seduction: Sex, Lies, and Stardom in Howard Hughes's Hollywood, Karina Longworth's investigation into Hollywood's golden age, details Hughes' relationship with actress Ginger Rogers.
On New Year’s Eve, 1938 going into 1939, Olivia de Havilland phoned Jimmy Stewart to cancel their date for the evening—she was sick in bed with bronchitis. At 10:30 p.m., Howard Hughes—likely having forgotten about the holiday until the last minute and going through his phone book dialing numbers until he found a potential date who was still at home—called Olivia and told her that he was on his way over to her place, and he was going to take her to the house of Jack Warner, head of her studio, Warner Bros., for a party. Hughes wouldn’t take no for an answer, so de Havilland got out of bed and put on a dress—a dress cut so low that, as she put it, “it practically asked for pneumonia.”
When they arrived at Warner’s house, Howard and Olivia immediately ran into Jimmy Stewart, and then Errol Flynn, de Havilland’s frequent costar and sometime lover. “We sat down at the bar and Errol Flynn started serving me drinks,” she recalled. “I was 22, with three of the most attractive men in the world around me. I don’t know how my reputation survived but by dawn my bronchitis was gone and my temperature was back to normal.”
Actress Olivia de Havilland, circa 1936.
De Havilland kept answering Hughes’s calls, until one night she confronted him over the status of their relationship and he made no attempt to let her down easy. “There is love between us and we have never discussed marriage,” she stated. Hughes responded, “I have no intention of marrying until I am 50. There are too many things to do.” And yet, in his mid to late thirties, he asked more than one woman to marry him.
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Seven years after their first date, Hughes was once again pursuing Ginger Rogers. He had first proposed to Rogers in the summer of 1936, after he had declared interest in [Katharine] Hepburn but before their relationship began in earnest. (Hepburn would later acknowledge that she had assumed Hughes was not completely faithful to her: “I didn’t expect him to be chaste during our separations,” she said, adding, “I was only slightly curious about his escapades.”)
Rogers had separated from her second husband, Lew Ayres, but had not filed for divorce. Howard said that was just paperwork, that his lawyer could take care of that for her, and then she’d be free to marry Hughes. “What do you say to that?” With wounds still fresh from her last broken marriage, Rogers said she wasn’t ready. According to Rogers, Hughes and she continued to date sporadically, but she wasn’t exactly waiting by the phone. For the next three-plus years, Hughes would be involved with Hepburn and others, and Rogers had a full dance card as well.
This first marriage proposal to Rogers came right after Rogers and her on-screen dance partner Fred Astaire finished shooting their masterpiece, Swing Time, directed by George Stevens and released in September 1936. All of the Astaire-Rogers collaborations are notable for the ways in which they pioneered the subsumed sex scene: in a time of increasing regulation of on-screen sexuality, movies like The Gay Divorcee and Top Hat managed to communicate sophisticated stories of seduction and consummation primarily through choreographed dance. Swing Time did what their previous films had done, and more. Its climax is the stunning number set to the song “Never Gonna Dance,” in which Astaire confesses his love to the unattainable Rogers, and then the couple shares one, last, forbidden waltz. It’s the apotheosis of the Astaire-Rogers ballroom dance-as-sex scene.
Ginger Rogers and Fred Astaire in Swing Time.
Rogers and Stevens fell in love on the set of Swing Time, and carried on a relationship for three years—three years that encompassed Hughes’s romance with Hepburn, and fell roughly into the midpoint of Stevens’s 17-year marriage to former silent star Yvonne Howell. And then, in 1939, after his flight around the world and the fizzling of his affair with Bette Davis, Howard came back into Ginger’s life with a vengeance. By early 1940, he had finally convinced her to allow his attorney Neil McCarthy to handle her divorce from Ayres. Once the papers were filed, Rogers recalled, “Howard completely dominated my personal life.” He sealed the deal by giving her a five-carat emerald engagement ring.
A woman who believed in the ritual of marriage and all it symbolized, Ginger continued to live with her mother Lela after accepting Howard’s proposal. Hughes still had the mansion on Muirfield Road, and in 1940, in need of temporary lodgings during the Philadelphia Story shoot, Hepburn moved back in, but they did not rekindle their romance. Hughes was working hard to convince Rogers—who had bested Hepburn in the battle of the RKO divas—that she was the woman he wanted to live with.
One day he took her up to a parcel of land he had bought on Cahuenga Peak, overlooking Lake Hollywood. Hughes had purchased 138 acres west of the Hollywood sign, and he explained to Ginger that he was going to build a house there just for her. “He knew I loved a view,” she recalled. “My own home had a very lovely view, and this was much higher than the house I had; so he thought that would be very appealing to me, and to some extent it was.”
Howard Hughes and Ginger Rogers dance at the Rainbow Room in New York City.
While Rogers was imagining life with Howard Hughes in a custom-built castle in the sky, her career was at a crossroads. She and Astaire had recently made what she believed would be their final film together, the musical biopic The Story of Irene and Vernon Castle. Rogers had been RKO’s top female star for much of the 1930s, but the studio had battled with her over contracts and struggled to figure out what to do with her in between Astaire musicals. The devoutly religious Rogers also had firm ideas about what she should be representing on-screen, and she fought back against some of the material RKO tried to cast her in.
Then Rogers was courted by producer David Hempstead to star in an adaptation of a popular novel called Kitty Foyle, about an independent young woman who becomes pregnant and has an abortion. One night, while Howard was driving her to dinner, Ginger started flipping through a copy of the novel that Hempstead had sent her. Somehow she flipped straight to the scenes in the book that were the least likely to pass the Production Code in a film adaptation—not just the abortion, which Rogers found repugnant, but also what censor-in-chief Joseph Breen would call “the suggestion of frequent illicit sex affairs between your two leads.” Ginger threw the book down in disgust, telling Hughes she was “not flattered” that Hempstead and RKO had bought this “highly suggestive and too lurid” novel expressly with her in mind.
Howard Hughes accompanies Ginger Rogers to the premiere of the 1933 movie 42nd Street.
Ginger’s mother advised her that there was no way the things that she objected to in Kitty Foyle could ever make it into a Hollywood movie. Kitty Foyle would have to be sanitized for the screen, and with a millionaire fiancé promising her the world—or, at least, a house with a view of the world as Hollywood knew it—Ginger could afford to wait.
Except, increasingly, it felt like Ginger Rogers’s time was not her own. At first Howard would call Lela directly to schedule and plan his dates with Ginger. As they became more seriously involved, Hughes stopped asking either of the Rogers women for permission and started directly ordering Ginger to make sure he was the sole focus of her attention. She had begun to suspect that he was having her followed, and that her phone calls were being surveilled. Years earlier, Hughes had kept tabs on Billie Dove by physically standing outside public restrooms to make sure he didn’t lose her when she emerged. Ginger’s instinct that he had tapped her phones, if accurate, would have been the first indication that Hughes had begun to outsource the activity of monitoring his girlfriends to a network of aides and spies. That network would become visible to all soon enough.
Lela and Ginger Rogers.
After his experience with Katharine Hepburn, Hughes may have feared once again being shut out of a complicated family dynamic. Rogers didn’t come from a long, storied line like the Hepburns, but that made her bond with Lela Rogers all the stronger. Ginger believed that her mother was the only person who always had her best interests at heart. Once Hughes angrily started trying to regulate the frequency with which she spoke to Lela, Ginger’s increasingly bad feeling about the relationship began to crowd out her hopes for a blue-sky future. “This was too much for me,” she thought.
Finally, one night in 1940, Howard called Ginger at home. He had a dentist appointment the next morning and wanted Ginger to go with him. Ginger refused. She didn’t know what to tell him, or why exactly she was pushing back against his demands now, but something inside her was telling her to do it. Then something outside told her to do it, too: that same evening, Ginger recalled, she picked up the ringing phone to find screenwriter Alden Nash on the other end. Nash told Ginger that he had seen Hughes’s car parked in front of the home of another actress—not just that night, but many nights.
When Howard called the next morning to once again try to get Ginger to accompany him to the dentist, she again refused. She spent the day packing up all the jewelry Hughes had given her. A few hours later, she got a call from Noah Dietrich. Howard was in the hospital, Dietrich told her. Would she come see him?
Driving to the dentist, Hughes had smashed head-on into another car. Another crash meant another head injury; this time it had taken seventy stitches to close up Howard’s eye. When Ginger got to the hospital, Hughes was in the recovery room, his head wrapped up like a mummy.
“How are you feeling?” Ginger asked.
“Miserable,” he responded, and proceeded to explain that this was her fault. He had been so mad that Ginger refused to accompany him to the dentist, he told her, that he had driven straight into oncoming traffic.
Howard Hughes in the cockpit of a sea plane.
By now Ginger was used to Hughes’s patterns of manipulation. Already aware that he was cheating, she wasn’t going to let him gaslight her anymore. She told him what she had found out about where he was spending his nights, and with whom. Before the sedated cad could conjure up a response, Ginger produced the box full of jewelry, which included the emerald ring. The engagement, she told him, was over.
“There was a long silence you could cut with a knife,” Rogers recalled. “Howard looked at me from under his bandages; his soulful eyes were like those of a bloodhound puppy. Then I turned and walked toward the door. With a dramatic turn of the head I opened the door, slamming it as I left. That was the last time I ever saw Howard.”
Dietrich soon entered the hospital room and found Hughes in tears over the breakup. “It was,” Dietrich wrote, “the only time anyone saw Howard Hughes cry.”
From SEDUCTION by Karina Longworth, published by Custom House. Copyright © 2018 by Karina Longworth. Reprinted courtesy of HarperCollins Publishers
This story originally appeared on Townandcountrymag.com.
* Minor edits have been made by the Townandcountry.ph editors.