Karina Longworth’s Hollywood history podcast, You Must Remember This, is one of the most essential listens out there for film fans.
Longworth is a (terrific) film critic by trade; in each episode, she dives into a story from the movie industry’s past, revealing the truth behind legends, unearthing the hidden stories that weren’t reported when they were happening, and exposing the often corrupt systems Hollywood has always been built upon.
And now, Longworth has brought her fascination with old Hollywood to her brand new book, Seduction: Sex, Lies, and Stardom in Howard Hughes’s Hollywood. It’s simultaneously the story of producer, aviator, and tycoon Howard Hughes and the many women he slept with (and often ruined the careers of). The book subverts Hughes’s playboy image, questioning just what the effect of his cruelty could be on the women he strung along — and, later in his life, often kept all but imprisoned.
Seduction is one of my favorite nonfiction titles of the year, a big, weighty tome that pushes past mini-biographies of its subjects to make a larger argument about the way the Hollywood machine has always ground up hopeful young women who come to Los Angeles to make it big. It’s at once timely and evergreen, illustrating how a trend in Hollywood that we’re talking about today has, nevertheless, always existed.
So when Longworth joined me for the latest episode of my own podcast, I Think You’re Interesting, I wanted to ask her about how she approached the book, and if she learned anything that surprised her about the many figures who feature in its pages. That portion of our conversation, lightly edited for length and clarity, follows.
Seduction is a long book. It’s 450 pages, but I’m sure you had to leave a lot out. How did you find the spine of what the story was going to be?
I did leave things out. I don’t consider it a biography of Howard Hughes at all, and it’s not a full biography of any of the 10 women who are the main characters.
But I was actually surprised. When I turned in the first draft about a year ago, I thought that my editor would be slashing his way through it, telling me it was way too long. It’s definitely longer than what I was contracted to write. But instead, he wanted me to add things. There were things he wanted me to flesh out.
It’s not the book you pick up if you want a comprehensive biography of Howard Hughes or Jean Harlow or Jane Russell. It’s more of a group portrait of these people, but it’s not like there’s stuff on the cutting room floor that I think is really important.
You also watched a lot of the movies that these women starred in, and the movies that Hughes produced. The actresses covered in the book range from really famous people, like Katharine Hepburn, to more obscure figures, like Terry Moore, who claims she was married to Hughes on a yacht. Who were some of the people that you came away with a new understanding of, whether obscure or really famous?
I don’t think I had seen any Terry Moore movie other than Peyton Place before I wrote the book. She was nominated for an Oscar for a movie called Come Back, Little Sheba.
Terry Moore is someone who makes herself very open to criticism because of her claims about her relationship with Hughes, but what was really surprising to me was that she was really amassing a career as a serious actress in the 1950s, working with people like Elia Kazan [director of films such as A Streetcar Named Desire and On the Waterfront].
I think her personal life got in the way, but she absolutely deserved to be nominated for an Oscar for Come Back, Little Sheba. And we talk about Katharine Hepburn as one of the greatest actresses of all time, and certainly she was great and a great movie star, but it is interesting to think that Terry Moore really had this serious career that she deserved that was just out of her grasp.
How much of Katharine Hepburn being one of the biggest stars of all time is innate to her talent, which is considerable, and how much of it is that she escaped the Hughes orbit?
I don’t think Hughes held her back at all! As I detail in the book, the process of her becoming a great star is what I talk about. And a lot of it does have to do with Howard Hughes.
Certainly, she was at a crisis point in her stardom, and having this relationship with Hughes that was very public helped people think about her in a different way, helped soften her persona and made it more feminine and more heteronormative. And then he helped her get the rights to The Philadelphia Story, which is the movie that really cemented her stardom.
She could have drifted away at the end of the 1930s, and The Philadelphia Story is the thing that really brought her back, and forming her partnership with Spencer Tracy took her to another level as well.
Because Seduction is not a biography of Howard Hughes, you don’t have to speculate as to a lot of his motivations, because they’re shrouded. But there is this repeated pattern of, he meets a woman he’s attracted to, he puts her under contract, and then in essence locks her away, especially after his plane crash in 1946. As you encountered that pattern, did you get a sense of why that was happening and what was driving him to do that?
Especially after that crash, I think he really had the personality of a collector. He wanted to have ownership over things, whether he played with them or not. That’s the most succinct way I can analyze it.
I’m not a psychoanalyst, and it wasn’t the primary thing I was trying to do in this book, but one of the sources I have is that I was able to look at the files of a guy named Raymond Fowler, who was a psychologist and who was hired by Hughes’s lawyers after his death to do what was called a posthumous psychological autopsy. So he basically wrote kind of a biography of Hughes’s mental health over the course of his lifetime. Reading his files was really interesting, to be able to tie together certain things.
There hasn’t been a book about Hughes in about 20 years, so there hasn’t really been conversation about him since we’ve come to understand head injuries better. Now, we have this public conversation about football and concussions and how hitting your head a lot can really change your personality. I think it’s too late to apply a lot of those things to Howard Hughes’s actual brain, but it is interesting to think about these possibilities that could explain some of his behavior.
For so much more with Longworth, including the story of how her podcast came to be and tales of the huge amount of research she had to do to write Seduction, listen to the full episode.
To hear interviews with more fascinating people from the world of arts and culture — from powerful showrunners to web series creators to documentary filmmakers — check out the I Think You’re Interesting archives.