While Carole Lombard generally isn't associated among the many women in Howard Hughes' life, it is believed they had a brief, very discreet affair late in the 1920s, one Lombard biographer Larry Swindell stated indirectly in his book "Screwball," first published some months before Hughes' death in April 1976 (http://community.livejournal.com/carole_and_co/11206.html).
Now, another biographer claims to have more details on their relationship. His name is Darwin Porter, and his book, "Howard Hughes: Hell's Angel," was released in the spring of 2005. In it, Porter claims Hughes was bisexual, something that has occasionally been alleged but never confirmed.
It's no secret that when Hughes decided to convert his aviation epic "Hell's Angels" into a talking picture, he had to change his leading lady because Greta Nissen's Swedish accent was too thick and not believable for her character. Hughes looked at a number of replacements before deciding to cast a relative unknown named Jean Harlow.
Ever since the Hughes-Lombard relationship became known, there's been speculation over whether she was considered for the role. Well, according to Porter, not only was Lombard considered for the part, she was actually briefly cast!
This would be a fascinating tidbit if true, and for all we know it may well be. However, the information Porter serves up in support of this thesis provides easy fodder for skeptics -- and worse, paints a portrait of Lombard at considerable odds with her persona.
For example, the reader is introduced to Lombard when she says, "I've slept with Joseph Kennedy, so why not Howard Hughes?" We know she worked for Kennedy when he took over Pathe, and apparently they initially had a good relationship. (For example, when she signed with Pathe, he ordered her to lose some of the weight she had put on for Mack Sennett, who liked his girls with curves. Lombard reportedly retorted, "You could stand to lose a bit yourself.") However, none of her biographers has ever claimed she had an affair with Joseph Kennedy, who was romantically involved with Gloria Swanson at the time. Here's Swanson with Lombard a few years later:
Then, according to Porter...
"Ben Lyon [male lead in 'Hell's Angels'] tells me you like a gal with tits." Right in front of him, she manipulated her dress to expose her left breast. "You're not entitled to look at the right one until you've signed me to play Helen. Then you can have whatever you want. It's all yours, baby!"
Porter says Hughes then tells her, "The part calls for a woman to be a bit of a slut...At least you qualify for that."
Perhaps Lombard was semi-voluptuous when she was curvaceous for Sennett, but by now she was fairly lithe, and would be the rest of her days. She probably wouldn't have described herself as "a gal with tits." And from what we know about her, she wasn't the kind who would use her sexuality for mercenary reasons.
Later, Porter claims, Hughes takes Carol out -- but instead of giving her a fancy dinner, he takes her to his lab, where she can see his work on creating color film. Porter states that up to now (1929), color in film was only achieved by tinting, neglecting that two-strip Technicolor was occasionally used in Hollywood. (Several of Lombard's Sennett two-reelers had Technicolor sequences, as in this instance below.)
Lombard takes a screen test, directed by James Whale (the man who later directed "Frankenstein" and other thirties horror classics), and Hughes screens it 14 times. The next morning, after apparently having spent the night with Lombard, he tells Whale, "I've called my attorney. Lombard is Helen. Start rehearsing her at once. Since this is a talking picture, be careful what she says. She talks like a sailor's parrot. Every tenth word is 'f---ing.' "
Lombard moves in with Hughes, and she later tells Lyon (whom Porter alleges was a gay lover of Howard's) that she found his favorite type of sex with a woman. "And I had to look it up in the dictionary. Intermammary intercourse, it's called."
The day before shooting is to begin, a limousine is parked outside and Lombard is told to leave Hughes' mansion. Whale tells her Harlow has been cast as Helen.
The above reads like the work of someone with a very vivid imagination...especially since none of the principals involved are still with us.
Porter does have a later anecdote which at least appears to be more plausible. In the late 1930s, Miriam Hopkins said she was at a Beverly Hills party attended by both Carole and Howard, the latter with Ginger Rogers, his date at the time. "I'd heard that Carole and Hughes had had an affair. But he had not one word to say to her...It was like he'd never met Carole."
Later on, Hopkins said, she saw Lombard in the powder room and asked her about Hughes. "He's got Clark [Gable] beat by four inches, but Hughes has no soul." At least that sounds like something Carole would say.
Of course, a few years Lombard would die aboard a flight of TWA, which Hughes owned. He reportedly sent Gable roses "in loving memory."
Porter has written several other books, and one of them, "The Secret Life of Humphrey Bogart: The Early Years (1899-1931)," drew some skeptical feedback from reader reviewers:
"...this book has phony dialogue that the author could never have been privy to and no bibliography to back it up. It's a bad game of sexual telephone at best..."
"...Porter then says he supplemented the information [Kenneth] McKenna left with him, with a series of interviews with Joan Blondell, John Springer, Shirley Booth, Ruth Gordon, Louise Brooks and Mae West; needless to say, not one of his sources is alive. He makes the often maligned Boze Hadleigh seem like he has the journalistic integrity of David Halberstam..."
"...The detailed conversations make me wonder if everyone in Hollywood was also wearing a wire besides sleeping with everyone..."
"...It's a word version of the 1930s 'Tijuana Bibles' that used the same content, only pictorially."
So take this book with a grain of salt. In fact, go to the supermarket, buy the largest container of salt on the shelf, and place it beside the book while reading it, if only for your own peace of mind.