Secrets of Howard Hughes' Attorney (Exclusive Book Excerpt)
This story first appeared in the May 31 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine.
Greg Bautzer, observed actor Robert Wagner, “was the only person I ever knew in Hollywood who was a star without being in a movie.” In contrast to today’s breed of buttoned-down, behind-the-scenes entertainment lawyers, Bautzer became a tabloid staple from the 1930s through the ’60s because of his high-profile romances with actresses Lana Turner, Joan Crawford and Ginger Rogers. But he was much more than a handsome escort; Bautzer’s fame also derived from his renown as a skilled attorney. He handled divorces for Ingrid Bergman and Rock Hudson and worked big deals for Howard Hughes and Kirk Kerkorian. Behind the scenes, he advised studio moguls Jack Warner and Darryl Zanuck, jump-started the careers of Wagner and Robert Evans and stared down mobster Bugsy Siegel over his efforts to swindle The Hollywood Reporter publisher William Wilkerson out of his investment in Las Vegas’ Flamingo casino.
The Man Who Seduced Hollywood: The Life and Loves of Greg Bautzer, Tinseltown’s Most Powerful Lawyer (Chicago Review Press) by B. James Gladstone, executive vp business and legal affairs at Lionsgate, recaptures the life of this important power broker, a Hollywood fixture from the time he established his own practice in 1936, just a year out of USC law school, to his death in 1987 at age 76. He co-founded one of Hollywood’s first big entertainment law firms, Wyman Bautzer, which would produce such attorneys as Patricia Glaser, Larry Stein and several others who dominate the entertainment business (and THR’s annual Power Lawyers list) today.
A middle-class kid from San Pedro with quick smarts and a hot temper but few connections, Bautzer yearned to become a Hollywood player. To get noticed, he invested all the money he had — about $5,000 — in a designer wardrobe and started eating lunch daily at The Brown Derby, Hollywood’s reigning power spot. Bautzer thought the look of success would attract clients, and the strategy paid off. By 1938, the handsome lawyer was romancing rising star Turner (17 to his 27) and quickly found a powerful patron in Wilkerson, who had discovered Turner sipping a Coke at a Sunset Strip soda fountain. Wilkerson got him a seat at Hollywood’s most powerful poker game — regulars included Zanuck, David O. Selznick and Samuel Goldwyn — which opened other doors. In an exclusive excerpt from the book, released May 1, Gladstone details Bautzer’s complex and fascinating relationship with Hughes, his most powerful client, from the early 1950s to the reclusive magnate’s death in 1976, a period that included the buying and selling of RKO Pictures, a failed 1968 takeover of ABC and his million-dollar marriage offer to Elizabeth Taylor (which Bautzer conveyed). His work for Hughes highlights the varied roles the original Power Lawyer played throughout his career — attorney, confidante, consigliere, matchmaker. — Andy Lewis
Howard Robard Hughes Jr. was a financial titan, a singular genius who blazed trails in industry, aviation and filmmaking. In 1909, when he was 3, his father, Howard Hughes Sr., had patented a dual-cone rotary drill bit that could pierce previously impenetrable rock. The Houston-based Hughes Tool Co. (aka Toolco) would eventually collect massive licensing fees for most of the oil drilling in the world. In 1922, Howard Jr.'s mother died of an ectopic pregnancy; his father died 22 months later. Orphaned in 1924 at 18, Howard Jr. collected his inheritance and took the reins of the company. His uncle, Rupert Hughes, was a successful screenwriter in Hollywood. The wealthy young man decided that he would invest his newfound wealth in movies. In 1926, he moved to the Ambassador Hotel in Los Angeles and opened a production company.
Hughes knew nothing about making films but learned quickly. His third film, Two Arabian Knights (1928), won an Academy Award for director Lewis Milestone. Hughes conceived his fourth film as a tribute to the British aviators of World War I. While he was filming gruesome air battles, Hollywood made the transition to sound films. He reshot and recast, discovering Jean Harlow in the process. After spending three years and $3.75 million on the epic Hell's Angels, Hughes gave it a monster premiere at Grauman's Chinese Theatre. The film was a sensation, but it had cost too much to be profitable. He made a few more films, but when he got into a protracted fight with the motion picture censorship committee over excessive sex and violence in 1932's Scarface, he left Hollywood, divorced his wife and devoted himself to a new pursuit: aviation.
After founding his own aircraft company and eventually buying a controlling interest in Transcontinental Western Airlines (later renamed Trans World Airlines, or TWA for short), Hughes returned to moviemaking in 1941 with The Outlaw, which sat on the shelf for six years as Hughes battled censors over close-ups shots of star Jane Russell's cleavage. Pinup photos featuring her ample bosom made her an overnight hit.
Hughes came into Greg Bautzer's orbit around the time of Hughes' purchase of RKO Radio Pictures in 1948. Bautzer, who by this point was perhaps the most high-profile lawyer in Hollywood, knew that they had dated a number of the same women, among them Ginger Rogers and Ava Gardner. There are two versions of how Bautzer and Hughes met. The first involves their mutual friend Pat Di Cicco, who worked for Hughes in a capacity that has never been fully explained but almost certainly involved procuring young ladies. In this version, it is Di Cicco who introduced Bautzer to Hughes in a bungalow at the Beverly Hills Hotel, where the tycoon lived. According to publicist Henry Rogers, when Bautzer and Di Cicco arrived, they found Hughes in the bedroom, stark naked, a telephone in one hand, struggling to put on his trousers. A woman smoking a cigarette lay in his bed. Hughes finished his phone conversation, zipped up his fly and walked over to his visitors. "Howard," said Di Cicco, "I want you to meet my friend Greg Bautzer, the best attorney in town."
"Let's go down to the bar for a drink," Hughes grunted. The woman remained in the bed.
But the story Bautzer told his son, Mark, was that he first met Hughes in a nightclub. Bautzer was at a table with Lana Turner; by this time, they were no longer dating. A man came up to the table and leaned over to ask a question. "Mr. Hughes would like to know if Miss Turner will give him her phone number," he said politely.
"You tell that miserable son of a bitch that if he wants to talk to Lana, he's going to have to face me," responded Bautzer. "And if he's a man, he'll do it." The emissary retreated. In a few minutes, Hughes walked over and introduced himself. It is impossible to say whether either of these stories is true. What is known for certain is that by 1947 Bautzer was very good friends with people who were among Hughes' inner circle, and it is likely that one of them made the introduction.
Regardless of how Bautzer met Hughes, his earliest known legal work for the billionaire occurred in July 1952. Jean Simmons, a 21-year-old British actress, and Stewart Granger, her movie-star husband, were suing Hughes to get out of an acting contract. She had signed the contract, but Hughes and RKO had not. Since then, he had neither given her work nor let her work elsewhere. Simmons asserted that she wasn't bound by the contract. Hughes asserted that they had a binding deal and that his reason for not signing the document was that it included an illegal term.
The offending provision involved tax issues related to a side deal that Hughes made with the couple. The contract Simmons and Granger signed sold Hughes their Bel-Air house and motion-picture rights to a book owned by Granger. They were trying to report amounts for the house and book as capital gains rather than as income from Simmons' RKO work. (Capital gains are taxed at a lower rate than regular income.) The Grangers needed Hughes to agree that the side deal was not part of Simmons' acting contract. Hughes refused.
In truth, Hughes was simply inventing an excuse for never having signed the contract. He could easily have agreed that the house sale and book rights were a separate deal and allowed them to pay less in taxes. But Hughes wanted to hold her to the contract even though he had not cast her in a picture. The trial went on for 17 days, then was halted for settlement talks. Bautzer negotiated an arrangement in which Simmons would be under contract to RKO for three more years. In addition, Hughes would pay her $250,000 and her legal fees and would allow her to work for other studios at higher salaries.
After Simmons' lawsuit was resolved, Hughes kept Bautzer on a monthly retainer. For Bautzer, it was a dream come true. Having Hughes as a client elevated Bautzer's career to a new level. "When Howard Hughes all of a sudden says, 'This is my lawyer,' it makes you kind of important," Bautzer said. And the longer his relationship with Hughes lasted, the more powerful Bautzer became. But he also knew that keeping Hughes as a client would require more than just good lawyering. He would have to provide services like no other lawyer.