Secrets of Howard Hughes' Attorney (Exclusive Book Excerpt)

Bautzer and Joan Crawford arrived at the famed nightclub Ciro’s in 1948 in a Cadillac she gave him.
Bautzer and Joan Crawford arrived at the famed nightclub Ciro’s in 1948 in a Cadillac she gave him.

Hughes frequently used Bautzer's services as a harem keeper. He had Bautzer sign women to acting contracts and pay them out of a corporate entity named Black Gold Productions, an obvious allusion to Hughes' oil fortune. The Black Gold account was kept separate from the ones he used to pay established actresses. Its so-called acting contracts were an elaborate way to seduce a girl and pay her living expenses. Hughes found his targets in various places. He would notice a woman in a restaurant or catch a glance in a passing car and take down the license plate number. He might even see a picture in a magazine. He then hired detectives to locate these women. After an intermediary had presented the proposition and gotten the woman's consent, Hughes would rent an apartment for her and provide acting, singing and dancing lessons. Hughes would not meet the woman for several weeks. He would tease her with the prospect of a visit and then repeatedly break the date, saying something important had come up. Sometimes he called the woman, saying he was out of town while he was actually in an adjoining room. By the time the woman finally met him, she was willing to do anything to get his attention. Other seduction techniques included buying her a dog and then having it kidnapped, only to pretend that he had found it and triumphantly return it. His tricks were devious but effective.

In the 1960s, Bautzer's recurring task for Hughes was to quash unauthorized magazine articles and biographies about the reclusive billionaire. In 1962, Hughes sent Bautzer, publicist Dick Hannah and Washington attorney Clark Clifford to the offices of Life magazine to suppress an article, or at least get final approval over it. The team of envoys waxed eloquent, but the editors were unmoved. The article ran, emblazoned with the provocative heading "A playboy who became a secretive, besieged, and lonely man." Bautzer was quoted in it complaining to Hughes about his late-night calls. Hughes was furious. Although Bautzer was working hard on his behalf, the article had upset Hughes beyond measure.

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Bautzer calmed Hughes down and stayed in his good graces, but there were a growing number of aspiring Hughes biographers, and he wanted Bautzer to stop them all. Film historian Ezra Goodman was writing a book on Hughes, so Bautzer and New York lawyer Chester Davis brought him to New York, put him up in the St. Regis hotel and bribed him $38,250 to instead write about silent film director D.W. Griffith. Goodman's publisher, Lyle Stuart, wouldn't stand for this kind of interference and sued. Bautzer heard of Stuart's weakness for gourmet food and invited the publisher to a lavishly catered settlement meeting at the St. Regis. Stuart appreciated the gesture but stood his ground. "You're not going to buy me off," he said. "I know you aren't going to believe this, but I don't have a price. I didn't go into publishing just to make money, but I've made a million. And you're not going to threaten me. I know that Howard Hughes is a very powerful, very influential man who has lots of friends. I've got friends, too. And if we have to fight, I'll fight." As the lawsuit continued, Hughes had the audacity to sue Goodman for $38,250, claiming the manuscript Goodman delivered on the life of Griffith was unsatisfactory, but his lawsuit was thrown out.

In January 1972, Hughes heard some alarming news. McGraw-Hill was publishing an "autobiography of Howard Hughes." His supposed co-author was a novelist named Clifford Irving. McGraw-Hill had paid Irving an advance of $100,000 and given Irving a $400,000 check for Hughes, which Hughes had reportedly signed and deposited in a Swiss bank account. Bautzer made a statement: "Irving may have had some tapes, but Hughes didn't give them to him. The autobiography is a complete and absolute fraud."

If Hughes planned to discredit Irving, it would have to be done in public. Since 1958, Hughes had kept out of sight. He was not about to appear in person. Bautzer arranged a news conference with seven journalists who had known Hughes for years. They would be televised talking to Hughes over the telephone. At the Jan. 7 conference, every reporter recognized his flat, nasal voice and confirmed his identity. "I don't know him," said Hughes. "I never met him."

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Three weeks later, Bautzer filed suit against McGraw-Hill. That same day, Irving confessed to forging Hughes' signature and plagiarizing an unpublished book by Hughes' former business manager, Noah Dietrich. Irving, his wife and his co-conspirator Richard Suskind were convicted of defrauding McGraw-Hill of $939,000. They all served time in prison.

The April 1968 issue of Fortune magazine listed Hughes as the richest man in the world, with assets worth $1.4 billion. Bautzer decided that Hughes should use some of his money to purchase the American Broadcasting Co. The television network had been in merger talks with other companies, including International Telephone & Telegraph, but had broken off negotiations. Hughes thought it was a great idea. "I have no desire to produce a long line of 'Batmen,' etc.," he told Bautzer. "I have no desire to be associated with a lot of artistic crap. I have no desire to remake the entertainment policy of TV, as many people want to do. My only real interest is in the very areas in which I understand ABC is really hopeless -- news and public events and the technical side of the business, in which field I am equipped to do a really outstanding job."

Bautzer clearly had his own interests in mind when he proposed that Hughes buy the network. Bautzer was friends with James T. Aubrey Jr., who had been fired as head of CBS Television in 1965. In the intervening three years, Bautzer had tried to involve Aubrey in several ventures, including potentially producing feature films together. If the tycoon bought the network, Aubrey was first in line to replace Leonard Goldenson as president. Having ABC as a client would provide all sorts of high-paying legal work for Bautzer and his firm.

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On July 1, 1968, Hughes' Toolco offered to purchase up to 2 million shares, or approximately 43 percent, of the outstanding common stock of ABC. The offer was $74.25 a share, a big markup from the current trading price of $58.87. The total offer was $148.5 million. Goldenson told stockholders that the offer was "substantially below the intrinsic share value." On July 3, Bautzer met with Goldenson and ABC executive vp Simon B. Siegel. "Mr. Hughes would like to work this out on a friendly basis," Bautzer told them. According to Bautzer, Hughes had no antagonistic motive and was willing to provide financing to ABC. Its facilities were in need of a $90 million upgrade, which Hughes would be happy to underwrite. Despite Bautzer's presentation, ABC could not visualize Hughes as a benign controlling stockholder. Neither could the FCC. In a letter to Bautzer, it warned Hughes not to seek a controlling interest in ABC. He already owned a VHF television station. ABC owned five. If he bought ABC, he would exceed the legal limit.

On July 9, ABC filed papers to block Hughes' purchase in U.S. District Court -- and asked that he be compelled to appear in court. ABC was trying to force his hand. They knew he would not want to appear.

Bautzer realized that he must do something. He filed papers with the court requesting that he be allowed to answer questions on the record instead of Hughes. On July 12, a federal judge ruled that Hughes did not have to appear; Bautzer could testify for him. ABC's action failed, and the offer remained open. Goldenson appealed, saying that Hughes had a history of antitrust litigation. Tongue planted firmly in cheek, Goldenson said he would be delighted to sit down and talk with Hughes.

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