Secrets of Howard Hughes' Attorney (Exclusive Book Excerpt)
Greg Bautzer, Hollywood's original power lawyer, offered Elizabeth Taylor $1 million to marry his client, helped mount a failed takeover of ABC and knew the true story behind the billionaire's lost will.
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.
Since Hughes rarely went out and kept his distance even from the men who attended to his every need, Bautzer may have been his only friend. He wanted to be able to reach Bautzer at all times. The billionaire called Bautzer at restaurants. He called him at home. He called at all hours of the night. He had a second phone installed at Bautzer's secretary's home so that he could reach her if her boss was unavailable.
Hughes' demands often were unrelated to legal work. One Friday at 2 a.m., Bautzer's secretary Lea Sullivan awoke to hear Hughes asking her to procure a print of a film. Sullivan procured the print from a drive-in, but her job was just beginning. Hughes was not interested in watching the film; he wanted its plot and dialogue transcribed. Bautzer happened to come into the office over the weekend and was surprised to see her typing away as a projectionist screened the film.
Hughes wasn't the only client that required hand-holding. Celebrity clients called Bautzer's office for all kinds of things that had little or nothing to do with legal work. If Merle Oberon needed airplane tickets on TWA, she called Bautzer. When Jack Benny needed to take his driver's test again at the Department of Motor Vehicles, he called Bautzer to accompany him. Whenever possible, Bautzer asked his secretary to handle these day-to-day favors, but the nonstop people-pleasing was exhausting. "The stress of working in that office was tremendous," said Sullivan. "We were representing the richest, most famous people in the world, and the pressure to meet their needs was incredible."
As early as 1955, Bautzer felt the need to get away from Hughes. "That guy is driving me crazy," said Bautzer. "I've gotta have a vacation." In July he made reservations to travel to Italy and refused to tell Hughes where he was staying, even when Hughes insisted. Sullivan remembered the private line ringing in Bautzer's office.
"Sullivan! Is that you?" Hughes asked loudly.
"Yes, it's me, Mr. Hughes."
"Oh, OK," said Hughes, his voice dropping to a normal register. "Where is Greg?"
"I don't know, Mr. Hughes."
"Do you expect him back today?"
"I don't know, Mr. Hughes. I really don't know." She told Hughes nothing. She was sworn to secrecy.
Bautzer was in Reggio, looking at Italian women and drinking wine. After a few days, he decided to drive north to Capri. On impulse he checked into an inn in a small village. It was not planned and he had told no one. He had been in his room only a few minutes when the phone rang. It was Hughes, who had sent detectives to trail him.
Hughes and Bautzer shared a closeness that Hughes didn't have with others. After Bautzer married actress Dana Wynter, the third of his four wives, Hughes would personally fly himself to Palm Springs in a small plane, land at the tiny airstrip that was its original airport and spend the night with the couple in their home. He and Bautzer would often stay up late talking business. Hughes was totally relaxed at their home. If he arrived without toiletries, Wynter would jump in the car with him and go to a drugstore. According to Wynter, there was nothing unusual about Hughes' behavior at all, except that he required her husband to be available at all hours.
On one occasion, the Bautzers were in Acapulco. Wynter finally pulled the phone away from her husband. "Howard," she said, "if Greg says he doesn't need to go to Washington, he doesn't need to go. And if he does, it will break up our marriage. And it will be your fault!" From then on, when he asked Bautzer to travel on business, he would pause and say, "Now, I don't have to talk to Dana, do I?"
Hughes depended on Bautzer for a variety of services, some legal and some that could be euphemistically described as extra-legal. In the mid-1950s, Hughes asked Bautzer to help him date Elizabeth Taylor. "Have you asked her?" Bautzer said.
"No. I want you to ask her," replied Hughes.
"But I wouldn't know how."
"I want you to take a proposal to her mother."
"That you want to screw her daughter?" Bautzer asked.
"No. Not in so many words. You're to say to her mother that I am prepared to pay a million dollars for Elizabeth to be my bride."
"That isn't the way it's done, Howard."
"It's the way I'd like to do it."
Bautzer wanted to placate Hughes, so he went to see Taylor's mother, Sara. "I have a very unusual proposal to make," said Bautzer. "Howard Hughes wants to marry your daughter."
"But she doesn't know Hughes," said Taylor's mother.
"There's an inducement. He's prepared to pay a million dollars for her."
Mrs. Taylor thought for a second then asked: "Tax free?" Bautzer laughed and conveyed her message to his client. Hughes moved on.
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.
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."
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.
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.
July 15 was the deadline for ABC shareholders to respond to Hughes' offer. By that date, Hughes had received 1.6 million shares of ABC stock. He was still 400,000 short. He had two choices. He could raise his offering price and extend the tender offer. Or he could keep the stock and sell it later. In either case he would have to abide by the outcome of proposed FCC hearings.
The scene at the Desert Inn in Las Vegas, where Hughes, 61, was living, was bizarre. Raymond Holliday, Hughes' adviser, and Robert Maheu, his chief aide, were talking to him from phones in adjoining suites, trying to reason with him. Holliday had not seen Hughes in years. Maheu had never seen him. On July 16, at 5:15 a.m., Hughes sent Bautzer a message.
I am in a real predicament. I don't really want a buyer. What I mainly want is somebody with whom I could trustee this stock in one way or another, just until we could have a few meetings with Justice and the FCC. In other words, I just don't want to have the stock transferred directly to me or Hughes Tool Company for fear this will be the signal for the Justice Department to light on us like a swarm of bees.
On July 16, 1968, the New York Stock Exchange halted trading on ABC stock, waiting for Hughes to declare his intentions. At noon, he announced that he was abandoning the ABC takeover. Hughes blamed his retreat on the "inordinate opposition" of ABC's management. It was more likely the mandates of the FCC that he feared. If hearings were held, he would be forced to attend. This was impossible. For a year Hughes had been secluded in his bedroom. He was not fit, either physically or mentally, to testify in court. He could, however, transmit orders and spend money. This he continued to do.
On April 5, 1976, Bautzer was driving through Bel-Air when a news bulletin interrupted the music playing on the radio that Hughes, 70, had died. Bautzer made his chauffeur Tucker pull the car to the side of the road. According to Tucker, Bautzer wept like a child for 10 minutes.
Following the billionaire's death from kidney failure, there was wild speculation as to the whereabouts of his last will and testament. "Over a period of time Mr. Hughes talked to me about various forms of bequests," Bautzer told The Los Angeles Times, "but he never asked me to draw up a will." Bautzer said that Hughes was a brilliant man who had most likely left a holographic will --that is, one written by hand. In his 1972 press conference Hughes had said that he planned to leave his money to the Howard Hughes Medical Institute in Miami. A large-scale investigation was launched to search for the will. Special Administrator Richard C. Gano Jr. prepared a 274-page search report for the court claiming that two of Bautzer's former employees had seen a document that appeared to be a Hughes will. Bautzer testified in Los Angeles Superior Court that he had not prepared a will for Hughes. Nevertheless, the court ordered that Bautzer search his files. Bautzer looked for someone he trusted to perform the task. Bautzer's longtime secretary Sullivan had left him 11 years earlier when her second child was born, but Bautzer pressed her back into service.
While Sullivan agrees that Bautzer may not have drawn up a will for Hughes, she believes that one existed. He first sent her to a warehouse to look through all his old files. The building was very cold, so Bautzer hired movers to transport vast numbers of file cabinets to her home on Hutton Drive in Beverly Hills. Television reporters huddled outside her house as she pored over files going back to the 1930s. She could not walk out the front door without having a microphone shoved at her. The search for Hughes' will was intense, yet it turned up nothing more than a 1939 codicil, so Hughes' money went to medical research.
Years after Hughes' death and before his own in 1987, Bautzer would reminisce with friends about the man. He had been asked several times to write a Hughes biography, but he refused. Publishers only wanted him to write bad things, not good. Bautzer's friend Richard S. Harris also recalls their closeness. "I sat in Greg's office many times when he would buzz his secretary and say, 'Get Howard for me.' Thirty seconds later there would be a buzz on the intercom and Howard Hughes would be on the phone. Knowing the peculiarity of the man and his reluctance to talk to anyone, I thought their relationship was remarkable."
Excerpted from The Man Who Seduced Hollywood: The Life and Loves of Greg Bautzer, Tinseltown’s Most Powerful Lawyer published by Chicago Review Press and copyright B. James Gladstone.