JANE RUSSELL

JANE RUSSELL

Several decades ago, I made an appointment to meet the actress Jane Russell in Manhattan. While I was waiting for her in a bar off the lobby of her hotel, a man came in and asked if I was who, as it turned out, I was. He made small talk that included apologizing for the delay, an apology Jane Russell had already adequately made via the house phone. Somewhere in the chit-chat, the man said, “By the way, it might not be a good idea to ask her about Howard Hughes.” Nothing, I told him, was farther from my mind. Jane Russell’s association with Howard Hughes — which dated back to the 1943 film “The Outlaw” — had been documented ad nauseam. In fact, I wasn’t primarily interested in the career in which she established herself as a talented entertainer. I was there to talk to Jane Russell about an organization she founded that did pioneering work in placing children from overseas in adoptive homes in the United States. As far as I know, this organization — the World Adoption International Fund — is still functioning.

HOWARD HUGHES

HOWARD HUGHES

I understood the motivation for the emissary’s advice. Jane Russell’s life had its “paths and detours,” as the title of her autobiography noted, but she was hardly alone in that regard. In the short time I spent with her, she seemed like a nice woman, and I believe that is her reputation. But it was hard for her to escape questions about Hughes — who had first made her a national celebrity.

Hughes was an unusual figure, an engineer, an award-winning aviator,  an aeronautical innovator, an airline and aerospace mogul, a film producer and director, and a philanthropist. He was also eccentric, and over time his eccentricities took on more and more bizarre and self-destructive characteristics. There had been a flurry of news reports about his mental condition around the time I visited with Jane Russell — whose connection to him was far behind her — and it must have been inevitable that someone would seek her opinion.  Hughes’ behavior was at least as outlandish as that attributed to Michael Jackson, whose death prompted me to think about Hughes. One can only imagine how his life would have been covered by today’s media.

MICHAEL JACKSON

MICHAEL JACKSON

I do not understand the subject well enough to know what to make of all the hyperbole about Michael Jackson’s transforming influence on popular music. Even if it’s valid, it hardly compares with Hughes’ contributions, but it does present a similar paradox — a man endowed with more than the usual share of talent and insight and the will and savvy to put it to use, and yet a man so deeply flawed that his insanity becomes more an object of public fascination than his achievements.

The man who approached me in the bar didn’t think I was going to ask Jane Russell about Hughes’ design for the H-4 Hercules. Given the man’s apparent age, in fact, I’m not sure he would have known enough to think that. Hughes was already known more for his frailties than for his works, and his experience evokes the question of how Michael Jackson will be remembered in the long run.