Book on Howard Hughes proving not as popular as the man

Feb 25 2013 - 7:59pm


After wandering through Jim Whetton's book about working for Howard Hughes, I have to say that I'm glad it was Jim and not me.

Hughes was rich, but when you worked for Hughes, you worked by Hughes' rules: late nights for weeks on end, 3 a.m. phone calls, meeting impossible demands, always at his beck and call.

Jim loved it. He has nothing bad to say about the man.

Jim ran a Buick dealership in Top of Utah for 30 years, so it is entirely possible you bought wheels from a guy who, from 1953 to 1960, "spent all of my time with Hughes personally, eyeball to eyeball."

Hughes was the inventor and engineer who made a fortune inventing oil-drilling equipment, another fortune founding Hughes Aircraft, and more fortunes forming Trans World Airlines, making movies, launching satellites and inventing the hospital bed.

Rumor has it, Hughes spent his last years in a penthouse in Las Vegas, growing long hair and nails, afraid to touch anything. Somewhere around then, Hughes allegedly dropped off his will at a gas station in Willard, giving local boy Melvin Dummar, who allegedly saved Hughes from freezing in the desert several years previously, a fortune.

All Dummar got was a moment of fame for a will that was ultimately rejected as a badly spelled fake.

At 92, Jim has no trouble remembering Hughes as "probably one of the greatest patriots, period. It would take 10 of the smartest people in the world to match what he did."

And similarly, "The man was a pure genius, one of the most thoughtful, kindest people I knew."

Jim was a personal aide to Hughes through most of the 1950s. Five years ago, he said, he and two others decided someone had to debunk the stories of untrimmed fingernails, long hair and extreme paranoia.

Write a book, they said, tell the truth. It ought to sell, seeing as how nobody was closer to Hughes than they were, right?

Not so much.

"We Knew Howard Hughes" is in print, but the authors had to pay to get it there. The authors are Whetton, James Wadsworth, a Nevada attorney who worked with Hughes, and Wilbur Thain, one of Hughes' two doctors.

Publishers yawned. The problem may be the book's literary quality, which is ragged. Jim admits it's something of a "hodgepodge" of memories.

Or it may just be that nobody cares about Howard Hughes. The guy did die 37 years ago. He's ancient history to the iPad generation.

Still, there are nuggets.

Yes, Jim said, his boss could be demanding. Call people up at 3 a.m.? That's when you know where they are, Hughes would tell Jim: in bed.

Hughes did have a fear of germs, but when Jim handled things with tissues, it was Jim's idea, not the boss's.

"I did that, he didn't ask for it. We just took it on ourselves to guard him," he said.

And Hughes was nice. He paid the full medical tab for a stewardess on his airline who got hurt at Lake Tahoe. He kept a date waiting two hours while he took a dog, which had been hit by his car, to the vet.

"The date got angry because he showed up late with blood all over his shirt, and every few minutes, he'd go call about the dog," Jim said.

You can buy the book at Wisebird Bookery, 4850 Harrison Blvd., Ogden, or order it through or Barnes & Noble, either as a book or an ebook.

Wasatch Rambler is the opinion of Charles Trentelman. You can contact him at 801-625-4232 or He also blogs at

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