The Artist and the Millionaire

How Bette Davis made an affair with Howard Hughes work for her.

Bette Davis and Howard Hughes looking flirty.
Bette Davis and Howard Hughes at the Tailwaggers benefit, 1938.
Bettmann/Getty Images

This essay is adapted from Seduction: Sex, Lies, and Stardom in Howard Hughes’s Hollywood, out now from Custom House.

Shortly after his 1938 flight around the world, Howard Hughes was an honored guest at a Hollywood benefit dinner for the animal rescue organization the Tailwaggers Society. The host of the event was the president of Tailwaggers, actress Bette Davis.

Though she was essentially the same age as Katharine Hepburn, and had in fact arrived in Hollywood earlier, Davis’ stardom was slower to come. So, in a year when stars like Hepburn and Greta Garbo were labeled “box office poison,” Davis was well positioned as a relatively fresh face, and by the end of the decade she had replaced Kay Francis as the top female star at Warner Bros.

Francis had been one of the most glamorous women in the industry, but Davis’ persona as a star was based on something else: acting. Where other female performers used the consistency of their image, their beauty and fashionability, as selling points, Davis thrived in roles that required her to transform and often bury her inherent aesthetic appeal. In mid-1938, Davis had vaulted to a new level of stardom with Jezebel, a movie about a southern belle whose brazenness is embodied by the red dress she insists on wearing to her antebellum community’s social event of the year. On set, Davis had begun an affair with the film’s director, William Wyler, and she credited her performance as a woman in love with Henry Fonda to the fact that her beloved “Willie” was standing behind the camera. But Davis also had a husband, Ham Nelson, who had been her high school sweetheart. When she realized she was pregnant, probably with Wyler’s baby, Davis had an abortion. When the Jezebel shoot was over, Davis and Wyler went their separate ways, and, holding on to her marriage vows, she attempted to move on.

The night of the Tailwaggers ball, Bette took a cue from her Jezebel character and dressed to impress, in a pale pink gown with a brocade bow sewn into the chest, below a very low sweetheart neckline. This dress couldn’t have been better designed to attract the attention of Howard Hughes, whose interest and expertise in costuming for cleavage remained consistent throughout his Hollywood career. He took notice of Bette and approached her. “He seemed reserved, even shy,” Davis later said. “He spoke softly, and I had to lean close to hear him. When he introduced himself, he looked into my eyes, not down my dress. That really impressed me, though if I didn’t want men looking, why didn’t I wear a higher-necked dress?”

Before the night was through, Hughes asked Davis if he could see her again. “I was flattered,” Davis recalled. “I was married. I was bored. I accepted.”

This event was heavily photographed, and one of the images, showing the pair standing next to one another, with Howard’s hand on a table apparently inching toward Bette’s hand, was published internationally. Davis kept clippings of the photos of her and Hughes at this event in a scrapbook, which she would at some point label “DIVORCE.”

Davis entered into a relationship with Hughes believing that her marriage was all but over, though neither she nor her husband had made moves toward a separation. Bette and Howard attempted to be discreet, renting a cottage in Malibu for their dinner dates. Eventually Ham found out about their secret hideaway, and by early October the papers were reporting that Davis was on “vacation” from her marriage. These were Davis’ actual words, which she wired to journalists directly. On Oct. 3, Walter Winchell breezily led his column with the news that Davis “finally admitted the separation from her groom, [and] will probably make it permanent—to wed Howard Hughes, who Certainly Gets Around.” Bette kept this clipping in her DIVORCE scrapbook, too, although when asked directly about Hughes by Louella Parsons, she demurred. In an article sympathetic to Bette, Parsons noted that the actress “laughed heartily over the fable pulled out of thin air that she would marry a millionaire. ‘I don’t know any millionaires,’ she said, ‘but if I happen to meet one who asks me to share his millions I’ll tell you first.’ ”

Bette Davis in Jezebel.
Bette Davis in Jezebel.
Warner Bros.

What Louella didn’t print was that Ham had asked to be paid to go away, and Bette was annoyed that Howard had not offered financial help. She would have to borrow money from Warner Bros. in order to get out of her marriage, and no marriage to Hughes would follow.

In late November, Ham filed for divorce, presenting a narrative that Bette was so focused on her career that she had become frigid. “I think that Bette is a grand actress—the best on the screen,” Ham told reporters at the courthouse, “but she has become the best to the detriment of her home life.” Nelson’s filing complained that Davis “had become so engrossed in her profession that she had neglected and failed to perform her duties as a wife,” and that she “would become enraged and indulged in a blatant array of epithets and derision when asked to exhibit some evidence of conjugal friendliness and affection.”

Ham’s statements on the marriage would have been terribly unflattering to some actresses, but for Bette Davis, they were both on-brand and an apparently negotiated act of protection. It was popular perception that working women ceased to be “real” women, meaning that they were apt to neglect their husbands, lose all desire for men, and rebel as if compulsively from their “duties as a wife.” So to say that Bette Davis, an extremely successful career woman, had done these things was to say nothing that her critics had not thought before. And of course, the truth was that Davis may have neglected her husband, but she was not frigid. In fact, as she later put it, “I liked sex in a way that was considered unbecoming for a woman in my time.” Indeed, she was so wantonly sexual that she had defied her marriage by uncorking her passion in a cottage in Malibu with America’s most famous flying millionaire. To blame the divorce on Bette’s career protected her by obscuring her infidelity and sexual appetite and left the door open for Hollywood columnists to empathize with the tragedy of her failure to balance stardom and marriage. Other actresses may be able to “have it all,” but Bette Davis, this incident proved, was not like her peers. She was an artist before she was a woman, the consummate actress of her generation, and she sacrificed the joys and responsibilities of womanhood to her calling.

Davis’ career not only survived the scandal of her divorce, but thrived—she took home her second best actress Oscar in Feb. 1939, for Jezebel. The affair with Hughes, however, didn’t survive the fallout of her marriage. Years later, Davis looked back on Hughes with a mixture of pride and cattiness. “You know, I was the only one who ever brought Howard Hughes to a sexual climax, or so he said at that time,” Davis bragged. “It’s true. That is to say, it’s true that he said it. Or, let’s say, I believed it when he told me that. I was wildly naive at the time. It may have been his regular seduction gambit. Anyway, it worked with me, and it was cheaper than buying gifts. But Howard Huge, he was not.”

Copyright © 2018 by Karina Longworth. Reprinted courtesy of HarperCollins Publishers.