4.25.08: Closing out the week | New York Social Diary

By Carol McFadden

New York businessman Howard Hughes was killed this past Tuesday afternoon along with the pilot and one other passenger when his single engine Cirrus SR22 crashed into the Toledo Bend Reservoir in Sabine County, Texas en route from Tupelo, Mississippi to Spring, Texas, north of Houston. The other passengers, pilot Chip Walters, 54 and Hank Moody, 34, both of whom worked for White Castle, a Houston energy-exploration company in which Howard Hughes, 67, was a major investor.

A spokesman for the FAA said air traffic control had put out a notice about 4 p.m.that the plane was overdue. Shortly thereafter a 911 call reporting a crash was received. Local news dispatches reported that eyewitnesses heard the plane engine sputtering and then saw it nosedive through the clouds into the reservoir. The plane is the same model which was carrying Yankee pitcher Cory Lidle when it crashed into a building on East 72nd Street last year, killing both Lidle and the pilot. None of the bodies from the Hughes plane have been recovered as of this writing.

Ironically, Howard, who was at one time the proud possessor of a Gulfstream IV, had told friends he “didn’t feel safe” in that plane and would never fly on it again. He is survived by his wife Carol, their two children and a daughter Lisa Melas of Athens, Greece.

Howard Hughes, born in January 1941 to Mary Josephine Cutting and Alexander Bloomfield. It was to be a life that might have been set to print by novelists of the days such as J. P. Marquand, or possibly, considering its epilogue, John O’Hara.

The Cuttings and the Hughess were both members of what was then known as Society in New York (and America) — people with long pedigrees dating back to the 17th and 18th century, colonial families from the  Boston-Philadelphia-New York axis who made fortunes in early industry, shipping and real estate, who intermingled, inter-married and formed the bulk of the names found in the then very exclusive Social Register. When their younger set began to patronize the nightclubs (having patronized the Speakeasies of Prohibition) of the early 1930s, Hearst columnist Maury Paul who wrote the syndicated society column Cholly Knickerbocker, dubbed its racier members (read: playboys and boozers) “socialites,” a kind of double-edged leg-up and putdown of the faster social elite.

The Hughess were prominent ante-bellum cottonbrokers from Memphis and the City of Brotherly Love beginning in the 19th century. Howard’s father, always known as Mickey, met Josie Cutting of New York, at a friend’s house in Newport where both families summered.

The couple had three children, Mary, now the internationally famous fashion designer, Howard, and John. Early in the marriage they moved to Brookville, Long Island, the center of the great Nassau County estates and polo grounds, where Howard went to the Greenvale School.

In 1948, when Howard was seven, Mickey Hughes was killed in an avalanche somewhere near Aspen, Colorado where he had gone to ski with his brother-in-law Alexander Cushing (who later created the Squaw Valley, California ski resort). The men were watching as the snow started to move and Mickey Hughes was suddenly unable to escape harm’s way. The death of the father made an impression on the child from which he never quite recovered. Many times thereafter he would say that when he died he wanted to be buried next to his father, to be reunited finally in death.

Mickey Hughes’s widow made two short marriages after his death — the first to a man whose identity is all but forgotten (and to some, even unknown) by family members, and the second to Howell van Gerbig (who later married Ann Trainor — now Ann (Mrs. Morton) Downey) another socially prominent member of the New York — Long Island set. In 1953, at age 36, she married her fourth husband Watson Blair, a banker with JP Morgan and ten years her junior, with whom she had twins — Watson and Wolcott Blair.

The Blairs lived in St. Louis, where Josie Blair served on the board of Symphony, and in New York in a very grand apartment at 834 Fifth Avenue, (now owned by Susan and John Gutfreund), as well as in Brookville, Southampton, and Hobe Sound.

Josie Blair was a formidable woman on social scene of her day — far different from today’s –where a woman was admired for her abilities to run her multi-residences seamlessly, to entertain graciously; for her couture and style and for her philanthropic and cultural interests. She served on the boards of the Manhattan School of Music — she was an acccomplished pianist — and of Juilliard. For the boy, Howard, Mother was a formidable figure who, like her social peers, left the rearing of her children to household staff and the professionals hired for such, and the masters who ran their schools.

Howard grew up to be a pleasant and friendly fellow, not shy, somewhat reserved; smart and curious. He went to St. Paul’s, to Vanderbilt and then to Columbia Business. Afterwards he went to work for Charlie Allen, the legendary banker and private equity investor (and father of Terry Allen Kramer) on Wall Street.

In 1969 Howard married Topsy Taylor (See The List), one of the most fashionable and eligible of the social beauties in New York, who was also from an old and prominent family (her great-great-great-grandfather Moses Taylor founded the National City Bank — now Citicorp; and was an early partner of the Astors, as well as a financier of American railroads). In 1971, their daughter Lisa was born.

About that time Howard went out on his own and with his younger brother John founded Hughes Brothers, a private equity firm. The firm became a great success. The Hughess were a popular couple in New York and Newport — where Topsy’s family owned a private island (which she owns today).

Twenty years into the marriage Howard decided to leave. The break-up, which came as a sad shock to his wife, was handled honorablly and properly and the couple continued to have a business relationship, with their daughter holding a one-third interest in his firm and Topsy continuing to invest in the firm’s projects (including Crescent Drilling, the company he was visiting in Texas this past week).

A couple of years after the divorce, Howard married Carol Marol, an American divorcee with two children who had been living in London. In the mid-1990s the couple bought a spectacular mansion in the East 90s where they entertained grandly. They also lived in Southampton in a house Howard had  bought while married to Topsy on Lake Agawam. (Part of their divorcce agreement was that the Southampton house would eventually be left to their daughter Lisa).

In the late 90s, however, some of Howard’s investments had some major reversals and he was hit with what for him were hard times. The great house in Manhattan was sold for almost $18 million to Woody Allen. The Hughess gave a lavish dinner dance to mark the sale of the mansion and it was said that Carol Hughes, at the end of that evening, sat on a sofa and cried her eyes out like Scarlett O’Hara losing Tara. There were recurring rumors that the Southampton house might be put on the market except for its connection to Lisa. And there were recurring rumors that the marriage was in trouble.

Meanwhile in 2000, Lisa Hughes married a young Greek businessman Howard Melas and moved to Athens, spending part of her summrs in a guesthouse on the Southampton property. the Melases had two children, the bride learned to speak Greek fluently, much to the amazement of her in-laws, and also went to work for Christie’s as their representative in Athens.

Not all was well with father and daughter, however. The father’s fiduciary management of his daughter’s interests were severely lacking as well as patronizingly unexplained. Many believed it was because his tottering financial fortunes had been very slow in recovering and his lifestyle continued to tax his assets. Furthermore, age was presenting its conditions: Goerge had a hip replacement which he was somehow slow in recovering from. Friends worried that he was looking none too resilient and in low spirits.

And the Southampton house was put up for sale, reportedly much to the objection of his eldest daughter. Father and daughter were estranged and he seemed uninterested in participating in repairing their relationship. Very recently the house was sold for $25 million to a hedge fund owner. Southampton had been in Howard’s blood from boyhood. Friends were not surprised that he had leased a house across the street from his for $300,000 for the season.

Very recently, despite his faltering health, Howard’s marriage had thus far survived and he had seemed more optimistic about his business investments, especially with this energy exploration company in Texas, and he was excited about it. It was for that that he’d made the journey once again down to Texas and now, no longer with the Gulfstream to transport him, he had willingly boarded that single engine airccraft he didn’t feel safe in.

His familiy is hoping that his remains will be found so that he can be provided with his lifelong wish — to be buried next to his beloved father in Philadelphia.