Abelard and Héloïse. Pyramus and Thisbe. Antony and Cleopatra. Howard Hughes and Jean Peters.

Howard Hughes and Jean Peters? Well, not exactly.

Jean Peters was a girl off the farm from East Canton, Ohio. She came to Hollywood after winning a beauty contest at Ohio State University. Twentieth Century Fox was knocked out by her screen test, so they signed her to a studio contract.

Howard Hughes, the 40-year-old, reclusive, and idiosyncratic billionaire first clapped eyes on 19-year-old Jean Peters at a party in Newport Beach over the July Fourth holiday weekend in 1946. Smitten, he invited her to watch him test-run the XF-11 plane he had designed for the air force. It was a helluva first date. If you recall the spectacular, fiery crash Martin Scorsese re-created in The Aviator, his film about Hughes, the plane ended up inside various homes on an otherwise sleepy residential street in Los Angeles. Hughes, depending on the account, either managed to crawl out of the burning wreck or was dragged unconscious from it before collapsing on one of the wings, and was rushed to the hospital.

After meeting Peters at a beach party, Hughes invited her to watch him take the XF-11 on a test run. The plane crashed on a residential Los Angeles street, and Hughes was rushed to the hospital.

Jean Peters was one of the only people Hughes allowed past the guard stationed outside his hospital room. She was ushered in, while Lana Turner and Cary Grant smoked and looked concerned out in the hall. Eleven years later, Hughes married the actress in Tonopah, an abandoned mining town 200 miles northwest of Las Vegas. With Hughes’s mania for secrecy nearly in full flower, he insisted that the couple register the marriage under assumed names. And so, on January 12, 1957, Mr. G. A. Johnson and Miss Marian Evans were pronounced husband and wife.

Even by Hollywood standards, theirs was not a typical relationship. On their way out of Tonopah, Hughes informed his bride that he had planned for them to live separately, each in their own bungalow at the Beverly Hills Hotel. This all begs the question: Why did he even bother? One possible explanation is that marriage might have been the only way that the increasingly erratic billionaire could keep himself from being committed by the very people who worked for him.

The couple eventually did move in together, first into a big house in Rancho Santa Fe and then the similarly spacious 1001 Bel Air, but they weren’t really living together. They saw each other, by appointment, briefly in the afternoon and then again for 20 or so minutes deep into the night, after Hughes had had his usual steak dinner, which he ate at an agonizingly slow pace.

Hughes and Peters were married under assumed names in 1957. They eventually moved in together, but saw each other only for brief periods each day.

Hughes sought to control nearly every aspect of his wife’s life. He had her followed on movie sets and outings with friends, demanded that she phone Hughes’s headquarters on Romaine Street first thing in the morning and right before bed. She had to go through his aides to order her meals, to see a doctor, to vote, or to receive mail.

Other than brief, late-night visits to Hughes’s bedroom, the two communicated via hastily scrawled notes. While not exactly Napoleon’s letters to Josephine, these pervy palimpsests offer a fascinating glimpse into a very complicated relationship, and further proof of that evergreen adage—that money is wasted on the rich.

Now many of Hughes’s most embarrassing messages to Peters—as well as her forbearing replies—are for sale on eBay and at various auction houses, like so much dirty laundry flapping in the breeze. From his crocodile tears of loneliness (though she was just a hallway away) to his bowel troubles, you too can own a soiled scrap of history.

Televiewing and Other Habits

“My Sweet Adorable,” Hughes begins one note while watching a sword-and-sandal epic on television. “The Spartans are about to attack Troy with the dam-dest bunch of weapons—Ch. 9. I love you so much. I will send word early because I know you are not feeling well.”

“It is really time to start pushing some Protestants!,” Peters wrote to Hughes after complaining that “it has become almost an unwritten law that any good character has to be Jewish or colored in modern day drama.”

Peters, watching the same movie on her own TV elsewhere in the house, writes beneath Hughes’s note on the same scrap of paper, like a primitive text message: “Dear Love—You are so right—I feel awful. That film is on in color—but quality is not too good. We ran it when it first came out. Do you remember?” Some lines are crossed out but still readable. “I love you.

Hughes: “I am sorry. I am deadly sick in guts like the night I told you about”, “I didn’t sleep one wink last night. I have to take the enema tonight.” (Cutting down on the red meat seems never to have occurred to Hughes.)

Peters: “Did you have the enema?”

Hughes: “Do you want me to go ahead now? Tried to last night but must have new equip. And some Paragoric [sic]—all arranged for tonight. I always see you first. But will do now if you prefer”, “I understand. Frankly I am frightened about it. Really + truly—thus I have found excuses to postpone. I even phone Dr. + tried to persuade him come for one night”, “But he persuaded me to reply [sic] on the Paragoric [sic]. So I am definitely going ahead”, “I won’t stall again I swear it.”

Peters: “No, you were so quiet + ‘edgy’ looking I just asked—You have told me the last 2 nights you were going to take it—Just forget I mentioned it.”

Hughes: “I got sick just then didn’t you hear?”

Much of Hughes’s correspondence with Peters concerns his bowel troubles.

Hughes begins another letter “My Sweet Love”. “Please forgive me if I am a little weak-kneed tonight. I had a session [referring to his bowels, a magnificent obsession alongside aviation and the movies] last night which has to be the end. It was the most and the first really successful event of that type in 2 years, and believe me please, the last. So forgive me tonight, my little dearest, [signature] (for H’ors de combatty) I will signal you soon. Dr. just left. I love you very much. What time were you planning on going to bed, sweetheart?”

Peters replies, “Dear Love—”. “I’m sorry you’ve had so much trouble and pain I truly hope things will work out as you say. I love you very much”, “And I beg your pardon; but, I think ‘H’ stands for ‘Highest’—not h’ors de combat or anything else. I love you.”

Even by Hollywood standards, theirs was not a typical relationship.

Hughes: “I am so happy to see you I could bawl. I’m sorry, but all day I’ve had a premonition that something was happening which was incompatible with your astrological orbit—or such like.”

Peters: “Well—you may not have been so wrong—because something happened that got me so mad, I said ‘I’m going off to be a fire watcher for the Interior Dept.—But being boyant [sic] I did not run off—And also being smart I realized you are my only source of happiness. and don’t ever think I don’t know about it.”

Peters in a publicity still for A Blueprint for Murder, 1953. Twentieth Century Fox signed her to a studio contract after seeing her screen test.

Peters: “You wanted to pick Mae Murray, not me”, “But it has become almost an unwritten law that any good character has to be Jewish or colored in modern day drama, It is really too much—In this one Greenwald a jew—solves the problem—+ in the book I was reading last night; a Jewish sec of Defense was the savior—It is really time to start pushing some Protestants!”

Hughes: “We have to change our televiewing habits. There was a picture tonight which we just have to see together. I didn’t seem much of it, and I had the sound off, but there was a bird-watching sequence which I would have given all the strawberries in the navy to have seen with you”, “I better be well and not sick as it is a gut splitter.”

Hughes discusses a haircut he is planning for that night, quipping: “Tonight’s the night for Sampson to lose his strength. The barber is going to sleep early and come at 2:30. This will allow four hours for the and permit him to drive directly to the airport when he finishes, have breakfast there, and catch his plane right on schedule. I slept late so as to be rested and I am sure I will have the necessary strength (of muscle and character). I will have him be as quiet as possible but avoid any operation which you might classify as furtive. I love you so very very much. I will be thinking of you and how lovely you look when you are asleep. Of course I will expect you when it is most convenient from 10:30 to 11:00. There is no reason for the barber to have any affect [sic] on our plans. I will try to have a picture selected which will not be too awful.”

Hughes inside the Hughes H-4 Hercules—also known as the “Spruce Goose”—a massive prototype wooden seaplane that reached an altitude of 70 feet for about 26 seconds during its one test flight.

Peters: “Dear Heart That will be fine; I will come in at 10:30. Don’t worry about me when your barber comes; I will not hear him or be disturbed. I love you.”

Hughes then asks if Peters would like to watch a movie featuring Eartha Kitt and Sammy Davis Jr., a 1958 film noir titled Anna Lucasta. Peters replies: “No—I definately [sic] do not see Samie [sic] Davis at this hour.” Their exchange reveals the ugly, common-variety racism of mid-l950s America.

Hughes answers, “To avoid the black octopus-eye, with your permission, I will tune ‘Crash Dive,’ but have no desire to inflict the entire picture on you, only a half-hour or so.”

By the time of their divorce, in 1971, Peters and Hughes hadn’t seen each other for nearly four years. Peters was given a $70,000 annual alimony settlement, but she had virtually given up her acting career when she’d married Hughes, after appearing in Samuel Fuller’s classic Pickup on South Street and with Marilyn Monroe in Niagara. She would sputter back, mostly on television in the 1970s, ending up on Murder, She Wrote, the elephants’ graveyard for aging film stars.

The year of their divorce was also the year that Hughes lost control of his empire, becoming the sole inmate of his own asylum. He was 70 at the time of his death. Peters would outlive him by 24 years, dying in 2000 without ever publicly uttering a word against her former husband.

Sam Kashner is a Writer at Large for AIR MAIL.Previously a contributing editor for Vanity Fair, he is the author or co-author of several books, including Sinatraland: A Novel, When I Was Cool: My Life at the Jack Kerouac School, and Life Isn’t Everything: Mike Nichols, as Remembered by 150 of His Closest Friends