Cover of "Boxes: The Secret Life of Howard Hughes"
Cover of "Boxes: The Secret Life of Howard Hughes" - 
Listen To The Story


BILL RADKE: A lot of people will tell you money doesn't buy happiness, and they can point to a lot of wealthy, unhappy people. One of the most famous being the late billionaire Howard Hughes. But a new book makes the improbable claim that Hughes lost his money and still lived happily for a lot longer than you thought. Author Douglas Wellman, welcome to Marketplace.

WELLMAN: Thank you very much, Bill. I'm happy to be here.

RADKE: The official story is Howard Hughes died in 1976 drugged up, maybe mentally ill, emaciated. You tell a very different tale.

WELLMAN: That's quite correct. This information came to me via a international guard major general, who was involved with a charitable organization. He was helping a woman named Eva McLelland deal with the health issues of her husband and after the husband died, she told him the story that the man in fact had not been the Verner Nicely he had claimed to be, but in fact was Howard Hughes.

RADKE: He appointed a drug-addled homeless man to fill in for him, assumed a new identity and lived secretly in Alabama with this woman, new wife, until a few years ago?

WELLMAN: Until a few year ago. Verner Nicely, as he called himself, was actually the identity of Verner Nicely, who had disappeared in the mid-60s on a CIA mission, according to his son.

RADKE: This being a business show, I have to ask: What happened to all his money?

WELLMAN: Nick, as he called himself, his response to Eva, when she asked later, where did all the money go, he said, "My relatives screwed me out of it."

RADKE: Now this is a fantastic story and I can't verify it. Now there is some hearsay, I wonder what it's like for you to have written a non-fiction book that a lot of people are going to take as fiction.

WELLMAN: I had a very good friend, he came into my office. He could not help but smirking at the entire idea. Three weeks later, he saw me on the street, he ran up and grabbed me and said, "You're right, it's got to be true." So yeah, it's a little difficult.

RADKE: When I introduced you, I referred to troubled rich people teaching us that money doesn't buy happiness. Does this version of events teach us a lesson about money?

WELLMAN: I think it does. Hughes, of course, initially reveled in his money. But when he was in the movie business, he and actress Billie Dove took off and lived in a dirt-floor cabin in Arizona, which he later commented was one of the happiest periods in his life. He was an interesting man. He spent tons of money on movies and aircraft, but his own life was very, very simple.

RADKE: Douglas Wellman thanks for joining us.

WELLMAN: Thank you so much for having me.