The stories are endless, infinitely familiar, traded by the faithful like baseball cards, fondled until they fray around the edges and blur into the apocraphyl. There is the one about the barber, Eddie Alexander, who was paid handsomely to remain on "day and night standby" in case Hughes wanted a haircut. "Just checking, Eddie," Hughes once said when he called Alexander at two in the morning...These paragraphs are from Joan Didion's insightful essay 7000 Romaine, Los Angeles 38, a 1967 riff on the American dream, private and public from Slouching Towards Bethlehem. As I read it tonight I wondered if we could say the same now. I think not. It seems to me that Americans today are openly materialistic in their aspirations, unashamed about power. I don't mean politically, I mean socially - we think in the language of power - in the office, in the 'hood, on the playground. Our sitcoms are about manipulating it successfully for sex or money, preferably both. Today we brag about our possessions, we rent stretch limos for high school proms. Today we openly admire the man who lives by his own rules - look at The Bourne Identity. We try to be that man every day. We each insulate ourselves in our own music. To make sure we have enough, we take 24,000 songs - just in case the other 23,999 don't please us at a given moment. Today we expect to be a free agent - to be served what we want when we want it, and to have it delivered.
Why do we like these stories so? Why do we tell them over and over? Why have we made a folk hero of a man who is the antithesis of all our official heroes, a haunted millionaire out of the West, trailing a legend of desperation and power and white sneakers? But then we have always done that. Our favorite people and our favorite stories become so not by any inherent virtue, but because they illustrate something deep in the grain, something unadmitted. Shoeless Joe Jackson, Warren Gamaliel Harding, the Titanic: how the mighty are fallen. Charles Lindbergh, Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald, Marilyn Monroe: the beautiful and damned. And Howard Hughes. That we have made a hero of Howard Hughes tells us something interesting about ourselves, something only dimly remembered, tell us that the secret point of money and power in America is neither the things that money can buy nor power for power's sake (Americans are uneasy with their possessions, guilty about power, all of which is difficult for Europeans to perceive because they are themselves so truly materialistic, so versed the the uses of power), but absolute personal freedom, mobility, privacy. It is the instinct which drove America to the Pacific, all through the nineteenth century, the desire to be able to find a restaurant open in case you want a sandwich, to be a free agent, live by one's own rules.
Of course we do not admit that. The instinct is socially suicidal, and because we recognize that this is so we have developed workable ways of saying one thing and believing quite another...There has always been that divergence between our official and our unofficial heroes. It is impossible to think of Howard Hughes without seeing the apparently bottomless gulf between what we say we want and what we do want, between what we officially admire and secretly desire, between, in the largest sense, the people we marry and the people we love. In a nation which increasingly appears to prize social virtues, Howard Hughes remains not merely antisocial but grandly, brilliantly, surpassingly, asocial. He is the last private man, the dream we no longer admit.
What are we uneasy about today? Race. Expressing unpopular opinions, we are uneasy about not being thought nice by others. Not having what others have. Today we make no secret of admiring the billionaire in the bubble - we want to be him. If we could go wherever we want when we wanted, order the food we want and have it instantly, have the answers we want now, play the songs we want now, pay the prime rates we want now and never come out, we would never leave our cocoons. It hasn't always been like that.
So who are our heroes now? Folks love Jen Lo and Brangelina openly and the valiant firemen and brave Joes who jump onto the subways tracks are our sanctioned heroes, but who are our guilty secret heroes? Are we being served up so much instant gratification that we've stopped wanting any? Are we content going purchase to purchase? Our toys give us little mini-dreams to live off - people don't have to dream of going to the island - they do it on reality TV. If we're some jealous lunatic we can rant and rave on Jerry Springer and be icons of hysterical misery. We don't have to dream of being a star, we go on American Idol and we are one. Maybe our secret heroes are ordinary now?
Didion quotes Lionel Trilling writing of a "fatal separation between the ideas of our educated liberal class and the deep places of the imagination." Fatal to whom? If we are to have public and private realms then we are to have public and private dreams. The places of our deep imagination are one of the few sacred and quiet places we can still inhabit in the communication obsessed web we have woven. Occasionally great artists express something of value from these deep recesses and then we can admire their story or their dance and really learn something about ourselves. But I have no ambition to share all of my dreams. I may have a secret hero, but I'm not telling.