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Howard Hughes' widow clinging to the memories of the recluse

Published: Sunday, July 9 2000 12:00 a.m. MDT

LOS ANGELES — There's a touch of "Sunset Boulevard" in the Wilshire Boulevard home of Terry Moore.

She wouldn't be the first, nor will she be the last, actress to cling to her fading beauty, but the now-71-year-old Moore — a one-time Oscar-nominated actress, Playboy cover girl and premier Korean War pinup — does it with a particularly startling tenacity.

She speaks in the language of the ingenue, a forgivable sin when one considers that she is so often asked to flash back to a much younger age.

It's a time she has clearly not forgotten.

Everywhere in her Westwood condo on the west side of Los Angeles, there are reminders of a firmer, still ripening stage of life. On the wall of the living room is the ultimate idyll, a 1998 portrait titled "Star Quality" of what appears to be a barely twenty-something Moore. In a beachy pose, with her blond hair flowing, she's the ultimate California girl.

On the coffee table is a bound copy of her 1984 Playboy spread. Her husband and partner, Jerry Rivers, is chatting up a soon-to-come beauty book by Moore that he says is going to be "the bible" on the topic of staying forever young.

Which leaves one with the distinct impression that Moore is always waiting for her next close-up.

On this recent morning, with a pink sweater wrapped around her shoulders, her lips perfectly puffed and painted, Moore is stretched out, barefoot, on the couch of her condo. She's ready to talk, as is so often the case, about Howard Hughes.

Most remembered as the billionaire aviator-innovator and notoriously phobic recluse, Hughes was also a moviemaker and infamous philanderer — hence, the Turner Classic Movies documentary "Howard Hughes: His Women and His Movies."

Hughes, who died in 1976, was "the big love of my life," says Moore, who, in 1983, was legally recognized as his widow and received a settlement of "not more than eight figures." It was enough, certainly, to keep her living in an approximation of the lifestyle to which she has long been accustomed.

"The first time I met Howard, I was 18 years old and I was with my boyfriend," says Moore, who remembers, "every time we'd see him, he'd ask us to have a drink with him."

But one of Moore's close associates, an agent, convinced her to give Hughes a chance, saying, " 'He's a friend of my mother's. We should go.' So we were ordering 7-Ups . . . at the Beverly Wilshire (Hotel) and there was this tall, lanky stranger. All I remember is it seemed like he unfolded, he was so tall."

Hughes was in his 40s and already had gained a considerable reputation as a man who loved famous women, squiring such famous actresses as Ginger Rogers, Katharine Hepburn, Bette Davis and sisters Olivia de Havilland and Joan Fontaine.

He'd also left a major impression on Hollywood.

He combined his passion for flying and movies and made "Hell's Angels" (1930), a silent picture that was re-shot with the advent of sound, and launched the career of Jean Harlow. Hughes went on to produce such memorable films as "The Front Page" (1931) and "Scarface" (1932), with the latter motion picture testing the limits of the censorious Hays Office. Jane Russell's front-loaded debut in "The Outlaw" (1943) would follow, shocking the world with an abundance of cleavage and controversy.

But when Moore first encountered Hughes in Beverly Hills, she says she didn't know him from Adam.

"He came strolling over and I was thinking, 'Howard Hughes, Howard Hawks, Huston, Hawks,' you know, I had 'em all mixed up. I was trying to get it all straight."

She is clear, however, on the impression she made on Hughes.

"He wouldn't take his eyes off me," she says. "And no matter who asked him a question, he'd look in my eyes and answer. And it made me so uncomfortable, I just wanted to die."

At first, Moore, who was born Helen Koford and also worked under the names of Jan Ford and Judy Ford, had her parents as chaperones.

Dating Hughes "sort of scared me and intrigued me," she says.

And then, "He taught me to fly, and I fell madly in love with him."

Not so long after, in 1949, they were married in a secret shipboard ceremony.

"He didn't want to keep it a secret. I did," Moore says. "I was afraid my career would be ruined if anyone found out about Howard."

Apparently next to no one — including Moore's next three husbands — had any idea she was married to Hughes for more than 20 years.

"I just felt I'd be married to him forever," she says. "I did want to go ahead and have children, but I didn't care whether I was a bigamist or not, frankly. I mean, my desire to have children was that strong."

Hughes and Moore separated by early 1956, according to the actress.

"It was over his cheating," she says. "I caught him dead to rights."

And life after Howard has been a challenge, as well.

"Everybody paled by comparison," says Moore, who received an Academy Award nomination for her work in "Come Back, Little Sheba" (1952). "I think the past five or so years is where I'm finally easing out of it."

She is a long way, though, from letting go. Moore has written two books about Hughes, "The Beauty and the Billionaire" and "The Passions of Howard Hughes." Now she and Rivers are producing a feature film called "Hughes" based on her second book.

"I was wild, madly, passionately in love with him," she says. "I didn't think of him as the billionaire. He was just my Howard."

She dismisses many stories of Hughes' bizarre behavior. (He moved into a penthouse suite in the Desert Inn in Las Vegas in 1966 where, as Moore says, he became "a prisoner of his own guards," refusing to see anyone but his five male nurses .")

Although he became addicted to drugs following several plane crashes, "He wasn't crazy at all," says Moore. "He was a great man and a great visionary, and the world hasn't caught up to him yet."

If and when it ever does, you can be sure Moore will be there to usher it in.

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