Noah Dietrich (February 28, 1889 – February 15, 1982) was the chief executive officer of the Howard Hughes business empire from 1925 to 1957.According to his own memoirs, he left the Hughes operation over a dispute involving putting more of his income on a capital gains basis. The manuscript of his eventual memoir, Howard: The Amazing Mr. Hughes, may have been a key, if inadvertent, source of novelist Clifford Irving's infamous fake autobiography of Hughes.
Dietrich was born on February 28, 1889 in Madison, Wisconsin, the son of Lutheran minister John Dietrich, and the former Sarah Peters. Trained as an accountant, in 1910 he started in business in Maxwell, New Mexico, and later moved to Los Angeles and New York City before moving back to Los Angeles. There he passed the Certified Public Accountant exam.
"Noah Can Do It"
In 1925, at the age of 36, Dietrich met 19-year-old Hughes, who had just wrested majority ownership of Hughes Tool Company from other family heirs. Started by his father, Howard R. Hughes, Sr., Hughes Tool Company – or Toolco, as it was known inside the Hughes empire – manufactured oil drilling equipment, especially the multiple-edge, revolving-teeth roller cutter drill bits the elder Hughes invented.
Dietrich began by running the tool company for Hughes, allowing him to pursue his interests in the film and aircraft businesses. In his memoir, Dietrich observed that Hughes had little interest in Toolco beyond its being a source of wealth and investment. "The tool company," he quoted Hughes as saying, "was my father's success. And it always will be."
Dietrich became Hughes' most indispensable executive – "Noah can do it" was, according to Dietrich's memoir, a frequent Hughes expression whenever difficult, if not impossible, wants or needs needed to be met. Some – such as when Dietrich arranged a stock ticker to be installed in a Hughes home – were merely difficult. Others – such as the time Dietrich arranged the shipment of Hughes' large private liquor stock from Texas to California during Prohibition – put him at serious risk.
Some of Dietrich's duties got him caught in the middle of disputes with members of Hughes' family. During a period when Hughes refused to talk to anyone outside a few business associates, Dietrich recalled, a Hughes aunt accused Dietrich – who turned out to have been kept in the dark about Hughes' exact whereabouts himself – of covering up Hughes' death in order to claim the Hughes empire for himself. When Hughes returned, Dietrich wrote, he made a special point of calling this aunt. "I didn't want her to continue thinking I was taking over the Hughes empire while keeping her nephew in the deep freeze."
A few years later, while Hughes was recovering from injuries he sustained in the crash of his experimental XF-11 aircraft, Hughes refused to allow the same aunt and uncle to see him or speak to him. The uncle turned to Dietrich and said, "Now I know your problem dealing with him. I don't understand him at all."
Dietrich also discussed in considerable detail the real impetus behind the government's investigation of Hughes Aircraft following World War II. Ostensibly, the probe involved Hughes' failure to deliver the infamous flying boat, the Hercules, a military transport aircraft, to the government on time. Dietrich wrote, however, that the real purpose of the probe may have been neutralizing Hughes, owner of TWA, while rival Pan Am – whose president, Juan Trippe, had implored Maine Senator Owen Brewster to carry it – pushed for a federal law establishing only one official American carrier of international air traffic, and Pan Am becoming that carrier.
Dietrich discussed the famous Hughes counterattack before the Senate committee investigating him – and revealed that both his own and Hughes' hotel suites had been bugged during the hearings, allegedly at the behest of Brewster and Trippe, a bugging confirmed by columnist Jack Anderson in Confessions of a Muckraker. The hearings, and Hughes' legendary triumph over them, helped end both the legislation and Brewster's political career; On Hughes' orders, Dietrich poured money into a challenger's campaign a few years later.
By the mid-1950s, however, Dietrich by his own recollection was exhausted. In his memoirs, Dietrich recorded: "If an executive had to be fired, 'Noah can do it.' If a starlet had to be placated, 'Noah can do it.' If millions had to be raised overnight, 'Noah can do it.' Noah was getting tired of doing it."
Falling out with Hughes
In 1957, after working for Hughes for 32 years, Dietrich left the Hughes organization over a capital-gains dispute: Hughes had promised to make more of Dietrich's income on a capital gains basis. At the time of the falling-out, Hughes was trying to finance jets for TWA and decided the key was to inflate Hughes Tool profits in order to sell the company to pay for the jets, since Hughes had rejected all other financing solutions, because they threatened to dilute his TWA ownership.
At the same juncture, Hughes, Dietrich recalled, also did everything in his power to stop Dietrich's long-planned African safari with his two sons, the first long vacation Dietrich had taken in decades of working for Hughes.
Dietrich returned from Africa, he wrote, and finally agreed to go to Texas to implement the plan – on condition that Hughes finally implement the capital gains agreement. When Hughes refused, Dietrich immediately quit – stunning Hughes. (Dietrich quoted Hughes as saying, "Noah, I cannot exist without you!")
Hughes didn't let him go without a fight. After pleading failed, Hughes tried to strong-arm Dietrich into reconsidering, going so far, Dietrich recorded, as locking Dietrich's offices – a practice Hughes had followed any time top executives were fired or otherwise departed the Hughes operation, Dietrich recalled. Hughes also sued Dietrich over oil leases the two shared; Dietrich wrote that he surrendered his interest just to be rid of Hughes, a move he later regretted, since the leases turned big profits eventually. Dietrich got a court order to reclaim many of his personal possessions from his old offices.
Post-Hughes career and memoirs
After parting ways with Hughes, Dietrich served on several corporate and financial boards as a well-respected financial and executive adviser, as well as traveling to many speaking engagements. His 1971 memoir, Howard: The Amazing Mr. Hughes, provided many with the first genuine inside look into the world of Howard Hughes, including and especially his occasional lack of concern that things he wanted done often required breaches of ethics or even the law. Only when he was diagnosed with myasthenia gravis (the same illness that killed shipping magnate Aristotle Onassis), did Dietrich finally retire in full.
In the memoir, Dietrich revealed how he transported Hughes' Prohibition-era liquor stock by disguising them in packaging marked exposed, undeveloped film, shipping them by rail in an old cotton car – and bribing a California agriculture inspector to look the other way while the parcels were removed from the car for spraying, as California agriculture law required at the time to protect cotton from contamination. Hughes, Dietrich wrote, thought practically nothing of the risk Dietrich took – including to his own freedom – to move the liquor to Hughes' new home. "It was," Dietrich wrote, "just another affirmation of Howard's belief that 'Noah can do it'."
Dietrich was married three times (he held Hughes' demands on his time responsible for the collapse of his first marriage) and had five children and two stepchildren, including Peter Fonda's first wife Susan Brewer.
Toward the end of Howard, Dietrich wrote that, no matter how their relationship ended, he never regretted his career with Hughes. "I much preferred the exciting life," he said. He said he wrote the book to leave his children and grandchildren a record of the role he played in the Hughes business empire, in part to show them what can happen when wealth is misused or abused. But he also admitted he'd have been tempted if Hughes should have called him one more time in the dead of night pleading for help: "And do you know what I'd say? 'OK, Howard, tell me what it is, now'."
Time revealed in 1972 that a copy of an early draft of the manuscript for Dietrich's memoir, ghost-written by journalist James Phelan, may have fallen into Clifford Irving's hands, and identified the draft as a key element in Irving's being able to convince publishers and others that his hoax Hughes autobiography was genuine. "The instances of duplicated material are numerous," the magazine wrote. "In some cases, the books are virtually identical in detail. In others, they are substantively the same, although the Irving manuscript has been reworded and otherwise disguised. One curiosity: the writing in the Irving manuscript is much better than that in the hastily drafted Phelan version. It is ironic that Irving may be more convincing as a forger than as an author in his own right – just as Elmyr de Hory, Irving's Ibiza friend and the main character in his book Fake!, is much better at doing Picassos and Modiglianis than he is at doing De Horys." When he later wrote his own memoir, The Hoax, Irving corroborated the hypothesis posited by the Time article, writing that he indeed obtained and a made a copy of a draft of Dietrich's manuscript, which he then used as source material for his fabricated Hughes autobiography.
Dietrich and Phelan eventually settled for $40,000 after Dietrich became dissatisfied with Phelan's work. He then turned the project over to another journalist, Bob Thomas, who finished the Dietrich memoir within six weeks.
Dietrich died of heart failure in hospital on February 15, 1982, in Palm Springs, California. He was just two weeks short of his ninety-third birthday. He was buried at Forest Lawn Memorial Park, in Glendale, California.
Noah Dietrich has been portrayed within several adaptations:
- Ed Flanders played Dietrich against Tommy Lee Jones as Hughes in the 1977 mini-series The Amazing Howard Hughes. Released one year after Hughes' death, Dietrich's role is highlighted from his commencement with Hughes as Accountant, his subsequent contribution in restructuring Hughes Empire, and his later departure.
- Eli Wallach played Dietrich in the 2006 movie The Hoax, about author Clifford Irving's faked Howard Hughes autobiography.
- John C. Reilly played Dietrich against Leonardo DiCaprio as Hughes within the 2004 movie The Aviator. A criticism of this adaptation was that it downplayed the role Dietrich played in helping Hughes amass his fortune.
- Martin Sheen portrayed Dietrich in the 2016 film Rules Don't Apply.
- Walter H. Waggoner (February 16, 1982). "Noah Dietrich, The Chief Aide To Howard Hughes, Is Dead". The New York Times.
- "The Fabulous Hoax of Clifford Irving", Time
- Noah Dietrich at Find a Grave