Howard Hughes dated a fifteen-year old named Faith Domergue on Memorial Day who briefly rescued him from this well of paranoia and self-pity. She was the most beautiful of a pack of Warner Brothers starlets invited to decorate an industry cruise on the Southern Cross. Hughes singled her out instantly, curious about this graceful teenager with raven hair, hypnotic dark eyes, and a shyness that matched Hughes’s own. As the party broke up, Hughes insisted upon driving her home in a battered Buick, in which Faith immediately fell asleep. Domergue, known to all her friends as Faith Dorn, was enchanted with this man, even though at thirty-six, he was just a year younger than her father. Hughes extended an invitation to a weekend house party in Palm Springs. He swept her off to a sprawling ranch in the desert, initiating a dazzling courtship and a mutual obsession that would stretch across five turbulent years in which Hughes would exert iron-fisted control of both Faith Domergue’s personal and professional existence. Their early phase was giddy with romance. They flew to the Salton Sea and they cruised the commercial “millionaires row” in Palm Springs, where she left the boutiques with towering boxes of clothes. On October 19, after a gala at the Palm Springs Racquet Club, Howard led Faith out ont a terrace. “I love you, Faith,” Howard said. “I want to marry you.” He put a diamond engagement ring in her hand. On Monday morning, Domergue danced onto the Warner Brothers lot with the diamond on the third finger of her left hand. Late that afternoon Louella Parsons informed the rest of the world in her column. Hughes purchased Faith’s seven-year contract from a cagey Jack Warner, who took advantage of the publicity and charged $50,000, and acquired her representation pact from her agent, Henry Willson, at the Zeppo Marx Agency.
“Suddenly, my professional and emotional future were completely in his hands,” Domergue recalled. Every morning a Hughes limousine collected Domergue and delivered her to a series of teachers and tutors at 7000 Romaine Street, Hughes’s Hollywood headquarters.
“Faith was Howard’s most enduring obsession,” recalled Noah Dietrich. “He would have done almost anything to keep her with him.” In fact, her problem was his unfaithfulness. From the start of the relationship, Hughes had been dating the foremost sex symbols of this new wartime Hollywood era. He would eventually romance Lana Turner, Rita Hayworth, and Ava Gardner, showering all of them with flashy nights at Caraways and the Mocambo, weekends at the Palm Springs Racquet Club, and shopping expeditions. Hughes had escorted a gorgeously gowned Ava to Frances Langford’s opening at the Cocoanut Grove. Hughes was startled to see Faith’s roadster coming up in the distance. Driving a sleek, metal-gray Cadillac belonging to Hughes Aircraft, Hughes picked up speed and headed down Fairfax Avenue toward Farmer’s Market. But Faith recognized his car and gunned the roadster’s engine. Hughes felt her small car hump the back of his town car. Faith swerved around the side of his car, matching his speed. Now she got a good look at Ava Gardner, her dark hair piled on her head and held in place by a matching pair of diamond clips (gift from Howard). Hughes glanced down and was alarmed by the look on Domergue’s face. He squealed into the parking lot at Farmer’s Market and slowed down. Faith deliberately backed up her roadster and floored the gas pedal, crashing repeatedly into the passenger’s door. Gardner screamed. “Poor Ava bounced up and down in her seat,” Domergue recalled years later.
While Hughes was in the air, Dick Felt, a colleague and friend for more than seven years, died. The body of CAA pilot Ceco Cline was never found. The CAA commission’s implication was serious: the leading pilot in America had killed two men during a routine landing that had occurred under optimum conditions. “This was an enormous psychological blow for him,” concluded Captain Charles Barton. He also suffered his seventh major head injury, this time refusing to be treated and x-rayed. He also displayed signs of emotional collapse during his pursuit of forties screen femme fatale Jane Greer.
Jean Peters refused to move to Hughes’s residence in Las Vegas he had bought for both. Vegas would be just another “telephone marriage,” with Hughes barricaded at the Desert Inn and she isolated far out in the Vegas wilds. So she filed for divorce. Her demands were quite simple; she wanted her freedom and $70,000 a year. Hughes was thunderstruck, offering to give her millions. But Jean stood her ground. As the divorce action proceeded, Howard refused to give up hope, calling and writing her two or three times a week. He even leased the house across the street from 1001 Bel Air and staffed it with guards, who were directed to send reports, twice weekly, to the Desert Inn.
Faith Domergue had finally summoned up the courage to leave him and had married playboy Teddy Stauffer. She later starred in the Hughes produced Vendetta, a turgid period melodrama about a Corsican code of
honor. Like other Hughes productions, it had a drawn-out journey to the screen, including a series of directors. And Ava Gardner ejected Hughes from her life after a bitter fight. She rebounded into the arms of big band king Artie Shaw and later mobster-tied singer Frank Sinatra.
Louella Parsons had written that Faith had been given a build-up “such as no other actress in the world has been given by Hughes, with the exception of Jane Russell.” Faith had divorced Stauffer (who’d married Hedy Lamarr in 1951) and secretly weds Hugo Geronimo Fregonese in Juarez, Mexico, a few hours after divorcing Stauffer there. She shoots the film which she considers her favorite feature, “Santa Fe Passage”, in Utah with John Payne, whom she’d introduced his wife Sandy two years ago. Erskine Johnson announced in his column: “Faith Domergue hotly denied my report that she and Hugo Fregonese were headed for the divorce court. Now it’s official.” The divorce isn’t final until 1958 and the court orders him to pay $900 monthly support. Heck Allen, Tex Avery cartoons’ writer and screenwriter in “Santa Fe Passage” sees hints of a romance triggered by Faith on the set but quickly shunned by Payne. Faith meets her future husband, Paolo Cossa in 1961, with whom she marries in Monterey in 1966. She’ll become the widow of Cossa in 19 who dies in 1992 at age 62 living in Switzerland. Faith moves to Santa Barbara and lives there with her daughter Diana until her death in April, 4, 1999, as Faith M. Cossa, at age 74 from cancer.