Howard Hughes Material to be Offered in September

Swann will kick off our fall season with an auction of Printed & Manuscript Americana September 17, which features an archive of material related to the reclusive billionaire Howard Hughes.


Anyone familiar with Hughes’s career and anyone who has seen Leonardo DiCaprio’s 2004 portrayal of Hughes in The Aviator–will remember the fiery wreck of the XF-11. Hughes had developed the experimental plane as a military reconnaissance craft during World War II. In 1946, while flying solo in the prototype on its maiden flight, he crashed into a residential neighborhood in Beverly Hills. Master Technical Sergeant William L. Durkin of the U.S. Marine Corps had been visiting in a nearby home and rushed to the scene, helped Hughes escape from the wreck, extinguished the flames on his clothes, and carried him away from the crash site shortly before a fuel tank exploded. The wealthy billionaire credited Durkin with saving his life, and the two became friends after the crash.

We are offering an evocative archive of Durkin’s papers relating to Hughes and the crash. Highlights include:

  • The original XF-11 aircraft control yoke, broken off at base. Essentially the aircraft’s steering wheel, Hughes clutched this as his craft lost altitude and he made his desperate crash landing.
  • Durkin’s typed “Account of the Crash of XF-11 July 7, 1946 in Beverly Hills,” apparently prepared as his official statement to the authorities, and full of great unpublished detail. After giving up on finding survivors and concerned about his own safety, Durkin wrote: “I heard a sound inside the cockpit like someone knocking or pounding. The very next moment I saw a hand move through the fire and smoke not more than four feet in front of me. At the same time I heard a scream of agony, and I knew a man was burning to death.”
  • A pass to the Players (the famed West Hollywood nightclub) signed by director Preston Sturges, Hughes’s business partner.
  • A letter from Preston Sturges to Durkin’s commanding officer, commending his bravery.
  • A letter from Hughes to Durkin, on Hughes Aircraft Company letterhead, expressing his gratitude, and offering both employment assistance and cash as an expression of his gratitude.
  • A letter from Hughes’s business manager dated a week later enclosing the first of Durkin’s payments.
  • Two photographs of the doomed XF-11. One shows it on an airport runway. The other shows the wreckage in Beverly Hills during the investigation.

For more information on this or other highlights in our Printed & Manuscript Americana auction, please contact Rick Stattler at 212-254-4710, ext. 27, or via email at rstattler@swanngalleries.com.