Beauty and the Billionaire

Throughout the years many beauties have graced the halls of Indiana University-Bloomington.  Only one, however, caught the eye of Howard Hughes, once described as the world’s  richest man, also an entrepreneur, movie producer and a consummate playboy.

That beauty was Indiana native Sallilee Conlon, an 18-year-old IU freshman who studied opera in the School of Music.  She was photographed by one of those ubiquitous photographers who periodically visit college campuses to photograph coeds and then publish their work in various newspapers and magazines.  The editors of Life magazine were so impressed with Sallilee’s picture that they put her photograph on the cover of the May 18, 1953 issue.

Howard, who was magnificently obsessed with girl-finding, routinely scoured magazines for beauties that he might wish to pursue.  Days after her picture appeared in Life, Sallilee was contacted by RKO Pictures, Howard’s movie studio, and invited to come to Los Angeles with her mother.  From there the mother-daughter duo was flown to Las Vegas where Howard , 30 years Sallillee’s senior, squired her about the town in great style for about six months.

Upon their return to LA, Howard put up the mother-daughter duo in a house.  For the next five years, Sallilee was given voice lessons and instructed to be patient while she waited for the perfect movie role or singing offer.  Periodically she spoke with Howard by phone, although there is no evidence she ever again spent time in his physical presence.  At his direction, however, she was forbidden to date, and her behavior was scrutinized closely to determine her compliance with Howard’s demands.

Ultimately Sallilee was informed by her voice coach that Howard had countless young women under contract, all waiting to become stars and/or Mrs. Howard Hughes.  With that information, Sallilee had enough.  She terminated her relationship with Howard and set upon a career path of her own design.

Her journey led her to work behind the scenes in TV news, and she became the long-time companion of George Putnam, a well-known news anchor.  When George died in 2008, Sallillee was noted among his survivors.  It is quite possible that she is still living today, but that has not been verified.

Blog post by Randi Richardson

Photo from the 1953 IU Arbutus.

Sources: Peter Harry Brown & Pat H. Broeske, Howard Hughes:  The Untold Story (Boston, MA:  Da Capo Press, 1996.