Heavy

By the time he died at 32 in 1958, Robert Earl Hughes of tiny Fishhook, Illinois, weighed more than 1,000 pounds, earning a place in The Guinness Book of World Records as the largest man on earth. Except for his neighbors and family, few people knew much about his life until recently, when an astonishing photograph sent the author in search of Hughes’s real story: Raised in a sharecropper’s cabin, trapped in­side half a ton of flesh, this literate, companionable young man had dreamed of seeing the world. Aside from some carnival tours and one disastrous trip to New York, he never lived his dream. But in his short life, he found something else.

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The loss of a parent awakens impulses. Shortly after Georgia died, Robert Earl wrote a letter to Heart’s Desire, a radio program in Hollywood. “I’ve been very large all my life, not able to work. I’m said to be the world’s largest man. I’m 21 years old and weigh 754 pounds. I am not able to get around. My Heart’s Desire is for a radio and a camera, so if I do get to go anywhere I can take pictures. . . . I’m too large to work. My belt is 110 inches around, and if you’ll send me these things, I’ll never forget you.” The show sent him the camera and radio. They likely never considered the most important line in the letter: “. . . if I do get to go anywhere.”

Offers from area fairs and festivals, at $50 to $100 per appearance, continued to roll in. With his father busy on the farm, his family poor, and a wanderlust fed by a constant influx of books and magazines, Robert Earl began to display himself at these events, attracting great crowds who stood behind fences and paid 25 cents for his autographed picture. Newspapers covered his appearances, and soon enough Hollywood came calling for the World’s Largest Man from Illinois. Newsreel crews smooth-talked their way in Fishhook, posing three starlets together in a pair of Robert Earl’s overalls, walking a neighbor around Robert Earl’s belly with a tape measure, and shaking their heads at the enduring pleasantness of a man whose misery they could only imagine. The films played worldwide, and brought thousands of letters to downstate Illinois newspapers. A St. Louis heart specialist paid Robert Earl a tidy sum for the privilege of examining him, then proclaimed that the young man possessed the heart of an 1,100-pound steer. The attention only bolstered Robert Earl’s drawing power, and he accepted offers to appear at auto parts stores, clothing shops, even movie theatres, though he had never been able to fit in the chairs they kept in those dark, wonderful palaces he had only heard about.

Two years after Georgia died, Guy Hughes married, and this proved to be a godsend to Robert Earl, who at 23 was now pushing the scales in excess of 800 pounds. Guy’s new wife, Lillian, took over where Robert Earl’s mother had left off, sewing his shirts (each of which required a piece of fabric 9 feet wide and 18 feet long), cooking his meals, and painting a feminine presence in what had become a very masculine household. With Guy away from home one day, Robert Earl and Lillian began to muse aloud about how wonderful it might be to visit Robert Earl’s half-sister Dora. Could Lillian drive a tractor? She could try. Could Robert Earl climb aboard? He could try. Lillian pulled him the three miles for the surprise visit. It had taken him nearly half an hour to pull himself up. The adventure, so spontaneous and splendid, was memorialized with a snapshot of a smiling Robert Earl behind his house just before leaving.

Others also showed kindness to Rob­ert Earl. A man who glimpsed him at a fair committed the large man’s frame to memory, then went home and built a dignified, custom reinforced chair, which Robert Earl would use for the rest of his life. Daisy Sheckelsworth, a woman who had met Robert Earl and admired his poise and intellect at that first Baylis festival, became a sort of benefactor to the young man, supplying him with pencils, paper, and stamps for his burgeoning pen pal hobby, and securing a supply of complimentary custom-made overalls from a clothing factory in Iowa. “Aunt Daisy,” as she became known to the Hughes family, would remain a lifelong friend.

For seven years, Robert Earl continued to travel to local fairs in the back of a pickup truck, earning respectable appearance fees and selling thousands of autographed photos. The real money, however, lay in traveling carnivals, the shows that toured the country to huge crowds over several days. Offers poured in; circus fat men rarely exceeded 500 pounds, and wore loose-fitting tents to suggest bulk that wasn’t there. The idea of a half-tonner who might pose shirtless was irresistible to promoters. In 1954, at age 28 and weighing 946 pounds, Robert Earl signed with Texas-based W. A. Schafer sideshows. Lillian’s father and brother would accompany him while Guy worked the farm. Before long, the family bought a traveling carnival trailer that had once belonged to performing Siamese twins—Robert Earl would sleep, eat, and live in the front end of the trailer, while the rear would open on the side to display him, seated and most of the time shirtless, during shows. Robert Earl Hughes, who had never seen a movie and could walk only 20 feet before resting, was about to discover America.

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I never mentioned my father’s weight to him. His customers did; he even joked about it with them. But our relationship was different; we were pals, and I pretended not to notice his stomach. Looking back, it’s clear he allowed me to pretend.

In 1995, a doctor told my dad that he didn’t have long to live, that his bad heart and diabetes and weight were about to kill him. I told him that doctors didn’t know everything and asked him to take a road trip with me, that I wanted to tape-record all his best stories, the ones about buying a Mexican copper mine and throwing a killer knuckleball. I also decided that it was time to ask him about being fat, about how his weight had affected his life, if he had been hurt by people who treated him differently, if he was OK.

I picked up my dad on a Saturday morning and we set out for Wisconsin. A half-hour into the trip, I reached for the tape recorder and asked if he was ready to tell his greatest stories. He said that he was not, that the drive and the conversation were so nice we ought not interrupt it, let’s just go. We drove into Wisconsin and onto the Kettle Moraine roads I’d discovered while in college. Six hours later, I dropped him off. We had talked about life and the world and the greatness of Steve Carlton’s slider. We’d remembered funny characters. We had a Chinese buffet lunch. We never discussed his weight, and I never got around to asking if he was OK. He died a few months later in his kitchen, by himself. I called his doctor to ask if she thought he had suffered. She said she was sure that he had not.

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Texas was glorious. With the Schafer show, Robert Earl hit Texarkana, Tyler, even Dallas, where he saw his first movie at a drive-in while a guest in the armored car once owned by gangster Mickey Cohen. It was probably during this time, in 1954 at age 28, that Robert Earl grew past 1,000 pounds. By now, he was making more money than anyone in his family ever had, though he was by no means rich. Expenses, insurance, and the promoter ate into the hundreds of 25-cent admissions (ten cents for kids) and photo fees he collected at every stop. During show times, Robert Earl chatted happily with onlookers: I do eat a lot, but not much more than many hearty fellows; My beds have collapsed, but the one I sleep on now is reinforced; I do dress myself, but I cannot tie my shoes; I suppose I’m fat because that’s the way God wanted me. The crowds observed Robert Earl from behind a wooden partition—not because he was afraid of people or they of him, but because teenagers and drunks, refusing to believe he was real, had burned his arms too many times with cigarettes.

Robert Earl spent the next two summers touring the South, East, and Midwest (though he never “showed” in Chicago). After the 1956 season, he and Guy’s family moved to a farm in Missouri, where the land was cheaper and Guy had high hopes for new crops. In 1956 and now weighing 1,041 pounds, Robert Earl was approached by a city slicker who offered him the deal of a lifetime: Go to New York to appear on the world’s biggest television shows—Ed Sullivan, Jackie Gleason, Arthur Godfrey, Steve Allen. Pay would be $40,000 plus airfare and expenses—Rockefeller money. Robert Earl jumped at the chance.

No passenger airline, of course, could accommodate Robert Earl. The Civil Aeronautics Board studied the case and granted a special permission to allow Robert Earl to travel aboard the freight carrier Slick Airways. Robert Earl was taken to O’Hare by ambulance, where he was lifted by hydraulic hoist onto a specially made bed, then moved into a heated and pressurized section of the airplane. Newspapers, as they did often in stories about Robert Earl, treated him with a mixture of ridicule and humor. “Now, Will He Fit on TV Screen?” asked the headline in a Sun-Times story that also referred to the “Hughes acreage” and dubbed him the “self-styled emperor of avoirdupois.” Another article pondered what Robert Earl’s fare would be if he were billed as regular freight.

Upon his arrival in New York, Robert Earl was whisked to a suite in the St. George Hotel in Brooklyn, where tailors from the He-Man Shops scurried to measure him for the world’s biggest Santa Claus suit—the role he was to play on television. The costume arrived soon after, and photographers snapped hundreds of photos of the colossal Santa from Illinois. Then, nothing. No television, no phone calls, no paycheck. The promoter apparently got what he wanted—the photographs—and then abandoned his guest. Before long, Robert Earl was broke and without a place to stay or a ticket home. He had no contract on which to stake a claim—in Fishhook, a handshake was a man’s bond. The Salvation Army stepped in and paid his way back. Arriving in St. Louis, he told reporters, “No more wild goose chases for me.” Then he climbed into the ambulance his brother had hired for the trip back to the farm, still dressed in the giant Santa Claus suit to protect himself from the winter chill.

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