He was the richest man in America, the world at his fingertips, and yet he was a prisoner to his own dark fears. His achievements were astounding – he created the fastest plane on the planet, was the driving force behind the largest aircraft ever built and was a pioneer in film making – and yet he is remembered for the eccentricities that drove him from hero to hermit. In his heyday, he was a romantic figure, with movie starlets flocking to be seen on his arm, and yet he spent the last 26 years of his life as a recluse, obsessed with cleanliness and controlling every aspect of his environment even as he sunk deeper and deeper into madness.
In this Biographics, we enter the strange world of the original eccentric billionaire, Howard Hughes.
“Just remember, there’s no one I can’t buy or destroy”
When it comes to the life of Howard Robard Hughes, it can be a challenge to separate fact from fiction. Even the details of his birth were falsified. Official records give that date as December 24, 1905 in Houston, Texas. The reality is that he’d been born two months earlier in the oil town of Humble, a hundred miles from Texas. From there, the lies built upon each other.
He was not one of triplets, nor was he his mother’s sister’s illegitimate son or a substitute baby brought in to replace the one who had died. All of these fanciful stories were later told by the man himself in order to build upon the aura that surrounded his name.
Hughes senior, known as ‘Bo’ – a shortened form of his middle name Robards – had been a penniless scoundrel, bumming his way round Joplin, Missouri at the turn of the 19th Century. In 1899, he was run out of town by the furious father of a girl he tried to seduce. With no other options, the dreamy eyed larrikin decided to try his hand at the oil business.
Making his way to Texas, Bo just happened to be on hand when a 1000-foot spume of black oil hurtled from the ground at Spindeltop on January 10th, 1901. He was among the first to grab claims, buying up land for a few dollars an acre, and selling it days later for hundreds.
Within a few months, having amassed a small fortune, Bo moved to Houston, where he founded the Texas Oil Fuel Company, the forerunner to Texaco. Within six months he had also married the darkly pretty, but seriously hypochondriacal Allene Gano. Allene was terrified of small animals and had an insect phobia, fueled by an obsession with cleanliness. These traits were to find full expression in her only son…
By the time that Howard, junior, known as ‘Sonny’, entered the world in 1905, his father was still chasing oil. Still he was frustrated, not so much at finding the oil locations, but at the inferior quality of the drilling tools that were available. Finally, out of exasperation, he set his sights on designing a better drill bit. On November 20th, 1908, he emerged from his study with designs for a bit that contained 168 cutting edges. He had just invented the Hughes Tool Bit, from which would flow the millions of dollars that would both enrich, and ultimately destroy, his son and heir.
By the age of four, it was obvious that Sonny Hughes had inherited the partial deafness that ran in the family. The condition, hereditary otosclerosis would become progressively worse over Howard’s lifetime. As a youngster, it caused him to become isolated and introspective.
Now that money was no object, the eight-year old Hughes was sent to an exclusive private school. He didn’t make a very good impression, with a head teacher remembering him as an uppity, snobbish bore who refused to join in with the other boys, preferring to sit with the girls. Not surprisingly, he soon gained a reputation as a sissy…
But the young Hughes also gained a reputation as a technical whizz-kid. He put together his first wireless radio transmitter when he was 11-years old. A year later his picture appeared in the local newspaper, proudly standing next to the first motorized bicycle in Houston, which he had put together from steam engine parts.
In an effort to get his nervous and timid boy to ‘man up’, Bo decided to pack him off to the boot camp of the day, the Boy Scouts. So, during the 1916 summer recess, Sonny found himself in the middle of the Pohokop Mountains in Pike County, Pennsylvania under the tutelage of a grizzled old timer by the name of ‘General’ Dan Beard.
Surprisingly, the young Hughes took to the woodsman life like the proverbial duck to water. He was already quite fit and quickly learned to whittle, perfect Indian signs and simulate bird calls. He seemed to excel under the military discipline of the camp, too. Away from the over protective gaze of his mother, it seemed, he was able to shake off his effeminate nature and show his true colors.
From that moment on, he would be at his most peaceful when he was alone in an airplane – flying high above a world that he so often tried to escape.
In the Fall of 1920, a fourteen-year-old Sonny went with his father to the Harvard-Yale rowing crew races in Connecticut. Hughes senior promised to buy his son whatever he wanted if his favorite, Harvard, won the race. When Harvard smashed Yale by 14 seconds, the boy held out his hand in expectation and asked for five dollars. He then pointed to a sign further up the river advertising rides on a Curtis Flying Boat for $5.
Hughes, senior reluctantly joined his son for the ten-minute flight. It made the father sick, but the son had just discovered the one true love of his life. He found the experience of flying both exhilarating and liberating. From that moment on, he would be at his most peaceful when he was alone in an airplane – flying high above a world that he so often tried to escape.
By the age of 19, both of Hughes’ parents were dead. His mother had died suddenly when he was 16, after suffering complications from an ectopic pregnancy. Bo died less than two years later of a heart attack, leaving Hughes jr the heir to the Hughes Tool Company. He dropped out of college to take control of the company, quickly discovering that he knew nothing about the oil business. He soon hired a self taught accountant by the name of Noah Dietrich to take the controls. At the same time, Hughes legally declared himself an adult and seized full control of the entire family fortune.
Hughes now had the money that he needed to pursue his greatest passions. Those passions had nothing to with oil – instead they revolved around building and flying airplanes and making movies in Hollywood. Another of his passions was golf. One day, while playing at the Beverly Hills Country Club, he watched as a biplane flew overhead and tipped its wing at him. Howard was able to track down the flyer and offered to pay him the outrageous sum of a hundred dollars per day if he would teach him to fly. The pilot readily agreed and, two years later, Hughes was issued his private pilot’s license.
Despite his chronic shyness, Howard was fascinated with the glitz and glamor of Hollywood. In order to break into the business, he signed talented director Lewis Milestone to a 3-year contract. The pairing immediately struck gold with their debut picture, ‘Two Arabian Knights’, claiming an Academy Award in 1927. This gave Hughes the confidence to take on his next challenge – a fusion of his two great loves, flying and movies.
Failing to find a director who shared his passion for the skies, Howard decided to go it alone – writing, producing and directing the world’s first true aviation picture, Hell’s Angels. This was going to be his magnus opus and he was prepared to pour in as much money, time and effort as was needed to create a masterpiece.
An air-fleet was contracted that was bigger than that of some countries. During aerial filming sequences Howard’s obsessive compulsions led him to fixate on such things as cloud formations. He would scrap valuable minutes of perfectly good footage, forcing his pilots to reshoot until the clouds were just right.
One day, Hughes, in an effort to control every minute aspect of an aerial shoot, went up in a small scout plane. But no sooner had he ascended than the plane went into a tail-spin and crashed to the ground. Howard managed to walk away uninjured, the first of a number of miraculous plane crash escapes. A bemused stunt man commented that ‘at least he hasn’t injured his check writing arm.’
Howard’s obsession with perfection meant that the shooting schedule for Hell’s Angels got totally out of control. In the meantime, the public had become infatuated with the latest Hollywood innovation – talkies. Against everyone’s advice Hughes decided to rescript the movie and reshoot all of the dialogue scenes, this time adding sound.
The reshoot proved to be the break of a lifetime for a former bit player named Harlean Carpenter. The leading lady of the movie, Greta Nissen, was cut because of her strong Norwegian accent and Carpenter stepped into the role.
Hughes transformed her into Jean Harlow, the platinum blond bombshell who became a sensation during the 1930’s.
Hell’s Angels was a box office smash, returning double its production cost of $4 million, which was an exorbitant amount at that time.
Unfortunately for Hughes, three flops followed, Hughes cashed in on the public’s fascination with gangsters by producing Scarface, based on the life of Al Capone (we’ve actually got a video on him, you can find a link in the description below). Always one to push the bounds, Hughes filled the film with violence and obscenities. The sensors knocked it back, demanding major edits. To their surprise, Hughes sued them – and he won. The movie would be released just as he intended.
After the release of Scarface, Hughes stepped back from Hollywood to indulge his other great passion – flying.
In 1934 he easily won a flying race in Miami. This success fuelled his ambitions, inspiring him to set up the Hughes Aircraft Company. He now set out to design and build the world’s fastest racing plane. The result of his efforts was the H1, which Hughes flew to a new world speed record of 352 miles per hour on August 18th, 1935.
By 1938, Hughes was intent on achieving another world first – the fastest flight around the world. In a modified Lockheed 14, he took to the skies with a hand-picked crew and set off from New York. Sixteen hours and thirty-eight minutes later they landed in Paris, then onto Moscow and Siberia. Three days, nineteen hours and fourteen minutes after setting out they were back in New York. Hughes was hailed as a conquering hero. For three days the painfully shy adventurer endured ticker tape parades and receptions in New York, Chicago, Washington and Houston.
In 1940, Hughes moved into commercial aviation by grabbing a controlling share of Trans World Airlines (TWA). A short time later, the US Government came calling. They wanted Hughes Aircraft to supply plane parts, artillery shells and cannon barrels to help supply the war effort in Europe. Two years later, with America well and truly immersed in the conflict, Hughes was contracted to design and build a massive flying boat in order to overcome the German U-boat menace that was causing serious problems for US transport vessels.
While doing the testing and design for this project, Hughes was involved in his fourth plane crash. He was testing a Sikorsky S-43 amphibian aircraft on Lake Mead, Nevada. The plane went down into the frigid waters, killing a CAA inspector and an engineer who were also onboard. Hughes managed to walk away, but he did receive a large gash to the top of his head…
It was around this time that Hughes began to exhibit patterns of behavior that seemed odd to onlookers. Compulsive hand washing to avoid germs, checking and re-checking his work, always seeking symmetry and constantly trying to make things perfect – all classic signs of OCD – were seen as symptoms of a deteriorating mind.
This was hardly a good time for whispers of insanity… With his business empire rapidly expanding and his military contracts imposing weighty demands, Hughes was facing stresses and pressures from all directions. Two huge contracts, for the XF-11 Reconnaissance Plane and the HK-1 Spruce Goose, were both over budget and overdue. Most of the delays were due to Hughes’ incessant tinkering and his insistence on being the test pilot for both planes. And it was this insistence which brought about his closest call yet…
On July 7th 1946, Hughes took the XF-11 for its first test flight – over the Los Angeles basin. For the first 45 minutes the plane functioned perfectly. Then, suddenly, a propeller malfunction causing the plane to plummet to the ground. Desperately wrestling with the controls, Hughes hoped to land on a fairway at the Los Angeles country club. Instead he plunged through the roof of a nearby house.
This was one crash that Hughes wasn’t able to walk away from. He was extracted from the wreckage as it went up in flames and rushed to the hospital. He suffered severe head trauma and multiple burns, along with fractures to his neck. These injuries were going to cause him suffering for the rest of his life.
To control his pain, Hughes started taking drugs… He relied on a 3 part cocktail of drugs – codeine, valium and empirit – drugs he took daily for the next 30 years.
Still, the pain and head injuries affected his behavior, causing his OCD to spin out of control.
Long before his reliance on pain killers, Howard Hughes had another, all embracing addiction – to women. When he had come to Hollywood in 1925, he had a wife – and an enormous sexual appetite. The wife, Ella, soon tired of his infidelities, filing for divorce in 1929. The sexual appetite remained though, and was satisfied with a list of Hollywood conquests that would include such stars as Jean Peters, Rita Hayworth, Ava Gardner, Lana Turner and Katherine Hepburn.
Hughes was obsessed with the female form, and it was this infatuation that inspired his most controversial film, The Outlaw. Set during the old west, the movie was a showcase for the voluptuous Jane Russell, with Hughes personally ensuring that here dresses were cut low enough to accentuate her size 38D bust. Once again the censors were outraged, but Hughes was laughing all the way to the bank…
By the mid 1940’s, Hughes’ health issues were impacting upon his increasingly complicated business empire. In addition to his ownership of TWA and Hughes Tool Company, he now also owned the RKO movie studio. At the same time, he was building a huge aerospace company to develop spy technology for the military.
In 1947 the pressure on Hughes was ramped up by several notches when he was subpoenaed to appear before Congress regarding alleged improprieties in his government contracts. In a commanding performance, with the TV cameras rolling, he strongly denied profiteering from the war effort.
It is ironic that this congressional appearance – his most confident, strong and dominant public outing – was also the last time that the public would see Howard Hughes. The brilliant and fearless visible millionaire was transforming into a mysterious, invisible recluse…
Withdrawal from Society
The fifty-year old Hughes was now intent on completely retreating from society. The symptoms of his undiagnosed obsessive compulsive disorder were by now all too apparent. He refused to shake hands or touch door handles, instructions to his aids were repeated in meticulous detail and he flew into violent rages when things were not exactly as he had commanded.
Those who worked for Hughes began calling him ‘the old man’ and they became seriously concerned that he was going insane. The FBI, who were keeping tabs on him, noted in 1957 that he was acting like a ‘screwball paranoiac’ adding that he could even be capable of murder…
Then, out of the blue, Hughes declared that he was going to marry one of the many starlets he had been seeing, Jean Peters. Many people believe that Hughes decided to get hitched so that his aides would no longer be able to have him committed to an asylum.
Less than a year after marrying Peters in a Nevada motel room, Hughes descended into one of the most bizarre episodes of his life. He told his aides that he wanted to view some movies at a studio on Sunset Boulevard. He didn’t leave the darkened screening room for more than four months… His diet consisted of chocolate bars and milk, and he spent his days and nights sitting naked in a chair staring at the screen.
During this time time, Hughes communicated with his aides by scribbling on a yellow legal pad. Instructions included not looking at him and not speaking to him unless spoken to first.
Over those four months at the studio his personal hygiene rapidly deteriorated, even as his germ obsession intensified. When he finally emerged from the screening room in the spring of 1958, Hughes was an unkempt, ragged and pathetic mess…
He immediately checked into the Beverly Hills Hotel, another place your supposed to stay temporarily, but Hughes ended up staying in for years. Here he reverted to his screening room habits, sitting naked in the dark hour after hour. Business dealings were conducted by telephone and through his handwritten instructions. His drug use escalated as he fought continuous pain, now injecting himself with morphine to supplement his mega doses of codeine and valium.
In 1966, conducting negotiations completely by telephone, Hughes sold his controlling share in TWA. This made him a billionaire and the richest man in America. But rather than sit on his fortune, Hughes, despite his pathetic physical condition, set his sights on conquering a new frontier – Las Vegas.
His first move was to relocate to the penthouse suite of the Desert Inn, where he could continue his bizarre lifestyle without interruption. He then began buying up the city, starting with the hotel he was living in. His investments included a local TV station, bought so that he could call them at any time and demand that they play the movies he wanted to watch.
By 1970, Hughes was a prisoner of his own design. And then, as if things weren’t crazy enough already, he suddenly left the Desert Inn without warning. Many in his entourage thought that he’d been abducted. But three weeks later he turned up in the Bahamas. From there he announced that he was turning the day to day operations of his empire over to a group of Mormon aids…
In 1972, Hughes relocated to a hotel room in London. He left the room only once – to go flying. But this was like no flight he’d ever taken. Climbing into the cockpit he took off all his clothes, flying around London in the nude…
Following what would be his final flight at the helm, Hughes’ condition rapidly deteriorated. He took a fall in his London hotel room, increasing his reliance on pain killers and taking away his ability to walk…
Things went downhill from here. As if by design, Hughes last hours were spent in the air – he was traveling to Houston to receive medical treatment. His emaciated body finally breathed its last breath on April, 5th, 1976. The world was shocked when the autopsy revealed the terrible condition of his body – the result of undiagnosed OCD, multiple severe head injuries, and 30 years of largely self imposed neglect.
It was a sad end for a brilliant man.