- This article concerns the American industrialist; another Howard Hughes is a British newsreader and presenter for the London radio station LBC.
Youth and Hollywood
Hughes was born in Houston, Texas. As a teenager, he declared that his goals in life were to become the world's best golfer, the world's best pilot, and the world's best movie producer. In 1923 while attending Rice Institute (later known as Rice University) he inherited the highly profitable Hughes Tool Company from his father, Howard R. Hughes, Sr., who invented the diamond-studded drill bit for oil wells. He dropped out of Rice and became CEO of Hughes Tool in 1924 at the age of 19.
Hughes moved to Hollywood, California and became a movie producer. His best-known film may be The Outlaw starring Jane Russell. He also wooed many of Hollywood's most famous actresses, including Katharine Hepburn and Ava Gardner. As a producer, Hughes was nominated for Oscar awards for his films The Racket in 1928, and The Front Page in 1931.
Hughes the aviator and engineer
Hughes set many world records, and designed and built aircraft as well as heading Hughes Aircraft (merged with Raytheon in 1998). On January 19, 1937 Hughes set a new air record by flying from Los Angeles to New York City in 7 hours, 28 minutes and 25 seconds. Then on July 10, 1938 he set another new record by completing a 91-hour airplane flight around the world. In 1938, the William P. Hobby Airport in Houston, Texas, known at the time as Houston Municipal Airport, was re-named "Howard Hughes Airport," but the name was changed back after people objected to naming the airport after a living person.
In 1946, Hughes piloted the first flight of the experimental aircraft XF-11. His flight plan included a tour of Los Angeles to show off the new plane, but an oil leak forced one of the counter-rotating propellers to reverse direction. Hughes tried to save the craft by landing it on the Los Angeles Country Club golf course, but seconds before he reached his attempted destination the plane started dropping dramatically and the aircraft crashed into the Beverly Hills neighborhood surrounding the Country Club. When the plane finally stopped after clipping three houses, the fuel tanks exploded, setting fire to a home and the surrounding area. Hughes lay dying beside the burning airplane until he was rescued by a Marine master sergeant who was visiting friends next door. The injuries he sustained in the crash, including a crushed collar bone, six broken ribs and third-degree burns, affected him until his death, and many attribute his long addiction to opiates to the large amounts of morphine he was prescribed for the injuries. The trademark mustache he wore later in life was an attempt to cover a minor facial scar from the incident.
One of his greatest endeavors was the Spruce Goose, a massive flying boat completed just after the end of World War II. The Spruce Goose only flew once (with Hughes at the controls) in 1947. Because the U.S. Government denied him the use of metal, Hughes built the plane largely from birch in his Westchester, California facility to fulfill his contract. The plane was on display alongside the RMS Queen Mary in Long Beach, California for many years before being moved to McMinnville, Oregon, where it is now part of the Evergreen Aviation Museum.
Hughes acquired RKO in 1948, a struggling major Hollywood studio. He interfered with production and even shut down shooting for weeks or months. RKO was sold in 1955, its movie theater chain spun off due to an antitrust lawsuit.
In 1953, Hughes launched the Howard Hughes Medical Institute formed with the goal of basic biomedical research including trying to understand in Hughes' words: "genesis of life itself". It was initially viewed by many as a tax haven for his wealth, and was the topic of a protracted legal battle between Hughes and the Internal Revenue Service which Hughes ultimately won. After his death in 1976, the institute grew dramatically to become one of the most significant philanthropical organizations devoted to biological and medical research with a 2002 endowment of $11 billion.
Hughes Space and Communications was founded in 1961. He was forced to sell out of TWA in 1966 for around $500 million. During the 1970s, Hughes went back into the airline business, buying airline Air West and renaming it to Hughes Airwest.
In 1972, Hughes was approached by the CIA to help secretly recover a Soviet nuclear submarine which had sunk near Hawaii four years before. He agreed. Thus the Hughes Glomar Explorer, a special-purpose salvage vessel, was born. Hughes' involvement provided the CIA with a plausible cover story, having to do with civilian marine research at extreme depths. In 1974 the Glomar Explorer successfully raised the Soviet vessel, which yielded two nuclear-tipped torpedoes and some cryptographic machines.
Unfortunately though, during the recovery a mechanical failure in the grapple caused half of the submarine to break off, falling to the ocean floor. This section is said to have held many of the most sought after items. But despite the official report of the lost portion, much controversy surrounds this rumor. Some conflicting reports say that the entire submarine was recovered and that the CIA released disinformation to leave the Soviets with the impression that the mission was unsuccessful.
Hughes the recluse
By the late 1950's, Hughes developed debilitating symptoms of obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD). The once dashing figure vanished from public view and became a mystery. The media followed rumors of his movements and behavior. According to various rumors, Hughes was either terminally ill, mentally unstable, or even dead and replaced by an impersonator.
There had been earlier symptoms consistent with OCD: In the 1930s, friends reported he was obsessed with the size of peas—one of his favorite foods—and used a special fork to sort them by size before he ate. When he produced The Outlaw, Hughes became obsessed with a minor flaw in one of Jane Russell's blouses, and wrote a detailed memorandum on how to fix the problem: Hughes contended that fabric bunched up on a seam, giving the distressing appearance (to Hughes, at least) of two Censored pages on each of Russell's breasts.
Hughes became a recluse, living a drug-addled life locked in darkened rooms and terrified of germs. Though he kept a barber on-call with a handsome retainer, Hughes had his hair cut and nails trimmed perhaps once a year. Several doctors were kept on salary, though Hughes rarely saw them and refused to follow their advice.
Hughes became addicted to codeine and other painkillers, was extremely frail, wore Kleenex boxes as shoes, and stored his urine in jars (it's been reported Hughes did this only once, as "protection" when a toilet flooded). He insisted on using paper towels to cover any object before he touched it, in order to insulate himself from germs.
With his entourage, Hughes moved from hotel to hotel, from the Beverly Hills Hotel to Boston to Las Vegas, where he bought the Desert Inn (because they threatened to evict him) and several other hotel/casinos (Castaways, New Frontier, Landmark, Sands and Silver Slipper). He was known for modernizing Las Vegas by buying it from the Mafia. He bought television stations such as KLAS-TV in Las Vegas so that there would be something to watch when he was up all night with insomnia.
Hughes' considerable business holdings were overseen by a small panel sometimes dubbed "The Mormon Mafia" due to the many Latter-day Saints in the group. While running day-to-day business operations, they also took great pains to follow Hughes' every bizarre whim. For example, Hughes took a liking to Baskin Robbins banana-nut ice cream, and his aides were horror-stricken when they learned that Baskin-Robbins had eliminated the flavor. They made a special order of 350 gallons—the smallest amount the company could provide—and had it shipped from Los Angeles to Las Vegas. A few days after the order arrived, Hughes announced he'd tired of banana-nut and only wanted vanilla ice cream. For years afterwards, Hughes' aides gave free gallons of banana-nut ice cream to their friends and family.
In Nevada, Hughes wielded enormous political power. His influence did have its limits: He was afraid of the effects of nuclear radiation from the open-air nuclear weapons tests then conducted in the state, and told his aides to offer $1 million to presidents Lyndon B. Johnson and Richard Nixon if they'd bring the tests to an end. Hughes' aides never offered the bribes, however, but reported that Johnson had declined the offer, and that they were unable to contact Nixon.
As he deteriorated, Hughes moved to the Bahamas, Vancouver, London, and several other places, always living in the top floor penthouse with the windows blacked out. Every time he moved out, the hotel seemed to need to remodel to clean up after him.
In 1971, he legally divorced Jean Peters; they had been living apart for several years. She agreed to a lifetime alimony payment of $70,000 annually, adjusted for inflation, and she waived all claims to Hughes' estate. The usually-paranoid Hughes surprised his aides when he did not insist on a confidentiality agreement from Peters; aides reported Peters was one of the few people Hughes never disparaged. Peters refused to discuss her life with Hughes, and declined several lucrative offers to do so. She would state only that she had not seen Hughes for several years before their divorce.
In 1972 author Clifford Irving claimed he had co-written the authorized autobiography of Hughes, and created a media sensation. Hughes was such a reclusive figure that he hesitated in condemning Irving, which in the view of many, lent credibility to Irving's account. Prior to publication, Hughes, in a rare telephone conference, denounced Irving, exposing the entire project as an elaborate hoax. Irving later spent fourteen months in jail.
Hughes died of renal failure on an airplane en route from his penthouse in Mexico to the Methodist Hospital in Houston on 5 April, 1976 at the age of 70. He was unrecognizable, and the FBI insisted on fingerprints to identify Hughes' remains. Much of his strange behavior at the end of his life has been attributed by modern biographers to tertiary stage syphilis.
Melvin Dumar claimed that in 1975, he picked up Howard Hughes as a hitchhiker, and that after giving Hughes the ride, Hughes made Dumar sole inheritor of the Hughes estate. However, subsequent court proceedings proved Dumar's claims to be fraudulent. The movie Melvin and Howard further examines this story (see also Howard Hughes will ).
Factual media portrayals
- Donald L. Barlett and James B. Steele - Empire: The Life, Legend and Madness of Howard Hughes (1979) ISBN 0393075133
- Loren Coleman - Tom Slick: True Life Encounters in Cryptozoology (Fresno: Linden Press, 2002) ISBN 0941936740 - Texas oil millionaire Tom Slick was a friend and associate of Hughes', and they shared Las Vegas, Hollywood, aviation, and female interests.
- George J. Marrett - Howard Hughes: Aviator (2004) ISBN 1591145104
Fictional media inspirations
The following fictional characters appear to have been, in part, patterned after Hughes:
- "Willard Whyte" of the James Bond film Diamonds Are Forever
- "Montgomery Burns" of The Simpsons, especially in the episode "$pringfield"
- "Jonas Cord" in Harold Robbins' novel The Carpetbaggers
- Howard Hughes makes an appearance in the comic book and motion picture The Rocketeer.
- Howard Hughes also appears in an episode of the TV Series Dark Skies.
- Hughes appears in James Ellroy's political crime novel American Tabloid.
- Steven Carter's novel I was Howard Hughes is a "picture of a Hughes who might have been."
- Dean Stockwell plays Howard Hughes in the Francis Ford Coppola's biopic of automaker Preston Tucker, . The film introduces Hughes as a potential investor of Tucker's automobile line, although such claims are unsubstantiated.
- Melvin and Howard, 1980, directed by Jonathan Demme and starring Jason Robards as Howard Hughes and Paul Le Mat as Melvin Dumar.
- The British Punkrock Band The Tights wrote a song "Howard Hughes" which was the title track of their "Howard Hughes" single.
- The cello trio Rasputina wrote a song "Howard Hughes" which was included in their CD Thanks For The Ether.
- Leadbelly composed a folksong, "Howard Hughes", which accompanies the final credits of the film The Aviator.
- Ireland's The Boomtown Rats (arguably the world's first punk band) released the song "Me And Howard Hughes" on their record Tonic For The Troops in 1978.
- The band Kansas did a song about Howard Hughes, which they named "Closet Chronicles". It was originally on their album "Point of Know Return".