Howard Hughes

Howard Robard Hughes, Jr. (December 24, 1905April 5, 1976) was at times a pilot, a movie producer, a playboy, an eccentric and one of the wealthiest people in the world. He is famous for building the Spruce Goose, and for his debilitatingly eccentric behavior later in life.

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Howard Hughes standing in front of a Boeing Army Pursuit Plane, Inglewood, California, 1940s.

Youth and Hollywood

Hughes was born in Texas. Various sources cite both Humble and Houston as his birthplace. His parents were Alene (Gano) Hughes and Howard R. Hughes, Sr., who invented the dual cone roller bit, which allowed rotary drilling of oil wells in previously inaccessible places. His father founded Hughes Tool Company to commercialize this invention.

As a teenager, Hughes 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. Despite attending many good schools, he never earned a diploma. He attended the Fessenden School in West Newton, Massachusetts (near Boston), and the Thacher School in Ojai, California. His father subsequently arranged for him to audit math and engineering classes at the California Institute of Technology. He then enrolled at the Rice Institute (later known as Rice University).

His parents died when he was a teenager — his mother in 1922, and his father two years later. As a result, Hughes inherited the highly profitable Hughes Tool Company. After inheriting $17 million, Hughes dropped out of Rice to become CEO of Hughes Tool in 1924 at the age of 19.

Shortly after his father died, Hughes moved to Hollywood, California where he had an uncle, Rupert Hughes, a novelist. Ella Rice, a girlfriend whom he had met in Houston, joined him in California. They married in 1925 (and would divorce in 1929).

Hughes used his fortune to become a movie producer. He was at first dismissed by Hollywood insiders as a rich man's son. However, his first two films released in 1927, Everybody's Acting and Two Arabian Knights were financial successes. His films The Racket in 1928 and The Front Page in 1931 were nominated for Academy Awards. Other movies included one of the world's first multi-million dollar productions Hell's Angels (1930) which was written and directed by Hughes and showcased his love for aviation, and Scarface (1932). His best-known film may be The Outlaw (1943) starring Jane Russell. Both Scarface and The Outlaw received attention from industry censors, who targeted the films for their disregard of certain moral standards set forth within the industry.

During this time, Hughes was a notorious ladies' man, and allegedly had affairs with many famous women and (reportedly) men, including: Katharine Hepburn, Bette Davis, Gene Tierney, Jean Harlow, Jane Russell and Ava Gardner. Less significant affairs are rumored to have occurred between Hughes and a long list of celebrities: Yvonne De Carlo, Billie Dove, Ginger Rogers, Olivia de Havilland, Elizabeth Taylor, Kathryn Grayson, Lana Turner, Rita Hayworth, Carole Lombard, Paulette Goddard, Ida Lupino, Linda Darnell, Joan Fontaine, Gina Lollobrigida, Marilyn Monroe, Cary Grant, Errol Flynn, Jayne Mansfield, Zsa Zsa Gabor, Susan Hayward, Shelley Winters, Mamie Van Doren, Hedy Lamarr, Tyrone Power, Norma Shearer, Gloria Vanderbilt, Terry Moore, and Marlene Dietrich. [1] (

Hughes the aviator and engineer

Hughes was a lifelong aircraft enthusiast, pilot, and self-taught aircraft engineer. He set many world records, and designed and built several aircraft himself while heading Hughes Aircraft. 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.

As an aviator, he received many awards. This included the Harmon Trophy in 1936 and 1938, the Collier Trophy in 1939, the Octave Chanute Award in 1940, and a special Congressional medal for his round-the-world flight.

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The second XF-11 prototype (with conventional propellers).

Also in 1938, William John Frye, a former Hollywood stunt flier and Trans World Airlines' (TWA) first director of operations, put in an order for the new 33-passenger Boeing 307 Stratoliner, the first commercial plane with a pressurized passenger cabin. He convinced Hughes, also enamored of avant garde aircraft technology, to finance this purchase. By doing so, Hughes became the principal stockholder of TWA in April 1939. Throughout the 1940s and into the 1950s, TWA continued to bet on the most advanced planes available, largely due to Hughes' own interest in aircraft development. The airline would grow significantly under his leadership.

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The H-4 Hercules with Hughes at the controls.

On July 7, 1946, Hughes barely survived a plane crash. He was piloting the maiden flight of the experimental aircraft XF-11, a U.S. Army spy plane. His flight plan included a tour of Los Angeles to show off the new plane, but an oil leak caused one of the counter-rotating propellers to reverse its thrust, causing the plane to yaw sharply. 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 wounded 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 the rest of his life. 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 H-4 Hercules, nicknamed the Spruce Goose, a massive flying boat completed just after the end of World War II. The Hercules only flew once (with Hughes at the controls) in 1947. The plane was originally commissioned by the U.S. government for use in World War II, but was not completed until after the war. Hughes was called to testify before the Senate War Investigating Committee to explain why the plane had not been delivered to the United States Air Force during the war, but the committee disbanded without releasing a final report. Because the U.S. government denied him the use of metal (which had been rationed), Hughes built the plane largely from birch in his Westchester, California facility to fulfill his contract. The plane was on display alongside 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: Postwar

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.

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After the war, Hughes fashioned his company Hughes Aircraft into a major defense contractor. Portions of the company wound up with McDonnell Douglas, and eventually Boeing when those two companies merged. The remainder of Hughes Aircraft was sold to Raytheon in 1998.

In 1953, Hughes launched the Howard Hughes Medical Institute in Delaware, formed with the express goal of basic biomedical research including trying to understand, in Hughes' words, the "genesis of life itself." It was viewed by many as a tax haven for his wealth: Hughes gave all his stock of the Hughes Aircraft Company to the institute, thereby turning the defense contractor into a tax-exempt charity. The deal 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 balance of Hughes' estate went to the institute. It is America's second largest private foundation and the largest devoted to biological and medical research with a 2004 endowment of $12.4 billion.

In 1957, Hughes married actress Jean Peters.

Shortly before the 1960 Presidential election, Richard Nixon was harmed by revelations of a $205,000 loan from Hughes to Nixon's brother that was never repaid.

Hughes Space and Communications was founded in 1961. In the same year, TWA's management sued its chairman Hughes because of differences in running the company; he was forced to sell his stock in TWA in 1966 for more than $500 million. During the 1970s, Hughes went back into the airline business, buying airline Air West and renaming it to Hughes Airwest.

Glomar Explorer

In 1972, Hughes was approached by the CIA to help secretly recover a Soviet 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, and the mining of undersea manganese nodules.

In the summer of 1974 the Glomar Explorer attempted to raise the Soviet vessel. But during the recovery a mechanical failure in the ship's grapple caused half of the submarine to break off and fall to the ocean floor. This section is believed to have held many of the most sought after items, including its code book and nuclear missiles. Two nuclear-tipped torpedoes and some cryptographic machines were recovered, along with the bodies of six Soviet submariners who were subsequently given formal burial at sea in a filmed ceremony. It has been speculated that, contrary to this official account, the entire submarine was recovered and that the CIA released disinformation to leave the Soviets with the impression that the mission was unsuccessful.

The operation, known as Project Jennifer, became public in February 1975 because burglars had obtained secret documents from Hughes' headquarters in June 1974.

Hughes the recluse

By the late 1950s, if not earlier, 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 dead and replaced by an impersonator.

Hughes had earlier displayed 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 nipples on each of Russell's breasts.

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Time cover depicting a late-life Hughes, on the occasion of his death in 1976

Hughes became a recluse, living a drug-addled life locked in darkened rooms and was 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 (injections), valium, and other painkillers, was extremely frail, stored his urine in jars and wore Kleenex boxes as shoes (although it has been reported that 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, to insulate himself from germs.

Hughes had contracted syphilis as a young man, and much of the strange behavior at the end of his life has been attributed by modern biographers to the tertiary stage of that disease.

Later years

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 much of 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 for a special order — 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; he was often able to influence the outcome of elections and legislation. 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, 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 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 as a condition of the divorce; aides reported that 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.

According to some speculation on the Watergate affair, the 1972 burglary of Democratic headquarters had been ordered by President Nixon's aides in order to recover potentially damaging papers documenting payments from Hughes to Nixon, and in an effort to link the Democrats to Hughes. Larry O'Brien, the Democratic National Committee chairman whose office was broken into, had been a paid lobbyist for Hughes since 1968.

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Hughes' eccentricities have fascinated the public for years. Time, 1976

In 1972 author Clifford Irving claimed he had co-written an 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 on an aircraft en route from his penthouse in Mexico to Methodist Hospital in Houston on April 5, 1976, at the age of 70. He was unrecognizable, and the FBI insisted on fingerprints to identify Hughes' remains. The autopsy determined renal failure as the cause of death. His body was in extremely poor condition; X-rays showed broken off hypodermic needles in his arms.

Howard Hughes is interred in the Glenwood Cemetery in Houston, Texas.


Melvin Dummar claimed that in 1968, he picked up Howard Hughes as a hitchhiker, and that after giving Hughes the ride, Hughes made Dummar 1/16th inheritor of the Hughes estate. However, the will presented by Dummar was rejected by the courts. The movie Melvin and Howard is based on this incident.

More than forty wills and 400 claimants vied for part of Hughes' $2 billion estate. The estate eventually settled with 22 cousins in 1983. The U.S. Supreme Court ruled that Hughes Aircraft was owned by The Howard Hughes Medical Institute, who sold it to General Motors in 1985 for $5 billion. Suits brought by the states of California and Texas claiming they were owed inheritance tax were both rejected by the court.

In 1984, Hughes' estate paid an undisclosed amount to actress Terry Moore, who claimed to have been secretly married to Hughes in 1949 and never divorced; she went on to write a book about her affair with Hughes, titled The Beauty and the Billionaire. Since Moore was married to five other men after 1949, the question of multiple bigamy arises.

Factual media portrayals


  • George J. Marrett - Howard Hughes: Aviator (2004) ISBN 1591145104, Naval Institute Press
  • Richard Hack - Hughes: The Private Diaries, Memos and Letters : The Definitive Biography of the First American Billionaire (2002) ISBN 1893224643
  • Peter Harry Brown and Pat H Broeske - Howard Hughes: The untold story, Time Warner Paperbacks
  • Robert Maheu and Richard Hack - Next to Hughes: Behind the power and tragic downfall of Howard Hughes by his closest adviser, HarperCollins (1992)
  • Michael Drosnin - Citizen Hughes: In his own words, how Howard Hughes tried to buy America, Broadway Books
  • Charles Higham - Howard Hughes: The secret life, Virgin Books,
  • Donald L. Barlett and James B. Steele - Empire: The Life, Legend and Madness of Howard Hughes (1979) ISBN 0393075133 Republished in 2003 as Howard Hughes: His life and madness
  • Terry Moore - The Beauty and the Billionaire, New York (1984).
  • Terry Moore and Jerry Rivers - The Passions of Howard Hughes. General Publishing Group (1996)
  • James Phelan - "Howard Hughes: The Hidden Years". Random House (1976)
  • Jack Real - "The Asylum of Howard Hughes", Xlibris Corporation (2003), ISBN 1413408753
  • Ron Kistler - "I caught flies for Howard Hughes", Playboy Press (1976), ISBN 0872234479


Fictional media inspirations

The following fictional characters appear to have been, in part, patterned after Hughes:


  • 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; lead singer Melora Creager has an ongoing preoccupation with Hughes (see [2] (
  • Leadbelly composed a folksong, "Howard Hughes", which accompanies the final credits of the film The Aviator.
  • The Boomtown Rats 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.
  • The British progressive band Genesis mentioned "Howard Hughes in blue suede shoes" in their song "Broadway Melody of 1974", part of the album The Lamb Lies Down on Broadway.
  • The British shoegazer band Ride mentioned Howard Hughes in their song "Castle on the Hill"[3] (
  • The song "Reward" by British band The Teardrop Explodes includes the line "Live in solitude like Howard Hughes".
  • Jerry Cantrell, on the album Degradation Trip, wrote a song titled "Bargain Basement Howard Hughes". However, the song is actually about his former Alice in Chains bandmate Layne Staley. The final verse mentioned, "Often heard, seldom seen, Bargain Basement Howard Hughes, Hermit phase, a woodshed rage, these days headlines are few."
  • John Hartford's 1972 album Morning Bugle includes the song "Howard Hughes Blues" which describes his solitary life of "poor old Howard Hughes and all of his blues".
  • 10cc namecheck Hughes in the hit song "Wall Street Shuffle".
  • Sole, a notoriously anti-capitalist rapper, had a song titled "MC Howard Hughes" on his album Bottle of Humans.
  • 1970s Christian rocker Larry Norman's song Without Love contains a reference to Howard Hughes.
  • Jim Croce's song "Workin' At the Carwash Blues" contains a howard hughes reference. Jim claims he is an undiscovered Howard Hughes.

See also

External links

Howard Hughes is also the name of a British newsreader and presenter for the London radio station LBC.he:הווארד יוז de:Howard Hughes es:Howard Hughes fr:Howard Hughes it:Howard Hughes ja:ハワード・ヒューズ fi:Howard Hughes


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