Pioneering Aviator, Reclusive Billionaire
By Stephen Sherman, Mar. 2007. Updated July 26, 2011.
Howard Hughes, the famous paranoid, reclusive billionaire, was also a great aviator, aircraft manufacturer, and airline executive. His daring flights in the 1930s set several aviation records. He also built Hughes Aircraft, an important aviation manufacturing company and was a major player in Trans World Airlines. For most of his life, Hughes was involved in aviation; flying was his greatest passion.
Early on he was a dynamic businessman. Inheriting Hughes Tool Company at a young age, Hughes became a Hollywood producer, aircraft inventor, airline owner, hotelier, and ladies' man. An avid pilot, In the 1930s, Hughes set many aviation records, notably his 1938 round-the-world flight in 91 hours. By the 1960s his wealth reached one billion dollars, a staggering amount at the time. From the 1950s, Hughes grew increasingly germ-phobic, reclusive, and paranoid. He dropped from public view and took up residence in various hotels, guarded by his associates, “The Mormon Mafia.” The public fascination with his bizarre lifestyle continued even after his 1976 death, with much-publicized legal wrangling over his will.
Hughes was born in Humble, Texas, in late 1905, although his exact birthdate is in dispute. Hughes liked to claim that he was born on Christmas Eve, but his baptismal records show September 24. His parents were Allene and Howard R. Hughes Sr., who patented rotary oil drilling equipment which let drillers get at previously inaccessible oil. He founded Hughes Tool Company in 1909. Hughes’ mother was obsessed with protecting her son from all germs and diseases, an obvious root of his later bizarre behavior. Hughes picked up an interest in all things mechanical from his father. At age 12, Hughes appeared in a Houston newspaper as being the first boy in town to have a motorcycle, which he had built himself.
Hughes' parents died within two years of each other (1922-24), while he was a young man. Their deaths probably influenced him to provide for a medical research laboratory in his 1925 will. Young Howard inherited most of his father's multi-million dollar estate, including a lot of money from oil drilling royalties. After dropping out of Rice University in 1925, Hughes, at age 19, married Ella Rice, and soon moved to Hollywood where he planned to make movies.
His uncle, Rupert Hughes, was a film director. Partly on that connection, 20-year-old Howard began investing in motion pictures in 1926. At first dismissed by Hollywood as a just another rich man's son, “a sucker with money.” In 1926, his company, Caddo Productions surprised some with his first movie: Everybody's Acting. He hired Noah Dietrich to head his movie company, and Lewis Mileston as director. The new team won the best comedy screenplay Academy Award for Two Arabian Nights (1928). The Racket in 1928 and The Front Page in 1931 were also nominated for Academy Awards.
One of his most famous movies, Hell's Angels (1930), written and directed by Hughes and starring Jean Harlow, was the most expensive movie of its time, costing$3.8 million. His scouts went to Europe and bought all the vintage WWI airplanes they could find, 87 in all. A story ofWorld War I pilots, it lost $1.5 million at the box office but allowed Hughes to indulge his interest in flying.Hell’s Angels was one of my Dad’s favorite movies, and he recalls sitting raptly in the movie theater, gripped by the dramatic scenes of the Zeppelin flying over London at night.There is also a comic interlude when the English pilot is caught en flagrante with a German officer’s wife.
He produced another hit, Scarface, released in 1932, regarded as one of the greatest of all gangster movies. Its violence and unfavorable portrayal of certain ethnic types, caused Scarface to be held back from release for extensive editing and re-shooting. By 1931 it was all done, but Hughes felt he could squeeze out some more publicity by holding up release for another year, piquing public interest with news releases about the supposedly troubled production. After Scarface, Hughes left Hollywood to return to aviation.
The Outlaw (1941) was controversial for its racy advertising and content, both featuring the busty Jane Russell. Inspired by the excitement over The Outlaw, Hughes even designed the half-cup bra, modelled by his Hollywood discovery. As in the case of Scarface, Hughes withheld the release of The Outlaw for several years; the film finally opened in 1946. Hughes' next two projects, Vendetta and The Sin of Harold Diddlebock, were troublesome to make and unsuccessful at the box office.
Hughes signed an unknown actor, David Bacon, in 1942. Widespread rumors that Hughes and Bacon had a homosexual relationship, influenced Bacon's replacement. When Bacon was murdered the next year, more allegations of their affair surfaced. Greta Keller, an actress and Bacon's widow, claimed later that Bacon used his alleged homosexual relationship with Hughes to get out of his contract. However, neither Brown and Boeske’s biography nor hundreds of legal depositions, ever revealed any evidence that Hughes was homosexual.
Hughes kept his first wife Ella a virtual prisoner at home, and, in 1929, she divorced him. Hughes appearedwith many beautiful actresses, among them Katharine Hepburn, Bette Davis, Gene Tierney, Ava Gardner, Olivia DeHavilland, and Joan Fontaine. His relationships with his two famous stars: Jean Harlow and Jane Russell appear to have been strictly professional, except for one incident related in Russell’s autobiography when he did proposition her.
In 1936, Hughes’ automobile struck and killed a pedestrian named Gabriel Meyer in Los Angeles. Amidst conflicting reports of drunken driving and the victim’s actions, Hughes was booked for negligent homicide, but got off. The inference that the powerful Hughes had gotten away with murder was clear, but never determined.
In 1932, Hughes formed Hughes Aircraft Company, a division of Hughes Tool. Originally created to finance the conversion of a military plane into a racer, the company later developed many aviation innovations. Hughes always seemed to be involved in pulling strings and subterfuge. In 1933 he persuaded the Commerce Department to lower his pilot's license number from 4223 to 80. That same year, he took a job with American Airways as a co-pilot, applying under the pseudonym Charles W. Howard. The ruse was soon discovered and Hughes quit.
Hughes pursued aviation interests most of his life, designing and building airplanes and setting aviation speed records in the Thirties.
He specifically designed the Hughes H-1 Racer to be the fastest landplane in the world. Co-designed with Richard Palmer and built by Glenn Odekirk, it was remarkable airplane. On September 13, 1935, Hughes met that goal, flying the H-1 for an aviation speed record of 352 mph over Martin Field, near Santa Ana, California.
The H-1 made a dramatic and beautiful sight, with its natural polished aluminum fuselage, dark blue wings, black rudder, simply marked in yellow with its license number NR258Y (later NX 258Y). Powered by a 700 HP Pratt and Whitney Twin Wasp Junior radial piston engine, the H-1 could briefly achieve 1,000 horsepower for high-speed flight. Hughes and the designers extensively tested the H-1 at Caltech’s Guggenheim Aeronautical Laboratory wind tunnel. The H-1 had two sets of wings. To set the 352 mph speed record, Hughes used relatively short wings with a low aspect ratio. The aircraft’s present wings are 31 feet, 9 inches in span, have a moderate-aspect ratio, and were used for the transcontinental speed record flight on January 19, 1937. Leaving Los Angeles in the early morning, Hughes flew seven and one half hours, before arriving at Newark. Averaging 332 mph, this nonstop, 2490-mile flight bettered Hughes’ own transcontinental flight record from the previous year, by two hours.
The Hughes H-1 influenced the design of high-performance aircraft for many years, with features such as:a close fitting engine cowling to reduce drag and improve cooling; aerodynamic wing fillets to stabilize airflow; retractable landing gear to reduce drag; flush rivets and joints; flat, counter-sunk screws on the plywood wings; ailerons designed to droop for better lift on take-off; a smoothly faired and enclosed cockpit; and an adjustable canopy windscreen for easy access. Radial engine World War II fighters including the F6F Hellcat, the P-47 Thunderbolt, and the German FW 190 all incorporated design advances pioneered by the H-1.
The H-1 is now on display in the Golden Age of Flight gallery of the National Air and Space Museum.
Between July 10 and 14, 1938, Hughes piloted a Lockheed Super Electra (a twin-engine plane with a four-man crew) fitted with all of the latest radio and navigational equipment on a flight around the world. He cut Lindbergh's New York to Paris record in half, and finished the trip in 91 hours (three days, nineteen hours) beating Wiley Post’s record by four days. Houston's Hobby airport was briefly renamed in his honor.
Hughes’ awards marking the acme of his aerial fame included the Harmon Trophy in 1936 and 1938, the Collier Trophy in 1939, the Octave Chanute Award in 1940, and a special Congressional Gold Medal in 1939. Typically, he never traveled to Washington to collect his Congressional Medal, which was eventually mailed to him.
Crash of XF-11
On July 7, 1946, while test-flying the spy plane XF-11, Hughes crashed the plane, in an accident that changed his life and may have started his addiction to painkillers. One of the counter-rotating propellers malfunctioned, throwing the plane off course. Hughes tried to crash-land on a Los Angeles golf course, but just short of the open space, the XF-11 plummeted into some houses in nearby Beverly Hills.
After smashing through three houses, the plane finally stopped and the fuel tanks exploded, burning the plane and a nearby house. Hughes was rescued after suffering shattering injuries: a dislodged heart, crushed collar bone, six shattered ribs and numerous third-degree burns. His well-known moustache covered a scar from the accident on his upper lip.
The Spruce Goose, the H-4 Hercules
With World War II on the horizon, Hughes focused on military aircraft. But his penchant for secrecy and disregard for military procedures lost him many contracts. The famed “Liberty” shipbuilder, Henry Kaiser, helped Hughes land the contract for the "flying boats." Originally conceived to transport troops and equipment across the Atlantic instead of ordinary troop transport ships that were vulnerable to the U-Boat threat. It was to be the largest aircraft ever built, weighing 190 tons. The contract called for three aircraft to be built in three months, for $18 million. Hughes couldn’t meet those deliverables, and finally built only one of the planes, in 1947, two years after the war ended. The H-4 Hercules flew only once on November 2, 1947, with Hughes himself at the controls. Although made largely of birch wood, the epithet “The Spruce Goose” stuck to the bulky craft.
Hughes testified before the Senate War Investigating Committee to explain why the plane had been delivered so late. Because the contract called for "non-strategic materials," Hughes built the plane largely from birch, rather than aluminum. The plane docked in Long Beach, California for many years before being moved to the Evergreen Aviation Museum in McMinnville, Oregon.
Hughes Aviation Companies
In 1932 Hughes started Hughes Aircraft Company, a division of Hughes Tool Company in Burbank, California, primarily to design and build the H-1 racer. Starting in World War II, and even more afterwards, the company grew into a major defense contractor. Hughes acquired the Kellet helicopter design in 1947, forming the basis of Hughes Helicopters.
In 1948 Hughes created Hughes Aerospace Group. The Hughes Space and Communications Group and the Hughes Space Systems Division followed, and after various spin-offs and re-organizations, ended up with McDonnell Douglas, and eventually Boeing when it acquired McDonnell Douglas in 1997. The rest of Hughes Aircraft was sold to Raytheon in 1997.
In 1939, Hughes quietly took over TWA,his $7 million buying enough stock for control. Looking to improve TWA's fleet of Boeing 307 Stratoliners, and now, as an airline owner prohibited from aircraft manufacturing, Hughes asked Lockheed to build a new passenger plane. In complete secrecy, of course. Lockheed produced the revolutionary Constellation, and TWA purchased the first forty of the new planes. With its four propeller engines, distinctive triple tail, and pressurized air cabin, the Constellation remained in commercial service for almost twenty years.
In 1956, Hughes ordered sixty-three Convair 880s for TWA. Costing $400 million, the purchase of the new jet airliners was too much, even for a centi-millionaire like Hughes. He had to get outside financing, and these creditors eventually forced Hughes give up control of TWA. The jet financing issue provoked the end of Hughes' relationship with long-time associate Noah Dietrich. They argued over the financial details of the deal, and Dietrich could not be persuaded. Picking a fight with Howard Hughes was always a headache, and after Hughes locked him out of his office, he had to sue to recover his personal possessions and mementos.
In 1966, facing lawsuits and charges of conflict of interest, Hughes sold his entire remaining shares in TWA for $546 million. That same year, Hughes moved to Las Vegas and began doing business there. Las Vegas organized crime interests were actively transferring casino ownership to frontmen with less tainted reputations. During the 1970s, Hughes went back into the airline business, buying the airline Air West and renaming it Hughes Airwest.
Hughes maintained his interests in the movies business with the acquisition of RKO Radio Studios in 1948. During his tenure RKO suffered as a result of his autocratic management style. Soon after his takeover, Hughes dismissed most of the RKO staff. He operated like an absentee landlord and interfered with production to the point of obstruction; completed pictures would have to be re-shot one of his favorite female stars was shown off to her best advantage, or if a film was insufficiently anti-communist in its message. As the studios’ fortunes plummeted with one mega-flop after another, the despotic Hughes faced increasing criticism from minority shareholders. He sold off RKO Theaters in 1953, which only highlighted the shaky finances of the studio itself. Seeking to resolve the distractions posed by the shareholders, Hughes embarked on a campaign to buy them all out. BY 1954, at a cost of nearly $24 million, he had gained near total control of RKO. Shortly thereafter, he sold RKO for a small gain, retaining rights to his own movies and the voluptuous Miss Russell (or her movie-acting services, to be precise). This ended Hughes 25 year association with Hollywood. He had single-handedly wrecked a major studio, but typically for Hughes, personally profiting, making over $6 million after all the RKO dust had settled.
Howard Hughes Medical Institute
Hughes sole philanthropic enterprise was the Howard Hughes Medical Institute (HHMI), a research organization that employs hundreds of biomedical scientists. Through its grants program and other activities, HHMI promotes science education at all levels and maintain the vigor of biomedical science worldwide.
The Institute is one of the world's largest philanthropies, with laboratories across the United States and grants programs throughout the world. Its headquarters and conference center are located in Chevy Chase, Maryland, near Washington, D.C. HHMI's endowment in fiscal year 2005 was approximately $14.8 billion. The creation of the medical institute that bears his name stands as Hughes' most enduring accomplishment. His vision of scientific philanthropy was neither modest nor ordinary. He wanted his medical institute to be committed to basic research, to probe "the genesis of life itself.” Despite this, when he created the Institute, many saw it as a tax dodge. Hughes assigned all his Hughes Aircraft Company stock to the institute, effectively turning the defense contractor into a tax-exempt charity. HHMI sold Hughes Aircraft in 1985 to General Motors for $5.2 billion, resulting in dramatic growth for the institute.
The deal set off a protracted legal battle between Hughes and his nemesis, the IRS, which Hughes ultimately won. When he died in 1976, his estate went to cousins and other heirs, although many had expected it to go to the Institute. HHMI is America's second largest private foundation and the largest devoted to biological and medical research with an endowment of $14.8 billion at year-end 2005.
When the CIA wanted to recover a Soviet sub that had sunk deep in the Pacific, the Agency turned to Howard Hughes, to build in secret a ship to do the job. The ship, the Hughes Glomar Explorer, was built in 1973. The mission of Glomar Explorer was to raise a Soviet nuclear submarine that had sunk in the Pacific, resting on the ocean floor 17,000 ft. down. The Soviet Golf-II Class ballistic missile submarine sank in 1968, approximately 750 miles northwest of Hawaii. Naval intelligence tracking the sub learned of its fate through underwater listening devices. After months of futile searching by Soviet vessels, it became apparent that only the US knew the location of the sunken submarine.
Manganese nodules, fist-size chunks of manganese mixed with iron, nickel, cobalt, etc. lie scattered over the depths of the Pacific. Potentially valuable, the manganese nodules provided a useful cover story for Hughes and the CIA. Hughes used the Deep Ocean Mining Project [DOMP] search for nodules as a cover for building the ship Glomar Explorer. Global Marine supervised construction of the Glomar Explorer, at a cost in excess of $200 million dollars, and operated it from 1973 to 1975 under contract to the US government.
Glomar Explorer went to sea on June 20, 1974, found the sub, and began to bring a portion of it to the surface. The Soviets watched the "deep-sea mining" operation with interest, but did not attempt to thwart it. An accident during the lifting operation caused the fragile hulk to break apart, resulting in the loss of a critical portion of the submarine, its nuclear missiles and cryptographic codes. However, according to other accounts, material recovered included three nuclear missiles, two nuclear torpedoes, the ship's code machine, and various code books.
From the 1950s Hughes began to show unmistakable symptoms of obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD). Formerly highly visible, he retreated from the public eye, although remaining a target of tabloid speculation about his health, death, or mental state. On January 12, 1957, Hughes re-married, this time to Jean Peters, but he hardly was in contact with her, except by telephone. The concept of the trophy wife is not a new one.
Hughes had shown obsessive-compulsive pathology for a long time, an echo of his mother’s preoccupation: as early as the 1930s, he was noted to be obsessed with the size of peas and used a special fork to sort them by size. While making The Outlaw, Hughes seized on a minor flaw in one of Jane Russell's blouses, imagining that the fabric looked like two nipples on each of Russell's breasts.
Hughes eventually withdrew completely, apparently secluded in a drugged haze. While he had doctors and other professionals to help him, he eventually relied exclusively on a small circle of Mormon advisors, although he was not LDS himself. He became addicted to codeine, valium, ando ther prescription drugs and his physical strength weakened. His germ phobia became extreme, picking things up with paper towels, refusing to shake hands, and even (on one occasion depicted in the movie The Aviator) burning his own clothes.
Late in 1966, Howard Hughes’ private train pulled into Las Vegas. Accompanied by Robert Maheu and the rest of his “Mormon Mafia” entourage, he checked into the Desert Inn, occupying all the penthouse suites on the eighth and ninth floors. While his initial reservation was for ten days, he ended up staying four years, and during that time, helped the entertainment metropolis shed its mobster image and make it more palatable to mainstream, corporate America.
For those four years, he never left his suite in the Desert Inn, an odd situation, one of the world’s wealthiest men, a prisoner of his own eccentricities. He had already been in seclusion for almost a decade and there were no public photographs of him. He was gaunt and myasthenic, over six feet tall, he weighed only about 120 pounds. While germophobic, his personal hygiene was poor: his fingernails were not trimmed, his long hair was wild; his beard was scraggly. He would not allow housekeepers to clean his suite, which he kept curtained and taped shut. When the Desert Inn tried to evict him, he bought the hotel instead.
More purchases followed. After Governor Laxalt helped him get a gaming license, he bought up the Frontier, the Sands, the Castaways, the Landmark, the Silver Slipper, North Las Vegas Airport, Alamo Airways, and vast amounts of empty land. He also snapped up several TV stations; an insomniac, he wanted to ensure there was always something on TV for him to watch in the wee hours. By 1968, he had splurged $68 on his Las Vegas “toys,” and he owned about a third of all the revenue generated on the Strip. At that point, the Justice Department stepped in and stopped his Las Vegas acquisition spree.
The public still saw Hughes as a hero --- a daring aviator, an innovative engineer, a successful businessman. The local politicians valued his image, but eliminating mob influence was trickier than buying a bunch of hotels. Essential middle managers with mob connections were retained; hotel profits continued to be skimmed. Soon, it became apparent that Hughes’ investments in Las Vegas were hemorrhaging money, largely because of mob skimming.
Four years later, weakened physically and financially, Hughes made a typically secretive exodus, boarding a private jet at nearby Nellis AFB. Unsurprisingly, this move was also prompted by his paranoia; he was worried about the toxic effects of nuclear tests in Nevada. When his attempts to thwart the tests were unsuccessful, he ordered his entourage to move his bizarre private empire to the Bahamas. He would never return to Las Vegas, but he had left his mark on the city, helping it gain an aura of glamour and wholesomeness.
After flying to the Bahamas in 1970, the misanthropic Hughes lived another six years, living a gypsy-like existence, periodically moving from one hotel to the next, always outside the United States: the Bahamas; Vancouver; London; Managua, Nicaragua; Acapulco, Mexico; and, others. In 1971, Jean Peters filed for divorce. She had been married to Hughes for 24 years, but had had scant contact with him. She asked for relatively modest alimony of $70,000 a year for the rest of her life and never discussed her life with Hughes. Hughes’ last contact with the outside world came in 1972, when he spoke on a conference call, to dismiss the apochryphal biography that author Clifford Irving had put out. (Irving ended up in jail for the hoax.)
Hughes died April 5, 1976, en route by private jet to a hospital in Houston. His reclusive activities and drug use had made him practically unrecognizable; his hair, beard, fingernails, and toenails had grown grossly long, his once-strapping 6'4" frame had atrophied to 90 lbs, and the FBI had to resort to fingerprints to identify the body. He left an estate estimated at $2 billion. Four hundred prospective heirs tried to inherit it but it eventually went to twenty-two cousins. Hughes Aircraft ended up in the hands of Hughes Medical Institute.
Hughes is buried in the Glenwood Cemetery in Houston.