Forget the rather average 2004 film The Aviator, which came nowhere close to doing justice to the remarkable life of Howard Hughes (I mean Kate Beckinsale as Ava Gardner, really! And he may be a teen heartthrob but there is no way Leonardo Di Caprio has the gravitas to play Hughes). Just read about the guy and look beyond the general perception of Hughes now which is of a 'mentalist', a guy looking like a vagrant but living as a recluse in the most expensive hotels in the world. What he achieved in aviation in the 30s and 40s alone would make him an icon. Never mind that his fingerprints were all over the most beautiful women of his generation and that he owned at one time RKO, TWA and much of Las Vegas.
It's enough to make a grown man weep or at least go green with envy.
The ghost in the shell that was Hughes in the last years shouldn't obscure everything that had gone before.
He was born on Christmas Eve, 1905 at Houston's Baptist Hospital. It was an extraordinarily difficult birth. Indeed, his mother, Allene Gano Hughes, was in labor for nine hours and suffered such damage that she was never to give birth again.
Hughes was an only child. His mother doted on him to such an extent that she did all she could to keep him at home throughout his teenage years. This over-protectiveness no doubt played a part in his remoteness in later life.
In 1908, his father, Howard Robard Hughes, patented an oil drill. Within 10 years it would be used in 75 per cent of the world's oil wells. Not only that but his father reused to sell the drill bits but leased them, which meant more money coming in.
For a time, the Hughes family were the richest in Texas. And the company his father formed, Hughes Tool Company, was the foundation on which he built his entire empire.
Howard was considered a loner and mechanical wizard in his youth. Tall (he would be 6ft3 in his prime), good-looking, he was also showing signs of the deafness that afflicted him throughout much of his life and what many would mistake for aloofness. He would say later that a diving accident during his teenage years triggered the deafness.
On March 29, 1922, his mother died through the trauma of another pregnancy. She was 39. Less than 2 years later his father (like his son a notorious womanizer)was also dead at the age of 54 from a heart attack.
Hughes was not yet 20 when he lost his parents. He quit university and took control of the Hughes Tool Company.
The following year he married Ella Rice, dubbed by the press "the most sought-after debutante in Houston". She was two years older than Howard and though she came from a family with a proud heritage they also had no money. Thus the marriage (which was arranged) to the young millionaire was advantageous for her though by all accounts she was devoted to him. He on his part drew up a new will two days before his wedding to ensure that the Hughes Tool Company would not fall into the hands of his relatives or his new wife.
Marrying the prized debutante didn't get in the way of his womanizing. For the next 40 years he romanced hundreds of beautiful women. A partial list can be found here. His second wife, the actress Jean Peters (married 1957; divorced 1971) also had to settle for being just one of the many women he bedded during their marriage.
With the money coming in from the Hughes Tool Company (it was enriching Hughes by $5,000 per day at the time), he moved to Hollywood, formed a film studio, the Caddo Company, and began making films (his uncle, Rupert Hughes (1872-1956), was a screenwriter and director). A full list of the films he produced and directed is here but the highlight was Hell's Angels which he directed at the age of 25. It's flight sequences are generally considered the best ever made and cost lives in the making of. Another of his films, The Outlaw (1943), was nearly banned for its sexual content.
In the 1920s he started using the Art Deco building at 7000 Romaine Street in Hollywood as his office. Exclusive and rare interior pictures of Romaine Street can be found here.
His other great love was aviation. Hughes became obsessed with learning to fly, and doing it fast. What he achieved in this field made him an American icon and a full list of his achievements can be found here.
Contrary to popular belief, Hughes always took a great interest in the Hughes Tool Company or Toolco. He insured that it had a monopoly on drilling equipment. With a trusted right-hand man, Noah Dietrich, who he took on in 1925 and would remain with him until 1957, profits from the company exceeded all expectations. Profits rose to $6 million in 1935, to $9 million in 1936, and to $13 million in 1937, an incredible figure in those days. In 1935 he formed the Hughes Aircraft Company which worked out of Burbank, California. In 1940 he owned 78 per cent of Trans World Airlines (TWA), which had been founded by Charles Lindbergh. He transformed it into a major player and in doing so tranformed commercial aviation.
The years of World War II were frustrating years for Hughes, who hoped to transform Hughes Aircraft into a major airplane manufacturer after winning government contracts for two experimental aircraft. All around him, Southern California aircraft manufacturers were producing fleets of new planes. As it turned out, Hughes Aircraft produced armaments, but not a single plane for the war effort.
One contract was for a photo-reconnaissance plane, a prototype of which (the XF-11) crashed in Beverly Hills shortly after the war during a test flight with Hughes at the controls, almost killing him. The other contract was for a plane with which Hughes is forever linked in the public mind -- a troop and cargo carrier made of wood and known by various names (the H-4 Hercules, the Hughes Flying Boat, the "flying lumberyard"), but most popularly as the "Spruce Goose."
When Howard Hughes thought he thought big and he never hesitated to take new directions. Conceived when German U-boats were ravaging Allied shipping in the Atlantic, the "Spruce Goose" was built primarily of birch -- not spruce -– in response to a wartime metal shortage. It had eight engines and the capacity to carry 700 troops or a load of 60 tons. In terms of wingspan (320 feet, which is longer than a football field) and weight (400,000 pounds) it is still the largest plane ever built. The war ended before it was completed. But it was flown -- once -- in Long Beach Harbor on Nov. 2, 1947.
With Hughes at the controls, the Flying Boat achieved a top speed of 80 mph, lifted 70 feet off the water, and flew a mile in less than a minute before making a perfect landing. The plane was then towed to a Terminal Island dry-dock, cocooned inside a giant hangar, and never seen again by the public during Hughes’ lifetime. Hughes’ Summa Corporation spent close to a million dollars a year for the lease and maintenance. After his death, the Flying Boat was put on exhibit in Long Beach Harbor beside the Queen Mary; it has since been moved to McMinnville, Ore., for display in an aircraft museum.
"It was as if he was missing the gene for corporate success," write Bartlett and Steele in their biography of Hughes. In 1948, he bought a controlling interest in RKO Radio Pictures, which he almost brought to ruin with his aberrant management style. He did much the same with Trans World Airlines (TWA). Although he did much to transform TWA into a major international carrier, his secretive ways and quixotic decisions nearly plunged the airline into bankruptcy. In 1966 he was forced to sell his TWA shares after losing a lawsuit that charged him with illegally using the airline to finance other investments. The sale netted Hughes over half a billion dollars. To many, it seemed more like a victory than a defeat.
That same year, 1966, Hughes moved into the Desert Inn Hotel in Las Vegas, which he proceeded to buy (rather than be evicted), along with four other Las Vegas casinos, a radio station, and other Nevada properties. He hired an ex-FBI agent, Robert Maheu, to protect his privacy and keep him out of court, even when his own legal interests were at stake. He had become "the hermit gambling entrepreneur of Las Vegas."
Even before moving to Nevada, while he was living at the Beverly Hills Hotel, Hughes had exhibited alarming behavior. In 1958, he apparently suffered a second mental breakdown, the first having occurred in 1944. Of his days at the Beverly Hills Hotel, Bartlett
and Steele write: "Hughes spent almost all his time sitting naked in [his white leather chair] in the center of the living room – an area he called the ‘germ free zone’ – his long legs stretched out on the matching ottoman facing a movie screen, watching one motion picture after another." The same pattern was repeated in Las Vegas, made worse by a drug habit that included both codeine and Valium. (The codeine had first been prescribed to alleviate pain from injuries incurred in the XF-11 plane crash years earlier.)
Although Hughes managed to attend to business and had many periods of lucidity (he held a telephone conference call with reporters in 1972 to repudiate a book by Clifford Irving purporting to be Hughes’ taped reminiscences), his physical health had turned precarious. A doctor who examined him in 1973 likened his condition to prisoners he had seen in Japanese prison camps during World War II. That same year, ironically, Hughes was inducted into the Aviation Hall of Fame in Dayton, Ohio. He was represented by the sole surviving member of his 1938 around-the-world flight crew. One of the inductees defended Hughes, calling him "a modest, retiring, lonely genius, often misunderstood, sometimes misrepresented and libeled by malicious associates and greedy little men."
In later years his associates and those closest to him and mapped out his days were all Mormons whose non-drinking and smoking beliefs he so admired.
In the final chapter of his life, Hughes left Las Vegas for the Bahamas where he stayed until he moved to Mexico, reportedly to have greater access to codeine.
(X-rays taken during the Hughes autopsy show fragments of hypodermic needles broken off in his arms.) He died of apparent heart failure on an airplane carrying him from Acapulco to a hospital in Houston. When, where and why he actually died are debated to this day.
"Such was the mystery and power surrounding his life that when he was pronounced dead on arrival at Methodist Hospital in Houston, Texas, on April 5, 1976, his fingerprints were lifted by a technician from the Harris County Medical Examiner’s Office and forwarded to the Federal Bureau of Investigation in Washington," write Bartlett and Steele. "Secretary of the Treasury William E. Simon, for federal tax purposes, wanted to be sure that the dead man was indeed Howard Hughes. After comparing the fingerprints with those taken from Hughes in 1942, the FBI confirmed the identity." He had not been seen publicly or photographed for 20 years.
Howard Hughes’ greatest legacy has to be the Howard Hughes Medical Institute. It is today the US's largest private sponsor of biomedical research.
Partial source: Albert Greenstein, 1999
The above biography is just a brief glimpse into the fascinating world of Howard Hughes. To fully appreciate his life I recommend getting the book, Howard Hughes - The Untold Story. Here you will find out about his bugging of lovers, Government bugging on him, his part in the Watergate scandal and the mysterious circumstances surrounding his death. Oh, and it attempts to list all his love conquests which, as you will read, is one hell of an undertaking!
What a man!
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