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Howard Hughes

eccentric billionaire

Howard Hughes

Howard Robard Hughes, Jr. was born in Houston, Texas, on December 24, 1905, the only child of Howard Robard and Allene (Gano) Hughes. In 1908, Howard Hughes, Sr. patented a two-cone rotary drill bit that penetrated medium and hard rock with ten times the speed of any former bit, and its discovery revolutionized oil well drilling. The following year he joined forces with Walter Benona Sharp to establish the Sharp-Hughes Tool Company in Houston. After the death of Sharp in 1912, Hughes took full control of the company, which then became the Hughes Tool Company.

As a boy, Howard was quiet and introspective, and showed little interest in school other than a leaning toward mathematics and an ability to build things with wires and scraps of metal. At the age of fourteen, he was sent to the Fessenden School in West Newton, Massachusetts. During a vacation at home his mother denied him a motorcycle, believing it to be unsafe, so he turned his bicycle into a motorized vehicle by using parts from a car starter and batteries. On another occasion, when his father promised him he could have his choice of presents, Hughes chose a ride in a flying boat. In 1921, Hughes was sent to the Thacher School in Ojai, California. Although he showed a great aptitude for physics, Hughes proved to be a poor student and never graduated. Despite the lack of a high school diploma, Hughes was allowed to audit math and aeronautical engineering classes at Caltech. His father later arranged for him to attend Rice University by donating money to the institution.

In March 1922, Allene Hughes died from complications of an ectopic pregnancy. Father and son returned to Houston, where Hughes, Sr., was stricken with a fatal heart attack while conducting a sales meeting on January 24, 1924. The loss of his parents in the prime of their lives had a profound effect on the already lonely, withdrawn Hughes, and at the age of eighteen he began to be a hypochondriac, fearful of death and panicky about germs.

As his father's principal heir, Howard Jr. inherited a 75% share in the Hughes Tool Company, with other family members owning the remaining 25%. But, since he was only 18, Howard's interest in the company was supervised by his uncle, Rupert Hughes. That supervision was supposed to continue until Hughes turned 21, but disagreements with his relatives led Hughes to fight for legal emancipation, which was granted in 1925; he then bought out his relatives and became the sole owner of the company. On June 1, 1925, he married Houston socialite Ella Botts Rice.

Movie Maker

Soon after their marriage, Howard and Ella moved to Los Angeles, where he hoped to make a name for himself making movies. He was drawn to that profession because of his uncle Rupert, a successful author and screenwriter. His first two films, Everybody's Acting (1927) and Two Arabian Knights (1928), were financial successes, the latter winning the first Academy Award for Best Director of a comedy picture.

In 1930, Hughes wrote and directed Hell's Angels, a movie about pilots in the First World War. In order to make the movie Hughes obtained 87 aircraft used in the war and hired the world's best pilots. During the filming, a stunt man, Phil Jones, was killed. The movie cost $3.8 million and although a box-office success, it lost over $1.5 million. This was followed by other films such as The Age for Love (1931), The Front Page (1931), Cock of the Air (1932), Scarface (1932) and Sky Devils (1932).

After taking a break from movies to pursue his aviation interests, Hughes returned to Hollywood to produce and direct The Outlaw, starring Jane Russell. Completed in 1941, the movie's release was delayed until 1943 because censors objected to Russell's conspicuous cleavage.

In 1948, Hughes gained control of RKO, a struggling major Hollywood studio, by acquiring 25 percent of the outstanding stock from Floyd Odlum's Atlas Corporation. Within weeks of taking control, he dismissed three-quarters of the work force and production was shut down for six months in 1949 while he personally investigated the politics of all remaining studio employees. His subsequent management of the company was no less chaotic, and by the early 1950's Hughes was plagued with lawsuits from minority shareholders charging him with financial misconduct and corporate mismanagement. In 1953, he agreed to sell RKO's theater operations in order to settle a federal antitrust case, despite those operations being the primary source of profit for the studio. To quiet his distractors, Hughes agreed to buy out all other shareholders, and by the end of 1954 he had gained almost total control over RKO. Six months later, Hughes sold the studio to the General Tire and Rubber Company for $25 million, but retained the rights to all he had personally produced. After a year and a half of mixed success, General Tire shut down film production at RKO at the end of January 1957.

Aviation Pioneer

An aviation enthusiast since childhood, Hughes earned his private pilot's license in 1927 and formed the Hughes Aircraft Company in 1932. He then drew on his mechanical abilities and proclivity for physics to design and build the Hughes H-1 Racer, which featured a number of design innovations. Acting as his own test pilot, Hughes used the H-1 to win the 1934 All-America Air Meet in Miami. On September 13, 1935, he set a new landplane airspeed record, taking the plane to 352 mph over Santa Ana, California.

On January 19, 1937, flying the original H-1 Racer fitted with longer wings, Hughes set a new transcontinental airspeed record by flying non-stop from Los Angeles to Newark, New Jersey, in 7 hours, 28 minutes and 25 seconds (beating his own previous record of 9 hours, 27 minutes); his average ground speed over the flight was 322 mph. Between the 10th and 14th of July 1938, he piloted a Lockheed Super Electra with a crew of four on a flight around the world. Completing the flight in just 91 hours, he broke Wiley Post's record by more than four hours, as well as Charles Lindbergh's New York-to-Paris record.

On May 17, 1943, Hughes was test flying a Sikorsky S-43 amphibious airplane over Lake Mead when the plane crashed, killing CAA inspector Ceco Cline and Hughes employee Richard Felt. Hughes suffered a severe gash on the top of his head when he hit the upper control panel and had to be rescued, but the incident failed to dampen his enthusiasm for flying.

Hughes was involved in another near-fatal aircraft accident on July 7, 1946, while performing the first flight of the prototype U.S. Army Air Forces XF-11 reconnaissance aircraft over Culver City, California. An oil leak caused one of the contra-rotating propellers to reverse pitch, causing the aircraft to yaw sharply and lose altitude rapidly. Hughes tried to save the craft by landing it at the Los Angeles Country Club golf course, but just seconds before reaching the course, the XF-11 started to drop dramatically and crashed in the Beverly Hills neighborhood surrounding the country club, destroying three houses and severely damaging another in the process. Hughes sustained serious injuries in the crash, including a crushed collar bone, multiple cracked ribs, crushed chest with collapsed left lung, and numerous third-degree burns. Although he recovered fairly quickly from his injuries, Hughes suffered from pain for the rest of his life.

The last airplane that Hughes personally helped design was the HK-1 Hercules flying boat, for which he had been awarded a $22 million contract by the War Production Board. Originally designed for use during World War II as an alternative to seagoing troop transport ships that were vulnerable to German U-boats, the "Spruce Goose," as critics called it, was not completed until after the war ended. It flew only once, with Hughes himself at the controls, on November 2, 1947.

In 1948, Hughes created the Hughes Aerospace Group as a division of Hughes Aircraft Company. The Hughes Space and Communications Group and the Hughes Space Systems Division were later spun off in 1948 to form their own divisions and ultimately became the Hughes Space and Communications Company in 1961. In 1953, Hughes gave all his stock in the Hughes Aircraft Company to the newly formed Howard Hughes Medical Institute, which sold it to General Motors $5.2 billion in 1985. General Motors sold Hughes Aircraft to Raytheon in 1997, and Hughes Space & Communications to Boeing in 2000.

Airline Owner

In 1939, Hughes purchased a majority share of TWA stock for nearly $7 million and took control of the airline. Upon assuming ownership, Hughes was prohibited by federal law from building his own aircraft. Seeking an aircraft that would perform better than TWA's fleet of Boeing 307 Stratoliners, Hughes approached Boeing's competitor, Lockheed, which agreed to Hughes' request that the new aircraft be built in secrecy. The result was the revolutionary Constellation and TWA purchased the first 40 of the new airliners off the production line.

In 1956, Hughes placed an order for 63 Convair 880s for TWA at a cost of $400 million. Although Hughes was extremely wealthy at this time, outside creditors demanded that Hughes relinquish control of TWA in return for providing the money, and Hughes was forced out in 1960, despite owning 78% of the company. In 1966, Hughes was forced by a U.S. federal court to sell his shares in TWA because of concerns over conflict of interest between his ownership of both TWA and Hughes Aircraft. In 1970, Hughes went back into the airline business, buying Air West and renaming it Hughes Airwest.

Personal Life

Howard began having affairs almost immediately his marriage to Ella, and by 1929 she had moved back to Houston and filed for divorce. Howard seemed to barely notice her absence, continuing to pursue both his movie career and other women.

On June 11, 1936, Hughes was driving on Wilshire Boulevard when he struck and killed a pedestrian named Gabriel Meyer. Because at least one witness reported that Hughes had been driving recklessly, he was arrested and charged with manslaughter. Despite the fact that there was evidence he had been drinking, Hughes was released after only one night in jail and the manslaughter charge was dropped.

On January 12, 1957, Hughes married actress Jean Peters. Although Jean apparently loved her husband very much, she found it increasingly difficult to handle his many eccentricities and ended up divorcing him in 1971.

Final Years

On November 24, 1966, Howard Hughes, along with his wife and several personal assistants, checked into the Desert Inn in Las Vegas. By this time Hughes had become known more for being an eccentric recluse than a very wealthy businessman, and before long the Desert Inn management was ready for him to leave. Hughes refused to leave, however, and ended up buying the hotel in early 1967. The hotel's eighth floor became the nerve center of his empire and the ninth-floor penthouse became his personal residence. Hughes subsequently bought several other Las Vegas hotel-casinos, including the Castaways, New Frontier, the Landmark, the Silver Slipper, and the Sands. He also bought local television station KLAS (Channel 8), among others, so that he could watch movies into the night. If he fell asleep during a film, he would call up the station and order that the scene he missed be replayed.

In 1972, Hughes sold his interests in the Hughes Tool Company and focused his attention on his Vegas businesses, which he organized under the umbrella Summa Corporation. By then, however, he had become so reclusive that almost all day-to-day business operations had been turned over to a relatively small group of hand-picked men, almost all of whom were Mormons. Those same men were also responsible for insuring Hughes' privacy, and for seeing to it that his every whim, no matter how whimsical or bizarre, was satisfied. Leaving Las Vegas soon after his divorce from Peters, Hughes spent the rest of his life living in hotels abroad, primarily in Nicaragua, the Bahamas, and Mexico.

Howard Hughes was reported to have died on April 5, 1976, on a private jet taking him to a hospital in Houston. Having been out of public view for over a decade, Hughes had become virtually unrecognizable, with excessively long hair, fingernails, and toenails, and weighing barely 90 pounds, and the FBI had to resort to fingerptints to positively identify the body. A subsequent autopsy listed kidney failure as the cause of death. He is buried next to his parents in Glenwood Cemetery, Houston.


Approximately three weeks after Hughes' death, a handwritten will was found on the desk of an official of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints in Salt Lake City. The so-called "Mormon Will" gave $1.56 billion to various charitable organizations, nearly $470 million to the upper management in Hughes' companies and to his aides, $156 million to first cousin William Lummis, and $156 million split equally between his two ex-wives. A further $156 million was endowed to a gas-station owner named Melvin Dummar, who claimed that he had once given a ride to a dirty and disheveled hitchhiker who identified himself as Howard Hughes. Dummar further claimed that he had been given the will by a "mysterious man" a few days after Hughes' death and that he had in turn taken it to the LDS Church office. The Mormon Will was rejected as a forgery by the Nevada court in June 1978, after a seven-month trial, and that same court declared that Hughes had died intestate. Hughes' $2.5 billion estate was eventually split in 1983 among 22 cousins, including William Lummis, who serves as a trustee of the Howard Hughes Medical Institute.

Although there were claims that Hughes' abuse of opiates led to his late-life eccentricities, studies done after his death proved that Hughes used opiates to control the constant pain he experienced following his 1946 crash. That pain was never fully relieved, and as he aged even cutting his hair and nails became painful. Unfortunately, his reliance on drugs to manage pain led to kidney problems, which in turn led to his dramatic weight loss. As for his often erratic behavior, psychiatrists now blame those primarily on an obsessive-compulsive personality combined with the many stresses brought on by amassing and managing a huge business empire.

See Also

Los Angeles
World War I
Wiley Post
Charles Lindbergh
World War II
Spruce Goose

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This page was last updated on December 24, 2018.