- Tony Thomas
Hughes, Howard (24 December 1905–05 April 1976), aviator, manufacturer, and film producer, was born Howard Robard Hughes, Jr., in Houston, Texas, the son of Howard Robard Hughes, Sr., a mining engineer, and Allene Gano. Hughes was three years old when his father devised a drilling bit that revolutionized oil drilling, resulting in a great profit for his tool company. While his parents were gregarious socialites, Hughes as a boy was quiet and introspective, showing little interest in school other than a leaning toward mathematics and an ability to build things with wires and scraps of metal. Greatly attached to his devoted mother, he stood in awe of his personable father. Those who came to know him years later claim that Hughes never considered himself his equal. At the age of fourteen, Hughes was enrolled in the Fessenden School in West Newton, Massachusetts. During a vacation at home his mother denied him a motorcycle, believing it to be unsafe. He then 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 present, Hughes chose a ride in a flying boat. With that he discovered the joy of aviation, a joy that soon became obsessive.
The Hughes drilling bit had a profound effect on the American oil industry. Spending more and more of their time in California, Hughes’s parents sent him to the Thacher School in Ojai, some seventy miles northwest of Los Angeles, in September 1921. Hughes’s uncle Rupert Hughes was a leading scenarist in Hollywood, and through him the family became acquainted with the upper strata of Hollywood society. Tragedy struck in the spring of 1922 when his mother died after surgery. Father and son returned to Houston, where Hughes, Sr., was stricken with a fatal heart attack while conducting a sales meeting in 1924. The loss of his parents in the prime of their lives had a profound effect on the lonely, withdrawn Hughes. At the age of eighteen Hughes began to be a hypochondriac, fearful of death and panicky about germs. A student at the Rice Institute in Houston at the time, he decided to end his education and enter the world of business. Not content with inheriting 75 percent of his father’s business assets, he bought out the other 25 percent dispersed among relatives. The agreements with his relatives were bitterly arrived at and caused a permanent rift, one that seemed to bother Hughes very little. He declared that in order to take command it was necessary to be tough with people, and it was an attitude from which he never wavered.
With no liking for the administrative side of business, Hughes hired men who knew how to operate with little direction from him. His judgment was sound and the company prospered, leaving him to indulge his fascination with a Houston socialite, Ella Rice, whom he married in 1925. They settled in Los Angeles, where Hughes set about becoming a film producer.
Hughes was a man impossible to advise. He did whatever he wanted. His first film, Swell Hogan, was so bad that it was never released, but he did better with his next, Everybody’s Acting (1926), and with Two Arabian Knights (1927), directed by Lewis Milestone and starring William Boyd. It brought Milestone an Academy Award for best comedy director. Hughes’s next films, The Mating Call and The Racket (both 1928), did well enough to inspire him to undertake an epic about aviation in World War I—Hell’s Angels, which was two and a half years in production. Hughes spent lavishly buying airplanes and hiring pilots, virtually operating his own little air force in the San Fernando Valley. The cost ran to $4 million, an astonishing sum for its time, and Hughes ended up with 300 times as much footage as the film needed. Released in the summer of 1930, during a time of national depression, the film was well received but took a long time to recover its costs.
Among the costs was Hughes’s marriage. Ella Rice Hughes returned to Houston, claiming it was impossible to be married to a man who was obsessed with his work and seldom home. Hughes then fell in love with actress Billie Dove and starred her in his next two films, The Age for Love and Cock of the Air, both made in 1931. Neither was successful, nor was the romance with Dove, which proved to be the first in a long line of affairs with actresses. Hughes returned to World War I aviation with Sky Devils (1931), starring Spencer Tracy, but it failed to come close to the merits of Hell’s Angels. He did far better with The Front Page (1931) and Scarface (1932), both considered minor classics.
Hughes announced that his next film would be about zeppelins, but those who ran the Hughes Tool Company bore down on him to avoid sinking money in another film epic. He took their advice even more than they expected and turned his back on the picture business. In 1933 he founded the Hughes Aircraft Company in Glendale, California. Nine years later he relocated it to Culver City, where it grew into one of the most profitable aircraft production companies in the world.
Hughes’s personal triumph as an aviator began early in 1934 when he received a trophy at the All-American Air Meet in Miami, flying a Boeing pursuit plane he had bought from the U.S. Army and turned into a racer. In September 1935 he set a new land speed record in a car he had designed, and the following January he set a new transcontinental speed record, flying from Los Angeles to Newark, New Jersey, in nine hours and twenty-seven minutes. His aerial adventures made him a popular figure in the press and on the airways, especially in 1938 when, with a remodeled twin-engine Lockheed 14 and a crew of four he flew around the world in three days, nineteen hours, and twenty-eight minutes. In May 1939 Hughes acquired stock in what later became Trans World Airlines, placing him in commercial aviation, and in the fall of that year his company began designs for new kinds of military aircraft in the event of America’s possible involvement in war.
In the 1940s Hughes set up another film production company. He announced he would make a film about Billy the Kid, using unknown actors for the parts of Billy and his girlfriend. For the latter he chose nineteen-year-old Jane Russell, clearly because of her well-developed bust, a factor that caused the picture, The Outlaw (1943), to become a cause célèbre in film censorship. Hughes himself directed the film. After first being banned by the censors, Hughes finally received approval to show it, but he shrewdly allowed two years to go by, allowing public curiosity to build. Rightly condemned as a ludicrously bad film, The Outlaw nevertheless made millions for Hughes.
Much else happened during the years The Outlaw was in production. In 1943 he joined forces with shipbuilder Henry J. Kaiser and won a government contract to build three huge flying boats. Only one was completed, the famous Spruce Goose. The government contract for the flying boats was canceled when it became obvious they could not be completed in time for use in the war. Other contracts for planes were also canceled.
Always unusual in his habits and behavior, Hughes became ever more eccentric. He nonetheless possessed amazing luck in surviving accidents. On 7 July 1946, while on a test flight of his XF-11, the engines malfunctioned. He crashed in Beverly Hills, and the plane exploded and burned. Hughes was dragged from the wreckage with a crushed chest, collapsed lung, and broken ribs. It was doubted he would live. However, he recovered in a month and was soon flying again. Few knew that in order to tolerate his pain he had become addicted to codeine.
Despite his pain and the problems in running an aircraft corporation, Hughes again turned to the movie business, possibly because of the profits and the publicity stirred up by The Outlaw. He signed contracts with two famous Hollywood figures, Harold Lloyd and Preston Sturges, to produce the comedy Mad Wednesday (1947), but it was a flop. Then, being in love with 22-year-old Faith Domergue, he starred her in the costumed drama Vendetta (1948). Even Hughes realized it was bad and shelved it for two years.
Concurrent with these films Hughes had other problems, one being his compulsion to rebuild the XF-11 and prove it airworthy, which he did on a flight on 5 April 1947. Four months later he testified before the Senate War Investigating Committee, which had probed into his work as a defense contractor. Hughes had made enemies in the fiercely competitive war years, and he had not been as successful as he had hoped. Hughes Aircraft had not become the giant he had planned—that would come later, in the Space Age. Building the massive Spruce Goose brought charges it was not airworthy, which he then disproved by flying it for a few minutes above the waters of Long Beach Harbor on 2 November 1947.
Obsessive-compulsive by nature, Hughes was not a man who could accept defeat. In 1948 he bought the RKO Studios in Hollywood. He owned and managed it for five years, while maintaining his office at the Goldwyn Studios and only once setting foot on RKO property. Few of the films made during these years were financial winners, and every producer, director, and writer for RKO complained about never getting to see Hughes to discuss their problems. Eventually he said, “I need RKO like I need the plague,” and he sold the studio for $25 million, $6 million of which were his after the stockholders and lawyers had been paid off.
Hughes’s interests in other enterprises, especially aviation, grew during the RKO years, and his wealth amassed by the millions. It was at this time that he founded the Howard Hughes Medical Institute in Florida, stating his concern about germs and disease. He said he wanted the institute to inherit most of his wealth and accomplish something good in his name. Always a loner, he became ever more reclusive, eventually seeing almost no one other than his closest business executives. In 1957 he married actress Jean Peters, but the marriage was unconventional, with its partners seldom living together. They divorced in 1971.
Whatever his failures in marriage or in making films, Hughes’s success in building jetliners and military aircraft burgeoned. However, the strain of all these endeavors caught up with him in 1958, and he suffered a nervous breakdown. He was constantly at odds with the government over his taxes, eventually leaving California and settling in Nevada. In 1967 he bought the Desert Inn in Las Vegas, to make it his home and the headquarters of his Nevada enterprises. He sold TWA in 1966 for $566 million. Four years later he bought Air West.
In November 1970 Hughes moved to the Britannia Beach Hotel on Paradise Island in the Bahamas, again to avoid taxes. He never returned to the United States; the last six years of his life were those of an itinerant exile, moving from one luxurious hotel to another. He became a total recluse, living behind closed curtains. He moved to Managua, Nicaragua; from there on to Vancouver; London; Freeport in the Bahamas; and finally Acapulco, Mexico. In 1972 he sold Hughes Tool Company for $150 million. The assets of his Summa Corporation, under which all of his businesses were governed, were valued at $2 billion. Despite his wealth, Hughes gave the appearance of a man living in abject poverty. In his last years he refused medical treatment and did not eat properly. He became an emaciated wreck, weighing only ninety-four pounds at the time of his death. He denied his aides the right to tend him, until he finally lapsed into unconsciousness. They then flew him to Houston, but he was dead by the time the plane landed. Howard Hughes had died in an airplane in flight, and it was in the air, and only in the air, that he felt at home. Childless, Hughes left to the world his properties and a name that has become ever more of a legend.
Several biographies of Hughes were written during his lifetime: John Keats, Howard Hughes (1966); Albert B. Gerber, Bashful Billionaire (1967); Noah Dietrich and Bob Thomas, Howard: The Amazing Mr. Hughes (1972); and Joe Davenport and Todd S. J. Lawson, The Empire of Howard Hughes (1975). Many biographies explore Hughes’s reclusiveness: Jerry Bell, Howard Hughes: His Silence, Secrets and Success (1976); James Phelan, Howard Hughes, the Hidden Years (1976); and Charles Higham, Howard Hughes: The Secret Life (1993). Some of the more reliable biographies written after his death are Donald L. Barlett and James B. Steele, Empire: The Life, Legend and Madness of Howard Hughes (1979); Michael Drosnin, Citizen Hughes (1985); Robert Maheu with Richard Hack, Next to Hughes: Behind the Power and Tragic Downfall of Howard Hughes (1992); and Mark Hurwitz, Howard Hughes’ Final Years (1977). Many book-length treatments focus on one or another of the complex events and rumors surrounding Hughes’s character, life, and death: Omar V. Garrison, Howard Hughes in Las Vegas (1970); Stephen Fay et al., Hoax: The Inside Story of the Howard Hughes–Clifford Irving Affair (1972); David B. Tinnin, Just about Everybody vs. Howard Hughes: The Inside Story of the Hughes–TWA Trial (1973); Stuart M. Kaminsky, The Howard Hughes Affair (1979); Harold Rhoden, High Stakes: The Gamble for the Howard Hughes Will (1980); Terry Moore, The Beauty and the Billionaire (1984); and Tony Thomas, Howard Hughes in Hollywood (1985).
- Hughes, Howard Robard, Sr. (1869-1924), inventor and manufacturer
- Hughes, Rupert (1872-1956), author
- Milestone, Lewis (1895-1980), film director, screenwriter, editor, and producer
- Boyd, William (1898-1972), film actor and producer
- Tracy, Spencer (1900-1967), actor
- Billy the Kid (1859-1881), western outlaw and legendary figure in international folklore
- Kaiser, Henry John (1882-1967), industrialist
- Lloyd, Harold (1893-1971), film comedian
- Sturges, Preston (1898-1959), director, playwright, and screenwriter