Howard Hughes was born in Humble, Texas on December 24, 1905. His parents were Allene 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. He founded Hughes Tool Company to commercialize this invention.
As a teenager, Howard 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 due to complications from minor surgery, and his father two years later from a heart attack. Hughes inherited much of Hughes Tool Company, but had to deal with trustees, whom he considered meddling. He went to court to become an emancipated minor. He then bought out various relatives, and took complete control of Hughes Tool in 1924 at the age of 19.
Howard Hughes dropped out of Rice, and moved to Hollywood where he had an uncle, Rupert Hughes, a novelist. His girlfriend, Ella Rice, joined him, and they married on June 1, 1925 (divorced in 1929).
Howard 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, the latter winning an Academy Award
for Best Director of a Comedy Picture. The Racket in
1928 and The Front Page in 1931 were nominated for
Academy Awards. He spent a then-unheard-of $4 million of
his own money to make Hell's Angels, which he wrote and
directed. It and Scarface, which he produced, became
smash hits. His best-known film may be The Outlaw
starring Jane Russell, for whom Hughes designed a
special bra. Scarface and The Outlaw received attention
from industry censors; Scarface for its violence, The
Outlaw for Russell's physical charms. He signed an
unknown actor David Bacon in 1932 to play Billy The Kid.
The next year, Bacon's murder led to allegations that an
intimate affair with Hughes may have resulted in his
death. Greta Keller, Vienna-born cabaret singer and
actress and Bacon's widow, claimed later in life that
Bacon had been prepared to reveal intimate details to
get released from his contract with Hughes.
Hughes was a notorious ladies' man, and allegedly had affairs with many famous women including Katharine Hepburn, Bette Davis, Gene Tierney, and Ava Gardner. Bessie Love was a mistress during his first marriage. Jean Harlow accompanied him to the premier of Hell's Angels, although it's uncertain if they were an item. Less-significant affairs are rumored to have occurred between Hughes and a long list of celebrities.
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. The most important aircraft he designed was the Hughes H-1 Racer. On September 13, 1935, Hughes, flying the H-1, set the world speed record of 352 mph (588 km/h) over his test course near Santa Ana, California. (The previous record was 314 mph (502 km/h). A year and a half later (January 19, 1937), flying a somewhat re-designed H-1 Racer, Hughes set a new trans-continental speed record by flying non-stop from Los Angeles to New York City in 7 hours, 28 minutes and 25 seconds (beating his own previous record of 9 hours, 27 minutes). His average speed over the flight was 322 mph (515 km/h).
The H-1 Racer featured a number of design innovations: it had retractable landing gear, so that in flight the wheels did not increase drag. It had all rivets and joints set flush into the body of the plane, also to reduce drag. The H-1 Racer influenced the design of a number of World War II fighter airplanes such as the Mitsubishi Zero, the Focke-Wulf FW190, and the F6F Hellcat. (Wright Tools web site) The H-1 Racer was donated to the Smithsonian in 1975 and is on display at the National Air and Space Museum.
On July 10, 1938 Hughes set another record by completing a flight around the world in just 91-hours (3 days, 19 hours) - beating the old record by more than four days. For this flight he did not fly a plane of his own design but a Lockheed Super Electra (a twin engine plane with a four man crew).
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, Howard Hughes 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. According to his obituary in the New York Times, he never bothered to pick up the medal. It was eventually found by President Harry Truman and mailed to him.
The second XF-11 prototype (with conventional propellers).
Also in 1938, William John Frye, a former Hollywood
stunt flier and the first director of operations of
Transcontinental and Western Air (T&WA), 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 T&WA in
April 1939. Throughout the 1940s and into the 1950s,
T&WA (which became Trans World Airlines) continued to
bet on the most advanced planes available, largely due
to Hughes' own interest in aircraft development. In
particular, Hughes helped specify the design of the
Lockheed Constellation, with its pressurized cabin and
distinctive tail, buying several planes for TWA in order
to be able to fly high altitude (20,000 ft/6,600 m) long
distance routes above the turbulence of low altitude
weather. The airline would grow significantly under his
On July 7, 1946, Howard 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, making the plane 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 for 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 "Flying Lumberyard", and more famously, the Spruce Goose (although its frame was built predominantly of birch), a massive flying boat completed just after the end of World War II. The Hercules only flew once (with Hughes at the controls) on November 2, 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 aircraft aluminum (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.
Howard 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.
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, many thought that the balance of Hughes' estate would go to the institute, although it ultimately was divided among his cousins and other heirs, given the lack of a will to the contrary. 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.
On January 12, 1957, Hughes married actress Jean Peters; they divorced in 1971.
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 Hughes Airwest.
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 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 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.
By the late 1950s, if not earlier, Howard 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.
Howard Hughes became a recluse, living a drug-addled life locked in darkened rooms and 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' inner circle was largely composed of Mormons because he considered them trustworthy - even though he was not an adherent to the Latter Day Saint movement.
Howard 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. His well-documented aversion to handshaking, for example, probably began when he contracted syphilis. The disease first revealed itself in the form of tiny blisters that erupted on his hands during the secondary stage of syphilis. After receiving medical treatment, Hughes was warned by his doctor not to shake hands for a time. Hughes avoided doing so the rest of his life. Syphilis was also responsible for a bizarre episode in which Hughes burned all his clothes. (In the film, The Aviator, 2004, it is presented as his response to Katharine Hepburn's leaving him. In reality, it was Hughes' overreacting to the syphilis diagnosis by ordering every piece of clothing and bed linen in his home destroyed.)
With his entourage, Howard 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, The Landmark Hotel and Casino, 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.
Howard 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 to Hughes that Johnson had declined the offer, and that they were unable to contact Nixon.
As he deteriorated, Howard 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.
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 after fraudulently receiving a $765,000 advance.
Hughes died on an aircraft while traveling 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 kidney failure as the cause of death. His body was in extremely poor condition; X-rays revealed broken off hypodermic needles in his arms.
Howard Hughes is interred in the Glenwood Cemetery in Houston.
After Howard Hughes's death, an intensive search began for his will, but one could not be found. Speculation became rampant that he may have written a holographic will. A holographic will was soon found on the desk of an official of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints in Salt Lake City. The "Mormon Will" gave a gas-station owner named Melvin Dummar a 1/16th share of Hughes's $2 billion estate. Dummar, who had appeared on Let's Make a Deal, among other game shows, claimed to reporters that late one evening in December 1967, he found a disheveled and dirty man lying along U.S. Highway 95, 150 miles (250 kilometers) north of Las Vegas. The man asked for a ride to Las Vegas. Dropping him off at the Sands Hotel, Dummar said the man told him he was Hughes. The Mormon Will was rejected by a Nevada court in June 1978 as a forgery. The court also declared Hughes died intestate.
After saying he knew nothing about the Mormon Will, mounting evidence forced Dummar to admit that he lied. He claimed a "mysterious man" gave him a document with instructions to deposit it at the LDS office. The Mormon Will was one of 40 "wills" filed by 400 people claiming to be Hughes's heirs. The estate was eventually split between 22 cousins in 1983. Melvin and Howard starring Jason Robards and Paul Le Mat is based on Dummar's tale. A new book, "The Investigation," by his former lawyer supports Dummar's claims. Even if he were to be exonerated, it is doubtful that Dummar will receive any money.
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, Howard Hughes' estate paid an undisclosed amount to Terry Moore, who claimed to have been secretly married to Hughes on a yacht in international waters off Mexico in 1949 and never divorced. Although Moore never produced proof of a marriage (and married five more times, while Hughes married Jean Peters), her book, The Beauty and the Billionaire, became a best-seller.