The Curious Life of Howard Hughes

Before there were "Tony Stark", "Bruce Wayne" and Elon Musk, there was Howard Hughes, a record-setting pilot, engineer, film director, and philanthropist.
Marcia Wendorf

Hughes was one of the 20th century's richest men, and he died one of the world's most famous recluses.


Hughes was born on December 24, 1905, in Houston, Texas, the son of a highly successful oil-drill tool manufacturer. His father, Howard Senior, had patented the two-cone roller bit, which allowed rotary drilling for petroleum in previously inaccessible places. Instead of selling the bits outright, the senior Hughes leased them to oil exploration companies and raked in huge profits, which he plowed into his Hughes Tool Company.

As a child, Howard Junior showed an aptitude for engineering, having built Houston's first wireless radio transmitter at age 11. At age 12, he built a motorized bicycle, and at 14, he started flying lessons.

Howard Hughes in 1938
Howard Hughes in 1938 Source: Acme Newspictures/Wikimedia Commons

After Hughes' mother's death in 1922, and his father's death in 1923, Howard inherited the Hughes Tool Company. After marrying in 1925, Hughes and his new wife moved to Los Angeles so Hughes could get into the motion picture producing business. Several of Hughes's early productions, including "The Front Page" in 1931, were nominated for Academy Awards.

"Hells Angels" and "The Outlaw"

In 1930, Hughes produced one of the screen's first sound action films, "Hells Angels," the story of two British flying brothers during WWI. Hughes, along with pilot Harry Parry, designed many of the aerial stunts for the dogfighting sequences which were performed by actual World War I pilots. Flying overhead, Hughes directed the aerial combat scenes.

Hughes also produced the 1932 hit "Scarface" and the controversial "The Outlaw" starring Jane Russell. In the late 1940s, Hughes started buying the movie company RKO, which included the movie distribution service, studios, a network of movie theaters and a network of radio stations.

Upon gaining complete control of the studio in 1948, Hughes dismissed over 700 employees who could not demonstrate extreme right-leaning political views.

In the early 1950s, due to Hughes's tightness, RKO became known as the home of film noir classics. By 1953, Hughes sold RKO, ending his 25-year involvement in the motion picture industry.

Hughes then began making massive investments in land, purchasing 1,200 acres in Culver City, California, 4,480 acres in Tucson, Arizona, and 25,000 acres near Las Vegas, Nevada.

Hughes Aircraft

In 1932, Hughes had set up Hughes Aircraft at the Glendale, California airport, and he designed and had built a number of custom aircraft, such as the Hughes H-1 Racer. This plane featured a number of design innovations including retractable landing gear, and all its rivets and joints were set flush into the body of the aircraft to reduce drag.

On September 13, 1935, flying the H-1, Hughes set the landplane airspeed record of 352 mph (566 km/h). This was the last time a world airspeed record would be set in an aircraft built by a private individual.

Hughes Aircraft would go on to manufacture spacecraft vehicles, military aircraft, radar systems, electro-optical systems, the first working laser, aircraft computer systems, missile systems, ion-propulsion engines, and commercial satellites.

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Transcontinental and Around-the-World Airspeed Records

Flying the same H-1 Racer, but fitted with longer wings, on January 19, 1937, Hughes set a transcontinental airspeed record by flying non-stop from Los Angeles to Newark, New Jersey in seven hours, 28 minutes, and 25 seconds. On July 14, 1938, Hughes set another record by flying around the world in just 91 hours (three days, 19 hours, 17 minutes).

For the around-the-world trip, Hughes flew a Lockheed 14 Super Electra fitted with the latest radio and navigational equipment and a four-person crew. Taking off from New York City, Hughes flew to Paris, Moscow, Omsk, Yakutsk, Fairbanks, Minneapolis, and back to New York City. Upon his arrival, New York City gave Hughes a ticker-tape parade.

In 1943, Hughes began development of the Hughes SF-11 aircraft, which was a large, metal, two-seat reconnaissance aircraft which featured contra-rotating propellers.

Contra-rotating propellers
Contra-rotating propellers Source: MichaelFrey/Wikimedia Commons 

The "War of Beverly Hills"

On July 7, 1946, Hughes was test flying the XF-11 when an oil leak caused one of the contra-rotating propellers to reverse pitch. Hughes attempted an emergency landing at the Los Angeles Country Club, but the plane crashed into a Beverly Hills neighborhood, destroying three houses when the fuel tanks exploded. Following the crash, the area looked like a war zone.

Hughes sustained significant injuries in the crash including third-degree burns, and his heart was shifted from the left side to the right side of his chest cavity. Disliking his bed in the hospital, Hughes designed an adjustable bed that became the prototype for today's hospital beds.

The "Spruce Goose"

During WWII, Hughes began production of the H-4 Hercules, an eight-engine wooden flying boat intended to carry 750 troops and equipment across the Atlantic to Europe. At 276 feet (84 meters) it was the world's longest aircraft, and at 319 feet 11 inches (97.51 m) it had the longest wingspan of any aircraft. Both those titles were eclipsed in 1988 by the Russian Antonov An-225 Mriya.

Dubbed the "Spruce Goose" even though she was made of birch, on November 2, 1947, the H-4 Hercules flew for its first and only time, going one mile (1.6 km) at 70 feet (21 m) above the water with Hughes at the controls. After being displayed at the harbor in Long Beach, California, the Hercules was moved to McMinnville, Oregon, where it is now part of the Evergreen Aviation & Space Museum.


In 1944, after years of quietly purchasing its stock, Hughes took a controlling interest in Trans World Airlines (TWA). Hughes Tool Co. purchased the first six Boeing Stratoliners manufactured, then Hughes became the driving force behind replacing the Stratoliners with Lockheed Corporation's Constellation. The Constellation's high performance allowed TWA to pioneer nonstop transcontinental service and service to Europe.

By 1954, Hughes was contrarily refusing to order Boeing 707 aircraft for TWA, and by the end of 1957, with his mental state worsening, Hughes was forced out of the management of TWA, even though he owned 78 percent of the company. In 1966, he was forced to sell his TWA shares, netting Hughes $546,549,771.

The Glomar Explorer

In 1972, Hughes was approached by the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) to help it recover the Soviet submarine K-129, which had sunk off the coast of Hawaii in 1968. Ostensibly designed to mine the deep sea for manganese nodules, Hughes built the ship, the Glomar Explorer, which pioneered new engineering, such as precision stability equipment that kept the Glomar stationary above a point on the ocean floor despite high winds or seas, and a moon pool that allowed access to the water below the ship without being seen. Existence of the mission only came to light after a burglary at the Hughes headquarters in 1974.

A For-profit Entity of a Tax-exempt Charity

In 1953, Hughes launched the Howard Hughes Medical Institute (HHMI) to do biomedical research. Hughes transferred all his stock in the Hughes Aircraft Company to the institute, making the aerospace and defense contractor a for-profit entity of a fully tax-exempt charity. By 2007, the HHMI was the fourth largest private organization in the world, and the largest organization devoted to biological and medical research, with an endowment of $16.3 billion.

Four Months in a Screening Room

Throughout his life, Hughes suffered from obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD), had a phobia about germs and a mania for secrecy. In 1958, Hughes told aides that he wanted to screen some movies at a film studio near his home. He entered the darkened screening room and didn't emerge for four months, having neither bathed nor cut his hair or nails.

Hughes became fixated on the 1968 film Ice Station Zebra and watched it repeatedly on a continuous loop in his home. Hughes would use tissues to pick up objects to avoid germs, and he stored his urine in bottles. Between 1966 and 1976, Hughes and an entourage of aides stayed in the top floor penthouses of hotels in Beverly Hills, Boston, Nassau, Freeport, Vancouver, London, Managua, Acapulco and Las Vegas.

When the Desert Inn Hotel in Las Vegas asked Hughes to vacate its penthouse, Hughes refused and instead bought the hotel. This scenario is used to great effect at the beginning of Kevin Kwan's novel "Crazy Rich Asians." Hughes also bought several other Las Vegas hotels, including the Silver Slipper, which he bought for the sole purpose of removing its trademark neon silver slipper which Hughes claimed kept him awake at night.

By the early 1970s, Hughes had become the largest landholder in Nevada, and he employed 8,000 Nevada residents, making him that state’s largest employer.

In December 1972, Hughes was living in the penthouse of the Intercontinental Hotel in Managua, Nicaragua when that country was hit with a 6.5 magnitude earthquake. Hughes fled to the penthouse at the Xanadu Princess Resort on Grand Bahama Island, where he lived for the last four years of his life.

Fake Piled on Fake Piled on ...

In 1972, author Clifford Irving claimed to have co-written an authorized autobiography of Hughes, but before the book's publication, Hughes took part in a teleconference refuting Irving's claims. Irving was convicted of fraud and served 17 months in prison. In 1974, the Orson Welles film F for Fake questioned whether it was really Hughes who took part in the teleconference.

In 1977, The Hoax by Clifford Irving was published in the UK, and the 2006 film The Hoax is also based on these events.

On April 5, 1976, Hughes died onboard an aircraft on its way to Methodist Hospital in Houston. Hughes's hair, beard, fingernails, and toenails hadn't been cut in years, and at 6 feet 4 inches in height, Hughes weighed only 90 pounds. So unrecognizable was he that the FBI had to use fingerprints to identify his body.

Due to pain from his numerous airplane accidents, it is thought that Hughes had been injecting himself with codeine. X-rays of his body revealed five broken-off hypodermic needles embedded in the flesh of his arms.

Melvin and Howard

Three weeks after Hughes's death, a handwritten will turned up on a desk of an official of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints in Salt Lake City Utah. This so-called "Mormon Will" gave $156 million of Hughes's estate to a gas-station owner named Melvin Dummar.

Dummar claimed to have found a dirty and disheveled man lying in the desert north of Las Vegas. Dummar said that he had dropped the man off at the Sands Hotel, and that following Hughes's death, the will had been dropped off at his gas station. The will was eventually ruled a fake, and Dummar's story was turned into the 1980 Jonathan Demme movie Melvin and Howard.

Hughes' Legacy

At the time of his death, Hughes was worth approximately $10 billion in today's dollars. Having divorced his first wife in 1929, Hughes had gone on to marry and divorce actress Jean Peters, but neither of his two marriages resulted in any children. Also, Hughes didn't leave behind a will. To date, according to the Wall Street Journal, 1,000 of Hughes's distant relatives have benefited from his estate, collecting about $1.5 billion.

Martin Scorsese's 2004 film The Aviator is based on the life of Howard Hughes. That film won five Academy Awards. The 2011 film, Captain America: The First Avenger, a prequel to Iron Man 2, featured the father of Tony Stark (Iron Man), Howard Stark, who was based on Howard Hughes. Marvel Comics creator Stan Lee has stated that Tony Stark was based on Hughes.

In director Christopher Nolan's Dark Knight Trilogy, the character of Bruce Wayne is heavily influenced by Howard Hughes. Nolan is reported to have integrated material originally intended for a Howard Hughes biopic into the trilogy.

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