Throughout the 20th century, it has been the media’s job to pinpoint what events and people would prove to be an effective story. This was certainly the case for Howard R. Hughes. Son to the wealthy Howard Hughes Sr., Howard became the interest of the American people and newspapers for most of his life. Being deemed one of the most famous men of the mid-20th century was greatly attributed to Hughes’s skills as an industrialist, aviator, and motion-picture producer combined with his enormous wealth, intellect, and achievement. The media thrived on Howard’s unusual and sometimes scandalous life, especially in his later years when newspapers would frequently front large amounts of money to get stories on Hughes. Howard was also associated with what has been called one of the greatest publishing hoaxes in history.
Howard Hughes Sr., commonly known as Big Howard, was a graduate of the Harvard School of Law, yet never once appeared before a court of law. Big Howard spent the first 36 years of his life chasing money across the Texas plains, as a wildcatter and a speculator in oil leases, working hard enough and earning just enough to move on to another, hopefully more fortunate gamble. In the year of his marriage, Big Howard sold leases on land that proved to have $50,000 in oil beneath it. He promptly took his new wife to Europe for a honeymoon, and returned exactly $50,000 poorer. In 1908, Big Howard turned his ingenuity and his hobby to tinker into good fortune. Current drilling technology was unable to penetrate the thick rock of southwest Texas and oilmen could only extract the surface layers of oil, unable to tap the vast resources that lay far below. Big Howard came up with the idea for a rolling bit, with 166 cutting edges and invented a method to keep the bit lubricated as it tore away at the rock.
Later that year, Big Howard produced a model and went into business with his leasing partner, Walter B. Sharp, forming the Sharp-Hughes Tool Company. Rather than sell the bits to oil drillers, Hughes and Sharp decided to lease the bits out on a job basis, for the tidy sum of $30,000 per well. With no competitor able to duplicate this new technology, Sharp- Hughes Tool possessed a profitable monopoly over oil extraction. So quickly was the invention successful that in late 1908, the partners built a factory on a seventy-acre site east of Houston. On 1915, Sharp passed away and Big Howard purchased his shares in the corporation, thus becoming the sole owner. Cash flowed freely into and back out of Sharp-Hughes Tool. Big Howard became a first class socialite, and began to spend increasing amounts of time and money on parties, automobile racing and travel. One of his amusements was to charter a railroad car, fill it with friends, and conduct a rolling party between Texas and California.
In the spring of 1921, Mrs. Hughes past away and Big Howard died as abruptly as his wife, willing his three- fourths of his estate to his only son, Howard Robard Hughes. Big Howard left an estate appraised for tax purposed at $871,518. As a less attractive part of his legacy, he left behind $258,000 in unpaid bills, including $2,758 to Brook Brothers Clothiers, $5,502 to Cartier’s in New York, and $3,500 for a grand piano.
Howard Hughes Jr. was born on Christmas Eve, 1906 in Houston, Texas. He was commonly known as Sonny, or Little Howard, despite the fact that he was 6’3” by the age of 16. Hughes was the student of 7 different schools, of which he graduated from none, excelling only in mathematics. As a young man, Hughes had a penchant for all things mechanical and was known to spend hours tinkering on various different devices. Little Howard had only one friend, the son his father’s business partner, Dudley Sharp. At the age of 6, Howard Hughes Sr. presented his son with the gift of a workshop, where his son could always be found playing with various bits of wires and pieces of metal.
At the age of 11, Little Howard built his own ham radio, and at the age of 13, when he refused the gift of a motorcycle, Hughes built one for himself, taking parts from his father’s steam car. As a graduate of Harvard, Big Howard sought his son to have the same education, and sent his son to boarding school in Massachusetts in fall of 1919. After one year had passed it became apparent that Sonny was not going to succeed in grooming school. Big Howard traveled across the country to collect his son, and they attended a boat race on the way home. After losing a bet to his son on the outcome of the race, Big Howard was forced to grant him one wish. That summer, Sonny took flying lessons with various crop dusters against the wishes of both of his parents. It was here that Hughes would develop his love of aviation. In 1921, oil drilling and prospecting took off in California, and Hughes Sr. relocated to Hollywood, and took his son with him. After a generous donation to the California Institute of Technology, Sonny was able to attend mathematics and engineering courses.
In the fall of 1923, Mrs. Hughes passed away, and a little over a year later in January of 1924, Big Howard passed as well. At the age of 17, it would seem that Hughes was not prepared to enter the world of adulthood, but he would quickly prove otherwise. Sonny was the inheritor of 75% of Hughes Tool, of which he would be granted control at the age of 21. Eager to take responsibility of his own affairs, Hughes appeared before a Texas judge to appeal the legal guidelines set forth in his father’s will. Against the advice of Little Howard’s remaining family, the judge granted Hughes his wish and a great deal of wealth and power was put into a young man’s hands.
Howard took the helm of Hughes Tool at the age of eighteen. Fully aware that he was unable of managing a multi-million dollar firm, he set out to find solid management. Hughes found it two months later in Noah Dietrich, an out of work accountant. Before hiring Dietrich, Hughes insisted that they go on a seven-day train ride. Hughes never mentioned one detail about the business over the seven-day period, and announced to Dietrich upon their return that he was hired. Dietrich managed Hughes’ business affairs and Hughes Tool for the next thirty years. In 1925, an old friend of Big Howard approached Hughes Jr. to help him finance a film project that he was working on. Hughes agreed on the condition that he be allowed on the set of the film, and be given access to everyone working on the film, so that he might learn about the process himself.
An agreement was made and Howard Hughes moved back to Hollywood. Hughes spent all of his time on the set of Swell Hogan, constantly questioning the cameramen, insisting that he must look through the lens before each shot was taken. Due mostly to his lack of film knowledge, every scene was shot twice, and production costs quickly doubled to $80,000. On one occasion, Hughes was discovered by the night watchman surrounded by neat groups of bits and pieces of a film projector. When asked what he was doing, Hughes replied that if he were going to be in the movie business, he would need to know how everything worked, down to the projectors themselves. By dawn the next day the projector was back in order, and Hughes was back on the set of Swell Hogan. Dollars were not of concern to Hughes as the cash flowed freely out of Hughes Tool.
In early 1926, Hughes bought controlling shares in a chain of 125 theaters, and 70 percent interest in Multi-Color, a corporation developing color motion picture film. Swell Hogan was finished by mid-1926, and failed miserably in its first screening. Hughes hired the best producers and editors in Hollywood, but the film could not be salvaged. Hughes placed the film on a shelf and bought his friend a new car. All of Hughes’ ventures were financed by Hughes Tool, of which Hughes’ remaining family was 25% owners. Distraught with his losses on Swell Hogan, Hughes’ family phoned and warned him of the dangers of show business. Enraged at himself and his failures, Hughes bought the remaining shares of Hughes Tool at twice their value and turned to successful director Lewis Milestone to work on future movie projects. Hughes and Milestone churned out three movies in two years, including Everybody’s Acting, The Racket, and Two Arabian Knights, the last of which won an Academy Award for best comedy in 1927.
Invigorated with his film success, Hughes set out to make a film on his own based on a subject that was near to his heart: aviation. The script for Hell’s Angels came from collaboration between Hughes and two screenwriters, and was based on two young British pilots competing for the affection of an English society girl. Written, directed and produced by Hughes, Hell’s Angels was to be the greatest motion picture ever made. Hughes set out to do just that, spending $553,000 to buy and re-condition 87 WWI fighters and bombers, and another $400,000 to rent or build airfields in the Los Angeles area. Hughes needed a Zeppelin to burn and bought one. Needing an army to fight a ground battle, he hired 1,700 extras at $200 a week each. His attention to detail was immaculate. If the scene called for a rainy night, Hughes would require the actors to be on call until it rained at night, and force them to stay awake all night in the rain.
The director, Hughes, would demand re-take after re-take of scenes, often because of his own flaws. Hughes’ attention to detail on the ground was nothing compared to that of the air. The film called for airplane battles in cloudy skies, and for once, Hughes quickly learned that one can’t buy clouds. He began to rise early, or stay up all night to watch for an opportune dawn. If the sun rose over Southern California, 40 or more airplanes would take off and seek out cloudy skies. When the weather predicted clouds miles away, Hughes, the pilots, and the fleet of planes would travel in hopes of the proper backdrop. Some days, everyone would get paid just to stand around. Many months in production, Hell’s Angels seemed to be drawing to a close, when Al Jolson’s The Jazz Singer brought an audible revolution to Hollywood. Sound became the standard by which pictures were judged and Hughes’ film lacked just one thing: sound.
The film, at length, edited, cut and fitted with titles, was given an unannounced preview in a small L.A. theater. The response from the audience was clear; the 2 million-dollar silent picture was not good enough. Refusing to quit, Hughes set to work on Hell’s Angels anew. The flight scenes were easy enough to fix, the sound could be dubbed in, but the scenes in which the actors were to speak would have to be shot all over again. The first task was to write a new screenplay. Hughes insisted that in a silent picture actors could get away with mouthing their words, but in a talking picture they would have to make sense. He also demanded that the cast be completely overhauled out of fear that one individual might not sound good reading his lines. Production continued through the great depression, and in May of 1930 the film was completed. Hughes had shot 3,000,000 feet of film, of which only 1% was used in the final production, and spent almost 4 million dollars.
The film opened to pandemonium in Los Angeles. Despite terrible reviews, the public went wild for Hell’s Angels. The film set box office records in every theater that it played, and went on to appear on screens for over 20 years throughout the world. In the end, it brought in just over eight million dollars, roughly twice Hughes’s investment.
Bored with the movies and having proven himself, it was time for Hughes to move on to something more exciting. In the summer of 1932, Howard Hughes took a job with American Airlines under the name Charles Howard. His salary was $250 a week, an excellent wage during the great depression (unless you’re already a millionaire.) Hughes masqueraded in this position for two months, carrying baggage, talking to passengers and working as a co-pilot for the commercial airline. In the late summer of 1932, Hughes left American Airlines and bought himself a seaplane. He hired Glen Odekirk to customize the plane to Hughes’ acute specifications.
One day the two argued for three hours about the proper placement of three screws in a strip of metal. Hughes wanted to fly cross-country in his seaplane, and eventually hired Odekirk as his co-pilot. For the next 18 months the two would fly around the country, stopping at Hughes’ whims and Howard would often disappear unannounced for days, weeks or months, only to return to Odekirk and his seaplane. On one such disappearance, Hughes ventured to Europe, returning with a 320 foot yacht and a Boeing P-12 Army Air Corps pursuit plane. Hughes decided to race his plane in Miami, and set Odekirk to work, tinkering with the plane in a vain attempt to make the plane faster. Hughes was so demanding that he would force Odekirk to make adjustments the mechanic knew would not work.
In exasperation, Odekirk suggested that Hughes build his own plane from scratch, and after Hughes won the race, the billionaire spent the next two years building a plane that could win any race. Hughes and Odekirk returned to Los Angeles, where Howard hired Dick Palmer, a young Cal. Tech. Engineer known for his radical ideas. They set up shop just outside L. A. in a secret hangar where the three would work days and nights on end. The project was called H-1 (Hughes-1) and was the most progressive airplane in the world. The plane introduced the retractable landing gear, and pioneered other aeronautic advances such as countersunk screws and flat rivets to reduce wind resistance. The H-1 made its first appearance in September 1935 as Hughes announced that he would break the world record for airspeed in his new plane. Hughes insisted that he be the first to fly the plane, no matter how dangerous, and that the first flight be the one for which the record would be tested, even though no one knew how the plane would perform or if it would fly at all. The record to be broken was 314.32 miles per hour, held by Raymond Delmotte of France. The test called for an average of successive trials, not less than four.
After five passes, Hughes averaged a speed of 352.39 mile per hour, easily passing Delmottes’ record. The next morning Howard Hughes moved from the entertainment pages of the nation’s newspapers to the front pages. He had flown faster than any other man, in an airplane of his own design, and won the record for the United States. America did not know what to do with Howard Hughes, the millionaire playboy who was known to aeronautical engineers as colleague, amongst pilots, a gritty legend and to Hollywood, a film genius.
In addition to his many achievements, Hughes was known to his friends and his acquaintances as a person of bizarre habits and personal tics. There were numerous causes for Hughes’s increasingly strange behavior. From an early age he was quite deaf and could not hear conversations around him, yet he told few people of his disability. He conducted much of his business on the telephone because he could hear better using it. As a young man, Hughes evidently contracted syphilis, and in his later years he was plagued with neurosyphilis, which is marked by a degeneration of brain cells that can lead to paranoia and other symptoms. He surrounded himself with aides that he trusted, a group of seven Mormons which never left Hughes’ side (Howard believed Mormons were more trustworthy) and insisted that nay item handed to Hughes be covered by a Kleenex.
In addition, as a test pilot Hughes was involved in numerous plane crashes that some researchers presume resulted in brain injury. The most serious accident occurred in 1946 when an XF-11 reconnaissance plane he was testing for the Air Force crashed, leaving him with massive injuries that caused him pain for the rest of his life. Hughes, who eschewed alcohol and tobacco, was forced to take medications to alleviate his pain. An addiction to codeine, a prescribed painkiller made from opium, began at this time and continued for the remainder of his life. Finally, but perhaps most important in understanding Hughes’s inability to live a normal life, he became increasingly trapped by what medical professionals today understand was obsessive-compulsive disorder. Many of Hughes’s biographers believe that his mother suffered from the same disease.
This mental disorder can cause ritualistic behavior and unusual habits. For example, Hughes became obsessed with germs and cleanliness. In fact, the press reported that Hughes was so fearful of germs that he walked around in Kleenex boxes instead of shoes and insisted that any item be handed to him covered by a Kleenex. The disease went undiagnosed in his lifetime.
In the early 1960’s Hughes hired an ex-FBI agent, Robert Maheu, as his right hand man. Hughes knew that Maheu had been involved in many cloak and dagger activities with the FBI and CIA, including an assassination attempt on Cuba’s Fidel Castro. At the time there were several dozen subpoenas for Hughes, including Federal, state and local tax evasion charges. In fact, later Hughes boasted that he never paid a dollar of income tax in his lifetime. Hughes brought Maheu on board to hide him from the public eye and to protect against those who wished to bring Hughes into court. In 1966, Maheu moved Hughes to the Desert Inn, located in Las Vegas, by train in the first hours of the morning. No one was allowed in the hotel lobby upon Hughes’ arrival. He moved into the penthouse on the fifteenth floor.
Six months had passed and hotel management wanted Hughes out. He was occupying the floor of the hotel that had the most luxurious suites, and casino profits don’t come form room rent, but from high rollers and high rollers demand the best accommodations. Hughes instructed Maheu to inquire about the price of the hotel, and ownership humorously suggested $14 million, almost twice what the casino was worth. Hughes paid the next day and went into the gambling business. Howard later acquired the Sands, the Frontier, the Castaway, and the tiny Silver Slipper. Hughes told Maheu to buy the silver Slipper because its well-lit rotating marquee was an annoyance to Hughes when it shined through his window.
After spending several years in Las Vegas, the pressure form legal actions became too great. Hughes re-located to the Bahamas on Maheu’s suggestion. Eighteen months later, the press reported that Hughes had died on an airplane en-route to Texas from heart failure. Hughes had not been publicly seen or photographed for twenty years.
In the last part of Hughes’s life the media went crazy over his whereabouts and wellbeing. Rumors were circulating that in seclusion, Hughes had wasted away to 90 pounds and he had grown eight-inch fingernails and toenails. When a California court levied a judgement of $137 million for his refusal to appear to defend against a stockholders’ lawsuit, Hughes abandoned his industrial empire, fled from the USA, and went into hiding on Paradise Island in the Bahamas. At this time, the McGraw-Hill Book Co. claimed Hughes had struck a deal with writer Clifford Irving, an expatriate novelist living on the Mediterranean Island of Ibiza. The hitherto reclusive billionaire had met clandestinely with Irving in Mexico and the Bahamas, in order to tell the 40-year-old author the true story of his life. It was a no-hold-barred autobiography, “warts and all,” from a living legend who was dying and wanted to set the record straight.
First reports hinted that it told of Hughes’ manipulation of the stock market, his bribery of American presidents, his secret wartime combat mission under the aegis of President Roosevelt, his friendships with Cary Grant and Ernest Hemingway, his behind-locked-doors life in Las Vegas- and it revealed details of affairs with movie stars from Katharine Hepburn to Ava Gardner.
McGraw-Hill’s announcement of the impending publication ignited a firestorm of controversy. Executives of Hughes’ corporations insisted the book was unauthorized. Finally on national radio hookup, an invisible Howard Hughes spoke from his darkened hotel suite on Paradise Island. “This must go down in history,” he said. “I only wish I were still in the movie business, because I don’t remember any script as wild or as stretching the imagination as this yarn has turned out to be. I don’t know what’s in the autobiography. I don’t know Clifford Irving.”
McGraw-Hill, Irving, and Life, which had bought serialization rights, were not fazed by the denials. For months the debate was front-page news, often eclipsing the Vietnam War. The manuscript was read by many reporters that had covered Hughes and came to the conclusion that there was “no doubt in [their] mind [s]” that it could only have come from Hughes himself. As a final test to determine authenticity, leading handwriting experts in the United States scrutinized the documentation and matched it against samples provided by Hughes’ lawyers. Their conclusion: the signatures were those of Howard Hughes and “the chances are one in ten million that this many handwritten pages from Hughes to Irving and McGraw-Hill are not genuine. It would be beyond human capability to forge this mass of material.”
By the end of January 1972, Clifford Irving did an about-face, stunning his army of supporters with a confession that the autobiography was a hoax. “I never met Howard Hughes,” Irving now said. “It was a cheap caper, nothing more.” The book had resulted from a combination of careful research and daring imagination. Amid massive worldwide publicity, Irving was sentenced to 2 ½ years in federal prison only two months after he appeared on the cover of Time.
It was money that etched Howard Hughes into the public mind. The sound of his name was associated with untold wealth, wealth supposedly accumulated through his gift for turning all he touched to gold. left the world with a spectacular legacy that will be remembered for years to come. His contributions to the film business, such as attention to detail and high budget spending, are still being used to this day. Howard’s cutting edge technology used to build his many planes has let to development of many aircrafts presently in use. In truth, we are left with two Howard Hugheses- the public and the private: the rational disguise and the world of shadows, of instinct to preserve and protect at any cost the image he had created. That it has taken so many years for the veil to part is tribute both to his genius and to his tragedy.
- Bartlett, Donald L. and Steele, James B. EMPIRE. New York, W. W. Norton & Company. 1979.
- Drosnin, Michael. Citizen Hughes: In His Own Words. New York, Holt, Tinch and Winston. 1985.