The media played a crucial role in the 20th century by highlighting fascinating stories, as seen with Howard R. Hughes. Born into wealth as the son of Howard Hughes Sr., Hughes gained immense interest from both the American public and newspapers. He became famous during the mid-1900s for his achievements as an industrialist, aviator, and motion-picture producer. His exceptional wealth, intelligence, and accomplishments further contributed to his prominence. The media took advantage of Hughes’s extraordinary life, particularly in later years when newspapers were willing to pay large sums for stories about him. Additionally, Hughes became involved in one of history’s most significant publishing hoaxes.
Howard Hughes Sr., also known as Big Howard, graduated from the Harvard School of Law but never practiced law. Instead, he spent 36 years in Texas searching for wealth as a wildcatter and oil lease speculator. He worked tirelessly, earning just enough to continue pursuing new opportunities.
Shortly after getting married, Big Howard sold leases for land that ultimately yielded $50,000 worth of oil. With this money, he decided to take his new wife on a honeymoon in Europe, returning with no money left.
In 1908, Big Howard put his cleverness and tinkering skills to use and found success. The existing drilling technology at the time was unable to penetrate the thick rock in southwest Texas, limiting oil extraction to surface layers only. However, Big Howard devised a rolling bit with 166 cutting edges and created a lubrication system to sustain the bit as it broke through the rock.
Later in the same year, Big Howard teamed up with his leasing partner, Walter B. Sharp, and established the Sharp-Hughes Tool Company. Instead of selling the drilling bits to oil drillers, Hughes and Sharp opted to lease them on a job basis, charging a sizable fee of $30,000 for each well. This revolutionary technology gave Sharp-Hughes Tool a lucrative monopoly in oil extraction that no competitor could replicate. Such was the success of this innovation that the partners constructed a factory on a sprawling seventy-acre plot east of Houston by late 1908. In 1915, Sharp passed away, leading Big Howard to buy his shares in the company and become its sole owner. Cash flowed abundantly into and out of Sharp-Hughes Tool. Big Howard fully indulged his extravagant lifestyle, spending increasing amounts of time and money on parties, car racing, and travel. One of his favorite pastimes was to rent a railroad car, fill it with friends, and host a traveling party from Texas to California.
In the spring of 1921, Mrs. Hughes and Big Howard passed away suddenly.
Big Howard’s will stated that three-fourths of his estate, which was worth $871,518 for tax purposes, would go to his sole son, Howard Robard Hughes.
However, there were unpaid bills totaling $258,000 that needed to be settled.
This included debts of $2,758 owed to Brook Brothers Clothiers, $5,502 owed to Cartier’s in New York, and $3,500 for a grand piano.
Howard Hughes Jr., who was also known as Sonny or Little Howard, was born on Christmas Eve, 1906 in Houston, Texas. Despite being only 16 years old and already standing at a height of 6’3″, he earned his nicknames due to his young age. He attended a total of 7 schools but did not graduate from any except for excelling in mathematics. From an early age, Hughes had a keen interest in mechanics and would spend extended periods tinkering with different devices. The son of his father’s business partner, Dudley Sharp, was his only childhood companion. On his sixth birthday, Howard Hughes Sr. gifted him a workshop where he could always be found playing with wires and metal pieces.
Little Howard built his own ham radio at age 11, while at age 13, he built a motorcycle using parts from his father’s steam car. Big Howard, a Harvard graduate, wanted his son to have the same education and sent him to a boarding school in Massachusetts in 1919. However, after a year, it was clear that Sonny was not succeeding in grooming school. Big Howard traveled across the country to bring his son back and they attended a boat race on the way home. Losing a bet to his son, Big Howard had to grant him one wish. Sonny took flying lessons against his parents’ wishes that summer and developed a passion for aviation. In 1921, Hughes Sr. relocated to Hollywood due to the booming oil drilling and prospecting industry in California and took his son with him. Sonny was able to attend mathematics and engineering courses at the California Institute of Technology after his father made a generous donation.
In the autumn of 1923, Mrs. Hughes passed away, and just over a year later, in January 1924, Big Howard also passed away. Despite being only 17 years old, Hughes seemed unprepared for the adult world. However, he quickly disproved this notion. At the age of 21, Sonny would become the owner of 75% of Hughes Tool and gain control over it. Eager to take charge of his own affairs, Hughes went before a Texas judge to challenge the legal guidelines established in his father’s will. Despite the advice against it from Little Howard’s remaining family, the judge granted Hughes his request, giving a tremendous amount of wealth and power to a young man.
Howard assumed control of Hughes Tool at the age of 18. Aware of his inability to oversee a multimillion-dollar company, he sought out competent management. Within two months, Howard discovered Noah Dietrich, an unemployed accountant, who would later become the reliable figure behind Hughes’ business affairs. Prior to hiring Dietrich, Howard insisted on a seven-day train journey during which he never discussed any business matters. Upon their return, Howard abruptly declared Dietrich as his new hire. For the subsequent thirty years, Dietrich effectively managed both Hughes’ business affairs and Hughes Tool.
In 1925, a longtime acquaintance of Big Howard approached Hughes Jr., seeking financial support for a film project. Agreeing to contribute funding, Hughes had one condition – he wanted access to the film set and the entire crew in order to educate himself about the filmmaking process.
Howard Hughes returned to Hollywood after reaching an agreement and became fully involved in the film production of Swell Hogan. He dedicated his time to scrutinizing the cameramen, insisting on viewing through the lens before every shot. Due to his limited understanding of filmmaking, each scene had to be shot twice, resulting in the production costs soaring to $80,000. During one instance, a night watchman stumbled upon Hughes, surrounded by meticulously arranged fragments of a film projector. When questioned about his actions, Hughes explained that, as someone entering the movie industry, he believed it was crucial to comprehend every aspect, including the intricacies of the projectors themselves. By the following morning, Hughes had successfully restored the projector to its original condition and was back on set for Swell Hogan. Unfazed by financial concerns, Hughes freely spent money from Hughes Tool Corporation.
In the beginning of 1926, Hughes acquired a majority stake in a chain of 125 theaters and a 70 percent interest in Multi-Color, a company that was developing color motion picture film. However, Hughes’ film Swell Hogan failed miserably in its initial screening despite his efforts to hire top producers and editors in Hollywood. Unable to salvage the film, Hughes put it aside and bought his friend a new car as compensation. Hughes financed all of his ventures through Hughes Tool, of which his remaining family owned a 25% share. Following the disappointment of Swell Hogan, Hughes’ family called and cautioned him about the risks of show business. Frustrated with himself and his failures, Hughes purchased the remaining shares of Hughes Tool at twice their value and sought the expertise of successful director Lewis Milestone for future movie projects. Together, Hughes and Milestone produced three movies within two years, including Everybody’s Acting, The Racket, and Two Arabian Knights, the last of which won the Academy Award for Best Comedy in 1927.
Hughes, motivated by his achievements in the film industry, opted to produce a movie of his own centered around his passion for aviation. Collaborating with two screenwriters, he developed the script for Hell’s Angels which told the story of two young British pilots competing for the affections of an English socialite. Hughes took on multiple roles as writer, director, and producer with aspirations of creating the most exceptional motion picture ever made.
To accomplish this goal, he invested $553,000 to procure and renovate 87 fighter planes and bombers from World War I. Furthermore, he allocated $400,000 to either lease or construct airfields in Los Angeles. He even obtained a Zeppelin that would be set ablaze for a specific scene. To depict a realistic ground battle sequence, Hughes hired 1,700 extras who were paid $200 per week each.
Hughes exhibited meticulous attention to detail by requiring actors to remain on standby until actual rainfall occurred at night for scenes necessitating rain; they had to stay awake throughout the rainy nights.
Hughes, the director, was extremely detail-oriented when it came to filming scenes. He would often request multiple retakes due to his own imperfections. However, his focus on precision on the ground was nothing compared to his obsession with the sky. The movie he was working on involved airplane battles set in cloudy skies. But Hughes quickly realized that clouds couldn’t be bought. Determined to capture the perfect scene, he would wake up early or stay up all night searching for an ideal sunrise. Whenever there was a chance of cloudy weather in Southern California, Hughes and the pilots with their fleet of planes would go on a journey to find a suitable backdrop. Some days, everyone would get paid just for waiting around. After months of production, Hell’s Angels seemed like it was coming to an end when Al Jolson’s The Jazz Singer revolutionized Hollywood by introducing sound. Unfortunately, Hughes’ film lacked one essential element: sound.
The film was edited, cut, and given titles before being shown in a small L.A. theater without announcement. The audience’s response was clear – the 2 million-dollar silent picture did not meet expectations. However, Hughes was determined to persevere and resumed work on Hell’s Angels. Fixing the flight scenes proved relatively simple as sound could be added later. However, the scenes with dialogue required complete reshoots. The first step involved writing a new screenplay. Hughes believed that actors could get away with mouthing their words in a silent picture but understood that in a talking picture, their dialogue had to be coherent. Moreover, he insisted on completely revamping the cast due to concerns about how each actor would deliver their lines. Despite the challenges brought by the Great Depression, production continued and by May 1930, finally completing the film. Hughes had filmed 3,000,000 feet of footage; however, only 1% made it into the final product. The total cost for this project reached nearly 4 million dollars.
Despite the negative reviews it received, Hell’s Angels caused chaos upon its opening in Los Angeles and was wholeheartedly accepted by the audience. This movie shattered box office records in every cinema it featured and remained a global sensation for more than two decades. In the end, it made just over eight million dollars, which was roughly twice the amount that Hughes had originally put into it.
In 1932, Hughes grew tired of the film industry and decided to explore more thrilling opportunities. He subsequently joined American Airlines, adopting the alias Charles Howard. Despite the challenges posed by the Great Depression, he was paid a considerable salary of $250 per week. However, this amount held little significance for him as he was already a millionaire.
During his two-month tenure at American Airlines, Hughes assumed various regular employee duties such as handling baggage and interacting with passengers. He even took on the role of a co-pilot for the airline. Towards the end of that summer period, Hughes departed from American Airlines and purchased a seaplane which he then had customized to perfectly match his specific requirements by Glen Odekirk.
One day, Hughes and Odekirk had a three-hour argument about the proper placement of three screws in a strip of metal. Eventually, Hughes hired Odekirk as his co-pilot so they could fly cross-country in his seaplane. Over the next 18 months, they traveled around the country according to Hughes’ whims, with Howard often disappearing without notice for days, weeks, or even months before returning to Odekirk and the seaplane. During one such disappearance, Hughes went to Europe and returned with a 320-foot yacht and a Boeing P-12 Army Air Corps pursuit plane. In preparation for a race in Miami, Hughes tasked Odekirk with tinkering with the plane in an effort to make it faster, even though the mechanic knew some of the adjustments would not work due to Hughes’ demanding nature.
In frustration, Odekirk proposed that Hughes construct his own airplane from scratch. After winning the race, Hughes dedicated the following two years to building a plane capable of triumphing in any competition. Hughes and Odekirk then returned to Los Angeles, where Howard recruited Dick Palmer, a young engineer from Cal. Tech., renowned for his innovative concepts. The trio established a workshop just outside of L.A. in a covert hangar, dedicating countless days and nights to their project, known as H-1 (Hughes-1), which emerged as the most advanced aircraft worldwide.
The H-1 introduced multiple ground-breaking aviation advancements including retractable landing gear and pioneering techniques like countersunk screws and flat rivets to mitigate wind resistance. In September 1935, the H-1 made its inaugural appearance as Hughes declared his intention to break the world airspeed record with his new plane. Despite the uncertain performance and ability of the aircraft, Hughes insisted on piloting the first flight himself, irrespective of the danger involved. This flight would serve as the official test for setting the record, which currently stood at 314.32 miles per hour held by Raymond Delmotte of France. The evaluation mandated an average attained through a minimum of four successive trials.
After completing five passes, Howard Hughes achieved an average speed of 352.39 miles per hour, surpassing Delmottes’ previous record. This remarkable feat propelled him from the entertainment sections to the headlines of the nation’s newspapers the following morning. By flying faster than any other individual in an aircraft he personally designed, Hughes secured the record for the United States. The country was uncertain how to classify him – a millionaire playboy to some, a revered colleague to aeronautical engineers, a legendary figure amongst pilots, and a film genius in Hollywood.
Hughes, in addition to his numerous achievements, had a reputation among his friends and acquaintances for his peculiar habits and personal idiosyncrasies. There were several factors that contributed to Hughes’s increasingly odd behavior. From a young age, he suffered from significant hearing loss, yet he divulged this disability to very few individuals. As a result, he conducted much of his business over the phone as it facilitated better hearing. In his youth, Hughes seemingly contracted syphilis, which later progressed into neurosyphilis during his older years. Neurosyphilis is characterized by the deterioration of brain cells and can lead to symptoms like paranoia. Hughes surrounded himself with a trusted group of seven Mormons who were constantly by his side, as he believed that Mormons were more reliable. Furthermore, he insisted that any object handed to him be covered by a Kleenex.
Furthermore, Hughes was involved in numerous plane crashes while serving as a test pilot, some of which researchers speculate caused brain injury. Among these accidents, the most severe occurred in 1946 during a test flight for the Air Force. The crash of the XF-11 reconnaissance plane resulted in significant injuries that plagued him with chronic pain until his death. Despite abstaining from alcohol and tobacco, Hughes had to rely on medications to manage his pain. It was during this period that his addiction to codeine, a painkiller derived from opium, began and persisted throughout his life. Additionally, Hughes’s ability to live a normal life became increasingly hindered by what current medical professionals identify as obsessive-compulsive disorder. Many biographers believe that his mother also struggled with the same condition, which provides further insight into his circumstances.
This mental disorder can result in ritualistic behavior and peculiar habits. A case in point is Hughes, who developed an obsession with germs and cleanliness. To the extent that, according to press reports, Hughes was so afraid of germs that he walked with Kleenex boxes instead of shoes and demanded that any object be handed to him covered by a Kleenex. Unfortunately, the disease was not diagnosed during his lifetime.
During the early 1960’s, Howard Hughes hired Robert Maheu, a former FBI agent, to be his right-hand man. Hughes was aware of Maheu’s involvement in covert operations with both the FBI and CIA, including a failed assassination attempt on Fidel Castro of Cuba. Meanwhile, Hughes was dealing with numerous subpoenas on various tax evasion charges at federal, state, and local levels. In fact, Hughes would later boast about never paying any income taxes throughout his life. Bringing Maheu on board was a strategic move by Hughes to keep himself hidden from the public eye and protect himself from those who intended to take him to court. In 1966, Hughes was secretly transported from his location to the Desert Inn in Las Vegas by train during the early hours of the morning. To ensure utmost secrecy, no one was allowed in the hotel lobby upon Hughes’ arrival. Eventually, he settled into the penthouse suite on the fifteenth floor.
Six months had elapsed and the hotel management desired to remove Hughes. He was staying on the hotel floor that contained the most luxurious suites. The hotel’s profits came not from room rentals but from high rollers, who demanded top-notch accommodations. Hughes instructed Maheu to inquire about the hotel’s price, and ownership jokingly proposed $14 million, almost double the casino’s value. Hughes paid the following day and ventured into the gambling industry. Subsequently, Howard acquired the Sands, Frontier, Castaway, and the small Silver Slipper. Hughes directed Maheu to purchase Silver Slipper because its brightly lit rotating marquee was bothersome to Hughes when it emitted light into his window.
After spending a few years in Las Vegas, Hughes moved to the Bahamas on Maheu’s advice due to increasing legal pressure. Then, 18 months later, news surfaced that Hughes had passed away from heart failure while flying from the Bahamas to Texas. For twenty years, Hughes had not made any public appearances or been captured in photographs.
During the final phase of his life, Howard Hughes garnered significant attention from the media regarding his whereabouts and condition. Speculations arose that in seclusion, Hughes had deteriorated drastically, reaching a weight of 90 pounds and growing eight-inch fingernails and toenails. Following a court decision in California that ordered him to pay $137 million for failing to appear and defend against a stockholders’ lawsuit, Hughes abandoned his business empire and escaped from the United States, seeking refuge on Paradise Island in the Bahamas. Around this time, the McGraw-Hill Book Co. alleged that Hughes had made an agreement with novelist Clifford Irving, who resided on the Mediterranean Island of Ibiza. The secretive billionaire had held undisclosed meetings with Irving in Mexico and the Bahamas to disclose the genuine account of his life. It was an unfiltered autobiography, revealing all aspects, from a renowned figure on his deathbed who sought to rectify his portrayal in history.
Initial reports suggested that the text contained information about various topics related to Howard Hughes, including his involvement in stock market manipulation, bribery of American presidents, secret wartime missions authorized by President Roosevelt, his friendships with Cary Grant and Ernest Hemingway, his secretive life in Las Vegas, and his romantic relationships with movie stars such as Katharine Hepburn and Ava Gardner.
McGraw-Hill’s announcement of the upcoming publication sparked a huge controversy. The executives of Hughes’ corporations denied authorizing the book. Eventually, Howard Hughes, who was hidden in his dim hotel suite on Paradise Island, spoke on national radio. He stated, “This must be remembered throughout history. If I were still in the movie business, I would have been amazed by this incredible and imaginative story. I have no idea about the contents of the autobiography or who Clifford Irving is.”
The denials did not faze McGraw-Hill, Irving, and Life, who had purchased serialization rights. The debate remained headline news for months, often overshadowing the Vietnam War. Many reporters who had covered Hughes read the manuscript and firmly believed it could only have been written by Hughes himself. To verify its authenticity, leading handwriting experts in the United States examined the documentation and compared it to samples provided by Hughes’ lawyers. Their conclusion was that the signatures were indeed from 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 impossible for someone to forge such a large amount of material.”
In January 1972, Clifford Irving shocked his supporters by confessing that the autobiography was a fake. He admitted to never meeting Howard Hughes and called it a cheap trick. The book was a result of extensive research and imaginative storytelling. Despite the tremendous media attention, Irving was sentenced to 2 ½ years in federal prison just two months after being featured on the cover of Time magazine.
Howard Hughes became synonymous with immense wealth, as his name became synonymous with incalculable riches, supposedly amassed through his ability to turn everything he touched into gold. This success has left a lasting impact that will be remembered for years to come. His contributions to the film industry, including attention to detail and extravagant spending, continue to be utilized today. Additionally, the advanced technology he used to construct his numerous aircraft has led to the development of many currently in operation. In reality, we are presented with two versions of Howard Hughes – the public figure and the private individual. The former is portrayed as rational and composed, while the latter exists in a realm of secrecy and instinctual protection of the image he had created. The fact that it took so long for this veil to be lifted serves as testament to both his brilliance and his unfortunate fate.
- 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.