howard hughes
Howard Hughes

Howard Hughes was one of the most extraordinary figures of the twentieth century. He was a business tycoon, a pioneering aviator, engineer, Hollywood film producer and studio owner and he became one of the world's richest men, yet he he lived the last years of his life in squalor, and he died from neglect and malnutrition. He had been a tall man - 6 foot four - but on death he weighed less than 90lb (41kg). He had been a recluse for so long that formal identification of his body was only possible from his fingerprints.

Even today, many decades after his death, he is one of the most unusual and enigmatic figures from Hollywood's Golden Age.

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He was born Howard Robard Hughes on December 24, 1905 into a very wealthy family. His father, also Howard Robard Hughes, had invented a two-cone rotary drill bit that revolutionised oil drilling, and was the founder of the Hughes Tool Company.

After private schooling in Boston, Hughes Jr. attended the Thacher School in Ojai, California, but he was not a good student and preferred to learn on a practical level by taking things apart and rebuilding them. His favorite subjects were physics and engineering and he showed an early aptitude for flying, taking his first lessons when he was aged just 14 years.

Hughes's mother died when he was 16 and when his father died two years later Hughes inherited three quarters of his multi-million dollar estate including the ever-increasing amounts of money generated from oil drilling royalties.

Still officially a minor, Hughes used a Houston judge, a friend of his father, to declare him legally an adult and he then bought out the other shares in the company, becoming full owner at the age of 19 in 1925. In the same year Hughes got married for the first time, to Houston socialite Ella Rice and the newlyweds moved to Hollywood where Hughes could pursue his rapidly developing interest in movies, movie making and, incidentally, movie actresses.


Hollywood insiders at first dismissed Hughes as the pampered son of a rich man and his first movie 'Swell Hogan' was so bad that Hughes never released it, but his next two ventures into film making were financial successes: 'Everybody's Acting' in 1926 and in the following year 'Two Arabian Knights' which won the Academy Award for Best Director of a Comedy Picture. In 1928 he produced 'The Racket' which was nominated for an Academy Award.

Hughes had arrived and made his mark and he began to spend lavishly and obsessively on his next movie, 'Hell's Angels' about World War I aviators, which he both wrote and directed. It was the most expensive movie ever made, costing Hughes some $4 million, and it lost $1.5 million at the box office. Despite this, Hughes was now firmly established as one of the top players in Hollywood. He cemented this position with 'Scarface', in 1932, which he produced, and which also became a smash hit.

Hughes Aircraft Company

Hughes put his movie ambitions on hold in the early 1930's as his interest in flying and planes grew into an passion. The making of 'Hells Angels' in 1930 fuelled his obsessive enthusiasm despite his crashing one of his planes whilst performing one of the dangerous flying routines himself. In 1932 he formed the Hughes Aircraft Company to build and test new planes. He personally piloted a number of innovative machines and in 1935 he set a new world speed record of 352 mph. In 1938 he broke the round the world record by flying it in three days and 19 hours.

Hughes received many awards for his aviation triumphs, including the Harmon Trophy in 1936 and 1938, the Collier Trophy in 1938, and a special Congressional Gold Medal in 1939 " recognition of the achievements of Howard Hughes in advancing the science of aviation.."

In 1941, after a 7 year break, Hughes returned to the world of film making, with 'The Outlaw, starring Jane Russell. Although the movie was filmed in 1941, it took two years to pass the censors due to the display of Russell's ample 36D cleavage for which Hughes designed a special brassière.

In 1944 Hughes formed a production company with Preston Sturges and he continued to produce movies during the 1940's and 1950's, such as the Harold Lloyd comedy 'The Sin of Harold Diddlebock' in 1947, 'His Kind of Woman' in 1951, starring Robert Mitchum, and 'Son of Sinbad' in 1955 but none were as noteworthy as his earlier successes.

Hughes's fascination with flying and flying technology never ceased but his aviation career began to unravel after the war. In 1946 he was involved in a near-fatal flying accident while piloting an experimental U.S. Army Air Force reconnaissance aircraft which he had designed himself. He crash landed near the Los Angeles Country Club golf course and Hughes was severely injured. The following year, the H-4 Hercules which he had designed, a gigantic flying boat which came to be known as 'The Spruce Goose', was sidelined after her maiden flight.

RKO Studio

Hughes's flair also deserted him in Hollywood. In 1948 he gained a controlling interest in the RKO film studios, but his bizarre behaviour brought the company to its knees. In 1952 he laid off more than a 1000 employees, supposedly to monitor them for Communist sympathies. In 1955 he split the company into picture and theater divisions and sold the picture side to a subsidy of General Tire and Rubber. His management was eccentric to say the least, and the fortunes of RKO had diminished under his erratic, often absent, leadership. He was regarded as a meddling owner who drove many independent producers to other distributors whilst incurring heavy and unnecessary liabilities for the studio.


Hughes was an obsessive eccentric with a brilliant gift for innovative engineering. His eccentricity became more pronounced as he got older and ended with him living as a recluse and descending into madness.

One of Hughes's obsessions was sex. He was married twice, firstly to Ella Rice in 1925 but they divorced in 1929 when his philandering lifestyle became public knowledge. He was notorious for his affairs with young actresses and also, it seems, actors, including Bette Davis, Jean Harlow, Ava Gardner, Cary Grant, Randolph Scott, Carole Lombard, Ginger Rogers and a host of less well known names. His biographer, Charles Higham states: "He was a thoughtless, dispassionate lover, seeking only control. His sexual partners were not so much lovers as hostages, prisoners, or victims of his will; he had to dominate in everything."

One of Hughes's longer liasions was with Katharine Hepburn, with whom he lived in 1938, but she, too, left him when she discovered that he was continuing his promiscuous lifestyle. His second marriage was in 1957 to actress Jean Peters. They had originally had a highly public romance in 1947 but did not marry due to her career ambitions. When they married in 1957 she made her career secondary and faded from public view. The marriage coincided with the start of Hughes's increasing reclusiveness and they divorced in 1971.

After Hughes's serious plane crash in 1946 he became addicted to pain killers and valium and his social withdrawal began. Previously an enthusiastic and skilful golfer, he threw out his clubs and clothes, convinced they were contaminated with germs. His obsession with germ contamination began to spiral into increasingly bizarre behaviour.

Instead of shoes he wore boxes of tissues, and for many years he stored his urine in glass jars.He hired only Mormon staff, as Mormons were non-drinkers, and they were given lengthy and complex instructions on how to open tin cans and how to double and triple wrap all cutlery in tissue paper before giving it to Hughes. His fear of germ contamination turned him finally into a complete recluse and there are very few reports of his being seen outside his hotel rooms during his final years.

Howard Hughes died on April 5, 1976, on an airplane travelling from his penthouse in the Xanadu Princess Hotel in Freeport, Bahamas to The Methodist Hospital in Houston. Cause of death was noted as kidney failure although the first doctor who examined him gave "neglect" as the probable cause. His body was unrecognisable and emaciated and his hair, beard, fingernails, and toenails had been uncut for years. The FBI had to use fingerprints to identify him.

Hughes was buried in the Glenwood Cemetery in Houston.

Howard Hughes Filmography
(As producer unless otherwise stated)

Swell Hogan (uncredited)
Everybody's Acting (uncredited)
Two Arabian Knights (uncredited) [presenter]
The Racket (uncredited) [presenter]
The Mating Call (uncredited) [presenter]
Hell's Angels (uncredited) [presenter] [Director]
The Front Page (uncredited) [presenter]
The Age for Love (uncredited)
Cock of the Air
Sky Devils (1932)
Scarface (uncredited) [direction supervisor] (uncredited) [presenter]
Behind the Rising Sun (uncredited)
The Outlaw [presenter] [Director]