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Howard Hughes

Howard Hughes

Howard Robard Hughes was at times a pilot, a movie producer, a playboy, an eccentric, a recluse, and one of the wealthiest people in the world.

Hughes was born in Houston, Texas. As a teenager, he 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. In 1923 he inherited the highly profitable Hughes Tool Company from his father, Howard R. Hughes Sr., who invented the diamond-studded drill bit for oil wells.

Hughes the aviator and engineer

In aviation, Hughes set many world records, and designed and built aircraft for as well as heading Hughes Aircraft (merged with Raytheon in 1998).

In 1938, the William P. Hobby Airport in Houston, Texas, known at the time as the Houston Municipal Airport, was named after him as Howard Hughes Airport, but the name was changed back since people opposed naming the airport after someone alive at the time.

One of his greatest endeavors was the Spruce Goose, a massive flying boat completed just after the end of World War II. The Spruce Goose only flew once (with Hughes at the controls) in 1947. Because the U.S. Government denied him the use of metal, Hughes built the entire plane from wood (the plane was constructed of birch rather than spruce) to fulfill his contract. The plane was the showpiece of a museum in Long Beach, California for many years before being moved to McMinnville, Oregon.

On January 19, 1937 Hughes set a new air record by flying from Los Angeles to New York City in 7 hours, 28 minutes and 25 seconds. Then on July 10, 1938 he set another new record by completing a 91 hour airplane flight around the world.

Hughes: businessman, movie producer, and philanthropist

His best-known film may be The Outlaw starring Jane Russell, for whom he designed the first cantilevered push-up bra. He also wooed many of Hollywood's most famous actresses, including Katharine Hepburn, Ava Gardner, and Jane Russell. As a producer his films The Racket in 1928, and The Front Page in 1931 were nominated for Oscars.

He bought into Transcontinental & West Airline (later TWA) in 1937 and acquired RKO in 1948. He was forced to sell out of TWA in 1966 for around $500m. Hughes Space and Communications was founded in 1961. During the 1970s, Hughes went back into the airline business, buying airline Air West and renaming it to Hughes Airwest.

In 1953, Hughes launched the Howard Hughes Medical Institute formed with the goal of basic biomedical research including trying to understand in Hughes' words: genesis of life itself. Inititally viewed by many as a tax haven for his wealth, after his death in 1976, the institute grew dramatically to become one of the most significant philanthropical organizations devoted to biological and medical research with a 2002 endowment of $11 billion.

Hughes and espionage

In 1972, Hughes was approached by the CIA to help secretly recover a Soviet nuclear submarine which had sunk near Hawaii four years before. He agreed. Thus the Hughes Glomar Explorer, a special-purpose salvage vessel, was born. Hughes's involvement provided the CIA with a plausible cover story, having to do with civilian marine research at extreme depths. In 1974 the Glomar Explorer successfully raised the Soviet boat, which yielded two nuclear-tipped torpedoes and some cryptographic machines.

Hughes the recluse

As time passed, Hughes developed debilitating symptoms of obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD), he became a reclusive, living a drug-addled life locked in darkened rooms and terrified of germs. He 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, Landmark, Sands and Silver Slipper)—he was known for modernizing Las Vegas by buying 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. He became addicted to codeine and other painkillers, was extremely frail, wore Kleenex boxes as shoes, and stored his urine in jars. As he deteriorated, he ended up moving to the Bahamas, Vancouver, London, and several other places, always in the top floor penthouse with the windows blacked out—and every time he moved out the hotel seemed to need to remodel to clean up after him. Hughes died on an airplane enroute from his penthouse in Mexico to the Methodist Hospital in Houston on 5 April 1976. Much of his strange behavior at the end of his life has been attributed to tertiary stage syphilis by modern biographers.

In 1975 Hughes was allegedly hitchhiking to Las Vegas when he was picked up by Melvin Dumar. After giving Hughes the ride, Dumar became the sole inheritent of the Hughes estate. However, subsequent court proceedings proved Dumar's claims to be fraudulent. The movie Melvin and Howard details this story (see also Howard Hughes will).

In 1972 author Clifford Irving claimed he had co-written the authorized autobiography of Hughes, and created a media sensation. Prior to publication, Hughes, in a rare telephone conference, denounced Irving, exposing the entire project as an elaborate hoax. Irving later spent 14 months in jail.

Hughes as fictional inspiration

The following fictional characters appear to have been, in part, patterned after Hughes:
  • Willard Whyte of the James Bond film Diamonds are Forever
  • Montgomery Burns of The Simpsons, especially in the episode
  • Jonas Cord in Harold Robbins' novel The Carpetbaggers
  • Howard Hughes makes an appearance in the comic book and motion picture The Rocketeer.
  • Hughes appears in James Ellroy's political crime novel American Tabloid.
  • Steven Carter's novel I was Howard Hughes is a picture of a Hughes who might have been.

Note: This profile was written in or before 2004.

Howard Hughes Facts

BirthdaySeptember 24, 1905
BirthplaceHumble, Texas, USA
Date of deathApril 5, 1976 (age 70)

Selected Filmography

Howard Hughes: The Great Aviator
The Outlaw
The Aviator
The Amazing Howard Hughes
Hell's Angels
The American Aviator
Man, Moment, Machine: Howard Hughes and the Spruce Goose
The Great Flamarion
Pretty in Pink
Continue » Find more details on the Howard Hughes Movies page