By Ann Silverthorn
What would cause a billionaire to retreat from the public eye for a quarter century, causing many people to wonder if he was actually still alive? Some speculate that Howard Hughes’ withdrawal was due to tax troubles, ties to Watergate, or mental instability. Whatever the reason, he effectively recoiled from the outside world, making himself into an enigma.
Howard Hughes officially began his life on December 24, 1905. His father owned a machine tool company and invented a drilling tool that is still used in the oil industry today. Both parents died young, and Hughes inherited the company when he was still a teenager. Leveraging the tool business, he soon branched out into filmmaking, and then later, aeronautics, hotels, casinos, and electronics. He even purchased his own movie studio, RKO Pictures, in 1947.
The Movie Maker
It was Hughes’ role as a movie maker that cast him into the national spotlight. In the late 1920s, he produced and directed a World War I air-combat drama called Hell’s Angels, starring Jean Harlow. Hughes poured money into the film as if from a bottomless pitcher and some movie moguls speculated that his film would cost more than the actual war itself. Hughes even mortgaged the tool company in order to continue production when money got tight.
The Hell’s Angels plot centers around two British brothers in the Royal Air Force who get mixed up with the same woman and also find themselves in fighter planes above Germany. More than 70 pilots worked on the film, and three of them died during filming, a surprisingly low figure considering the number of planes in the air and their close proximity to each other.
The film’s aerial scenes gouged at the project’s budget and by the time Hell’s Angels was complete, talking movies had started making their way to movie houses. To the horror of his advisors, Hughes decided to reshoot the movie as a talkie. In 1930, Hell’s Angels was the top movie, the most expensive movie ever made at that point—and it received an Oscar nomination for best cinematography.
Howard Hughes appreciated women, and the objects of his lavish affection included Katherine Hepburn and Ava Gardner. In 1943, his admiration of the female physique was apparent in one of his memorable productions, The Outlaw, a Wild West film for which Hughes launched a nationwide search for a busty actress. A young Jane Russell played the sultry temptation to gunslinger, Billy the Kidd. Russell’s wardrobe featured plunging necklines, which landed Hughes in front of the censorship board, delaying the film’s release. When it finally hit the theaters, it set records everywhere it played.
The Aviation Pioneer and Record Setter
Hughes was involved in many other films during his lifetime, but he also made a name for himself as an aviator, setting a record in an aviation speed trial in 1935 and flying a plane around the world in under four days in 1938, breaking that record with ease. He worked with engineers to develop fast planes, spy planes, and mega-planes for the U.S. military. One of these planes was the famous Spruce Goose, a “flying boat” designed to carry large numbers of troops. It was actually called the Hercules and was made out of wood due to metal restrictions during World War II. The 200-ton aircraft took so long to build that the war was over before the plane was completed. Hughes insisted on finishing the plane, and in 1947, he finally took it for a test flight, traveling just over a mile at an altitude of only 70 feet over the Los Angeles Harbor. The plane never flew again, and today, it can be toured at the Evergreen Aviation and Space Museum in McMinnville, Oregon, southwest of Portland.
In 1939, Howard Hughes purchased the airline company TWA and subsequently, placed an order for hundreds of planes that could fly to Europe. Its rival, Pan Am, owned that market and sought to stop the expansion. In the film The Aviator (2004), starring Leonardo DiCaprio, Maine senator Owen Brewster summons Hughes to senate hearings in order to destroy his reputation, questioning his use of government funds in developing aircraft for the military. It was 1947, two years after World War II ended. Brewster accused Hughes of receiving $56 million from the U.S. government and never delivering one plane. Hughes acknowledged this fact, but advised the committee that he had poured his own funds into the projects and lost plenty of money himself.
Withdrawal From Public Life
It was around the time of the Senate hearings that Howard Hughes withdrew from public life. He’d suffered terrible injuries in a crash involving an experimental plane that he was piloting, and he became addicted to codeine during his recovery. He was also known to suffer from obsessive-compulsive disorder and had an extreme aversion to dirt and germs. As a result, for more than 25 years, Hughes was not seen in public and many people wondered if he was still alive.
Howard Hughes reportedly died aboard a private flight to Houston on April 5, 1976, at the age of 70. He was said to weigh only around 100 pounds and had long hair and fingernails. After his death, his estate took some time to settle, complicated by the surfacing of several wills. In the end, most of his fortune was divided among his cousins, a couple of ex-wives, and numerous charities, including the Howard Hughes Medical Institute.
Interestingly, there is at least one source that claims Howard Hughes did not die in 1976. After a decade of research and interviews with Eva McClelland, who claimed to have married Hughes in 1970, Doug Wellman and Mark Musick assert that Hughes assumed the identity of a man connected to the CIA and that he actually died in 2001 at the age of 96. The book, Boxes: The Secret Life of Howard Hughes, presents a plethora of evidence to support the claim, which has been generally panned by those who actually knew Hughes.
Once a household name, Howard Hughes, the enigma, the playboy, billionaire, businessman, and philanthropist is beginning to fade from America’s collective memory. In 2004, around the time of his 100th birthday, there was a surge of biopics made about his life and many of them are available on DVD Netflix. Here are some of the movies you can add to your queue to learn more about Howard Hughes.
Focusing on Hughes’ notoriety as a playboy, this documentary, narrated by actor Billy Zane, looks at the man behind the reputation.
Howard Hughes’ own words, memos, conversations, and interviews tell his story in this biopic. Newsreels and film include footage of Cary Grant and Edward G. Robinson.
This documentary peeks into the private world of Howard Hughes addressing many of the colorful rumors about what went on behind his closed doors.
Howard Hughes became an insider in Hollywood but his biggest accomplishments were perhaps the performance records he made as an aviator. This disc also includes the feature films The Outlaw and The Sin of Harold Diddlebock.
Leonardo DiCaprio plays Howard Hughes in this dramatization of his role in film and aviation. It also addresses the many insecurities of this seemingly fearless tycoon.
This film combines fiction with fact and tells the fictional story of a young starlet who comes to Hollywood to work for Howard Hughes and falls in love with his driver. The problem is that that Hughes forbids romance between employees. Warren Beatty stars in this film that picks up from the point in time at which The Aviator ended.