Howard Hughes was a man who once commanded the world’s attention, sometimes for all the wrong reasons. His story is one of wealth, power, fame, and the dangers of obsession.
Howard Robard Hughes, Jr., was born in Houston on Christmas Eve, 1905. His father, Howard R. Hughes, Sr., was a wealthy inventor and businessman. The younger Hughes likewise was fascinated by science and machinery. By 1917, he was one of only a handful of licensed ham radio operators in Southeast Texas. He later built the first motorcycle in Houston by himself. In spite of his privileged upbringing, he faced two heartbreaking tragedies in rapid succession: his mother died in 1922, followed by his father’s death in 1924.
After inheriting his father’s fortune and the Hughes Tool Company, he proved very skilled at running the family business and wanted to expand. Fascinated by movies, he headed west to become a movie producer. In 1927, he began production of Hell’s Angels, an action film taking place in World War I which included recreations of aerial dogfights with dozens of aircraft. He learned to fly while he directed the movie, which at $3.8 million ($55.8 million in 2019 dollars) was the most expensive ever made up to that time.
In 1932, he founded Hughes Aircraft. Hughes himself set a speed record of 352 MPH in 1935 in his H-1 aircraft. He followed this up in 1938 with a record round-the-world flight of 91 hours. In 1939, he bought TWA Airlines for $7 million. He continued to develop a variety of new airplanes. In World War II, Hughes Aircraft built several different types of planes for the military, many of whom Hughes himself helped design.
Though generous to friends and employees and globally famous, he became known for his obsessive attention to the smallest detail. While this drive helped him become successful in movies and aviation, it steadily unraveled his personal life. For example, he would only drink orange juice he saw freshly squeezed himself or arranged peas by size. Relationships with his many girlfriends broke down quickly. In 1947, he suffered a mental breakdown, locking himself inside his personal movie theater for four months before coming out.
In 1953, he established the Howard Hughes Medical Institute through profits from Hughes Aircraft. It would continue long after his death and eventually become the largest private research institution in the nation, spending hundreds of millions of dollars each year to research all areas of health care and medical sciences.
He spent many years fighting federal regulators over his ownership of TWA and Hughes Aircraft. The federal government forced him to sell the airline in 1966 for nearly $550 million (or $4.3 billion in 2019 dollars). He spent the last decade of his life living in a series of hotels, having his aides run his companies by telephone and memo and avoiding any kind of public appearance. Wild rumors about his condition circulated. When he died in 1976, the once dashing figure was unrecognizable, reduced to 90 pounds with long, wiry hair, unkempt beard, and toenails that were inches long.
After his death, many books and movies about him appeared. Texas native Tommy Lee Jones portrayed Hughes in a 1977 TV movie called “The Amazing Howard Hughes,” while Jason Robards starred as Hughes in an off-beat story about one of his alleged wills making a Nevada gas station attendant a multi-millionaire in Melvin and Howard (1980). Leonardo DiCaprio starred in the 2004 film, “The Aviator,” which captured the early life and early mental breakdowns of Hughes.
Authors and filmmakers alike tried to unravel the complicated life of a man who had every creature comfort he ever wanted but spent so many years haunted by inner turmoil. The ultimate answers to those questions died with Hughes. In the end, no matter how much Howard Hughes tried to ignore the world, the world could not ignore him.