Howard Robard Hughes Jr. (December 24, 1905 – April 5, 1976) was an American businessman, investor, pilot, film director, and philanthropist, known during his lifetime as one of the most financially successful individuals in the world. He first made a name for himself as a film producer, and then became an influential figure in the aviation industry. Later in life, he became known for his eccentric behavior and reclusive lifestyle—oddities that were caused in part by a worsening obsessive–compulsive disorder (OCD) and chronic pain from a plane crash.
As a maverick film tycoon, Hughes gained prominence in Hollywood beginning in the late 1920s, when he produced big-budget and often controversial films like The Racket (1928), Hell's Angels (1930), and Scarface (1932). Later he controlled the RKO film studio.
Hughes formed the Hughes Aircraft Company in 1932, hiring numerous engineers and designers. He spent the rest of the 1930s setting multiple world air speed records and building the Hughes H-1 Racer and H-4 Hercules (the Spruce Goose). He acquired and expanded Trans World Airlines and later acquired Air West, renaming it Hughes Airwest. Hughes was included in Flying Magazine's list of the 51 Heroes of Aviation, ranked at No. 25. Today, his legacy is maintained through the Howard Hughes Medical Institute.
The birthplace of Howard Hughes is recorded as either Humble or Houston, Texas. The date remains uncertain due to conflicting dates from various sources. He repeatedly claimed that his birthday was on Christmas Eve. A 1941 affidavit birth certificate of Hughes that was signed by his aunt Annette Gano Lummis and Estelle Boughton Sharp states that he was born on December 24, 1905, in Harris County, Texas.[N 1] However, his certificate of baptism recorded on October 7, 1906, in the parish register of St. John's Episcopal Church in Keokuk, Iowa, listed his birth as September 24, 1905 without any reference to the place of birth.[N 2]
Hughes was the son of Allene Stone Gano and Howard R. Hughes Sr., a successful inventor and businessman from Missouri. He was of English, and some French Huguenot, ancestry, and was a descendant of John Gano, a minister who allegedly baptized George Washington. His father had patented the two-cone roller bit, which allowed rotary drilling for petroleum in previously inaccessible places. The senior Hughes made the shrewd and lucrative decision to commercialize the invention by leasing the bits instead of selling them, and founded the Hughes Tool Company in 1909. Hughes' uncle was the famed novelist, screenwriter, and film director Rupert Hughes.
At a young age, Hughes demonstrated interest in science and technology. In particular, he had great engineering aptitude and built Houston's first "wireless" radio transmitter at age 11. He went on to be one of the first licensed ham radio operators in Houston, having the assigned callsign W5CY (originally 5CY). At 12, Hughes was photographed in the local newspaper, identified as being the first boy in Houston to have a "motorized" bicycle, which he had built from parts from his father's steam engine. He was an indifferent student, with a liking for mathematics, flying, and mechanics. He took his first flying lesson at 14, and later attended math and aeronautical engineering courses at Caltech. The red brick house where Hughes lived as a teenager at 3921 Yoakum St., Houston today serves as the headquarters of the Theology Department of the University of St. Thomas.
His mother Allene died in March 1922 from complications of an ectopic pregnancy. Howard Hughes Sr. died of a heart attack in 1924. Their deaths apparently inspired Hughes to include the creation of a medical research laboratory in the will that he signed in 1925 at age 19. Howard Sr.'s will had not been updated since Allene's death, and Hughes inherited 75% of the family fortune. On his 19th birthday, Hughes was declared an emancipated minor, enabling him to take full control of his life.
From a young age, Hughes was an excellent and enthusiastic golfer. He often scored near par figures and played the game to a three handicap during his twenties. He played frequently with top players, including Gene Sarazen. Hughes rarely played competitively and gradually gave up his passion for the sport to pursue other interests.
Hughes withdrew from Rice University shortly after his father's death. On June 1, 1925, he married Ella Botts Rice, daughter of David Rice and Martha Lawson Botts of Houston. They moved to Los Angeles, where he hoped to make a name for himself as a filmmaker.
Hughes enjoyed a highly successful business career beyond engineering, aviation, and filmmaking, though many of his career endeavors involved varying entrepreneurial roles. The Summa Corporation was the name adopted for the business interests of Howard Hughes after he sold the tool division of Hughes Tool Company in 1972. The company serves as the principal holding company for Hughes' business ventures and investments. It is primarily involved in aerospace and defense, electronics, mass media, manufacturing, and hospitality industries, but has maintained a strong presence in a wide variety of industries including real estate, petroleum drilling and oilfield services, consulting, entertainment, and engineering. Much of his fortune was later used for philanthropic causes, notably towards health care and medical research.
Hughes entered the entertainment industry after dropping out of Rice University and moving to Los Angeles. His first two films, Everybody's Acting (1927) and Two Arabian Knights (1928), were financial successes, the latter winning the first Academy Award for Best Director of a comedy picture. The Racket (1928) and The Front Page (1931) were also nominated for Academy Awards.
Hughes spent $3.8 million to make the flying film Hell's Angels (1930). It earned nearly $8 million, about double the production and advertising costs. Hell's Angels received one Academy Award nomination for Best Cinematography. He produced another hit, Scarface (1932), a production delayed by censors' concern over its violence.
The Outlaw (1943) was completed in 1941 and featured Jane Russell. It also received considerable attention from industry censors, this time owing to Russell's revealing costumes. Hughes designed a special bra for his leading lady, although Russell said it was uncomfortable and decided against wearing it.
During the 1940s to the late 1950s, the Hughes Tool Company ventured into the film industry when it obtained partial ownership of the RKO companies which included RKO Pictures, RKO Studios, a chain of movie theaters known as RKO Theatres and a network of radio stations known as the RKO Radio Network.
In 1948, Hughes gained control of RKO, a struggling major Hollywood studio, by acquiring 25% of the outstanding stock from Floyd Odlum's Atlas Corporation. Within weeks of acquiring the studio, Hughes dismissed three-quarters of the work force and production was shut down for six months during which time investigations were conducted of each employee who remained with RKO as far as their political leanings were concerned. Only after ensuring that the stars under contract to RKO had no suspect affiliations would Hughes approve completed pictures to be sent back for re-shooting. This was especially true of the women who were under contract to RKO at that time. If Hughes felt that his stars did not properly represent the political views of his liking or if a film's anti-communist politics were not sufficiently clear, he pulled the plug. In 1952, an abortive sale to a Chicago-based group connected to the mafia with no experience in the industry also disrupted studio operations at RKO even further.
In 1953, Hughes was involved with a high profile lawsuit as part of the settlement of the United States v. Paramount Pictures, Inc. Antitrust Case. As a result of the hearings, the shaky status of RKO became increasingly apparent. A steady stream of lawsuits from RKO's minority shareholders had grown to be extremely annoying to Hughes. They had accused him with financial misconduct and corporate mismanagement. Since Hughes wanted to focus primarily on his aircraft manufacturing and TWA holdings during the Korean War years, Hughes offered to buy out all other stockholders in order to dispense with their distractions.
He had gained near-total control of RKO by the end of 1954 at a cost of nearly $24 million, becoming the closest thing to a sole owner of a Hollywood studio seen in three decades. Six months later, Hughes sold the studio to the General Tire and Rubber Company for $25 million. Hughes retained the rights to pictures that he had personally produced, including those made at RKO. He also retained Jane Russell's contract. For Howard Hughes, this was the virtual end of his 25-year involvement in the motion picture industry. However, his reputation as a financial wizard emerged unscathed. During that time period, RKO became known as the home of film noir classic productions thanks in part to the limited budgets required to make such films during Hughes' tenure. Hughes reportedly walked away from RKO having made $6.5 million in personal profit.
General Tire was interested mainly in exploiting the value of the RKO library for television programming even though it made some attempts to continue producing films. After a year and a half of mixed success, General Tire shut down film production entirely at RKO at the end of January 1957. The studio lots in Hollywood and Culver City were sold to Desilu Productions later that year for $6.15 million.
Beyond extending his business prowess in the manufacturing, aviation, entertainment, and hospitality industries, Hughes was a successful real estate investor. Hughes was deeply involved in the American real estate industry where he amassed vast holdings of undeveloped land both in Las Vegas and in the desert surrounding the city that had gone unused during his lifetime. In 1968, the Hughes Tool Company purchased the North Las Vegas Air Terminal.
Originally known as Summa Corporation, The Howard Hughes Corporation was formed in 1972 when the oil tools business of Hughes Tool Company, then owned by Howard Hughes Jr., was floated on the New York Stock Exchange under the Hughes Tool name. This forced the remaining businesses of the "original" Hughes Tool to adopt a new corporate name Summa. The name "Summa"—Latin for "highest"—was adopted without the approval of Hughes himself, who preferred to keep his own name on the business, and suggested HRH Properties (for Hughes Resorts and Hotels, and also his own initials).
Initially staying in the Desert Inn, Hughes refused to vacate his room, and instead decided to purchase the entire hotel. Hughes extended his financial empire to include Las Vegas real estate, hotels, and media outlets, spending an estimated $300 million, and using his considerable powers to take-over many of the well known hotels, especially the organized crime connected venues. He quickly became one of the most powerful men in Las Vegas. He was instrumental in changing the image of Las Vegas from its Wild West roots into a more refined cosmopolitan city.
Another portion of Hughes' business interests lay in aviation, airlines, and the aerospace and defense industries. Hughes was a lifelong aircraft enthusiast and pilot. He survived four airplane accidents: one while filming Hell's Angels, one while setting the air speed record in the Hughes Racer, one at Lake Mead in 1943, and the near fatal crash of the Hughes XF-11 in 1946. At Rogers Airport in Los Angeles, he learned to fly from pioneer aviators, including Moye Stephens. He set many world records and commissioned the construction of custom aircraft for himself while heading Hughes Aircraft at the airport in Glendale, CA. Operating from there, the most technologically important aircraft he commissioned was the Hughes H-1 Racer. On September 13, 1935, Hughes, flying the H-1, set the landplane airspeed record of 352 mph (566 km/h) over his test course near Santa Ana, California (Giuseppe Motta reached 362 mph in 1929 and George Stainforth reached 407.5 mph in 1931, both in seaplanes). This was the last time in history that the world airspeed record was set in an aircraft built by a private individual. A year and a half later, on January 19, 1937, flying the same H-1 Racer fitted with longer wings, Hughes set a new transcontinental airspeed record by flying non-stop from Los Angeles to Newark in 7 hours, 28 minutes, and 25 seconds (beating his own previous record of 9 hours, 27 minutes). His average ground speed over the flight was 322 mph (518 km/h).
The H-1 Racer featured a number of design innovations: it had retractable landing gear (as Boeing Monomail had five years before) and all rivets and joints set flush into the body of the aircraft to reduce drag. The H-1 Racer is thought to have influenced the design of a number of World War II fighters such as the Mitsubishi A6M Zero, Focke-Wulf Fw 190, and F8F Bearcat, although that has never been reliably confirmed. The H-1 Racer was donated to the Smithsonian in 1975 and is on display at the National Air and Space Museum.
On July 14, 1938, Hughes set another record by completing a flight around the world in just 91 hours (3 days, 19 hours, 17 minutes), beating the previous record set in 1933 by Wiley Post in a single engine Lockheed Vega by almost four days. Hughes returned home ahead of photographs of his flight. Taking off from New York City, Hughes continued to Paris, Moscow, Omsk, Yakutsk, Fairbanks, Minneapolis, then returning to New York City. For this flight he flew a Lockheed 14 Super Electra (NX18973, a twin-engine transport with a four-man crew) fitted with the latest radio and navigational equipment. Hughes wanted the flight to be a triumph of American aviation technology, illustrating that safe, long-distance air travel was possible. Albert Lodwick of Mystic, Iowa provided organizational skills as the flight operations manager. While he had previously been relatively obscure despite his wealth, being better known for dating Katharine Hepburn, New York City now gave Hughes a ticker-tape parade in the Canyon of Heroes. In 1938, the William P. Hobby Airport in Houston, Texas—known at the time as Houston Municipal Airport—was renamed after Hughes, but the name was changed back after people objected to naming the airport after a living person. Hughes also had a role in the design and financing of both the Boeing 307 Stratoliner and Lockheed L-049 Constellation.
He received many awards as an aviator, including the Harmon Trophy in 1936 and 1938, the Collier Trophy and the Bibesco Cup of the Fédération Aéronautique Internationale in 1938, the Octave Chanute Award in 1940, and a special Congressional Gold Medal in 1939 "in recognition of the achievements of Howard Hughes in advancing the science of aviation and thus bringing great credit to his country throughout the world". According to his obituary in the New York Times, Hughes never bothered to come to Washington to pick up the Congressional Gold Medal, which was eventually mailed to him.
The Hughes D-2 was conceived in 1939 as a bomber with five crew members, powered by 42-cylinder Wright R-2160 Tornado engines. In the end it appeared as two-seat fighter-reconnaissance aircraft designated the D-2A, powered by two Pratt & Whitney R-2800-49 engines. The aircraft was constructed using the Duramold process. The prototype was brought to Harper's Dry Lake California in great secrecy in 1943 and first flew on June 20 of that year. Acting on a recommendation of the president's son, Colonel Elliott Roosevelt, who had become friends with Hughes, in September 1943 the USAAF ordered 100 of a reconnaissance development of the D-2, known as the F-11. Hughes then attempted to get the military to pay for the development of the D-2. In November 1944, the hangar containing the D-2A was reportedly hit by lightning and the aircraft was destroyed. The D-2 design was abandoned, but led to the extremely controversial Hughes XF-11. The XF-11 was a large all-metal, two-seat reconnaissance aircraft, powered by two Pratt & Whitney R-4360-31 engines, each driving a set of contra-rotating propellers. Only the two prototypes were completed; the second one with a single propeller per side.
In the spring of 1943 Hughes spent nearly a month in Las Vegas, test flying his Sikorsky S-43 amphibian aircraft, practicing touch-and-go landings on Lake Mead in preparation for flying the H-4 Hercules. The weather conditions at the lake during the day were ideal and he enjoyed Las Vegas at night. On May 17, 1943, Hughes flew the Sikorsky from California carrying two CAA aviation inspectors, two of his employees, and actress Ava Gardner. Hughes dropped Gardner off in Las Vegas and proceeded to Lake Mead to conduct qualifying tests in the S-43. The test flight did not go well. The Sikorsky crashed into Lake Mead, killing CAA inspector Ceco Cline and Hughes employee Richard Felt. Hughes suffered a severe gash on the top of his head when he hit the upper control panel and had to be rescued by one of the others on board. Hughes paid divers $100,000 to raise the aircraft and later spent more than $500,000 restoring it.
Hughes was involved in another near-fatal aircraft accident on July 7, 1946, while performing the first flight of the prototype U.S. Army Air Forces reconnaissance aircraft, the XF-11, near Hughes airfield at Culver City, California. An oil leak caused one of the contra-rotating propellers to reverse pitch, causing the aircraft to yaw sharply and lose altitude rapidly. Hughes attempted to save the aircraft by landing it at the Los Angeles Country Club golf course, but just seconds before reaching the course, the XF-11 started to drop dramatically and crashed in the Beverly Hills neighborhood surrounding the country club.
When the XF-11 finally came to a halt after destroying three houses, the fuel tanks exploded, setting fire to the aircraft and a nearby home at 808 North Whittier Drive, owned by Lt Col. Charles E. Meyer. Hughes managed to pull himself out of the flaming wreckage but lay beside the aircraft until he was rescued by Marine Master Sgt. William L. Durkin, who happened to be in the area visiting friends. Hughes sustained significant injuries in the crash, including a crushed collar bone, multiple cracked ribs, crushed chest with collapsed left lung, shifting his heart to the right side of the chest cavity, and numerous third-degree burns. An oft-told story said that Hughes sent a check to the Marine weekly for the remainder of his life as a sign of gratitude. However, Durkin's daughter denied that he took any money for the rescue.
Despite his physical injuries, Hughes was proud that his mind was still working. As he lay in his hospital bed, he decided that he did not like the bed's design. He called in plant engineers to design a customized bed, equipped with hot and cold running water, built in six sections, and operated by 30 electric motors, with push-button adjustments. The hospital bed was designed by Hughes specifically to alleviate the pain caused by moving with severe burn injuries. Despite the fact that he never had the chance to use the bed that he designed, Hughes' bed served as a prototype for the modern hospital bed. Hughes' doctors considered his recovery almost miraculous. Hughes, however, believed that neither miracle nor modern medicine contributed to his recovery, instead asserting the natural life-giving properties of fresh-squeezed orange juice were responsible.
Many attribute his long-term dependence on opiates to his use of codeine as a painkiller during his convalescence. The trademark mustache he wore afterward was used to hide a scar on his upper lip resulting from the accident.
The War Production Board (not the military) originally contracted with Henry Kaiser and Hughes to produce the gigantic HK-1 Hercules flying boat for use during World War II to transport troops and equipment across the Atlantic as an alternative to seagoing troop transport ships that were vulnerable to German U-boats. The project was opposed by the military services, thinking it would siphon resources from higher priority programs, but was advocated by Hughes' powerful allies in Washington, D.C. After disputes, Kaiser withdrew from the project and Hughes elected to continue it as the H-4 Hercules. However, the aircraft was not completed until after the end of World War II.
The Hercules was the world's largest flying boat, the largest aircraft made from wood, and, at 319 feet 11 inches (97.51 m), had the longest wingspan of any aircraft (the next largest wingspan was about 310 ft (94 m)). (The Hercules is no longer the longest or heaviest aircraft ever built; both of those titles are currently held by the Antonov An-225 Mriya.)
The Hercules flew only once for one mile (1.6 km), and 70 feet (21 m) above the water, with Hughes at the controls, on November 2, 1947.
The Hercules was nicknamed the Spruce Goose by its critics, but it was actually made largely from birch, not spruce, rather than of aluminum, because the contract required that Hughes build the aircraft of "non-strategic materials". It was built in Hughes' Westchester, California, facility. In 1947, Howard Hughes was summoned to testify before the Senate War Investigating Committee to explain why the H-4 development had been so troubled, and why $22 million had produced only two prototypes of the F-11. General Elliott Roosevelt and numerous other USAAF officers were also called to testify in hearings that transfixed the nation during August and November 1947. In hotly disputed testimony over TWA's route awards and malfeasance in the defense acquisition process, Hughes turned the tables on his main interlocutor, Maine Senator Owen Brewster, and the hearings were widely interpreted as a Hughes victory. After being displayed at the harbor of Long Beach, California, the Hercules was moved to McMinnville, Oregon, where it is now part of the Evergreen Aviation Museum.
Hughes Aircraft Company, a division of Hughes Tool Company, was founded by Hughes in 1932, in a rented corner of a Lockheed Aircraft Corporation hangar in Burbank, California, to build the H-1 racer. During and after World War II, Hughes fashioned his company into a major defense contractor. The Hughes Helicopters division started in 1947 when helicopter manufacturer Kellett sold their latest design to Hughes for production. The company was a major American aerospace and defense contractor manufacturing numerous technology related products that include spacecraft vehicles, military aircraft, radar systems, electro-optical systems, the first working laser, aircraft computer systems, missile systems, ion-propulsion engines (for space travel), commercial satellites, and other electronics systems.
In 1948, Hughes created a new division of the company: the Hughes Aerospace Group. The Hughes Space and Communications Group and the Hughes Space Systems Division were later spun off in 1948 to form their own divisions and ultimately became the Hughes Space and Communications Company in 1961. In 1953, Howard Hughes gave all his stock in the Hughes Aircraft Company to the newly formed Howard Hughes Medical Institute, thereby turning the aerospace and defense contractor into a tax-exempt charitable organization. The Howard Hughes Medical Institute sold Hughes Aircraft in 1985 to General Motors for $5.2 billion. In 1997, General Motors sold Hughes Aircraft to Raytheon and in 2000, sold Hughes Space & Communications to Boeing. A combination of Boeing, GM, and Raytheon acquired the Hughes Research Laboratories, where it focused on advanced developments in microelectronics, information & systems sciences, materials, sensors, and photonics; their workspace spans from basic research to product delivery. It has particularly emphasized capabilities in high performance integrated circuits, high power lasers, antennas, networking, and smart materials.
In 1939, at the urging of Jack Frye, president of Trans World Airlines (TWA), Hughes quietly purchased a majority share of TWA stock for nearly $7 million and took control of the airline. Upon assuming ownership, Hughes was prohibited by federal law from building his own aircraft. Seeking an aircraft that would perform better than TWA's fleet of Boeing 307 Stratoliners, Hughes and Frye approached Boeing's competitor, Lockheed. Hughes had a good relationship with Lockheed since they had built the aircraft he used in his record flight around the world in 1938. Lockheed agreed to Hughes and Frye's request that the new aircraft be built in secrecy. The result was the revolutionary Constellation and TWA purchased the first 40 of the new airliners off the production line.
In 1956, Hughes placed an order for 63 Convair 880s for TWA at a cost of $400 million. Although Hughes was extremely wealthy at this time, outside creditors demanded that Hughes relinquish control of TWA in return for providing the money. In 1960, Hughes was ultimately forced out of TWA, although he owned 78% of the company and battled to regain control.
Before Hughes' removal, the TWA jet financing issue precipitated the end of Hughes' relationship with Noah Dietrich. Dietrich claimed Hughes developed a plan by which Hughes Tool Company profits would be inflated to sell the company for a windfall that would pay the bills for the 880s. Dietrich agreed to go to Texas to implement the plan on the condition that Hughes agreed to a capital gains arrangement he had long promised Dietrich. When Hughes balked, Dietrich resigned immediately. "Noah", Dietrich quoted Hughes as replying, "I cannot exist without you!" Dietrich stood firm and eventually had to sue to retrieve personal possessions from his office after Hughes ordered it locked.
In 1966, a U.S. federal court forced Hughes to sell his TWA shares because of concerns over conflict of interest between his ownership of both TWA and Hughes Aircraft. The sale of his TWA shares netted him a profit of $547 million.
In 1970, Hughes went back into the airline business, buying San Francisco-based Air West and renaming it Hughes Airwest. Air West had been formed in 1968 by the merger of Bonanza Air Lines, Pacific Air Lines, and West Coast Airlines, all of which operated in the western U.S. By the late 1970s, Hughes Airwest operated an all-jet fleet of Boeing 727-200, Douglas DC-9-10, and McDonnell Douglas DC-9-30 jetliners serving an extensive route network in the western U.S. with flights to Mexico and western Canada as well. By 1980, the airline's route system reached as far east as Houston (Hobby Airport) and Milwaukee with a total of 42 destinations being served. Hughes Airwest was then acquired by and merged into Republic Airlines (1979–1986) in late 1980. Republic was subsequently acquired by and merged into Northwest Airlines which in turn was ultimately merged into Delta Air Lines in 2008.
Hughes had begun his business partnerships with industrialist and producer David Charnay through the film The Conqueror. Hughes and Charnay led a buyout group that had acquired Air West. Hughes, Charnay, as well as three others were then indicted, the indictment alleged that the group had conspired to drive down the stock price of Air West and then pressured directors to sell to Hughes. The charges were dismissed after a judge determined the indictment had failed to allege an illegal action on the part of Hughes, Charnay, and the others. The federal judge that made the decision to dismiss the charges called the indictment one of the worst claims that he had ever seen. The aftermath of the Air West deal was later settled with the SEC by paying former stockholders for alleged losses from the sale of their Air West stock. As noted above, Air West was subsequently renamed Hughes Airwest.
In 1953, Hughes launched the Howard Hughes Medical Institute in Miami, Florida, and currently located in Chevy Chase, Maryland, formed with the expressed goal of basic biomedical research, including trying to understand, in Hughes' words, the "genesis of life itself," due to his lifelong interest in science and technology. Hughes' first will, which he signed in 1925 at the age of 19, stipulated that a portion of his estate should be used to create a medical institute bearing his name. When a major battle with the IRS loomed ahead, Hughes gave all his stock in the Hughes Aircraft Company to the institute, thereby turning the aerospace and defense contractor into a for-profit entity of a fully tax-exempt charity. Hughes' internist, Verne Mason, who treated Hughes after his 1946 aircraft crash, was chairman of the institute's medical advisory committee. The Howard Hughes Medical Institute's new board of trustees sold Hughes Aircraft in 1985 to General Motors for $5.2 billion, allowing the institute to grow dramatically.
The deal was the topic of a protracted legal battle between Hughes and the Internal Revenue Service, which Hughes ultimately won. After his death in 1976, many thought that the balance of Hughes' estate would go to the institute, although it was ultimately divided among his cousins and other heirs, given the lack of a will to the contrary. The HHMI was the fourth largest private organization as of 2007 and the largest devoted to biological and medical research, with an endowment of $16.3 billion as of June 2007.
In 1972, Hughes was approached by the CIA to help secretly recover Soviet submarine K-129, which had sunk near Hawaii four years earlier. The recovery plan used the special-purpose salvage vessel Glomar Explorer. Hughes' involvement provided the CIA with a plausible cover story, having to do with civilian marine research at extreme depths and the mining of undersea manganese nodules. In the summer of 1974, Glomar Explorer attempted to raise the Soviet vessel.
However, during the recovery a mechanical failure in the ship's grapple caused half of the submarine to break off and fall to the ocean floor. This section is believed to have held many of the most sought-after items, including its code book and nuclear missiles. Two nuclear-tipped torpedoes and some cryptographic machines were recovered, along with the bodies of six Soviet submariners who were subsequently given formal burial at sea in a filmed ceremony. The operation, known as Project Azorian (but incorrectly referred to by the press as Project Jennifer), became public in February 1975 after secret documents were released, obtained by burglars from Hughes' headquarters in June 1974. Though he lent his name to the operation, Hughes and his companies had no actual involvement in the project. The Glomar Explorer was eventually acquired by Transocean Inc. (an offshore oil and gas drilling rig company).
In 1929, Hughes' wife, Ella, returned to Houston and filed for divorce. Hughes dated many famous women, many of them decades younger, including Billie Dove, Faith Domergue, Bette Davis, Ava Gardner, Olivia de Havilland, Katharine Hepburn, Ginger Rogers, Rita Hayworth, and Gene Tierney. He also proposed to Joan Fontaine several times, according to her autobiography No Bed of Roses. Jean Harlow accompanied him to the premiere of Hell's Angels, but Noah Dietrich wrote many years later that the relationship was strictly professional, as Hughes apparently personally disliked Harlow. In his 1971 book, Howard: The Amazing Mr. Hughes, Dietrich said that Hughes genuinely liked and respected Jane Russell, but never sought romantic involvement with her. According to Russell's autobiography, however, Hughes once tried to bed her after a party. Russell (who was married at the time) refused him, and Hughes promised it would never happen again. The two maintained a professional and private friendship for many years. Hughes remained good friends with Tierney who, after his failed attempts to seduce her, was quoted as saying "I don't think Howard could love anything that did not have a motor in it." Later, when Tierney's daughter Daria was born deaf and blind and with a severe learning disability, because of Tierney's being exposed to rubella during her pregnancy, Hughes saw to it that Daria received the best medical care and paid all expenses.
In 1933, Hughes made a purchase of an unseen luxury steam yacht named the Rover, which was previously owned by British shipping magnate Lord Inchcape. "I have never seen the Rover but bought it on the blue prints, photographs and the reports of Lloyd's surveyors. My experience is that the English are the most honest race in the world." Hughes renamed the yacht Southern Cross and later sold her to Swedish entrepreneur Axel Wenner-Gren.
On July 11, 1936, Hughes struck and killed a pedestrian named Gabriel S. Meyer with his car at the corner of 3rd Street and Lorraine in Los Angeles. After the crash, Hughes was taken to the hospital and certified as sober, but an attending doctor made a note that Hughes had been drinking. A witness to the crash told police that Hughes was driving erratically and too fast, and that Meyer had been standing in the safety zone of a streetcar stop. Hughes was booked on suspicion of negligent homicide and held overnight in jail until his attorney, Neil S. McCarthy, obtained a writ of habeas corpus for his release pending a coroner's inquest. By the time of the coroner's inquiry, however, the witness had changed his story and claimed that Meyer had moved directly in front of Hughes' car. Nancy Bayly (Watts), who was in the car with Hughes at the time of the crash, corroborated this version of the story. On July 16, 1936, Hughes was held blameless by a coroner's jury at the inquest into Meyer's death. Hughes told reporters outside the inquiry, "I was driving slowly and a man stepped out of the darkness in front of me."
On January 12, 1957, Hughes married actress Jean Peters. The couple met in the 1940s, before Peters became a film actress. They had a highly publicized romance in 1947 and there was talk of marriage, but she said she could not combine it with her career. Some later claimed that Peters was "the only woman [Hughes] ever loved," and he reportedly had his security officers follow her everywhere even when they were not in a relationship. Such reports were confirmed by actor Max Showalter, who became a close friend of Peters while shooting Niagara (1953). Showalter told in an interview that because he frequently met with Peters, Hughes' men threatened to ruin his career if he did not leave her alone.
Shortly before the 1960 Presidential election, Richard Nixon was alarmed when it was revealed that his brother, Donald, received a $205,000 loan from Hughes. It has long been speculated that Nixon's drive to learn what the Democrats were planning in 1972 was based in part on his belief that the Democrats knew about a later bribe that his friend Bebe Rebozo had received from Hughes after Nixon took office.
In late 1971, Donald Nixon was collecting intelligence for his brother in preparation for the upcoming presidential election. One of Donald's sources was John H. Meier, a former business adviser of Hughes who had also worked with Democratic National Committee Chair Larry O'Brien.
Meier, in collaboration with former Vice President Hubert Humphrey and others, wanted to feed misinformation to the Nixon campaign. Meier told Donald that he was sure the Democrats would win the election because Larry O'Brien had a great deal of information on Richard Nixon's illicit dealings with Howard Hughes that had never been released; O'Brien did not actually have any such information, but Meier wanted Nixon to think he did. Donald told his brother that O'Brien was in possession of damaging Hughes information that could destroy his campaign. Terry Lenzner, who was the chief investigator for the Senate Watergate Committee, speculates that it was Nixon's desire to know what O'Brien knew about Nixon's dealings with Hughes that may have partially motivated the Watergate break-in.
Hughes was eccentric, and suffered from a severe obsessive-compulsive disorder. Close friends of Hughes reported that he was obsessed with the size of peas (one of his favorite foods) and used a special fork to sort them by size.
While directing The Outlaw, Hughes became fixated on a small flaw in one of Jane Russell's blouses, claiming that the fabric bunched up along a seam and gave the appearance of two nipples on each breast. He wrote a detailed memorandum to the crew on how to fix the problem. Richard Fleischer, who directed His Kind of Woman with Hughes as executive producer, wrote at length in his autobiography about the difficulty of dealing with the tycoon. In his book, Just Tell Me When to Cry, Fleischer explained that Hughes was fixated on trivial details and was alternately indecisive and obstinate. He also revealed that Hughes' unpredictable mood swings made him wonder if the film would ever be completed.
In 1958, Hughes told his aides that he wanted to screen some movies at a film studio near his home. He stayed in the studio's darkened screening room for more than four months, never leaving. He ate only chocolate bars and chicken and drank only milk, and was surrounded by dozens of Kleenex boxes that he continuously stacked and re-arranged. He wrote detailed memos to his aides giving them explicit instructions not to look at him nor speak to him unless spoken to. Throughout this period, Hughes sat fixated in his chair, often naked, continually watching movies. When he finally emerged in the summer of 1958, his hygiene was terrible. He had not bathed nor cut his hair and nails for weeks; this may have been due to allodynia, which results in a pain response to stimuli that would normally not cause pain.
After the screening room incident, Hughes moved into a bungalow at the Beverly Hills Hotel where he also rented rooms for his aides, his wife, and numerous girlfriends. He would sit naked in his bedroom with a pink hotel napkin placed over his genitals, watching movies. This may have been because Hughes found the touch of clothing painful due to allodynia. He may have watched movies to distract himself from his pain—a common practice among patients with intractable pain, especially those who do not receive adequate treatment. In one year, Hughes spent an estimated $11 million at the hotel.
Hughes began purchasing all restaurant chains and four star hotels that had been founded within the state of Texas. This included, if for only a short period, many unknown franchises currently out of business. He placed ownership of the restaurants with the Howard Hughes Medical Institute, and all licenses were resold shortly after.
Hughes insisted on using tissues to pick up objects to insulate himself from germs. He would also notice dust, stains, or other imperfections on people's clothes and demand that they take care of them. Once one of the most visible men in America, Hughes ultimately vanished from public view, although tabloids continued to follow rumors of his behavior and whereabouts. He was reported to be terminally ill, mentally unstable, or even dead.
Injuries from numerous aircraft crashes caused Hughes to spend much of his later life in pain, and he eventually became addicted to codeine, which he injected intramuscularly. Hughes had his hair cut and nails trimmed only once a year, likely due to the pain caused by the RSD/CRPS, which was caused by the plane crashes. He also stored his urine in bottles.
The wealthy and aging Hughes, accompanied by his entourage of personal aides, began moving from one hotel to another, always taking up residence in the top floor penthouse. In the last ten years of his life, 1966 to 1976, Hughes lived in hotels in many cities—including Beverly Hills, Boston, Las Vegas, Nassau, Freeport, Vancouver, London, Managua, and Acapulco.
On November 24, 1966 (Thanksgiving Day), Hughes arrived in Las Vegas by railroad car and moved into the Desert Inn. Because he refused to leave the hotel and to avoid further conflicts with the owners, Hughes bought the Desert Inn in early 1967. The hotel's eighth floor became the nerve center of Hughes' empire and the ninth-floor penthouse became his personal residence. Between 1966 and 1968, he bought several other hotel-casinos, including the Castaways, New Frontier, the Landmark Hotel and Casino, and the Sands. He bought the small Silver Slipper casino for the sole purpose of moving its trademark neon silver slipper. Visible from Hughes' bedroom, it had apparently kept him awake at night.
After Hughes left the Desert Inn, hotel employees discovered that his drapes had not been opened during the time he lived there and had rotted through. An unusual incident marked an earlier Hughes connection to Las Vegas: during his 1954 engagement at the Last Frontier hotel, flamboyant entertainer Liberace mistook Howard Hughes for his lighting director, instructing him to instantly bring up a blue light should he start to play Clair de lune. Hughes nodded in compliance—but the hotel's entertainment director arrived and introduced Hughes to Liberace.
Hughes wanted to change the image of Las Vegas to something more glamorous. As Hughes wrote in a memo to an aide, "I like to think of Las Vegas in terms of a well-dressed man in a dinner jacket and a beautifully jeweled and furred female getting out of an expensive car." Hughes bought several local television stations (including KLAS-TV).
Hughes' considerable business holdings were overseen by a small panel unofficially dubbed "The Mormon Mafia" because of the many Latter-day Saints on the committee, led by Frank William Gay. In addition to supervising day-to-day business operations and Hughes' health, they also went to great pains to satisfy Hughes' every whim. For example, Hughes once became fond of Baskin-Robbins' banana nut ice cream, so his aides sought to secure a bulk shipment for him, only to discover that Baskin-Robbins had discontinued the flavor. They put in a request for the smallest amount the company could provide for a special order, 350 gallons (1,300 L), and had it shipped from Los Angeles. A few days after the order arrived, Hughes announced he was tired of banana nut and wanted only French vanilla ice cream. The Desert Inn ended up distributing free banana nut ice cream to casino customers for a year. In a 1996 interview, ex–Howard Hughes communicator Robert Maheu said, "There is a rumor that there is still some banana nut ice cream left in the freezer. It is most likely true."
As an owner of several major Las Vegas businesses, Hughes wielded much political and economic influence in Nevada and elsewhere. During the 1960s and early 1970s, he disapproved of underground nuclear testing at the Nevada Test Site. Hughes was concerned about the risk from residual nuclear radiation, and attempted to halt the tests. When the tests finally went through despite Hughes' efforts, the detonations were powerful enough that the entire hotel where he was staying trembled due to the shock waves. In two separate, last-ditch maneuvers, Hughes instructed his representatives to offer million-dollar bribes to both presidents Lyndon B. Johnson and Richard Nixon.
In 1970, Jean Peters filed for divorce. The two had not lived together for many years. Peters requested a lifetime alimony payment of $70,000 a year, adjusted for inflation, and waived all claims to Hughes' estate. Hughes offered her a settlement of over a million dollars, but she declined it. Hughes did not insist on a confidentiality agreement from Peters as a condition of the divorce. Aides reported that Hughes never spoke ill of her. She refused to discuss her life with Hughes and declined several lucrative offers from publishers and biographers. Peters would state only that she had not seen Hughes for several years before their divorce and had only dealt with him by phone.
Hughes was living in the Intercontinental Hotel near Lake Managua in Nicaragua, seeking privacy and security, when a magnitude 6.5 earthquake damaged Managua in December 1972. As a precaution, Hughes moved to the Nicaraguan National Palace and stayed there as a guest of Anastasio Somoza Debayle before leaving for Florida on a private jet the following day. He subsequently moved into the Penthouse at the Xanadu Princess Resort on Grand Bahama Island, which he had recently purchased. He lived almost exclusively in the penthouse of the Xanadu Beach Resort & Marina for the last four years of his life. Hughes had spent a total of $300 million on his many properties in Las Vegas.
In 1972, author Clifford Irving caused a media sensation when he claimed he had co-written an authorized autobiography of Hughes. Hughes was so reclusive that he did not immediately publicly refute Irving's statement, leading many to believe the Irving book was genuine. However, before the book's publication, Hughes finally denounced Irving in a teleconference and the entire project was eventually exposed as a hoax. Irving was later convicted of fraud and spent 17 months in prison. In 1974, the Orson Welles film F for Fake included a section on the Hughes biography hoax. In 1977, The Hoax by Clifford Irving was published in the United Kingdom, telling his story of these events. The 2006 film The Hoax, starring Richard Gere, is also based on these events.
Hughes was reported to have died on April 5, 1976, at 1:27 p.m. on board an aircraft owned by Robert Graf and piloted by Jeff Abrams. He was en route from his penthouse at the Acapulco Fairmont Princess Hotel in Mexico to the Methodist Hospital in Houston, Texas. Other accounts indicate that he died on the flight from Freeport, Grand Bahama, to Houston.
After receiving a call, his senior counsel, Frank P. Morse, ordered his staff to get his body on a plane and return him to the United States. It was common that foreign countries would hold a corpse as ransom so that an estate could not be settled. Morse ordered the pilots to announce Hughes' death once they entered U.S. airspace.
His reclusiveness and possible drug use made him practically unrecognizable. His hair, beard, fingernails, and toenails were long—his tall 6 ft 4 in (193 cm) frame now weighed barely 90 pounds (41 kg), and the FBI had to use fingerprints to conclusively identify the body. Howard Hughes' alias, John T. Conover, was used when his body arrived at a morgue in Houston on the day of his death.
A subsequent autopsy recorded kidney failure as the cause of death. Hughes was in extremely poor physical condition at the time of his death. He suffered from malnutrition. While his kidneys were damaged, his other internal organs, including his brain, were deemed perfectly healthy. X-rays revealed five broken-off hypodermic needles in the flesh of his arms. To inject codeine into his muscles, Hughes had used glass syringes with metal needles that easily became detached.
Approximately three weeks after Hughes' death, a handwritten will was found on the desk of an official of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints in Salt Lake City, Utah. The so-called "Mormon Will" gave $1.56 billion to various charitable organizations (including $625 million to the Howard Hughes Medical Institute), nearly $470 million to the upper management in Hughes' companies and to his aides, $156 million to first cousin William Lummis, and $156 million split equally between his two ex-wives Ella Rice and Jean Peters.
In this will, Hughes left his entire estate to the Hughes Medical Institute as he had no connection to family and was seriously ill. This is contrary to the many wills that have surfaced after his death. The original will that included payments to aides never surfaced. It was apparently in a home surrounding the Desert Inn Golf Course belonging to the mother of an assistant. He had no desire to leave any money to family, aides or churches, including William Gay and Frank Morse. Hughes was not Mormon and had no reason to leave his estate to that church. Frank P. Morse is still the attorney of record for Hughes. Gay has devoted his life to the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.
A further $156 million was endowed to a gas-station owner, Melvin Dummar, who told reporters that in 1967, he found a disheveled and dirty man lying along U.S. Route 95, just 150 miles (240 km) north of Las Vegas. The man asked for a ride to Vegas. Dropping him off at the Sands Hotel, Dummar said the man told him that he was Hughes. Dummar later claimed that days after Hughes' death a "mysterious man" appeared at his gas station, leaving an envelope containing the will on his desk. Unsure if the will was genuine and unsure of what to do, Dummar left the will at the LDS Church office. In 1978, a Nevada court rejected the Mormon Will as a forgery, and officially declared that Hughes had died intestate. In 1980, Jonathan Demme's film Melvin and Howard, was based on Dummar's true story.
Hughes' $2.5 billion estate was eventually split in 1983 among 22 cousins, including William Lummis, who serves as a trustee of the Howard Hughes Medical Institute. The Supreme Court of the United States ruled that Hughes Aircraft was owned by the Howard Hughes Medical Institute which sold it to General Motors in 1985 for $5.2 billion. The court rejected suits by the states of California and Texas that claimed they were owed inheritance tax. In 1984 Hughes' estate paid an undisclosed amount to Terry Moore, who claimed she and Hughes had secretly married on a yacht in international waters off Mexico in 1949 and never divorced. Moore never produced proof of a marriage, but her book, The Beauty and the Billionaire, became a bestseller.
The moving image collection of Howard Hughes is held at the Academy Film Archive. The collection consists of over 200 items including 35mm and 16mm elements of feature films, documentaries, and television programs made or accumulated by Hughes.
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