Howard Hughes: Biography
His birth details were falsified and lie after lie surrounded his infancy, however, Howard Hughes grew up to be America's rich kid, golden boy and flying hero. This article takes you on a rapid journey of his life and shows the crucial role he played in aviation and movie making. Even up to his death in 1976, he was constantly wheeling and dealing as he had always been. Howard Hughes Jr. was larger than life, yet his end could not have been sadder.
Howard Robard Hughes Jr. - known as Sonny - was not born in Houston, Texas on Christmas Eve, December 24, 1905, but in the oil town of Humble, in the same state, on September 24 – although the date survives to this day in the baptismal registration of the parish ledger of St. John’s, Keokuk, Iowa. No birth certificate was entered for him; the day he was born there was a thunderstorm, and the doctor and midwife were unable to make the journey to Houston through washed-out roads to register the newborn. So they let the matter lie until three months later.
His father was the outlaw wildcatter Howard (Bo) Robard Hughes; his mother, the neurotic Dallas heiress Allene Gano. He would always be half outlaw, defying justice; half fragile, self-centered neurasthenic. Two men who helped shape his character were his grandfather, the monomaniac Iowa Judge Felix Hughes, and his brilliant Jekyll-and-Hyde uncle, the celebrated best-selling novelist and Broadway playwright Rupert Hughes.
Howard Hughes Jr. was arguably the most secretive, unconventional and self-destructive man ever to win fame in Southern California’s two glamour industries - movies and aviation. When Hughes Jr. was four years old, his father patented a rotary drill bit with 166 cutting edges that penetrated thick rock, revolutionizing oil drilling worldwide. He grew up an indifferent student with a liking for mathematics, flying and things mechanical. He audited math and engineering classes at the California Institute of Technology, Pasadena and later at the Rice Institute of Technology in Houston. Orphaned in 1924, the 18-year-old Hughes took control of his father’s Hughes Tool Company in Houston - an estate valued at almost $900,000. Although shy and retiring, Hughes became enamored with the motion picture industry and moved to Los Angeles in 1925. Hughes financed three films of varying quality before undertaking an epic movie – Hell’s Angels - about Royal Air Force fighter pilots in World War I.
The peaks and valleys of his life were incredible. As an aviator, he once held every speed record of consequence and was hailed as the world’s greatest flyer. Howard Hughes’ greatest legacy to Southern California is the family of Hughes companies founded during his lifetime. At various points in his life he owned an international airline, Hughes Aircraft Co. (1935); two regional airlines, a major motion picture studio, mining properties, a tool company, gambling casinos and hotels in Las Vegas, a medical research institute, and a vast amount of real estate; he had built and flown the world’s largest airplane; and he had produced and directed the movie “Hell’s Angels” – a Hollywood firm classic. Based in Westchester California, Hughes Space and Communications is the world’s largest manufacturer of commercial satellites - the designer and builder of the world’s first synchronous communications satellite, Syncom, and the producer of nearly 40% of the satellites now in commercial service. Hughes Electronics is owned by General Motors. Hughes Aircraft merged with Raytheon Company in 1998 and is now called Raytheon Systems Co. Prior to the merger Hughes Aircraft was a world leader in high technology systems for scientific, military and global applications.
Throughout his Hollywood years, Hughes maintained his passion for flying. Like the movies, aviation was booming in Southern California, making the region a center for new technology. Hughes was in the thick of it, but unlike other aircraft entrepreneurs, he preferred spending his time in a cockpit rather than the boardroom. In 1934 he won his first speed title flying a converted Boeing pursuit plane 185 miles per hour. He and a young Caltech engineer, Dick Palmer, then built a plane called the H-1 (featuring a unique retractable landing gear), which Hughes piloted to a new speed record of 352 mph near Santa Ana, California. This was in 1935, the year that Hughes founded the Hughes Aircraft Company as a division within Hughes Tool Company, operating out of a hangar in Burbank, California.
From about 1944, Hughes began exhibiting alarming behavior and a phobia of germs, which led to a mental breakdown. His fear of germs was made worse by a drug habit that included both Codeine and Valium; the codeine had first been prescribed to alleviate pain from injuries incurred in the XF-11 plane crash years earlier. The germ obsession began in his youth (due in large part to an overly protective mother) and steadily heightened throughout his adulthood.
Even as early as the 1940s he required all those who came in contact with the same things that he touched to wear white gloves. His servants had to handle everything with tissues. In 1958 he apparently suffered a second mental breakdown. Of his days at the Beverly Hills Hotel, Bartlett and Steele write: "Hughes spent almost all his time sitting naked in [his white leather chair] in the center of the living room – an area he called the ‘germ free zone’ – his long legs stretched out on the matching ottoman facing a movie screen, watching one motion picture after another.”
Hughes’ behavior became increasingly irrational; he lived the life of a drug addicted, bed-ridden hermit. Although Hughes managed to attend to business and had many periods of lucidity, his physical health had turned precarious. In 1973 Hughes was inducted into the Aviation Hall of Fame in Dayton, Ohio. A member of his 1938 around-the-world flight crew represented him, calling him "a modest, retiring, lonely genius; often misunderstood, sometimes misrepresented and libeled by malicious associates and greedy little men."
In his final years he abruptly moved his residence from one place to another - Bahamas, Nicaragua, Canada, England, Las Vegas, and Mexico - arriving at each new destination unnoticed, taking elaborate precautions to ensure absolute privacy in a luxury hotel, and rarely being seen by anyone except a few male aides. Often working for days without sleep in a black-curtained room, he became emaciated and deranged from the effects of a meager diet and an excess of drugs.
A doctor who examined him in 1973 likened his condition to prisoners he had seen in Japanese prison camps during World War II. Hughes spent the final chapter of his life in Mexico – a mentally ill recluse, wasted in body, incoherent in thought, alone in the world except for his doctors and bodyguards. He died on April 5, 1976 – aged 71 years - of apparent heart failure on an airplane carrying him from Acapulco Mexico to Houston, Texas to seek medical treatment. X-rays taken during the autopsy showed fragments of hypodermic needles broken off in his arms.