Howard Hughes: Millionaire Producer, Aviator, Hermit

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The lifestyle of the jet-setter millionaire draws a lot of attention, and with good reason: rich people who globe trot between various exotic places, throw lavish and wild parties, and are the source of all the rumors that accompany their kind of lifestyle can capture the public imagination. We all know of famous millionaires who lead such lives. One of the earliest examples of the jet-setter millionaire in American history is Howard Hughes, a man who inherited his fortune in Texas but who made a name for himself in Hollywood, Las Vegas, and all over the world.

Howard Hughes’ Early Life

Hughes was born in a suburb of Houston, Texas (named Humble, Texas, oddly enough). His father, Howard Hughes Sr., owned the Hughes Tool Company, which was a company that built and sold tools for the oil industry. In 1909, Howard Sr. invented a rotary bit for oil well drilling and this invention made the Hughes family incredibly wealthy. Howard Jr. inherited the business at age 19 after his father passed away. He quit school to take over the business and when he sold it in 1972, it was worth billions of dollars.

Howard goes to Hollywood

Hughes (standing) giving directions to an actor on the set of The Outlaw

In 1926 at the age of 21, Hughes decided to move to Hollywood where he could use his vast fortune to produce movies. The movies that Hughes produced were known for being over-the-top in terms of both budget and in their content. In 1927, he produced Two Arabian Knights which won two Academy Awards, along with Hell’s Angels, a movie about two British pilots who fall in love with the same woman during World War I. Hell’s Angels was known more for its aerial sequences than for its run-of-the-mill story. Production of Hell’s Angels was a drama in itself. It was way over budget, costing over $3 million to make. Actress Greta Nissen was replaced by Jean Harlow as the leading lady. Several directors also quit during filming, which prompted Hughes to finally direct the film himself. Hell’s Angels was not released until 1930 but was a box office hit when it was released.

Hughes produced some other movies that drew the attention of the censors for their violent and overtly sexual content. In 1932, he produced Scarface, based on the life of famous gangster Al Capone. The movie was delayed by the censors, who requested changes to many of the film’s violent scenes. In 1941 Hughes produced a story of the Wild West called The Outlaw. Hughes cast Jane Russel as the leading lady and dressed her in costumes which were sexually provocative for the time. Again, the censors objected to the content of the movie (although this time the problem was sexual content rather than violence) and again the movie’s release was delayed. However, The Outlaw, like Scarface, was a hit when it came out in spite of the attention it received from the censors.

Hughes Reaches Rarefied Air as an Aviator

Hughes, in full aviator regalia, posing in front of an airplane

Along with his life as a Hollywood movie mogul, Hughes was a daring test pilot. He founded the Howard Hughes Aircraft Company in 1932. He piloted planes that were built by his company and as a pilot, he broke various speed records at the time. He flew at a speed record of 352.46 miles per hour in 1935, in an airplane that he designed no less; in 1937 he flew across the United States in 7 hours 28 minutes; in 1938 he circled the Earth in 91 hours 14 minutes. He even helped to start Trans World Airways (TWA) in 1939, and he eventually purchased 78 percent of TWA’s stock.

At the beginning of World War II, Hughes turned his attention to building military aircraft. The Hughes Aircraft Company received a government contract and developed two airplanes: the Hughes XF-11 and the H-4 Hercules. Much like his movies though, the aircraft were over budget and were not even released until after the war. In 1946, Hughes test piloted the XF-11 for its test flight but the plane crashed, nearly killing Hughes in the process. One year later, the Hercules was finished. It was an eight engine wooden flying boat that was meant to carry 750 passengers. The American press nicknamed the Hercules the Spruce Goose. Hughes took the Spruce Goose on its first test flight and it traveled all of one mile. That was the only time the Spruce Goose ever flew. It now sits in a flight museum in Oregon.

Shuffling into Shadows: Hughes’ Later Life

Hughes was always known as a loner but in the years after his accident with the XF-11 he became a recluse. In 1967, he moved to Las Vegas, where he rented a suite at the Desert Inn. Hughes took to living in the suite, and he did most of his business there. When the hotel finally asked him to leave, Hughes bought the hotel. In the following years, Hughes bought other pieces of land in and around Las Vegas, and he played a big role in bringing corporate investment to Las Vegas, which was a city that had been dominated by the mob up until that time.

Eventually Hughes moved out of Las Vegas, choosing to travel the world instead of just settling in one place. He took steps to keep his life as private as possible as he jumped between luxury hotels in The Bahamas, Nicaragua, Las Vegas, Canada, England, and Mexico. He was rarely seen by anyone except a few of his male staff members.  He worked for days on end in a black-curtained room, while he ate very little and used a lot of drugs. His lifestyle soon caught up to him, and he became quite ill in 1976. Hughes died during a flight from Acapulco, Mexico to Houston, Texas where he was going to seek treatment for his illness.

Howard Hughes Fun Facts

  • Hughes was quite the playboy in Hollywood, and was rumored to have romantic relationships with Katherine Hepburn, Bette Davis, Ginger Rogers, and Ava Gardner among others
  • During his later reclusive years, Hughes kept his urine stored in jars. He was a also a germophobe, and wore Kleenex boxes on his feet to keep germs at bay
  • Hughes was obsessed with peas, and would arrange them on his dinner plate according to size
  • Stan Lee based his Iron Man/Tony Stark character off of Hughes




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