Howard Hughes, Hollywood's Richest Hermit
Howard Hughes, one of the world's richest men, died from dehydration, malnutrition and neglect. Even now, a generation after his death, he remains one of Hollywood's most intriguing and perplexing figures.
Hughes lived a quite extraordinary life and died an extraordinary death. X-rays taken at autopsy revealed broken hypodermic needles lodged in his arms, and his six-foot-four frame weighed less than 90lb (41kg). He had been seen by so few people for so long that the Treasury Department had to use fingerprints to identify his body.
Hughes had been a womaniser, a record-breaking aviator, a Hollywood film director, and he was one of the richest men in the world yet he lived the last years of his life in squalor, terrified of germs and of physical contact with other people.
Howard Hughes was born in Houston, Texas, on December 24, 1905. His father was the founder of the Hughes Tool Company. His brother, Rupert Hughes, worked as a writer for Samuel Goldwyn's movie studios. Hughes grew up under the strong influence of his mother, who was obsessed with protecting her son from all germs and diseases. This obsession was to re-surface later in Hughes's life with tragic consequences.
A poor student, Hughes never graduated from high school. However, his father arranged for him to attend the Rice Institute by donating money to the institution. Hughes showed an early aptitude for engineering, mathematics and flying and took his first flying lessons at age 14.
Hughes' parents both died while he was still in his teens and, at the age of 18 Howard inherited a controlling 75 percent share in the multi-million dollar Hughes Tool Company including the increasing amounts of cash flow generated from oil drilling royalties. Hughes dropped out of Rice University shortly after his father's death. A year later, in June 1925, at age 19, Hughes married socialite Ella Rice, and shortly thereafter they left Houston and moved to Hollywood where Hughes hoped to make a name for himself making movies.
Hughes in Tinseltown
Hughes had determined to use his fortune to become a movie producer. He was at first dismissed by Hollywood insiders as a rich man's son. However, his first two films released in 1927, "Everybody's Acting" and "Two Arabian Knights" were financial successes, the latter winning an Academy Award for Best Director of a Comedy Picture. "The Racket" in
1928 and "The Front Page" in 1931 were nominated for Academy Awards. He spent a then-unheard-of $4 million of his own money to make "Hell's Angels", which he wrote and directed and which became a smash hit, along with his 1932 film "Scarface" (which he produced).
Jane Russell in The Outlaw
Hughes's best-known film is probably "The Outlaw" starring Jane Russell, for whom Hughes designed a special brassiÃ¨re.
David Bacon ended
up with a stiletto in his
back. His murder was
never solved."Scarface" and "The Outlaw" received attention from industry censors; "Scarface" for its violence, "The Outlaw" for Russell's physical charms. He signed an unknown actor David Bacon in 1932 to play Billy The Kid. Bacon's murder the following year sparked an investigation which brought to light allegations of a supposed sexual affair between Bacon and Hughes
which may have indirectly led to Bacon's death.
With Jean Harlow
Hughes was a notorious philanderer. He had affairs with many famous women including Katharine Hepburn, Bette Davis, Jean Harlow, Ava Gardner as well as a long list of minor starlets. He kept his wife isolated at home for weeks at a time and, in 1929, she returned to Houston and filed for divorce.
Hughes dancing with Ginger Rogers
His Career in the Air
Hughes was an obsessed genius when it came to planes. He was an aircraft enthusiast, pilot, and self-taught aircraft engineer and he received many awards as an aviator, including the Harmon Trophy in 1936 and 1938, the Collier Trophy 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."
The aviation bug had firmly taken hold after the film Hells Angels and in 1932 he formed the Hughes Aircraft Company where he built and test-piloted the H-1, the world's most advanced plane.
In 1935 he set a new world speed record of 352 mph. Three years later he flew round the world in a record-breaking three days and 19 hours.
During the 1940s, however, Hughes' life, both in aviation and personally, began to spiral out of control. His fear of germs and contamination led to increasingly erratic, obsessive-compulsive behaviour that his wealth allowed him to indulge.
Moreover, his hopes of making Hughes Aircraft a major player in the industry took a knock when he was unable to deliver on two lucrative government contracts.
In 1946 he suffered horrific injuries when he crashed the XF-11, a reconnaissance plane of his own design, in Beverly Hills. And in 1947, the H-4 Hercules - a gigantic flying boat that came to be dubbed the Spruce Goose - was mothballed after just one maiden flight.
Hughes fared no better in Hollywood, gaining controlling interest of RKO only to run the legendary studio into the ground with his eccentric, absentee management.
In 1955 much to the relief of the Hollywood studio establishment, Hughes decided to get out of the film business in 1955 claiming "it represents 15 percent of my business and takes 85 percent of my time." The fortunes of RKO had diminished under the erratic leadership of Hughes, whose intolerable meddling drove many independent producers to other distributors while the studio incurred heavy liabilities.
The descent into madness
The account of Hughes's last years is not pretty. He was never the same after the fiery plane crash in 1946, when his chest was crushed and his body badly burned. Addicted increasingly to valium and codeine, he began to withdraw from the world. He avoided socialising, stopped playing his beloved golf, and his germ obsession began to spiral out of control. This included a fear of flies. Hughes hired three Mormon guards to work in eight-hour shifts at the bungalow (where he lived), not just to make sure he wasn't killed, but to intercept the insects.
Also in 1946, he threw out his golf clubs and clothes, convinced they were contaminated with syphilis. Over the next 20 years, Hughes became a shattered, reclusive shell of a man. He wore tissue boxes for shoes, took to storing his bodily waste in glass jars and drafted lengthy memos on the proper way to open tin cans without touching them.
Among other things, Hughes gave his staff complex instructions for handling objects. For example, before handing a spoon to Hughes, his servants were required to wrap its handle in tissue paper and seal it with cellophane tape. A second piece of tissue was then wrapped over the first protective wrapping. On receiving the spoon, Hughes would use it with the handle still covered.
Other instructions to his employees were even more elaborate. In order to remove his hearing-aid cord from the bathroom cabinet, servants were told:
Use six to eight tissues to turn the knob on the bathroom door
Then use six to eight new tissues to open the bathroom cabinet and remove an unused bar of soap
Clean your hands with the soap
Use at least fifteen tissues to open the door to the cabinet containing the hearing aid
Remove the sealed envelope containing the hearing aid with two hands using another fifteen tissues in both hands
Hughes' fear of contamination turned him into a complete recluse. He rarely ventured out of the exclusive hotel rooms he stayed in, so sightings of the tycoon were eagerly reported by the media.
Hughes died on April 5, 1976, while on an airplane owned by Robert Graf, en route from his penthouse in Acapulco, Mexico to The Methodist Hospital in Houston. It has also been argued that he died before leaving Mexico. His reclusive activities and drug use had made him practically unrecognizable; his hair, beard, fingernails, and toenails had grown grossly long, his once-strapping 6'4" (193 cm) frame now weighed barely 90 lbs (41 kg), and the FBI had to resort to fingerprints to identify the body.
A subsequent autopsy noted kidney failure as the cause of death. Hughes was in extremely poor physical condition at the time of his death; X-rays revealed broken-off hypodermic needles still embedded in his arms and severe malnutrition. The first doctor to examine him diagnosed the cause of Hughes' death as neglect. While his kidneys were damaged, his other internal organs were deemed perfectly healthy.
Hughes is buried in the Glenwood Cemetery in Houston.
The unique reference site for Hollywood's Golden Age
From his reckless pursuit of love as a rich teenager to his final days as a demented and decaying eccentric, he tasted the best and worst of the century he occupied. Along the way, he changed the world of aviation and entertainment forever.
In the end his weaknesses overcame his strengths but he was an extraordinary man. In a tribute to this flawed but majestic American icon one critic said, "If Howard Hughes did not exist, no one would dare invent him. His life would defy a novelist!"