Mention Howard Hughes, and most people think about the end of the man’s life, about the eccentricities of a billionaire. It’s fair; he was a billionaire, and he was eccentric, but that’s far from the whole story. Hughes had a brilliant mind, and he was inventive. Unfortunately, he also suffered from several physical and psychological conditions that ended up ruining his mind.
Early Life Influences
Howard Hughes always lived in wealth thanks to a drill bit that his father, Howard Sr., invented for the oil business. Howard Jr., born in 1905, was just a toddler at the time.
As a teenager in the 1920s, he received an allowance of $5,000 a week, and although he never graduated high school, his father bought him a place at Rice University. This treatment likely made Hughes believe that money was easy and that he was entitled to anything he wanted. Yet he also had intelligence to go with his privilege.
When his mother refused to let him have a motorcycle at age 14, he motorized his bicycle. He showed a natural aptitude for physics in high school, but he wasn’t a good student; he soon dropped out of college too. Considering his many later accomplishments, perhaps school just wasn’t challenging enough for him.
His mother’s influence was rather damaging. Concern for her son’s safety led her to instill Hughes’ lifelong obsession over germs. Allene Hughes wasn’t cruel; she was scared. Polio was a real threat when Howard was young, and she became obsessed with protecting him, checking his body daily for disease and controlling what he ate.
She didn’t encourage friendships, and Hughes grew to be a loner. Her influence was so strong that it might have literally paralyzed him. There was a period of a few months during adolescence when he couldn’t walk. The symptoms later disappeared and were probably psychological.
Howard Hughes’ parents died within two years of each other, and he inherited 75 percent of his father’s estate and of Hughes Tool Company when he was only 18 years old. Unable to make decisions as a minor — the age of majority was 21 then — he became a legal adult at age 19 and bought out the rest of his family’s shares in the company. He then hired someone to run the business for him. Continued earnings from the company financed many of Hughes’ business activities.
In 1925, Howard Hughes moved from Houston to Los Angeles where he financed films before making them himself. His first directorial effort, “Hell’s Angel’s,” showed early signs of Hughes’ excesses and obsession. He bought 87 vintage planes from World War I as well as a blimp just to film it burning. Hughes suffered his first airplane crash during filming, which resulted in a crushed cheekbone. Also, more than one stunt pilot died during filming. There were numerous reshoots, and the film’s final cost of $3.8 million was, in 1930, enormous.
Hughes went on to make “Scarface” and “The Outlaw,” both of which caused trouble with censors. “Scarface” was too violent, and “The Outlaw” dared to show Jane Russell’s cleavage above a low-cut blouse. How times have changed.
In 1948, Hughes bought controlling interest RKO Studios but fired 75 percent of the staff and investigated the political beliefs of the rest during a six-month shutdown. He also stopped production on many films with messages he didn’t like or sent them back for reshoots if the anti-communist message wasn’t clear enough.
Hughes meddled constantly in productions and obsessed over the appearance of female stars. He ended up buying out nearly all other shareholders to avoid their lawsuits and basically ruined the studio. Still, when he sold his studio shares in 1954, he made a $6.5 million profit.
Hughes’ interest in airplanes went beyond movie making, and he formed Hughes Aircraft in 1932. Before RKO, he bought controlling interest in Trans World Airlines and helped make it into an international carrier. Yet like RKO, he mismanaged the business and had to sell his shares in the 1960s. He walked away with over $500 million.
Hughes won various government contracts to build planes during World War II but never delivered. He became infamous for the “Spruce Goose,” a wooden behemoth meant to carry troops; it flew once for one mile. Yet Hughes developed two important innovations: retractable landing gear and flat rivets that reduced air drag and increased speed. He personally set several speed records, including a flight around the world. Hughes did a great deal for the aviation industry, but he suffered too.
Acting as a test pilot for his own planes, he crashed twice more. In 1943, an amphibian plane crashed into Lake Mead outside Las Vegas, Nevada, killing an employee and an aviation inspector. Hughes suffered a serious head gash. In 1946, a plane he was testing malfunctioned and crashed into more than one Beverly Hills residence. The plane caught fire and Hughes nearly died. He suffered third-degree burns, numerous broken bones and a collapsed lung. His crushed chest caused his heart to shift to the right side of his body.
Yet Hughes didn’t stop working. During his hospital stay, he designed a push-button bed to help burn victims move around, which led to today’s modern hospital beds. While doctors called Hughes’ recovery miraculous, he attributed it to fresh-squeezed orange juice, juice that he insisted on watching someone squeeze for him or he wouldn’t drink it. However, the injuries led to constant pain and long-term dependence on painkillers, including codeine and morphine.
Physical and Psychological Illness
Multiple airplane crashes, deaths occurring as a result of his work, multiple head traumas and continuous pain would send anyone off the deep end, but Hughes also had the early loss of both parents, the damaging effects of his mother’s paranoia and an enormous amount of responsibility while still a teenager. His eventual mental decline isn’t that surprising.
In addition, several reports state that Hughes contracted syphilis in his younger days; he was certainly a notorious womanizer, even while married, and some say he also had affairs with men. Hughes received penicillin treatments for the disease, but it continued to affect him neurologically and caused dementia. Additional reports state that he suffered from allodynia, a condition that causes pain with even the lightest touch.
Hughes developed obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD) fairly early. Well before he became a recluse, he would use several tissues to open doors or handle the telephone, and he couldn’t bear to see dirt or stains on other peoples’ clothes. He burned his own clothes at times to avoid germs, and he was obsessed with peas, often arranging them by size.
Howard Hughes was never comfortable in the spotlight, but after his 1946 crash, he isolated himself even more. Late in 1947, he entered a screening room in California and stayed there for over four months, watching movies and consuming only chicken, chocolate and milk. He used empty bottles and food containers to relieve himself.
Hughes began writing memos to his aides filled with exact details about how they should interact with him. He created what he called a “germ-free zone” where he could safely sit, yet he didn’t take care of himself. Hughes finally left the screening room in early 1948, emerging dirty and ragged in appearance. His allodynia might explain why he spent long periods of time naked and also why he didn’t bathe, cut his hair or trim his nails.
He then moved to the Beverly Hills Hotel. While he didn’t isolate himself as deeply as before, he continued obsessive behaviors with a germ-free zone and watching movies naked. Yet many people with chronic pain do watch movies to distract themselves.
In 1956, Hughes hired former FBI agent Robert Maheu to spy on girlfriends and business rivals; he also dealt with blackmailers. Maheu eventually became Hughes’ surrogate so that Hughes didn’t have to go out in public. However, Mahue didn’t meet Hughes. All their business took place by phone.
The most infamous period of Howard Hughes’ life began in late November of 1966 in Las Vegas. Wanting to escape California state taxes, Hughes took a private train to the city and moved into the Desert Inn, renting the entire top two floors. Hotel management wanted him gone after 10 days to prepare for high rollers booked for New Year’s Eve; Hughes refused. He eventually bought the hotel so he could stay longer.
The billionaire had a plan. He wanted to rid Las Vegas of mob presence, and he bought several other hotels that they owned. Hughes helped make Las Vegas into a legitimate place to do business, but his motives weren’t entirely selfless; income from hotels was taxed at a lower rate than investment income, which benefited him. Meanwhile, city officials broke rules for Hughes, granting operational licenses despite his refusal to disclose his finances or to be fingerprinted or photographed.
Hughes’ eccentricities reached full bloom during his years in Las Vegas. He bought a television station so that he could program the movies he wanted to watch. If he missed some scenes, he made the station replay them. He tried to influence local politics with generous and diverse campaign contributions, hoping to repeal sales tax and stop school integration.
Hughes wanted to cancel a tennis tournament featuring Arthur Ashe because he feared his hotel would face “hordes of Negroes.” He was also suspicious of civil rights legislation, but his dislike of African Americans was a phobia more than racism; he witnessed terrible race riots as a child that resulted in multiple deaths.
Additional control attempts included wanting city engineers to consult with him before realigning streets; wanting to outlaw rock festivals in the county; and wanting to prohibit entertainers from communist countries from performing in Las Vegas.
Hughes objected to projects designed to bring water in from Lake Meade to help the city, blatantly revealing his germ phobia. He claimed that the city put sewage into the lake and then barely cleaned it, just having “turds removed by a strainer.” Hughes didn’t drink the water himself but was concerned about his hotel patrons. He was unsuccessful with all these efforts.
During these years, few people actually saw Howard Hughes except for his staff of mostly Mormon aides, known as his “Mormon Mafia.” Hughes delivered more rules in memos, including how many tissues to use when carrying anything to or from his rooms; how many times aides needed to wash their hands; and how to wash a can of peaches before opening it.
His quirky food demands included getting Baskin-Robbins to make a discontinued ice cream flavor for him, in a minimum-allowable order of 200 gallons, only to change his mind after it arrived. The aides occasionally fed Hughes, and they also regularly gave him drugs.
When Hughes left Las Vegas in 1970, his rooms had never been cleaned, and the drapes had never been opened. His aides carried him out and put him on a private plane.
Hughes lived in hotels in the Bahamas, Nicaragua and Mexico during his last years. In 1972, he sold Hughes Tool Company. In 1973, he cleaned up briefly and went flying again in England. Unfortunately, he suffered a fall and had to go back on painkillers. He declined sharply then, becoming the caricature many remember with long hair, long fingernails and skeletal body.
In 1976, in Acapulco, Mexico, aides found him unconscious and put him on a plane to Houston. He died of kidney failure during the flight; however, malnutrition, dehydration and the discovery of broken needles in his arms likely played a part. His longtime assistant, Maheu, expressed bitterness towards Hughes’ aides, calling their neglect a weapon that killed him.
Many false wills surfaced following Hughes’ death, claiming rights to his estate. The courts never found a legitimate will, and more than $2 billion went equally to several cousins. These days, most people remember Howard Hughes only for his eccentricities. Many things contributed to his poor mental state, but he was once a brilliant innovator.