Howard Robard Hughes (1905-1976) was a flamboyant entreprenuer who used an inherited fortune to achieve a national reputation in the motion picture and aviation industries, remaining in the news in later years because of his paranoid concern for privacy.
Howard Robard Hughes was born in Houston, Texas, on December 24, 1905, the only child of Howard Robard Hughes and Alene Gano Hughes. He attended private schools in California and Massachusetts, Rice Institute in Houston, and the California Institute of Technology. His mother died when Hughes was 16 and his father when he was 18, leaving him an orphan but with an estate worth $871,000 and a patent for a drill bit used in most oil and gas drilling that brought large revenues to the family's Hughes Tool Company that manufactured the bit. Hughes left school to take control of the company, using its profits to finance a variety of projects which he hoped would make him a legend in his own time. In 1925, when he was 20, Hughes married Ella Rice and moved to Los Angeles (they separated in 1928). In 1927 Hughes entered the motion picture business and produced such films as "Hell's Angels" (1930), "Scarface" (1932), and "The Outlaw" (1941). He discovered actors Jean Harlow and Paul Muni and made Jane Russell a well-known star.
In 1928 Hughes obtained a pilot's license. His interest in aviation led him to found the Hughes Aircraft Company in Glendale in 1932 and to design, build, and fly record-breaking airplanes. He set a world speed record in 1935, transcontinental speed records in 1936 and 1937, and a world flight record in 1938. Hughes was honored with the Harmon Trophy and a New York City ticker-tape parade after his world flight. He was awarded the Collier Trophy in 1939, the Octave Chanute Award in 1940, and a Congressional Medal in 1941.
In 1939 he began work on an experimental military aircraft, and in 1942 he received a contract to design and build the world's largest plane, a wooden seaplane, later nicknamed the "Spruce Goose," which was supposed to serve as a troop carrier in World War II. Hughes suffered a nervous breakdown in 1944 and was critically injured in the crash of his experimental military plane in 1946, but he recovered and flew the huge seaplane the next year, blunting the congressional investigation of his war contracts. As a result of these aviation activities, Hughes became a popular public figure because he seemed to embody the traditional American qualities of individuality, daring, and ingenuity. He was named to the Aviation Hall of Fame in 1973.
The Hughes Aircraft Company became a major defense contractor after World War II. As the profits of the company increased, Hughes became obsessed with avoiding taxes and in 1953 created the Howard Hughes Medical Institute as a sophisticated tax shelter to which he transferred the assets of the aircraft company. In 1956 Hughes loaned $205,000 to Richard Nixon's brother Donald in a successful effort to influence an Internal Revenue Service ruling on the medical institute. Hughes made secret contributions of $100,000 to the Nixon campaign in 1970 and was able to prevent enforcement of the Tax Reform Act against the medical institute. Hughes continued to use profits from the tool company for other ventures, including the creation of Trans World Airlines (TWA), in which he had begun investing in 1939.
In 1950 he went into seclusion, beginning a lifestyle which would ultimately turn him into a recluse, although he did marry actress Jean Peters in 1957, divorcing her in 1971. Hughes refused to appear in court or even give a deposition, and in a 1963 antitrust case over his ownership of 78 percent of TWA, his failure to appear resulted in a default ruling that led him to sell his holdings in 1966. The $566 million received from this sale was invested by Hughes in Las Vegas hotels, gambling casinos, golf courses, a television station, an airport, and land. In 1972 the Hughes Tool Division, the basis of the Hughes fortune, was sold. The holding company was renamed Summa Corporation and its headquarters relocated to Las Vegas, where Hughes had moved his residence.
From this point in his career, Hughes' accomplishments were minimal. His obsession to control every aspect of his environment turned him into a recluse seen by a few associates and isolated from the operations of his company. In 1970 he left the United States, abruptly moving from place to place—the Bahamas, Nicaragua, Canada, England, and Mexico. He always arrived unannounced in luxury hotels and took extreme precautions to ensure privacy. Hughes saw only a few male aides, worked for days without sleep in a black-curtained room, and became emaciated from the effects of a meager diet and the excessive use of drugs. His concern for privacy ultimately caused controversy, resulting in a scandal over his supposed memoirs by author Clifford Irving that sold for $1 million before being proven fraudulent. The Hughes conglomerate became involved with the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA), and in 1975 it built an undersea exploratory drilling ship which was actually for use by the CIA to attempt to recover a sunken Soviet submarine. The company retained a Washington, D.C., public relations firm that was also involved with the CIA, which led the Hughes corporation to become involved in the Watergate affair.
Hughes died, a hopeless psychotic, on April 5, 1976, on an airplane that was taking him from Acapulco, Mexico, to a hospital in Houston for medical attention. Hughes was controversial even after his death. Several wills appeared, one of which was found in the Mormon church in Salt Lake City, Utah, but all were declared to be forgeries after protracted litigation.
There are numerous books devoted to the controversial Hughes. The best biography is Donald L. Barlett and James B. Steele, Empire: The Life, Legend, and Madness of Howard Hughes (1979). John Keats, Howard Hughes (1972) is excellent on the qualities which made Hughes popular with Americans in the 1930s and 1940s. Noah Dietrich and Bob Thomas, Howard: The Amazing Mr. Hughes (1972) provide an insider's view of Hughes' business affairs. James Phelan, Howard Hughes: The Hidden Years (1976) is the best book on Hughes' final years as a recluse. Michael Drosnin, Citizen Hughes: In His Own Words—How Howard Hughes Tried To Buy America (1985) is an example of studies which are extremely critical of Hughes' methods.