Born on December 24, 1905, in Houston, Texas, Howard Hughes learned from an early age that money talks. His millionaire father owned the Hughes Tool company, which manufactured equipment for the oil industry and he had a comfortable childhood.
Yet Hughes never graduated from high school and was only able to attend classes at the California Institute of Technology because his father gave a generous endowment to the Institute. Hughes returned to Texas and enrolled at the Rice Institute in Houston, but when he was 18 his father died – and he left without his degree.
His father’s will decreed that Hughes was to take over the Hughes Tool Company at the age of 21. But after having himself declared to be of legal majority, Hughes appointed former racing driver Noah Dietrich as the company’s head of finance. It was a stroke of genius; over the next few years, Dietrich was instrumental in driving the company’s prosperity.
Movies and women
Besotted by the burgeoning movie industry, in 1925 Hughes went to Hollywood. He produced three films, then turned to writing and directing. In his first film, Hell’s Angels, the largest private airforce in the world was used to re-create aerial dogfights from the First World War.
Two of his later films tested the limits of public morality. Scarface (1932) was censored because of its violence and Hughes had to sue to allow its release. The Outlaw (1941) was controversial for its sexually explicit advertising and content, featuring a sensational décolletage worn by its star Jane Russell. Hughes had used his engineering expertise to create the half-cup bra modelled by Russell.
In 1948 Hughes took over the RKO studio. During the McCarthy era, as Hollywood was investigated for its supposedly pro-communist leanings, he was staunchly anti-communist. The studio was closed for six months while the politics of his employees were investigated – and completed pictures were re-shot if Hughes felt that their anti-communist politics weren’t sufficiently clear.
Hughes’s affairs with women were legendary. Although married to Ella Rice, a Houston socialite, in 1925, from 1928 he was linked to a string of movie stars: Jean Harlow, Katherine Hepburn, Ava Gardner, Terry Moore, Lana Turner, Rita Hayworth and Janet Leigh.
There were also rumours of gay liaisons with a number of actors. He divorced Rice in 1929. In 1957, he married actress Jean Peters, but they divorced in 1970.
Round the world in record time
Towards the end of the 1920s, Hughes acquired a fleet of aircraft. In 1932 he formed the Hughes Aircraft division of the Hughes Tool Company. The firm went on to pioneer many innovations in aerospace technology.
Hughes had acquired his pilot’s licence during the filming of Hell’s Angels. From then on, the most exhilarating hours of his life were spent in the air.
A childhood illness had left him with tinnitus and a continual ringing in his ears. He was too proud to wear a hearing aid, and only in the cockpit of a plane did the ringing cease.
Flying became an obsession. Hughes set a number of world records, often in aeroplanes designed by himself. In 1935 he reached a speed of 350 miles per hour in the H-1 Hughes Racer. In 1938, he flew round the world in 3 days, 19 hours, and 17 minutes.
But in 1946, Hughes was piloting an experimental US Air Force spy plane, the XF-11, when it developed an oil leak. Crash-landing to save the plane, he suffered numerous injuries included a crushed collar bone, six shattered ribs and third-degree burns. Only morphine made the pain bearable and Hughes became dependent on the drug for the rest of his life.