Inside Howard Hughes' Serious 1936 Car Accident

Howard Hughes, the 32-year-old super-rich playboy, inventor, record-setting aviator, and Hollywood producer, roared down the streets of Los Angeles on the night of July 11, 1936. By his side sat Nancy Bell Bayly, the socialite daughter of a wealthy Pasadena family, according to the book "Howard Hughes: His Life and Madness." It was her 25th birthday, and the pair had spent the evening at Trader Vic's, the Polynesian-themed LA hotspot where they'd shared three rounds of the house-specialty cocktail, the Volcano, a vivid blue concoction heavy on rum, per "Howard Hughes: Hell's Angel." "We got real tipsy," Bayly later recalled, per "Hell's Angel."

From there, they'd gone to the Cocoanut Grove to go dancing, and now they were headed to the boardwalk in Santa Monica so Hughes could ride a rollercoaster. He'd be riding a different kind of roller coaster soon enough, one that wasn't nearly as fun. It was just before 11 p.m., and a heavy fog had set in as Hughes took the corner at Third Street and Lorraine Boulevard where the streetlight was burned out, per "Hollywood Death and Scandal Sites: Seventeen Driving Tours with Directions and the Full Story, 2d Ed."

A man dies in the fog

Gabe Meyer, a 59-year-old furniture salesman at the May Department Store in downtown LA, waited for the streetcar to take him to the home he shared with his sister and brother-in-law a half-mile away on South Lucerne Avenue, per "Hollywood Death and Scandal Sites." He was standing in the streetcar stop safety zone when a 1929 Dusenberg slammed into him and instantly killed him.

Just before the accident, Nancy Bell Bayly suddenly saw the fast approaching lights of a streetcar through the thick fog. Howard Hughes swerved to avoid an oncoming car, and then there was a loud thump — "like someone had thrown a sack of potatoes onto our hood," Bayly later recalled, per "Hell's Angel." She began screaming when she realized what had happened. They got out of the car and the two of them dragged Meyer's body to the sidewalk, where a crowd was gathering. The police arrived and Hughes was taken to a local hospital and given a sobriety test, but not before he'd managed to call his attorney, Neil McCarthy, and gotten his date onto a streetcar, per "Howard Hughes: His Life and Madness."

Obscured details and shady dealings 

Hughes passed his sobriety test, although the admitting doctor later said he hadn't been present when Hughes received it and believed Hughes had been heavily intoxicated at the time, per "Hell's Angel." The police booked Hughes on a charge of negligent homicide, and soon the press was all over the story. Hughes refused to reveal the name of the woman who had been his passenger that night, per "Howard Hughes: His Life and Madness." His attorney got him released the next morning on his own recognizance.

Hughes put out a statement to the press after the accident that was anything but contrite and didn't even mention the victim. "This is my first accident," the statement began, according "Hell's Angel." "I've been driving since I was 12 years old and I've never hit a cat or dog. My father owned the first automobile in the state of Texas and taught me to drive 18 years ago. I've had a perfect record. I've never even scratched the paint on my Dusenberg in nearly seven years."

Howard Hughes gets away unscathed 

During the ensuing investigation, Hughes' attorney, Neil McCarthy, controlled the narrative that this was nothing more than a tragic accident, and rounded up several witnesses that alleged the victim had been drunk and staggering into the street while Hughes was driving at a slow speed, per "Hell's Angel." "I know the facts, and I am confident there is no blame on Mr. Hughes," McCarthy told the Associated Press (via the Salt Lake Tribune). A fixer named Archie MacDonald also helped by bribing an important witness who had told police Meyer had been standing in the streetcar safety zone and that Hughes had been driving erratically and seemed drunk, but later changed his story, per "Family Secret."

A coroner's jury determined Hughes wasn't at fault for the "unavoidable accident" (per the AP, in the Chicago Tribune). Hughes paid Meyer's family the equivalent of around $215,000 in today's money (via the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics' CPI Inflation Calculator) and the scandal soon disappeared, per "Hollywood Death and Scandal Sites." Hughes had gotten away with negligent homicide without a scratch.

He wouldn't be so lucky almost exactly a decade later. On July 7, 1946, Hughes would suffer devastating injuries of his own in a crash (per Biography). That accident didn't involve a car, but rather an experimental airplane he was piloting when it slammed into two Beverly Hills homes before bursting into flames, per the Los Angeles Times. He suffered third-degree burns and multiple fractures, which led to him becoming a recluse, per "Pseudo-Addiction:The Illustrative Case of Howard Hughes," posted at ResearchGate).