The tragic real-life story of Howard Hughes

Howard Hughes packed a lot into his 70 years of life. Born into wealth due to his father inventing a rotary bit for oil well drilling that made his small family a large fortune, Hughes inherited the lion's share when both of his parents passed away when he was a teen.  

To say Hughes was an ambitious eccentric would be an understatement. Money, as history has proven thus far, has a way of making people go a bit bonkers. And when the person in question is already tipping the scale, as Hughes was, it doesn't take much to push them over the edge. 

After his death in 1976, Hughes' estate attorney called for a psychological autopsy and it was determined a lot of the phobias and eccentricities that plagued him during his life could be attributed to his upbringing, and the fact his mother encouraged him to isolate himself, and instilled in him her own fears. Troubled though he was, he remains one of the most fascinating characters of his time. Hell, had he known in life his antics would one day be acted out on the big screen by Leonardo DiCaprio, as they were in 2004's The Aviator, he might have let his freak flag fly even freer. 

An orphan at an early age

Howard Hughes' father, Howard R. Hughes, Sr is described by Entrepreneur as an "ex-outlaw oil wildcatter," who made a fortune after inventing a drill bit used in the oil industry, and funneled his earnings into the start of his own business, Hughes Tool Co. His mother, Allene Stone Gano, was "a Dallas debutante, and the aristocratic granddaughter of a Confederate general," according to BBC

At 16, Hughes lost his mother, who Peter Harry Brown and Pat Broeske, authors of the book Howard Hughes: The Untold Story refer to as "very beautiful and very weird." The cause of her death is most commonly referenced as being due to complications after a minor surgery. Two years later, Hughes' father followed her in death after suffering a massive heart attack, leaving Hughes an orphan, but a very rich one. At just 18, he was the inheritor of an estate worth close to $1 million (in 1924 dollars), according to Entrepreneur, but would not have full access to it until he turned 21.

The biography Howard Hughes: The Mysterious Billionaire says at the time of his father's death he shrugged away all offers of "help" from family members and went to court to have himself declared an adult. Free, capable, and ambitious, he offered chunks of cash to every relative that had a stake in his father's business in order to have primary control. It would be the first of many power moves made by Hughes.  

Howard Hughes came by his weirdness naturally

The name Howard Hughes has become almost synonymous with "eccentric," and most of the man's kookiness and phobias can be traced back to his mother. The biography Howard Hughes: The Untold Story claims Hughes had an "emotionally incestuous" relationship with his mother that contributed to what would become his nearly crippling obsessive-compulsive disorder. 

psychological autopsy performed on Hughes after his death determined that Hughes' phobias stemmed from his mother's excessive concerns about germs, and obsession over her son's health when he was growing up.

In the book Howard Hughes: His Life & Madness it's said Hughes idolized his mother and didn't spend a night away from her until he was 10-years-old, while attending a summer camp. His mother, anxious over her son being away from her, and worried about his possible exposure to germs, became obsessed with the idea of him contracting polio while at the camp, and wrote several meddling letters to the camp counselors expressing her concerns. The book goes on to claim that his mother checked him for diseases every day, and was very careful about what he ate. She is said to have carefully monitored his feet, teeth, and bowel movements, and would take him to the doctor immediately if anything alarmed her.

Howard Hughes was obsessive when it came to cinema

Around 1926, Hughes began to dip his toes into the film industry, and used a nice chunk of his fortune to form R.K.O. Pictures. One of the earliest films he produced, The Racket, was released in 1928, and was nominated for Outstanding Picture at the 1929 Academy Awards, losing out to Wings, starring Gary Cooper. This film was thought to be lost, along with two other early Hughes productions: Two Arabian Knights, and The Mating Call, but copies of each were discovered in Hughes' vaults after his death. 

Hughes' biggest film endeavor was Hell's Angels, which cost him big money, and big stress. Released in 1930, and directed by Hughes himself it cost $3.95 million to make (equivalent to approximately $58 million in 2017, according to IMDB). From day one, the making of Hell's Angels was trouble. Three pilots died during filming, huge chunks of the film had to be re-shot when cinema made the transition from silent films to "talkies," and the production took three years to complete. Shot in black and white, Hell's Angels does feature one "eight-minute two-strip Multicolor sequence," according to IMDB, which is the only surviving color footage of the film's star, Jean Harlow.

Obsessive when it came to cinema, Hughes would often shut himself off from the world for months on end in his private screening room, nude, while eating candy bars and drinking milk, according to Wired

The jumbo plane that could, but didn't

In 1934, at the age of 28, Hughes won his first racing trophy in a custom-modified Boeing 100A biplane. From there he would go on to form the Hughes Aircraft Company, which he started in hangar space rented from Lockheed according to Spartan College of Aeronautics and Technology, and eventually bought a major airline, TWA, in 1939. 

When WWII hit, Hughes became obsessed with creating aircraft for the military and focused on building something capable of transporting troops and supplies across the Atlantic Ocean. The end result of his efforts was the largest wooden airplane ever constructed, the Hughes H-4 Hercules, more commonly known as the Spruce Goose, a nickname Hughes hated. Made out of laminated birch, not spruce, because the use of metals was limited during wartime, Hughes spent $18 million of his own money on the plane, and the United States government coughed up the remaining $22 million. By the time the plane was completed, the war had ended and there was no longer a use for it. The Spruce Goose made one voyage, flown by Hughes, for only one mile, and was never flown again. It's currently maintained as the focal point of the Evergreen Aviation & Space Museum in Oregon. 

According to the authors of the book Howard Hughes: The Untold Story, when Hughes was dying he told an aide, "I hope I'm remembered for my aviation achievements. I don't want the biographers digging up all the women."

Howard Hughes had an intense fear of germs

Perhaps the most widely known bit of info regarding Howard Hughes is he was a severe, almost comical germaphobe. A psychological autopsy performed after his death revealed he went to many unusual lengths to avoid getting sick. Hughes is said to have worn Kleenex boxes on his feet, and lay naked in hotel rooms in the dark, which he felt was the perfect way to avoid coming into contact with contaminates. It's also said that if someone who was ill got anywhere near Hughes, he'd burn the clothes he was wearing.

APA CEO Raymond D. Fowler, PhD, the doctor called upon by Hughes' estate attorney to perform the psychological autopsy, went through Hughes' letters, read through articles about him, and interviewed his former staff to complete his report. "A picture gradually emerged of a young child who pretty much was isolated and had no friends, and a man who increasingly became concerned about his own health," Fowler said. During Fowler's interviews with Hughes' former staff he learned that Hughes would make them wash their hands several times and then line them with paper towels when passing him food. 

Ironically, towards the end of Hughes' life he completely let his hygiene go, refusing to bathe or brush his teeth. "He didn't believe germs could come from him, just from the outside," Fowler explains. "He was convinced that he was going to be contaminated from the outside."

Howard Hughes wrote a manual on how to open a can of peaches

The doctor charged with investigating Howard Hughes' mental hang-ups following his death, Raymond D. Fowler, PhD, pieced together an upsetting character analysis of a very troubled man. After speaking with employers and associates who were privy to Hughes' daily eccentricities he found his OCD manifested in some very unusual ways.  

In Fowler's report, he details Hughes wrote a manual for his staff on how to open a can of peaches, and serve it in a bowl in a very specific way. They were to open the can, remove the label, scrub the can until the bare metal was exposed, wash the can again, and then pour the peaches into a serving bowl, being careful to not allow the can to come in contact with the bowl. 

A BBC feature article on Hughes further reveals that he was said to wash his hands repeatedly, so much so they'd begin to bleed. He was also known to obsess over the smallest of details in his film and aviation projects, right down to the kind of bras and underwear his female stars wore. During the filming of the Western film The Outlaw, it's said that Hughes made a special bra for Jane Russell that was intended to further showcase her already very ample breasts, but she's later quoted as saying that she tricked him into thinking she wore it during filming, knowing he wouldn't be ballsy enough to physically check.

Howard Hughes was a big fan of codeine

When Howard Hughes passed away in 1976 due to kidney failure, it was discovered he had been taking "massive doses of narcotic and pain‐killing drugs for many years," according to The Philadelphia Inquirer. The drugs, said to be illegally obtained, wrecked havoc on his kidneys, and ultimately led to his death. In his prime, Hughes was 6'4 and is said to have weighed roughly 150-pounds. When he died he barely tipped the scales at 94-pounds. 

An investigation was held after Hughes' death and it was determined that several people on his staff were responsible for illegally obtaining drugs for him. His personal physician, Dr. Norman Crane, and an aide named John M. Holmes were "accused of agreeing to use illegal prescriptions written by Dr. Crane to acquire codeine that Mr. Holmes would deliver to Mr. Hughes," according to an article in The New York Times. Both were indicted by a Federal grand jury in Las Vegas, during which it was found by the Drug Enforcement Administration that Dr. Crane wrote 488 prescriptions, under several different names, to keep Hughes in a steady supply. 

Hughes reportedly started taking codeine after he suffered injuries during the crash of a plane he designed in 1946.

Howard Hughes lived in seclusion for quite some time

There's a reason why Time named Hughes one of the top 10 most reclusive celebrities. Towards the end of his life Hughes' hearing problems, which he struggled with since childhood, and various mental issues, caused him to isolate, hiding out for months on end in any one of the number of hotels he owned. In the book Howard Hughes: The Secret Life the author Charles Higham claims that while living at the Beverly Hills Hotel he became obsessed with flies and would hire people to work 8-hour shifts just to attempt to keep the insects away from him. Hughes would sit in his room naked, sometimes wearing a Kleenex diaper, and Kleenex boxes on his feet, battling flies and fixating on germs. 

When not in a hotel, Hughes would shut himself away in his private movie studio and snack on chocolate bars and milk with his hands encased in Kleenex. If all that's not enough to raise an eyebrow, he's also said to have avoided doorknobs, choosing to instead open doors by kicking them, and avoided the use of germy toilets by urinating on the floor, or into buckets. 

Howard Hughes had very strange relationships with women

Starting with his unusual relationship with his own mother, Howard Hughes' relationships with women were anything but ordinary. According to the biography Howard Hughes: The Secret Life, his approach at sex wasn't romantic, but seen as either a form of control, or relief, like scratching an itch or sneezing. Although he was married twice, and said to be constantly dating when he wasn't (and sometimes even when he was), Hughes didn't seem to care about forming a true bond with anyone he slept with. 

Hughes first married Ella Botts Rice, described as a "Texan society belle" by Karina Longworth, author of the book Seduction: Sex, Lies, and Stardom in Howard Hughes's Hollywood. In a Washington Post article about the book it's said the marriage wasn't a love match, but more of a way for Hughes to advance his business dealings. After he split with Rice, Hughes went on to marry actress Jean Peters, who he stayed with for 14 rocky years during which Hughes focused mostly on keeping Peters under his thumb. A Telegraph article on the couple claims Hughes would limit Peters' spending, drinking, and would even hire security detail to follow her around so he knew what she was up to at any minute of the day.

During his prime Hughes was said to have dated just about every major actress of the time including Bette Davis, Katharine Hepburn, Ava Gardner, and Rita Hayworth, but he was never lucky in love.

Howard Hughes really liked banana nut ice cream

Gordon Margulis, a personal aide to Howard Hughes, was front and center for many of his freak-outs. In an article for the Las Vegas Review Journal, Geoff Schumacher, author of the book Howard Hughes: Power, Paranoia & Palace Intrigue, says that Margulis was a major source for his book and told him an interesting story involving Hughes and a certain ice cream. 

Margulis was mainly in charge of handling Hughes' food deliveries, and claims he was obsessed with Baskin-Robbins banana nut ice cream. According to Margulis, they would buy large quantities of the ice cream to keep on hand at whatever hotel Hughes was living in, and when they were running low they would go to Baskin-Robbins for more. One day, they were informed the flavor had been discontinued. They went directly to the source, a Baskin-Robbins outlet, to try there, and were told that they could only get some if they ordered 350 gallons, which they did. 

In a passage out of Schumacher's book he writes, "The banana nut ice cream was made in Los Angeles and two Hughes aides transported it to Las Vegas in a refrigerated truck. It was stored in the Desert Inn's restaurant freezer. Problem solved. But that night, Hughes announced that it was time for a change and he wanted French vanilla. It took the hotel a year to rid itself of the 350 gallons of banana nut ice cream."

Howard Hughes was part of a CIA plot to recover a sunken Soviet submarine

In an odd twist of events, Hughes found himself involved with the CIA in the search for a missing Soviet submarine containing nuclear missiles that sunk in 1968, causing all 98 sailors aboard to lose their lives, according to NPR. The Soviets spent two months unsuccessfully looking for the submarine, at which the United States, having a vested interested in recovering the missiles, and any other intelligence to found aboard, set out to find it themselves in a project dubbed Project Azorian, with the help of an unlikely partner, Howard Hughes. 

Hughes stepped in to build a one-of-a-kind ship named the Hughes Glomar Explorer, equipped with a submersible vehicle and a huge claw to grab the Soviet sub from where it had sunk, according to the NPR feature. Hughes created a cover for the project by claiming the Explorer was actually being used to mine manganese nodules lying on the sea bottom, maintaining the secrecy of the actual task at hand.

The project is said to have taken hundreds of millions of dollars and six years to complete. The Soviet submarine was eventually recovered, but it broke in half and had to be carried off in sections. 

Howard Hughes came out of seclusion to dispute a fake autobiography

In 1972, after living in seclusion for many years, Howard Hughes conducted a very rare press conference to dispute the authenticity of a autobiography reportedly in the works. According to the New York Times, Hughes called in remotely from his retreat in the Bahama Islands and spoke with seven reporters gathered in a conference room at the Sheraton Universal Hotel in Hollywood.

Hughes wanted to make it perfectly clear a book said to have been dictated by him was a fraud, although the New York publishers said otherwise. (In the end, the book was revealed to be a huge scam.) During the lengthy call, several of the attending reporters were curious about Hughes' health, and asked questions regarding the rumors about his reportedly obsessive behavior. "I certainly don't feel like running around a track at U.C.L.A. and trying to break record, I can tell you that," Hughes said. "But my health is tolerable, that's certain, and probably better than I deserve."

Hughes was notoriously against making public appearances, and when forced to, would often conduct them one on in from the back seats of cars, according to the New York Times article. There have been other rumors Hughes would often send out stand-ins to act as him when certain in-person meetings could not be avoided.