Biography of Howard Hughes, Businessman and Aviator

Howard Hughes

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Howard Hughes (December 24, 1905–April 5, 1976) was an American businessman, movie producer, aviator, and philanthropist. Over the course of his life, he amassed a fortune of $1.5 billion. Though Hughes had many accomplishments in his professional career, he is now best remembered for his final years as an eccentric recluse.

Fast Facts: Howard Hughes

  • Known For: Hughes was a businessman, film producer, and aviator known for his immense wealth and eccentric lifestyle.
  • Also Known As: Howard Robard Hughes Jr.
  • Born: December 24, 1905 in Humble or Houston, Texas
  • Parents: Howard R. Hughes Sr. and Allene Stone Gano
  • Died: April 5, 1976 in Houston, Texas
  • Education: California Institute of Technology, Rice University
  • Awards and Honors: Congressional Gold Medal, International Air & Space Hall of Fame
  • Spouse(s): Ella Rice (m. 1925–1929), Jean Peters (m. 1957–1971)

Early Life

Howard Hughes was born in either Humble or Houston, Texas, on December 24, 1905. Hughes' father, Howard Hughes Sr., made his fortune by designing a drill bit that could penetrate hard rock. Prior to this invention, oil drillers weren't able to reach the large pockets of oil lying beneath such rock. Howard Hughes Sr. and a colleague established the Sharp-Hughes Tool Company, which held the patent for the new drill bit, manufactured it, and leased it to oil companies.

Though he grew up in a wealthy household, Howard Hughes Jr. had difficulty focusing on his studies and changed schools often. Rather than sitting in a classroom, Hughes preferred to learn by tinkering with mechanical things. For instance, when his mother forbade him from having a motorcycle, he built one himself by assembling a motor and adding it to his bicycle.

Hughes was a loner in his youth. With one notable exception, he never really had any friends.

Family Tragedy and Inheritance

When Hughes was just 16 years old, his doting mother passed away. Then, not even two years later, his father suddenly died. Howard Hughes received 75 percent of his father's million-dollar estate (the other 25 percent went to relatives). Hughes immediately disagreed with his relatives over the running of Hughes Tool Company, but being only 18 years old, Hughes could not do anything about it. He would not legally be considered an adult until he reached the age of 21.

Frustrated but determined, Hughes went to court and got a judge to grant him legal adulthood. He then bought out his relatives' shares of the company. At age 19, Hughes became the full owner of the company. That same year he married Ella Rice, his first wife.

Film Production

In 1925, Hughes and his wife decided to move to Hollywood and spend some time with Hughes' uncle Rupert, who was a screenwriter. Hughes quickly became enchanted with movie making. He jumped right in and produced a film called "Swell Hogan." He quickly realized the film wasn't good, however, and never released it. Hughes learned from his mistakes and continued making films. "Two Arabian Knights," his third film, won an Oscar for Best Comedy Direction in 1929.

With this success under his belt, Hughes decided to make an epic about aviation and set to work on "Hell's Angels," the story of two British pilots set during World War I. The film became Hughes' obsession. His wife, tired of being neglected, divorced him. Hughes continued making films and produced more than 25 of them, including "Scarface" and "The Outlaw."

Aviation

In 1932, Hughes developed a new obsession—aviation. He formed the Hughes Aircraft Company, bought several airplanes, and hired numerous engineers and designers to help him design a faster plane. He spent the rest of the 1930s setting new speed records. He flew around the world in 1938, breaking Wiley Post's record. Though Hughes was given a ticker-tape parade upon his arrival in New York, he was already showing signs of wanting to shun the public spotlight.

In 1944, Hughes won a government contract to design a large, flying boat that could carry both people and supplies to the war in Europe. The Hughes H-4 Hercules (also known as the Spruce Goose), the largest plane ever constructed, was flown successfully in 1947 but never flew again.

Hughes was involved in several accidents during his aviation career, including one that killed two people and left Hughes with major injuries. A near-fatal crash in 1946 left Hughes with a crushed lung, cracked ribs, and third-degree burns. During his recovery, he enlisted the help of engineers to design a new hospital bed.

Reclusion

By the mid-1950s, Hughes' dislike of being a public figure began to severely affect his life. Though he married actress Jean Peters in 1957, he began avoiding public appearances. He traveled for a bit and in 1966 he moved to Las Vegas, where he holed himself up in the Desert Inn Hotel. When the hotel threatened to evict him, he purchased the hotel. Hughes also bought several other hotels and properties in Las Vegas. For the next several years, hardly a single person saw him. He had become so reclusive that he almost never left his hotel suite. At this time, Hughes was suffering from obsessive-compulsive disorder and germophobia.

Death

In 1970, Hughes' marriage ended and he left Las Vegas. He moved from one country to another and died in 1976 aboard an airplane while traveling from Acapulco, Mexico, to Houston, Texas.

Hughes had become such a hermit in his final years—and his physical health had so deteriorated—that no one was quite sure it was he who had died, so the Treasury Department had to use fingerprints to confirm his death.

Legacy

Hughes is perhaps best remembered for his contributions to the American film industry and for his eccentric behavior. His film archive—a collection of over 200 works—is now part of the Academy Film Archive. Hughes' life has been the subject of numerous films, including "The Amazing Howard Hughes," "Melvin and Howard," and "The Aviator."

Sources

  • Bartlett, Donald L., and James B. Steele. "Empire: The Life, Legend, and Madness of Howard Hughes." W.W. Norton, 1980.
  • Higham, Charles. "Howard Hughes: The Secret Life." Virgin, 2011.