Howard Hughes in the XF11 after his successful test flight, April 5, 1947 – Source: Welcome Home, Howard Digital Collection, UNLV University Libraries Special Collections.
Filmmaker, Aviator, Innovator, and Eccentric Billionaire
Howard Robard Hughes Jr. was born in Houston, Texas on December 24, 1905. Hughes was the only child of Howard Robard Hughes Sr. and Alene Gano Hughes. Hughes’ father amassed a fortune after inventing special machinery that was used in oil and gas drilling. Hughes was an inventive child and took to mathematics and engineering. When his mother denied him a motorcycle, he motorized his bicycle with a car starter and batteries. When his father said he could have any present, Hughes chose a ride on a Curtiss Seaplane, which sparked his love of aviation that would continue for the rest of his life.
Hughes’ parents enrolled him in the Thatcher School, an elite boarding school in Ojai, California in 1921. Just a year later, his mother passed away and he returned to Houston with his father. In Houston Hughes started taking classes at the Rice Institute, but ultimately dropped out. In 1924, Howard Hughes Sr. died from a fatal heart attack. At the young age of 18, Howard Hughes Jr. inherited both his father’s fortune and his Texas-based, namesake tool company.
Hughes married his first wife Ella Rice in 1925. The couple settled in Los Angeles, where Hughes received his first introduction to the motion picture industry through his uncle, who had become an established producer. Within a few years the fiercely determined Hughes became a successful Hollywood producer himself. His first film, Swell Hogan, was unsuccessful, but his second, Everybody’s Acting, was released to critical acclaim. He decided to devote his time to producing and moved into an office in the Taft Building at Hollywood and Vine. His next film, Two Arabian Knights, a comedy directed by Lewis Milestone, was a box office success and received an Oscar for Best Picture in 1928.
Hughes’ inventive nature, inherited from his father, led him to try his hand at directing with his next film, Hell’s Angels, after two previous directors quit. The movie, a story about the British Royal Air Force during World War I, fed Hughes’ passion for aviation and flying. The film took years to complete and established his reputation as highly creative, inventive, and obsessive. Wanting to make the film as realistic as possible, he insisted on using actual World War I fighter planes and set up risky shots for the outdoor aviation scenes. Three pilots were killed during filming. Against the advice of those around him, Hughes himself insisted on flying during shooting, crashed his plane, and sustained serious injuries. The accident pushed the film months behind schedule.
Hell’s Angels was originally shot as a silent picture, but by 1929 sound had become standard for films. Hughes dubbed as much as he could, re-shot several scenes and added new footage. He hired 18-year-old, then-unknown actress Jean Harlow for the talking sequences. The following year, the film opened at Graumann’s Chinese Theater in Hollywood with fanfare—airplanes buzzed overhead and stunt men parachuted onto Hollywood Boulevard. The film, on which Hughes had spent nearly $4 million, a record for the time, was expected to fail, but the public loved it. Though it did not recover its enormous production costs, the film catapulted Hughes’ Hollywood career and gave birth to the legend and mystery surrounding him during his lifetime. He produced several other films over the course of the next decades, including the controversial Scarface and The Outlaw. He successfully fought the Hollywood censors, producing some of the raciest footage of the time, and launched the careers of sex symbols, such as Jane Russell.
During his Hollywood years and throughout the rest of his life, Hughes was known for his playboy lifestyle. Hughes and Ella Rice divorced in 1929. In 1957, he married actress Jean Peters and they remained together until ultimately divorcing in 1971. However, the billionaire celebrity was better known for his relationships with the leading actresses of the day, such as Katherine Hepburn, Ava Gardner, Bettie Davis, and Ginger Rogers.
Hughes’ interests and inventions were not limited to the movie industry. He founded the Hughes Aircraft Company in 1932 as a division of Hughes Tool Company. He also became an accomplished airline pilot and set numerous speed records. Hughes’ aviation exploits made him a popular figure and he made international news in 1938 when he flew himself and a crew of four around the world in three days, nineteen hours, and twenty-eight minutes, setting the world record.
His personal aviation accomplishments and influential wealth allowed Hughes and his company to win government contracts for the research and development of aircrafts for military use. Perhaps the most famous of these planes was the H-4 Hercules, more commonly known as the “Spruce Goose.” Hughes had attracted a number of leading scientists from nearby Cal Tech to lead his research and development team, but relations between the obsessive and controlling Hughes and his management team began to fray. In 1953, most of his top managers walked out, causing chaos in the company and jeopardizing their many critical government contracts. The Secretary of the Air Force gave Hughes an ultimatum that he remove himself from the company or all of their Air Force contracts would be canceled. As a result, Hughes turned over this section of Hughes Aircraft to the Howard Hughes Medical Institute in 1954. Without its eccentric founder, Hughes Aircraft continued to grow and diversify in subsequent decades.
In 1958, he suffered a nervous breakdown. Though his business ventures flourished, he was constantly at odds with the government over his taxes and eventually left California for Nevada. In 1967, he bought the Desert Inn in Las Vegas, allegedly because he was asked to vacate his room for another guest on New Year’s Eve of 1966 and did not wish to leave. Hughes went on to buy the Castaways, Frontier, Sands, Silver Slipper, and Landmark hotels making him Nevada’s largest employer. He left Las Vegas on Thanksgiving Day 1970, having never talked to anyone outside of his inner circle and very rarely leaving his penthouse at the Desert Inn.
Howard Hughes spent the last six years of his life in hotel rooms all over the world including the Bahamas, Nicaragua, Canada, England, and Mexico. He became emaciated and deranged from the effects of a poor diet and drugs he used to ease the pain of his 1946 airplane crash. Hughes died, ironically, on an airplane in 1976 during an emergency medical flight from Acapulco, Mexico to his childhood home of Houston.
Numerous biographies of Howard Hughes have been published since his death and he has also been the subject of several films. Check our “Theme Sources” list for the biographies used in the development of this website. You can also find additional facts and details on Hughes’ life and career in our Timeline.
For additional reading on the Hughes Industrial Historic District, Howard Hughes, the Spruce Goose, and the history of aerospace in Southern California, see the following sources, which were used in the preparation of this website.