Howard Robard Hughes Jr. was the son of Allene Stone Gano (1883—1922) and of Howard R. Hughes Sr. (1869-1924), a successful inventor and businessman from Missouri. He had English, Welsh, and some French Huguenot ancestry, and was a descendant of John Gano (1727-1804), the minister who allegedly baptized George Washington. His father patented (1909) the two-cone roller bit, which allowed rotary drilling for petroleum in previously inaccessible places. The senior Hughes made the shrewd and lucrative decision to commercialize the invention by leasing the bits instead of selling them, obtained several early patents, and founded the Hughes Tool Company in 1909. Hughes' uncle was the famed novelist, screenwriter, and film director Rupert Hughes.
He was born on December 24, 1905, in Harris County, Texas. However, his certificate of baptism, recorded on October 7, 1906, in the parish register of St. John's Episcopal Church in Keokuk, Iowa, listed his date of birth as December 24, 1905, without any reference to the place of birth.
At a young age, Hughes showed an interest in science and technology. In particular, he had great engineering aptitude and built Houston's first "wireless" radio transmitter at age 11. He went on to be one of the first licensed ham radio operators in Houston, having the assigned callsign W5CY (originally 5CY). At 12, Hughes was photographed in the local newspaper, identified as the first boy in Houston to have a "motorized" bicycle, which he had built from parts from his father's steam engine. He was an indifferent student, with a liking for mathematics, flying, and mechanics. He took his first flying lesson at 14 and attended Fessenden School in Massachusetts in 1921.
His mother Allene died in March 1922 from complications of an ectopic pregnancy. Howard Hughes Sr. died of a heart attack in 1924. Their deaths apparently inspired Hughes to include the establishment of a medical research laboratory in the will that he signed in 1925 at age 19. Howard Sr.'s will had not been updated since Allene's death, and Hughes inherited 75% of the family fortune. On his 19th birthday, Hughes was declared an emancipated minor, enabling him to take full control of his life.
From a young age, Hughes became a proficient and enthusiastic golfer. He often scored near-par figures, played the game to a two-three handicap during his 20s, and for a time aimed for a professional golf career. He golfed frequently with top players, including Gene Sarazen. Hughes rarely played competitively and gradually gave up his passion for the sport to pursue other interests. Hughes used to play golf every afternoon at LA courses including the Lakeside Golf Club, Wilshire Country Club, or the Bel-Air Country Club. Partners included George Von Elm or Ozzie Carlton. After Hughes hurt himself in the late 1920s, his golfing tapered off, and after his F-11 crash, Hughes was unable to play at all.
Hughes withdrew from Rice University shortly after his father's death. On June 1, 1925, he married Ella Botts Rice, daughter of David Rice and Martha Lawson Botts of Houston, and great-niece of William Marsh Rice, for whom Rice University was named. They moved to Los Angeles, where he hoped to make a name for himself as a filmmaker.
His first film, Swell Hogan, directed by Ralph Graves, was a disaster. His next two films, Everybody's Acting (1926) and Two Arabian Knights (1927), were financial successes, the latter winning the first Academy Award for Best Director of a comedy picture. The Racket (1928) and The Front Page (1931) were also nominated for Academy Awards. Hughes spent $3.5 million to make the flying film Hell's Angels (1930). Hell's Angels received one Academy Award nomination for Best Cinematography. He produced another hit, Scarface (1932), a production delayed by censors' concern over its violence. The Outlaw premiered in 1943, but was not released nationally until 1946. The film featured Jane Russell, who received considerable attention from industry censors, this time owing to Russell's revealing costumes.
In 1929, Hughes' wife, Ella, returned to Houston and filed for divorce. Hughes dated many famous women, including Billie Dove, Faith Domergue, Bette Davis, Ava Gardner, Olivia de Havilland, Katharine Hepburn, Hedy Lamarr, Ginger Rogers, Janet Leigh, Rita Hayworth, Mamie Van Doren, and Gene Tierney. He also proposed to Joan Fontaine several times, according to her autobiography No Bed of Roses. Jean Harlow accompanied him to the premiere of Hell's Angels, but Noah Dietrich wrote many years later that the relationship was strictly professional, as Hughes apparently disliked Harlow personally.
At Rogers Airport in Los Angeles, he learned to fly from pioneer aviators, including Moye Stephens and J.B. Alexander. He set many world records and commissioned the construction of custom aircraft for himself while heading Hughes Aircraft at the airport in Glendale, CA. Operating from there, the most technologically important aircraft he commissioned was the Hughes H-1 Racer.
Hughes Aircraft Company, a division of Hughes Tool Company, was founded by Hughes in 1932, in a rented corner of a Lockheed Aircraft Corporation hangar in Burbank, California, to build the H-1 racer. During and after World War II, Hughes fashioned his company into a major defense contractor. The Hughes Helicopters division started in 1947 when helicopter manufacturer Kellett sold their latest design to Hughes for production. The company was a major American aerospace and defense contractor manufacturing numerous technology related products that include spacecraft vehicles, military aircraft, radar systems, electro-optical systems, the first working laser, aircraft computer systems, missile systems, ion-propulsion engines for space travel, commercial satellites, and other electronics systems.
In 1933, Hughes made a purchase of an unseen luxury steam yacht named the Rover, which was previously owned by British shipping magnate Lord Inchcape. "I have never seen the Rover but bought it on the blueprints, photographs and the reports of Lloyd's surveyors. My experience is that the English are the most honest race in the world." Hughes renamed the yacht Southern Cross and later sold her to Swedish entrepreneur Axel Wenner-Gren.
On September 13, 1935, Hughes, flying the H-1, set the landplane airspeed record of 352 mph (566 km/h) over his test course near Santa Ana, California (Giuseppe Motta reached 362 mph in 1929 and George Stainforth reached 407.5 mph in 1931, both in seaplanes). This was the last time in history that the world airspeed record was set in an aircraft built by a private individual.
On July 11, 1936, Hughes struck and killed a pedestrian named Gabriel S. Meyer with his car at the corner of 3rd Street and Lorraine in Los Angeles. After the crash, Hughes was taken to the hospital and certified as sober, but an attending doctor made a note that Hughes had been drinking. A witness to the crash told police that Hughes was driving erratically and too fast and that Meyer had been standing in the safety zone of a streetcar stop. Hughes was booked on suspicion of negligent homicide and held overnight in jail until his attorney, Neil S. McCarthy, obtained a writ of habeas corpus for his release pending a coroner's inquest. By the time of the coroner's inquiry, however, the witness had changed his story and claimed that Meyer had moved directly in front of Hughes' car. Nancy Bayly (Watts), who was in the car with Hughes at the time of the crash, corroborated this version of the story. On July 16, 1936, Hughes was held blameless by a coroner's jury at the inquest into Meyer's death. Hughes told reporters outside the inquiry, "I was driving slowly and a man stepped out of the darkness in front of me."
A year and a half later, on January 19, 1937, flying the same H-1 Racer fitted with longer wings, Hughes set a new transcontinental airspeed record by flying non-stop from Los Angeles to Newark in seven hours, 28 minutes, and 25 seconds (beating his own previous record of nine hours and 27 minutes). His average ground speed over the flight was 322 mph
On July 14, 1938, Hughes set another record by completing a flight around the world in just 91 hours (three days, 19 hours, 17 minutes), beating the previous record set in 1933 by Wiley Post in a single-engine Lockheed Vega by almost four days. Hughes returned home ahead of photographs of his flight. Taking off from New York City, Hughes continued to Paris, Moscow, Omsk, Yakutsk, Fairbanks, Minneapolis, then returning to New York City. For this flight, he flew a Lockheed 14 Super Electra (NX18973, a twin engine transport with a four-man crew) fitted with the latest radio and navigational equipment. Harry Connor was the co-pilot, Thomas Thurlow the navigator, Richard Stoddart the engineer, and Ed Lund the mechanic. Hughes wanted the flight to be a triumph of American aviation technology, illustrating that safe, long-distance air travel was possible. Albert Lodwick of Mystic, Iowa provided organizational skills as the flight operations manager. While he had previously been relatively obscure despite his wealth, being better known for dating Katharine Hepburn, New York City now gave Hughes a ticker-tape parade in the Canyon of Heroes.
Hughes is commonly credited as the driving force behind the Lockheed Constellation airliner, which Hughes and Frye ordered in 1939 as a long-range replacement for TWA's fleet of Boeing 307 Stratoliners, Hughes personally financed TWA's acquisition of 40 Constellations for $18 million, the largest aircraft order in history up to that time. The Constellations were among the highest-performing commercial aircraft of the late 1940s and 1950s and allowed TWA to pioneer nonstop transcontinental service. During World War II, Hughes leveraged political connections in Washington to obtain rights for TWA to serve Europe, making it the only U.S. carrier with a combination of domestic and transatlantic routes.
During the 1940s to the late 1950s, the Hughes Tool Company ventured into the film industry when it obtained partial ownership of the RKO companies which included RKO Pictures, RKO Studios, a chain of movie theaters known as RKO Theatres and a network of radio stations known as the RKO Radio Network.
Another portion of Hughes' business interests lay in aviation, airlines, and the aerospace and defense industries. Hughes was a lifelong aircraft enthusiast and pilot. He survived four airplane accidents: one in a Thomas-Morse Scout while filming Hell's Angels, one while setting the airspeed record in the Hughes Racer, one at Lake Mead in 1943.
He also survived the near-fatal crash of the Hughes XF-11 in 1946.
In 1948, Hughes created a new division of the company: the Hughes Aerospace Group. The Hughes Space and Communications Group and the Hughes Space Systems Division were later spun off in 1948 to form their own divisions and ultimately became the Hughes Space and Communications Company in 1961. In 1953, Howard Hughes gave all his stock in the Hughes Aircraft Company to the newly formed Howard Hughes Medical Institute, there by turning the aerospace and defense contractor into a tax-exempt charitable organization.
In 1948, Hughes gained control of RKO, a struggling major Hollywood studio, by acquiring the 929,000 shares owned by Floyd Odlum's Atlas Corporation, for $8,825,000. Within weeks of acquiring the studio, Hughes dismissed 700 employees. Production dwindled to 9 pictures that the first year Hughes was in control, while before, RKO averaged 30 per year.
In 1953, Hughes was involved with a high profile lawsuit as part of the settlement of the United States v. Paramount Pictures, Inc. Antitrust Case. As a result of the hearings, the shaky status of RKO became increasingly apparent. A steady stream of lawsuits from RKO's minority shareholders had grown to be extremely annoying to Hughes. They had accused him of financial misconduct and corporate mismanagement. Since Hughes wanted to focus primarily on his aircraft manufacturing and TWA holdings during the Korean War years, Hughes offered to buy out all other stockholders in order to dispense with their distractions.
In 1953, Hughes launched the Howard Hughes Medical Institute in Miami, Florida (currently located in Chevy Chase, Maryland) with the expressed goal of basic biomedical research, including trying to understand, in Hughes' words, the "genesis of life itself", due to his lifelong interest in science and technology. Hughes' first will, which he signed in 1925 at the age of 19, stipulated that a portion of his estate should be used to create a medical institute bearing his name.
By the end of 1954, Hughes had gained near-total control of RKO at a cost of nearly $24 million, becoming the first sole owner of a major Hollywood studio since the silent film era. Six months later, Hughes sold the studio to the General Tire and Rubber Company for $25 million. Hughes retained the rights to pictures that he had personally produced, including those made at RKO. He also retained Jane Russell's contract. For Howard Hughes, this was the virtual end of his 25-year involvement in the motion picture industry. However, his reputation as a financial wizard emerged unscathed. During that time period, RKO became known as the home of film noir classic productions thanks in part to the limited budgets required to make such films during Hughes' tenure. Hughes reportedly walked away from RKO having made $6.5 million in personal profit. According to Noah Dietrich, Hughes made a $10,000,000 profit from the sale of the theaters and made a profit of $1,000,000 from his 7-year ownership of RKO.
On January 12, 1957, Hughes married actress Jean Peters at a small hotel in Tonopah, Nevada. The couple met in the 1940s before Peters became a film actress. They had a highly publicized romance in 1947 and there was the talk of marriage, but she said she could not combine it with her career. Some later claimed that Peters was "the only woman Hughes ever loved," and he reportedly had his security officers follow her everywhere even when they were not in a relationship. Such reports were confirmed by actor Max Showalter, who became a close friend of Peters while shooting Niagara 1953. Showalter told in an interview that because he frequently met with Peters, Hughes' men threatened to ruin his career if he did not leave her alone.
In 1958, Hughes told his aides that he wanted to screen some movies at a film studio near his home. He stayed in the studio's darkened screening room for more than four months, never leaving. He ate only chocolate bars and chicken and drank only milk, and was surrounded by dozens of Kleenex boxes that he continuously stacked and re-arranged. He wrote detailed memos to his aides giving them explicit instructions neither to look at him nor speak to him unless spoken to. Throughout this period, Hughes sat fixated in his chair, often naked, continually watching movies. When he finally emerged in the summer of 1958, his hygiene was terrible. He had neither bathed nor cut his hair and nails for weeks; this may have been due to allodynia, which results in pain response to stimuli that would normally not cause pain.
It isn't known exactly how much he was worth at the time of his death, but ten years before he died, he was forced to sell his shares in the airline company TWA. The payout? $546 million (about $3.8 billion today), estimated by some to have been about 1/3 of his net worth
The wealthy and aging Hughes, accompanied by his entourage of personal aides, began moving from one hotel to another, always taking up residence in the top floor penthouse. In the last ten years of his life, 1966 to 1976, Hughes lived in hotels in many cities—including Beverly Hills, Boston, Las Vegas, Nassau, Freeport, Vancouver, London, Managua, and Acapulco.
Another time, he became obsessed with the 1968 film Ice Station Zebra and had it run on a continuous loop in his home. According to his aides, he watched it 150 times. Feeling guilty about the commercial, critical, and literal toxicity of his film The Conqueror, he bought every copy of the film for $12 million, watching the film on repeat. Paramount Pictures acquired the rights of the film in 1979, 3 years after his death.
Originally known as Summa Corporation, The Howard Hughes Corporation was formed in 1972 when the oil tools business of Hughes Tool Company, then owned by Howard Hughes Jr., was floated on the New York Stock Exchange under the Hughes Tool name. This forced the remaining businesses of the "original" Hughes Tool to adopt a new corporate name Summa. The name "Summa"—Latin for "highest"—was adopted without the approval of Hughes himself, who preferred to keep his own name on the business, and suggested HRH Properties (for Hughes Resorts and Hotels, and also his own initials). In 1988, Summa announced plans for Summerlin, a master-planned community named for the paternal grandmother of Howard Hughes, Jean Amelia Summerlin.
Hughes is reported to have died on April 5, 1976, at 1:27 p.m. on board an aircraft owned by Robert Graf and piloted by Jeff Abrams. He was en route from his penthouse at the Acapulco Fairmont Princess Hotel in Mexico to the Methodist Hospital in Houston.
The Aviator is a 2004 American epic biographical drama film directed by Martin Scorsese and written by John Logan. It stars Leonardo DiCaprio as Howard Hughes, Cate Blanchett as Katharine Hepburn, and Kate Beckinsale as Ava Gardner. The supporting cast features Ian Holm, John C. Reilly, Alec Baldwin, Jude Law as Errol Flynn, Gwen Stefani as Jean Harlow, Kelli Garner as Faith Domergue, Matt Ross, Willem Dafoe, Alan Alda, and Edward Herrmann.