Howard Hughes was a semi-mythological character: an engineer, industrialist and filmmaker whose eccentricities were commensurate with his billion-dollar fortune. James Oliver casts an eye over his extraordinary life: a life filled with stories no Hollywood screenwriter would dare invent.
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Howard Hughes liked to say he was born on Christmas Eve 1905 in the Texas town of Humble. But—as with so much of what followed—this has been disputed: a few killjoys want to spoil the irony of such an ostentatious man being born in a place called “Humble” by claiming he was from down the road in Houston.
We can be more sure of his parentage: he was the offspring of Allene and Howard Hughes Sr.. Pa Hughes was an engineer who’d made a fortune from his tool company. When he passed in 1924, young Howard inherited the fortune, then set off to California to build another one.
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During the 1920s, hundreds of starry-eyed young people made their way to the still-small town of Los Angeles with dreams of making it in “the movies”. Howard Hughes was no different to any of them, apart from his millions and millions of dollars.
Defying his financial advisors (who recommended he invest in the relative security of Wall Street), Hughes started to bankroll movies. He favoured sensational stories, like the aerial war movie Hell’s Angels in which all the aeronautics were done for real:
Or the original Scarface:
Directed by his near namesake Howard Hawks, it was the most controversial of the early gangster pictures.
Later on, he even became a fully-fledged mogul when he bought RKO studios.
This was one of his rare failures: he was too hands-on, holding up movies for years to re-edit or re-shoot them. Frustrated by his failings, he sold the studio in 1954 and the studio turned off its transmitter soon after.
Even more than movies, Hughes’ great passion was for flying. He designed and built his own planes, establishing Hughes Aircraft Company which grew into one of the world’s largest aeroplane businesses.
When America entered the Second World War, Hughes was keen to do his bit: he designed what he intended to be the world’s largest aircraft, the Hughes H-4 Hercules (nicknamed "the Spruce Moose" because wartime restrictions of material obliged him to build it mainly out of wood). The top brass turned him down: they said it would never fly. But...
Having proved his point, he grounded it thereafter.
Less happily, he suffered four air crashes, the last serious enough to persuade him to hang up his flying goggles.
Still, he retained a keen interest in aviation: he was an early investor in TWA, eventually one of the world’s leading airlines. That earned him yet another fortune.
Howard liked movies. Howard liked engineering. Howard liked bringing the two together, sometimes in unusual conjunctions.
Watching tests for his 1946 film The Outlaw, he became concerned that the costume department weren’t doing all that they might to highlight the bosom of leading lady Jane Russell. To that end, he scuttled off to his drawing board and designed for her a special cantilevered brassiere to—er—"lift and separate".
Tiring of life in Los Angeles, Hughes relocated to Las Vegas in the early 1960s. It’s no exaggeration to say he helped make it what it is today: the casinos were already there but the Nevada town had a (deserved) reputation as a mob front. Hughes’ investments helped sterilise it, driving illicit money out and bringing corporations in. He even imported incorruptible Mormons from next door in Utah to help administer the place.
And he did all that from the top floor of the Desert Inn, seeing no one but a few trusty Mormons: he had decided to withdraw himself from circulation and would seldom be glimpsed in public again.
Sequestered in his penthouse, Hughes was ripe for rumour. It was whispered he wandered around in the buff, that he had a phobia of germs and refused to cut either his hair or his fingernails. Here's an artist’s impression:
With hindsight and more awareness, it’s safe to say that the poor chap was suffering from acute mental health problems, likely exacerbated by brain damage sustained during his various air crashes. The wonder must be that he maintained a grip on his investments and continued to grow his empire.
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Housebound he might have been but Hughes remained a film buff. When the James Bond crew wanted to shoot Diamonds are Forever in one of his casinos, Hughes agreed on condition they gave him prints of all the previous Bond films and promised to send him the latest one when they’d finished.
His favourite film, though, was the Alistair MacLean adaptation Ice State Zebra, which he watched 150 times (give or take). Must’ve been a big Ernest Borgnine fan...
Rules Don’t Apply is far from the first time Hughes has been depicted in movies. A few years back, there was Leonardo Di Caprio playing him in The Aviator for Martin Scorsese, and before that there was Terry O’Quinn (The Rocketeer) and Jason Robards (Melvin and Howard).
Moreover, he has inspired plenty of look-a-like characters too. When he watched Diamonds are Forever, he may have been struck by the character of "Willard Whyte", a reclusive billionaire held captive in his Las Vegas penthouse.
A less favourable rendering came from Max Ophuls. Ophuls had tangled with Hughes at RKO and got his revenge in Caught, in which Robert Ryan played a character very obviously patterned after you-know-who—a controlling, vengeful millionaire bully called "Smith Ohlrig". He ends up crushed by a pinball machine, a fate the real Hughes managed to avoid.
Tiring of the glamour of his hotel suite in Las Vegas, Hughes spent his final years discreetly travelling the world and hiding inside hotel suites in Nicaragua, The Bahamas and London. On 5th April 1976, it was announced that he had died while returning from Mexico, appropriately enough while in flight.
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But this wouldn’t be a Howard Hughes story if there weren’t rumours and whispers. Sure enough, no one was entirely sure if the emaciated, haggard figure actually was the reclusive billionaire. Fingerprint evidence satisfied the courts but it couldn’t entirely silence the conspiracy theorists who muttered that the old boy was actually still alive.
If he was, then he was surviving on other funds because as far as the law was concerned he was no more and his heirs were free to open the will. Only... hold on? Where was it? Yes, that’s right! Ever the awkward so-and-so, Howard Hughes hadn’t left instructions about how he wanted his various fortunes to be disposed of.
Or had he...?
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Soon after Howard Hughes was legally declared dead, a fellow by the name of Melvin Dummar announced he had a copy of the Hughes’ will.
It seemed legit but no one could quite believe it. After all, Dummar worked in a petrol station in Utah, which even the most credulous observer must agree was some distance from any known Hughes hang out.
Dummar claimed he’d been driving towards Vegas when he picked up a raggedy old man in the desert. A couple of weeks later, an official-looking gentleman had dropped in and given Melvin the document. It was a cute story—it eventually became a movie, Melvin and Howard—but the courts didn’t buy it, and soon enough it became yet another piece of Hughes apocrypha.
Only a later investigation turned up evidence that it was actually true: it really had been Howard Hughes who Melvin met out there in the desert, and he’d been grateful enough for his kindnesses to remember him in the bequests. As with so much in the life of Howard Hughes, you really couldn’t make it up.
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