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Howard Hughes – The Real Aviator

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Net worth: US$12.8 bn (1958 Forbes 400)


He was at first dismissed by Hollywood insiders as a rich man’s son. However, his first film, released in 1927, Everybody’s Acting and his second film,Two Arabian Knights, released in 1928, were financial successes, the latter winning an Academy Award for Best Director of a Comedy Picture. The Racket in 1928 and The Front Page in 1931 were nominated for Academy Awards. Hughes spent a then-unheard-of $3.8 million of his own money to make Hell’s Angels, an epic flying film that ultimately became a smash hit after overcoming many obstacles. He produced another hit, Scarface, in 1932. One of his best-known films may be The Outlaw which made a star of Jane Russell, for whom Hughes designed a special bra (although Russell decided against wearing the bra because of a mediocre fit). Scarface and The Outlaw both received considerable attention from industry censors; Scarface for its violence, The Outlaw due to Russell’s revealing costumes.

He signed an unknown actor, David Bacon, in 1942 to play Billy the Kid, and then later replaced him with Jack Buetel. According to Albert “Cubby” Broccoli and Lucien Ballard, both of whom worked on The Outlaw, Hughes and Bacon had a sexual relationship, which also influenced Bacon’s replacement in the movie. Bacon’s murder the following year sparked an investigation which brought to light allegations of their affair, which may have indirectly led to Bacon’s death. Greta Keller, Bacon’s widow, claimed later that Bacon wanted to get out of his contract with Hughes and had been prepared to reveal details about his alleged relationship with Hughes in order to secure a release from the studio. However, according to the book written by Brown and Boeske, the hundreds of depositions from countless associates have never revealed any evidence that Hughes was homosexual.

Hughes kept his wife isolated at home for weeks at a time and, in 1929, she returned to Houston and filed for divorce. Hughes was a notorious ladies’ man who spent time with many famous women, including Billie Dove, Katharine Hepburn, Bette Davis, Gene Tierney, Ava Gardner and Olivia DeHavilland. He also proposed to Joan Fontaine several times, according to her autobiography No Bed of Roses. Bessie Love was a mistress during his first marriage. Jean Harlow accompanied him to the premiere of Hell’s Angels, but Hughes’ longtime right-hand man Noah Dietrich wrote many years later that the relationship was strictly professional – Hughes personally disliked Harlow. In his 1971 book Howard: The Amazing Mr. Hughes, Dietrich also noted that Hughes genuinely liked and respected Jane Russell but never sought romantic involvement with her. According to Russell’s autobiography, however, Hughes once tried to bed her after a party. Russell (who was married at the time) refused him, and Hughes promised it would never happen again. The two maintained a professional and private friendship for many years.

On July 11, 1936, a car driven by Hughes struck and killed a pedestrian named Gabriel Meyer at the corner of Third Street and Lorraine in Los Angeles. Although Hughes was certified as sober at the hospital to which he was taken after the accident, a doctor there made a note that Hughes had been drinking. He was taken to jail and booked on “suspicion of negligent homicide.” A witness to the accident told police that Hughes was driving erratically and too fast, and that Meyer had been standing in the safety zone of a streetcar stop. 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. Hughes made the same claim to reporters outside the inquiry, saying, “I was driving slowly and a man stepped out of the darkness in front of me.” The District Attorney recommended that Hughes be cleared of responsibility for Meyer’s death.

Hughes H-4 Hercules

Possibly his most famous aircraft project was the H-4 Hercules, nicknamed the “Spruce Goose” to his dismay although its frame was built of birch, not spruce. The plane was originally contracted by the U.S. government for use in World War II, as a viable way to transport troops and equipment across the Atlantic instead of sea going troop transports that were liable to the threat of German U-Boats. It was the largest aircraft ever built weighing 190 tons and not completed until just after the end of World War II. The Hercules flew only once for a mile (with Hughes at the controls) on November 2, 1947.

Hughes was summoned to testify before the Senate War Investigating Committee to explain why the plane had not been delivered to the United States Army Air Forces during the war, but the committee disbanded without releasing a final report. Because the contract required the aircraft to be built of “non-strategic materials,” Hughes built the plane largely from birch (rather than aluminum) in his Westchester, California facility to fulfill his contract. The plane was on display alongside the RMS Queen Mary in Long Beach, California for many years before being moved to McMinnville, Oregon, where it is now part of the Evergreen Aviation Museum.
In 1939, at the urging of Jack Frye, president of TWA, Hughes quietly purchased a majority share of TWA stock for nearly $7 million and took control of the airline. Upon assuming ownership of TWA, Hughes was prohibited by federal law from building his own airplanes. Seeking an airplane that would perform better than TWA’s fleet of Boeing 307 Stratoliners, Hughes approached Boeing’s competitor, Lockheed. Hughes already had a good relationship with Lockheed since they had built the plane he used in his record flight around the world in 1938. Lockheed agreed to Hughes’ demand that the new plane be built in absolute secrecy. The end result was the revolutionary Constellation, and TWA purchased the first 40 of the new planes off the production line.

Lockheed Constellation

Hughes’s ownership of and plans for TWA may have been the real reason he was investigated by the Senate following the war. Pan American World Airways chief Juan Trippe sought to monopolize international air travel and had influenced powerful Maine Senator Owen Brewster to propose legislation securing Pan Am as the sole American airline allowed to fly overseas, at a time when Hughes planned TWA service to Europe with the Constellation. Dietrich wrote of the investigation that Hughes beat the Senate committee by turning the hearings into an attack on Brewster. Hughes successfully exposed Brewster’s dealings with Pan Am and later helped defeat his re-election bid by pouring considerable funds into the campaign of his opponent, Frederick Payne.

In 1956, Hughes placed an order for 63 Convair 880s for TWA at a cost of $400 million. Although Hughes was extremely wealthy at this time, outside creditors demanded that Hughes relinquish control of TWA in return for providing the money. In 1960, Hughes was ultimately forced out of TWA, although he still owned 78 percent of the company and battled to regain control.

Before Hughes’s ouster, the TWA jet financing issue provoked the end of Hughes’ relationship with Noah Dietrich. Dietrich remembered Hughes developing a plan by which Hughes Tool Company profits were to be inflated in order to sell the company for a windfall that would pay the bills for the 880s. Dietrich agreed to go to Texas to implement the plan on condition Hughes agreed to a capital gains arrangement he had long promised Dietrich. When Hughes balked, Dietrich resigned immediately. “Noah,” Dietrich quoted Hughes as replying, “I cannot exist without you!” Dietrich stood firm and eventually had to sue to retrieve personal possessions from his office after Hughes ordered it locked.

In 1966, he was forced by a U.S. federal court to sell his shares in TWA due to concerns over conflict of interest between his ownership of both TWA and Hughes Aircraft. The sale of his TWA shares netted him a profit of $547 million. During the 1970s, Hughes went back into the airline business, buying the airline Air West and renaming it Hughes Airwest.


In 1953, Hughes launched the Howard Hughes Medical Institute in Maryland, formed with the express goal of basic biomedical research including trying to understand, in Hughes’ words, the “genesis of life itself.” Hughes’ first will that 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 (Brown and Boeske 34). Hughes gave all his stock of the Hughes Aircraft Company to the institute, thereby turning the aerospace and defense contractor into a tax-exempt charity. The Howard Hughes Medical Institute’s new Board of Trustees sold Hughes Aircraft in 1985 to General Motors for $5.2 billion. This caused the institute to grow dramatically.

The deal was the topic of a protracted legal battle between Hughes and the Internal Revenue Service, which Hughes ultimately won. After his death in 1976, many thought that the balance of Hughes’ estate would go to the institute, although it ultimately was divided among his cousins and other heirs, given the lack of a will to the contrary. The Howard Hughes Medical Institute is America’s second largest private foundation and the largest devoted to biological and medical research with an endowment of $14.8 billion as of September 2005.

By Mr. Legend



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