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Howard Robard Hughes, Jr. was born in Houston, Texas, on December 24, 1905, the only child of Howard Robard and Allene (Gano) Hughes. In 1908, Howard Hughes, Sr. patented a two-cone rotary drill bit that penetrated medium and hard rock with ten times the speed of any former bit, and its discovery revolutionized oil well drilling. The following year he joined forces with Walter Benona Sharp to establish the Sharp-Hughes Tool Company in Houston. After the death of Sharp in 1912, Hughes took full control of the company, which then became the Hughes Tool Company.
As a boy, Howard was quiet and introspective, and showed little interest in school other than a leaning toward mathematics and an ability to build things with wires and scraps of metal. At the age of fourteen, he was sent to the Fessenden School in West Newton, Massachusetts. During a vacation at home his mother denied him a motorcycle, believing it to be unsafe, so he turned his bicycle into a motorized vehicle by using parts from a car starter and batteries. On another occasion, when his father promised him he could have his choice of presents, Hughes chose a ride in a flying boat. In 1921, Hughes was sent to the Thacher School in Ojai, California. Although he showed a great aptitude for physics, Hughes proved to be a poor student and never graduated. Despite the lack of a high school diploma, Hughes was allowed to audit math and aeronautical engineering classes at Caltech. His father later arranged for him to attend Rice University by donating money to the institution.
In March 1922, Allene Hughes died from complications of an ectopic pregnancy. Father and son returned to Houston, where Hughes, Sr., was stricken with a fatal heart attack while conducting a sales meeting on January 24, 1924. The loss of his parents in the prime of their lives had a profound effect on the already lonely, withdrawn Hughes, and at the age of eighteen he began to be a hypochondriac, fearful of death and panicky about germs.
As his father's principal heir, Howard Jr. inherited a 75% share in the Hughes Tool Company, with other family members owning the remaining 25%. But, since he was only 18, Howard's interest in the company was supervised by his uncle, Rupert Hughes. That supervision was supposed to continue until Hughes turned 21, but disagreements with his relatives led Hughes to fight for legal emancipation, which was granted in 1925; he then bought out his relatives and became the sole owner of the company. On June 1, 1925, he married Houston socialite Ella Botts Rice.
In 1939, Hughes purchased a majority share of TWA stock for nearly $7 million and took control of the airline. Upon assuming ownership, Hughes was prohibited by federal law from building his own aircraft. Seeking an aircraft that would perform better than TWA's fleet of Boeing 307 Stratoliners, Hughes approached Boeing's competitor, Lockheed, which agreed to Hughes' request that the new aircraft be built in secrecy. The result was the revolutionary Constellation and TWA purchased the first 40 of the new airliners off the production line.
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, and Hughes was forced out in 1960, despite owning 78% of the company. In 1966, Hughes was forced by a U.S. federal court to sell his shares in TWA because of concerns over conflict of interest between his ownership of both TWA and Hughes Aircraft. In 1970, Hughes went back into the airline business, buying Air West and renaming it Hughes Airwest.
Howard began having affairs almost immediately his marriage to Ella, and by 1929 she had moved back to Houston and filed for divorce. Howard seemed to barely notice her absence, continuing to pursue both his movie career and other women.
On June 11, 1936, Hughes was driving on Wilshire Boulevard when he struck and killed a pedestrian named Gabriel Meyer. Because at least one witness reported that Hughes had been driving recklessly, he was arrested and charged with manslaughter. Despite the fact that there was evidence he had been drinking, Hughes was released after only one night in jail and the manslaughter charge was dropped.
On January 12, 1957, Hughes married actress Jean Peters. Although Jean apparently loved her husband very much, she found it increasingly difficult to handle his many eccentricities and ended up divorcing him in 1971.
On November 24, 1966, Howard Hughes, along with his wife and several personal assistants, checked into the Desert Inn in Las Vegas. By this time Hughes had become known more for being an eccentric recluse than a very wealthy businessman, and before long the Desert Inn management was ready for him to leave. Hughes refused to leave, however, and ended up buying the hotel in early 1967. The hotel's eighth floor became the nerve center of his empire and the ninth-floor penthouse became his personal residence. Hughes subsequently bought several other Las Vegas hotel-casinos, including the Castaways, New Frontier, the Landmark, the Silver Slipper, and the Sands. He also bought local television station KLAS (Channel 8), among others, so that he could watch movies into the night. If he fell asleep during a film, he would call up the station and order that the scene he missed be replayed.
In 1972, Hughes sold his interests in the Hughes Tool Company and focused his attention on his Vegas businesses, which he organized under the umbrella Summa Corporation. By then, however, he had become so reclusive that almost all day-to-day business operations had been turned over to a relatively small group of hand-picked men, almost all of whom were Mormons. Those same men were also responsible for insuring Hughes' privacy, and for seeing to it that his every whim, no matter how whimsical or bizarre, was satisfied. Leaving Las Vegas soon after his divorce from Peters, Hughes spent the rest of his life living in hotels abroad, primarily in Nicaragua, the Bahamas, and Mexico.
Howard Hughes was reported to have died on April 5, 1976, on a private jet taking him to a hospital in Houston. Having been out of public view for over a decade, Hughes had become virtually unrecognizable, with excessively long hair, fingernails, and toenails, and weighing barely 90 pounds, and the FBI had to resort to fingerptints to positively identify the body. A subsequent autopsy listed kidney failure as the cause of death. He is buried next to his parents in Glenwood Cemetery, Houston.
Approximately three weeks after Hughes' death, a handwritten will was found on the desk of an official of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints in Salt Lake City. The so-called "Mormon Will" gave $1.56 billion to various charitable organizations, nearly $470 million to the upper management in Hughes' companies and to his aides, $156 million to first cousin William Lummis, and $156 million split equally between his two ex-wives. A further $156 million was endowed to a gas-station owner named Melvin Dummar, who claimed that he had once given a ride to a dirty and disheveled hitchhiker who identified himself as Howard Hughes. Dummar further claimed that he had been given the will by a "mysterious man" a few days after Hughes' death and that he had in turn taken it to the LDS Church office. The Mormon Will was rejected as a forgery by the Nevada court in June 1978, after a seven-month trial, and that same court declared that Hughes had died intestate. Hughes' $2.5 billion estate was eventually split in 1983 among 22 cousins, including William Lummis, who serves as a trustee of the Howard Hughes Medical Institute.
Although there were claims that Hughes' abuse of opiates led to his late-life eccentricities, studies done after his death proved that Hughes used opiates to control the constant pain he experienced following his 1946 crash. That pain was never fully relieved, and as he aged even cutting his hair and nails became painful. Unfortunately, his reliance on drugs to manage pain led to kidney problems, which in turn led to his dramatic weight loss. As for his often erratic behavior, psychiatrists now blame those primarily on an obsessive-compulsive personality combined with the many stresses brought on by amassing and managing a huge business empire.
This page was last updated on March 25, 2017.