Howard Hughes, the son of Howard Robard Hughes, was born in Houston on 24th December, 1905. Howard's father was the founder of founder of the Hughes Tool Company. His brother, Rupert Hughes, worked as a writer for Samuel Goldwyn's movie studios. His mother, Allene Gano, came from a prosperous family that were considered to be "monarchs of Dallas society".
In 1908 Howard Robard Hughes 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 that now became known as the Hughes Tool Company.
Hughes attended private school in Boston before moving to the Thacher School in California. According to the principal's son, Anson Thacher, Hughes was "the brightest student in physics the school had in years". Although he idolized his physics teacher, Owen McBride, he was a poor student and never graduated from high school. However, his father arranged for him to attend the Rice University in Houston by donating money to the institution.
Howard Robard Hughes died of an embolism of an artery on 24th January, 1924. when his son was 18. Howard inherited a controlling share in the Hughes Tool Company but his uncle, Rupert Hughes, supervised his business interests until he reached the age of 21. In 1924 Hughes bought out his relatives and became the sole owner of the Hughes Tool Company.
On 1st June, 1925, Hughes married Houston socialite Ella Rice. The couple moved to Hollywood and in 1928 Hughes produced the academy award winning film, Two Arabian Nights. In 1930 Hughes wrote and directed Hell's Angels, a movie about pilots in the First World War. In order to make the movie Hughes obtained 87 aircraft used in the war and hired the world's best pilots. During the filming, a stunt man, Phil Jones, was killed. The movie cost $3.8 million and although a box-office success, it lost over $1.5m.
During this period Hughes had sexual relationships with a series of male and female film stars. This included Cary Grant, Randolph Scott, Errol Flynn, Carole Lombard, Billie Dove, Ida Lupino, Bette Davis, Bessie Love, Corinne Griffith, Ava Gardner, Olivia de Havilland, Lilian Bond, Katharine Hepburn, Fay Wray, Ginger Rogers and Gene Tierney. According to his biographer, Charles Higham: "He was a thoughtless, dispassionate lover, seeking only control. His sexual partners were not so much lovers as hostages, prisoners, or victims of his will; he had to dominate in everything."
While making Hell's Angels, Hughes developed a strong interest in aviation. In 1932, Hughes formed the Hughes Aircraft Company. In 1934 Hughes built and personally test-piloted the world's most advanced plane, the H-1. On September 13, 1935, he set a new speed record, taking the plane to 352 mph. Three years later Hughes piloted a Lockheed 14 with a crew of four on a flight around the world. During the flight he broke the New York to Paris record that had previously been held by Charles Lindbergh.
On 11th June 1936 Hughes was driving on Wilshire Boulevard when he struck and killed a pedestrian named Gabriel Meyer. Hughes was arrested and charged with manslaughter. Despite the fact that pedestrians had right-of-way in Los Angeles and that he had broken the law through reckless driving, Hughes was released without charge. In his book, Howard Hughes: The Secret Life (2004), Charles Higham argues: "In those days, the District Attorney could be bought and sold, and anyone with sufficient money could get away with almost anything."
In 1938 Hughes began living with Katharine Hepburn although he continued to sleep with Cary Grant, Fay Wray, Ginger Rogers and Olivia de Havilland. Later that year Hepburn discovered what was happening she left him and moved back to her home in Connecticut. In her autobiography, Me: Stories of My Life, she pointed out that her "love for him had turned to water."
By 1938 Hughes was worth about $60 million. Most of this came from Hughes Tool Company, which was run by Noah Dietrich. He also served as an executive for RKO Pictures and Hughes Aircraft. In 1939 Dietrich began buying shares in Trans World Airlines (TWA) on behalf of Hughes. Eventually, Hughes held 78% of the stock in the company.
During the Second World War Hughes became interested in building military aircraft. He was awarded two contracts, of $18m and $22m each, to create and build two revolutionary aircraft - a giant plywood cargo seaplane that could carry thirty-five tons of men and weapons (HK-1), and a very fast photo-reconnaissance aircraft (F-11).
Hughes also returned to film making and in 1943 produced and directed The Outlaw. The film starred Jane Russell and because of her conspicuous cleavage was initially banned. The following year Hughes formed a production company with Preston Sturges.
During this period he had sexual relationships with Tyrone Power, Russell Gleason, Richard Cormwell, Linda Darnell and Rita Hayworth. However, Hughes was turned down by Lana Turner. His biographer, Charles Higham, pointed out: "The beautiful blonde actress, feisty, strong-willed, wildly ambitious, was a far cry from the placid, pliable stars he was sharing his busy bed with. In fact she made it clear she had no interest in having a physical affair with him."
In 1945, the journalist, Westbrook Pegler, claimed that he had seen FBI files that said that Hughes had used his wealth to corruptly obtain government contracts. The following year Owen Brewster, chairman of the Senate War Investigating Committee, announced that he was very concerned that the government had given Hughes $40m for the development and production of two aircraft that had never been delivered. Brewster also pointed out the President Franklin D. Roosevelt had overruled his military experts in order to hand out the contracts to Hughes for the F-11 and HK-1 (also known as the Spruce Goose).
Brewster also pointed out that Hughes had provided "softening-up parties" for government officials. Howard paid movie starlets $200 to attend these parties. Their duties included swimming nude in Hughes's swimming pool. Julius Krug, the chief of the War Production Board, was someone who often attended these parties. One congressman who was also a frequent guest at Hughes's home claimed: "If those girls were paid two hundred dollars, they were greatly underpaid".
Hughes, accused of corruption, leaked information to journalists, Drew Pearson and Jack Anderson, that Owen Brewster was being paid by Pan American Airways (Pan Am) to cause trouble. According to Hughes, Pan Am was trying to persuade the United States government to set up an official worldwide monopoly under its control. Part of this plan was to force all existing American carriers with overseas operations to close down or merge with Pan Am. As the owner of Trans World Airlines, Hughes posed a serious threat to this plan. Hughes claimed that Brewster had approached him and suggested he merge Trans World with Pan Am. When Hughes refused Brewster began a smear campaign against him.
Drew Pearson and Jack Anderson believed Hughes and began their own campaign against Owen Brewster. They reported that Pan Am had provided Bewster with free flights to Hobe Sound, Florida, where he stayed free of charge at the holiday home of Pan Am Vice President Sam Pryor. These charges were repeated by Hughes when he appeared before the Senate War Investigating Committee. He also accused Brewster of trying to blackmail him into merging Trans World with Pan Am. Brewster denied the charge but it helped divert attention away from the charge that Hughes had wasted $40m of government money.
The Senate War Investigating Committee never completed its report on the non-delivery of the F-11 and the HK-1. The committee stopped meeting and was eventually disbanded.
Hughes continued to use his power to seduce Hollywood stars. When Jane Greer, who was married to Edward Lasker, rejected his advances, she asked him: "Will that mean the end of my career?" He replied, "Yes, I guess it will". Greer retorted: "Well, I'll just keep having babies".
Hughes' girlfriends in the early 1950s included Yvonne De Carlo, Rita Hayworth, Barbara Payton, Jean Peters and Terry Moore. When Hayworth became pregnant Hughes and Harry Cohn, her studio boss, forced her to have an abortion. He also had a brief relationship with Zizi Jeanmaire. However, she later claimed he was impotent with her.
Hughes became involved in politics and was a secret supporter of Richard Nixon. In 1956 the Hughes Tool Company provided a $205,000 loan to Nixon Incorporated, a company run by Richard's brother, Donald Nixon. The money was never paid back. Soon after the money was paid the Internal Revenue Service (IRS) reversed a previous decision to grant tax-exempt status to the Howard Hughes Medical Institute.
In 1956 Hughes began to employ Robert Maheu, a former FBI agent and veteran of CIA counter-espionage activities, on a freelance basis. This included intimidating would be blackmailers and obtaining information on business rivals. According to the author of Howard Hughes: The Secret Life (2004), Maheu "was his most trusted telephone companion apart from Jean Peters".
Robert Maheu was asked to spy on Ava Gardner and Stuart W. Cramer, the former husband of Jean Peters. Maheu discovered that Cramer was a CIA agent. In 1956 Hughes employed Maheu to undermine the campaign to replace Richard Nixon with Christian Herter, as President Eisenhower's running-mate.
Hughes proposed marriage to Jean Simmons and Susan Hayward. After being rejected by these women he eventually married Jean Peters in 1957. The couple lived in a large bungalow in Palm Springs. He was already showing signs of extreme hypochondria and paranoia. This included a fear of flies. According to Charles Higham Hughes "hired three strapping Mormons to work in eight-hour shifts at the bungalow (where he lived), not just to make sure he wasn't killed, but to intercept the insects."
The Hughes loan to Donald Nixon was revealed by during the Drew Pearson and Jack Anderson during the 1960 presidential campaign. Richard Nixon initially denied the loan but later was forced to admit that this money had been given to his brother. It was claimed that this story helped John F. Kennedy defeat Nixon in the election.
In 1960 Richard Bissell and Allen W. Dulles decided to work with the Mafia in a plot to assassinate Fidel Castro. Maheu was employed by the CIA to organize the conspiracy. The advantage of employing the Mafia for this work is that it provided CIA with a credible cover story. The Mafia were known to be angry with Castro for closing down their profitable brothels and casinos in Cuba. If the assassins were killed or captured the media would accept that the Mafia were working on their own.
On 25th September, Robert Maheu arranged for two CIA agents to meet Johnny Roselli and Sam Giancana, at the Fountainebleau Hotel on Miami Beach. Maheu told Roselli and Giancana that the CIA was willing to pay $150,000 to have Castro killed.
According to Bernard Barker Hughes worked with E. Howard Hunt in the secret CIA war against Fidel Castro. This included Operation Mongoose and Operation Pluto. This included Hughes making available his Sal Cay island in the Bahamas. The Miami Herald reported on 25th August 1963: "Cay Sal has served a dual purpose, as a rendezvous and arms storehouse for exile raiders, and, for anti-Castro refugees, the first stop to freedom, a gateway similar to the Berlin Wall to anti-Communist East Germans."
Hughes made a fortune selling helicopters to the government during the Vietnam War. However, accused of overcharging and slow to delivery the necessary helicopters, he found himself excluded from a contract that went to his chief rival, Bell Helicopter. Hughes' companies lost $268 million in three years.
Hughes sold his Trans World Airlines stock in 1966 for $546m. He now moved to Las Vegas where he used his money to buy up four hotels and six casinos. He employed Robert Maheu to oversee this business. Maheu explained later what his role was in the operation: "When he came here, he wanted to tie up all the property on the Strip to develop it properly. He didn't want it to be honky-tonk or like Coney Island. Hughes was a catalyst in the city cleaning up its act."
In 1965 the Atomic Energy Commission announced it was going to begin nuclear tests at Pahute Mesa, only 150 miles from the home of Howard Hughes. He contacted Richard Nixon but he refused to oppose these tests. During the 1968 presidential campaign Robert Maheu met with Hubert Humphrey in Denver. Maheu told Humphrey that Hughes was willing to pay him $100,000 if he was willing to do something about these nuclear tests. Humphrey promised that if he was elected he would appoint a committee of scientists to study the effects of radiation.
According to the author of Howard Hughes: The Secret Life (2004): "Hughes was delighted and pledged $300,000 to that committee. Now an elated Hughes dreaded that Bobby Kennedy would defeat Humphrey, who, in every way, lacked the glamour, charisma and ineffable name of his rival candidate. If only Bobby would die." On 4th June, 1968, Robert Kennedy was assassinated. Hughes was worried that Edward Kennedy would takeover from his brother and so he decided to buy Larry O'Brien, Kennedy's expert campaign manager. Robert Maheu met O'Brien in Las Vagas on 4th July, 1968. As a result of the meeting it was agreed that Hughes would pay O'Brien $15,000 a month
Hughes also employed Larry O'Brien to protect his interests in Washington. O'Brien was also chairman of the Democratic National Committee. On 20th March, 1972 Frederick LaRue and John Mitchell of the Nixon's re-election committee decided to plant electronic devices in O'Brien's Democratic campaign offices in an apartment block calledWatergate. Frank Sturgis, Virgilio Gonzalez, Eugenio Martinez, Bernard L. Barkerand E.Howard Hunt were later arrested and imprisoned for this crime.
Hughes became a recluse but continued to run his business interests from sealed-off hotel suites. His health deteriorated and he died April 5, 1976, en route by private jet to a hospital in Houston. He left an estate estimated at $2 billion.