Winston Churchill once referred to Russia as “a riddle, wrapped in a mystery, inside an enigma.” However, the notoriously-quotable British leader could just as easily have been describing Howard Hughes — the record-setting aviator, filmmaker and drug-addled recluse who became the world’s wealthiest man.
Although many aspects of Hughes’ well-publicized life are well known (opiate addiction, poor hygiene, fear of germs, etc), he carefully managed to keep highly guarded secrets that remain a mystery to this day. His involvement in the entertainment industry alone created relentless intrigue by the celebrity-obsessed public — and even post mortem, Hughes’ stranger-than-fiction persona continues to fascinate as well as generate countless bogus stories augmenting his enduring legacy.
10. Comic Book Superhero
Marvel Comics icon Stan Lee saw Howard Hughes as the ideal inspiration for the character Tony Stark, better known by his alter ego, Iron Man. Lee collaborated with fellow writer/artists Jack Kirby, Larry Lieber, and Don Heck to create Stark as a fabulously wealthy playboy and industrialist, who first appeared as a character in the March 1963 issue of Tales of Suspense #39.
According to Lee, Hughes’ extraordinary lifestyle provided the perfect fit: “Howard Hughes was one of the most colorful men of our time. He was an inventor, an adventurer, a multi-billionaire, a ladies’ man and finally a nutcase.”
Iron Man (and later as part of the Avengers) became a highly profitable movie franchise starring Robert Downey Jr. in the role as Stark. Interestingly, Hughes and Downey both share a notorious reputation for drug abuse and erratic behavior; however, the diminutive actor (5-foot-9) does require super-powered lifts to match Hughes towering 6-foot-3 height.
9. Crash & Earn
Hughes’ interest in aviation developed at an early age. His father, Howard Hughes, Sr., a successful Houston businessman who made a fortune developing oil-drilling equipment in Texas, bought him flying lessons when Jr. was only 14. This began an obsession that would involve spending lots of loot setting around-the-world flight records, while also making bundles of money developing advanced aircraft for the U.S. government. He also destroyed several planes (and cars), nearly killing himself on numerous occasions.
During the making of his epic WWI movie, Hell’s Angels, Hughes insisted on attempting a risky stunt in a biplane despite only being a novice pilot at the time. He crashed hard shortly after takeoff at Mines Field (now LAX airport), breaking bones in his face that required extensive surgery. In the spring of 1943, Hughes lost control of his amphibian Sikorsky-43 over Lake Mead, killing two people on board. His next crash, however, would drastically alter his life forever.
On July 7, 1946, Hughes plowed into a Beverly Hills neighborhood, demolishing three houses while piloting an X-11, a military reconnaissance prototype of his own design. As a result, he suffered multiple serious injuries, leading to a lifelong addiction to opiate-based painkillers.
8. Don Juan de Tejas
Tall, handsome and determined to make a name for himself, Howard Hughes could have easily been mistaken for a young actor upon his arrival to Hollywood in 1925. Being a millionaire didn’t hurt either as he quickly built a reputation as a major player and notorious womanizer. His dalliances included a who’s who of Tinseltown’s leading ladies such as Katharine Hepburn, Rita Hayworth, Joan Crawford, Susan Hayward, Ginger Rogers, Lana Turner, Ava Gardner, and even sisters, Olivia de Havilland and Joan Fontaine.
While the #MeToo movement continues to expose the film industry’s shameful past, the Hughes era may very well have represented the golden age of sexism and exploitation. The powerful studio head frequently stayed at the Beverly Hills Hotel, where he kept scores of women in different bungalows, providing the convenience to slip in and out of various love nests undetected.
Additionally, Hughes seemed to enjoy collecting starlets as much as bedding them; he made it a practice to sign young hopefuls to long-term binding contracts — a devious act of deception that prevented talent from working for his competitors while allowing him to sell their services to bidding studios. Furthermore, as a total control freak, his debilitating injuries, drug dependency and paralyzing OCD would have greatly compromised his libido and/or possibly rendered him impotent — and left him craving other forms of action.
7. Above The Law
Then and now, being rich and famous can be helpful in making problems disappear — even manslaughter. On the night of July 11, 1936, Hughes got behind the wheel of his Duesenberg Roadster following dinner and drinks with a date. He later struck a pedestrian named Gabriel S. Meyer, a 59-year-old salesman, who died at the scene not far from Hughes’ mansion in Los Angeles. The wealthy Texan was booked on suspicion of negligent homicide after witnesses told police that Hughes had been driving erratically as Meyer stood in the safety zone of a streetcar stop.
Following a coroner’s inquiry, eye witness accounts had abruptly changed to support the driver’s claim that Meyer had stepped in front of his slow-moving car. Hughes’ case also benefited from District Attorney, Buron Fitts, whose checkered career involved favorable acquittals in other high profile cases, including the questionable suicide of Paul Bern, the husband of his Hell’s Angels star, Jean Harlow. In the end, Hughes walked away scot-free minus court costs and a token $10,000 gift to the victim’s family.
6. Howard Hughes Air Force
Hughes spared no expense buying vintage WWI aircraft in an effort to make the dogfights in Hell’s Angels look as realistic as possible. The aerial combat scenes thrilled audiences and helped pioneer several innovative camera techniques. Moreover, his maniacal demands led to the death of three stunt pilots and a mechanic.
During the often-delayed shoot, Hughes managed to acquire five German Fokker D.VIIs, two Royal Aircraft Factory S.E.5s, and two Sopwith Snipes. American-made biplanes were disguised to resemble warbirds for both Allied and enemy squadrons; additionally, a massive, twin-engine Sikorsky S-29A received a heavy makeover for its transformation into a German Gotha bomber.
All totaled, Hughes bought or leased roughly 40 planes (although he often exaggerated the number to nearly 100), and hired an elite corps of leading stunt pilots, barnstormers, and WWI aces to fly them. As a gifted hype man, the director/producer often boasted that he had assembled the largest air force in the world despite the claim being patently false.
5. The Outlaw Self-Promoter
For many cinema buffs, the story behind the making of the movie The Outlaw is far more entertaining than the clunky western Hughes directed and produced. Nonetheless, in spite of its flaws and controversies, the film became a box office hit and the launched the career of Jane Russell — as well as spawn the apocryphal tale that the breast fetish billionaire invented the push-up bra.
In 1940, Hughes discovered Russell as an unknown, 19-year-old, buxom brunette and immediately signed to her an exclusive seven-year contract. The mogul then cast his latest ingenue in the role of “Rio,” a sexy señorita caught in a love triangle between gunslingers Doc Holliday and Billy the Kid. The infatuated filmmaker instructed his legendary cinematographer, Gregg Toland (Citizen Kane, The Best Years of Our Lives) to prominently feature Russell’s cleavage throughout the movie — and even constructed a crude garment with wires to further showcase her voluptuous figure. Russell, however, had other ideas.
In her autobiography, the actress described the ham-handed design as “ridiculous and uncomfortable” and never wore it. Instead, she fooled her bosom-obsessed boss by simply padding her bra with tissue paper. “He could design planes,” she said. “But a Mister Playtex he wasn’t.”
The discarded underwear would be one of numerous setbacks for the black and white “oater.” The Production Code Administration (PCA), an agency which set the entertainment industry’s moral guidelines, condemned the movie’s salacious, 38-D theme, which included scenes involving bondage and implied rape. Following the limited screening of an altered cut, critics were equally disgusted, prompting Hughes to pull the film from theaters. He then hatched an ingenious strategy, underscoring his strengths as a resourceful businessman and master of self-promotion.
Hughes unleashed a relentless publicity campaign, targeting religious leaders, women’s clubs and other conservative groups to ban his ‘lewd picture.’ The scheme ultimately worked, as public outcry demanded to see the hyped production, leading to its 1946 wide re-release — and supplemented with tawdry production stills and posters declaring “How’d You Like To Tussle With Russell?”
4. Put It To Bed
Hughes spent a total of 37 days convalescing in a hospital bed following his near-fatal XF-11 disaster. The violent impact and exploding fuel tanks left him with a broken collarbone, cracked ribs, a multi-punctured lung, and third-degree burns. Predictably, the early prognosis appeared bleak, and doctors would describe his recovery as nothing short of a miracle.
During his downtime at Good Samaritan in Los Angeles (the same hospital where Bobby Kennedy later died after being assassinated), the workaholic tycoon sought to correct flaws with the XF-11 despite his compromised condition and drug-induced stupor. His stationary predicament also prompted him to make notes regarding improvements to his hospital bed’s design — especially for long-term patients.
Newspaper reporters, hungry for any new information about his recovery, helped promote the supposed medical breakthrough, detailing how the wounded genius invented a motorized, adjustable bed that could be “controlled from an elaborate aircraft-style cockpit.” Although this type of sensational journalism helped sell newspapers, the veracity is highly debatable.
In November of 1945, a year before Hughes infamous crash, an article appeared in Life Magazine about an L.A. doctor’s invention called the “Push Button Bed.” The feature, replete with photos, included the passage, “Piloting the bed like an airplane from a panel of switches” while listing several of the same features attributed to Hughes.
To be fair, given the famous aviator’s background in design and mechanics, it’s plausible that Hughes could have conjured up something similar, but once he had recuperated and returned home, no bed patents were ever filed.
3. Licensed To Drill
While patrolling in the Pacific Ocean in the Spring of 1968, a Soviet submarine carrying nuclear-armed ballistic missiles accidentally sank, killing all 98 crew members on board. The USSR spent the next two months frantically searching for the wreckage of K-129, but ultimately never located its missing sub. The U.S., however, soon found it, and eagerly launched a covert operation to recover the sunken vessel, believed to contain vital information. Naturally, they called Howard Hughes to the rescue.
Codenamed Project Azorian, government officials partnered with the famous industrialist to construct a $350 million drillship capable of extracting a 1,750-ton sub located three miles below the water’s surface. The CIA devised an elaborate cover story, stating Hughes had built the massive contraption as part of his latest commercial venture to mine valuable minerals on the ocean floor. In a recently declassified memo, an intelligence agent described him as the ideal front to carry out their top-secret scheme:
“Mr. Howard Hughes… is recognized as a pioneering entrepreneur with a wide variety of business interests; he has the necessary financial resources; he habitually operates in secrecy; and, his personal eccentricities are such that news media reporting and speculation about his activities frequently range from the truth to utter fiction.”
The Glomar Hughes Explorer officially began operations in the summer of 1974 and was almost immediately plagued with mechanical issues. Additionally, news media rumors began to surface about the subterfuge following a burglary at Hughes’ Summa Corporation headquarters that revealed documents linking the agency to the Explorer.
Eventually, the entire costly project was scrapped to appease the Soviets — but on a positive note, the ruse later inspired the plot for the James Bond movie, The Spy Who Loved Me.
2. The Man Who Killed John Wayne
The 1956 movie The Conqueror, by the Hughes-owned RKO Pictures, generally ranks as one of the worst films ever made. The ill-fated production, starring John Wayne in the hopelessly miscast role of Mongolian leader Genghis Khan, not only died at the box office but led to several deaths of the cast and crew.
Shot over 12 weeks in southern Utah’s Snow Canyon, the remote location was chosen to replicate Asia’s Gobi Desert — an utter failure consistent with the cringe-worthy dialogue that included lines such as, “I feel this Tartar woman is for me, and my blood says, take her!” Wayne’s equally ridiculous Fu Manchu, black wig and slanted eye make-up all contributed to make The Conqueror a soundly defeated project. But the real tragedy occurred years afterwards, when nearly 100 members of the cast and crew developed cancer — as well as many Native Americans who served as extras portraying Mongolian warriors.
During the Cold War years between 1951 and 1962, the Atomic Energy Commission (AEC) detonated over 100 bombs in the Nevada desert; the fallout resulted in massive plumes of radioactive dust blowing downwind into the valleys and canyons of southern Utah, inadvertently contaminating everything in its path. Hughes further exacerbated the situation by having 60 tons of radioactive dirt from Utah shipped to Hollywood so filming could be completed on RKO’s sound stages.
The toxic hazard would gravely affect Wayne, the director Dick Powell, and co-stars Susan Hayward, Pedro Armendariz, and Agnes Moorehead — all of whom eventually died from various forms of the deadly disease. Although the iconic and controversial actor known as “The Duke” had been a heavy 6-pack-a-day smoker, he eventually succumbed to stomach (not lung) cancer in 1979.
Perhaps out of guilt, Hughes purchased every copy of the film, which he kept away from public viewing until three years after his own death.
1. (White) House For Sale
After losing to John F. Kennedy in the 1960 Presidential election, Richard Nixon blamed his narrow defeat on a nagging scandal involving none other than Howard Hughes. Nixon’s brother, Donald, had received a loan of $205,000 for his failing drive-in restaurant in 1957 — a payment many perceived as an attempt to curry favor with the then-vice president. But by 1968 — and proving time (and money) heals old wounds — the man known as “Tricky Dick” gladly accepted $100,000 in cash from Hughes shortly before moving into 1600 Pennsylvania Ave. According to Hughes’s chief executive of Nevada operations, Robert Maheu, his employer told him repeatedly, “there is no person in the world that I can’t either buy or destroy.”
Greed, paranoia and a mafia-connected banker named Charles “Bebe” Rebozo would all factor in the eventual serpentine downfall of Nixon’s presidency. Rebozo, a Cuban immigrant who became a wealthy businessman and close friend of the President, served as the bagman for the illicit funds from Hughes; the money was then allegedly used to fix up Nixon’s Florida hideaway, dubbed “The Winter White House.”
The stupendously twisted plot also involved a lobbyist working for Hughes named Larry O’Brien — and if that name rings a bell, it’s because he later became the Chairman of the Democratic National Committee (DNC) with an office at a place called Watergate. Several yers later, O’Brien would play a pivotal role the ABA/NBA merger and help increase basketball’s popularity with lucrative TV deals while serving as the Commissioner of the NBA — but that’s another story.
Terry Lenzer, a chief Senate Watergate investigator, said he believed Hughes’ bribe to Nixon may have led to the break-in that started the chain of events and cover-up, culminating with Nixon’s resignation in 1974. “The president was absolutely focused on Larry O’Brien when he became chairman of the Democratic National Committee because Mr. O’Brien had worked for Mr. Hughes as well,” Lenzner said. The Senate investigation never directly implicated Hughes — partly because he may have given money to other high-ranking politicians from both parties.