Texas Living

Texas Titans: The Dazzling, Disturbing Life of Howard Hughes

By Peter Simek 2.15.23

The wealthy people Texas produces tend to have larger-than-life personalities. Think H.L. Hunt, Ross Perot, Jerry Jones, Mark Cuban. But few can match the outsized persona of Howard Hughes, the Houston-born billionaire, entrepreneur, investor, pilot, movie producer, and all-around playboy. Hughes is perhaps most famous today for the latter years of his life when he lived as an eccentric recluse with acute obsessive-compulsive disorder and various pains and ailments he picked up during his life of adventuring. But before he became the Las Vegas shut-in who refused to leave the top floor penthouse of his hotel residence, Hughes lived one of the most colorful lives in Texas history.

Early Years in Houston

Howard Robard Hughes, Jr. was born in Houston in 1905 to the business owner and inventor Howard Robard Hughes, Sr. Four years after Hughes’ birth, his father would patent the two-cone drill bit, an oil drilling technology that would earn him a fortune. The money from his father’s Hughes Tool Company, which the younger Hughes would eventually inherit, ensured that money would never be an obstacle in the pursuit of his passions.

From an early age, Hughes had many interests. At age 11, he built Houston’s first radio transmitter and became one of the city’s first licensed ham-radio operators. He built a motorized bicycle at age 12 out of parts taken from his father’s steam engine. Hughes was born with a desire to move quickly, and by 14, he was already learning how to fly.

But Hughes’ early years were marked by tragedy. His mother died when Hughes was 16 years old, and his father died just two years later. At 18, Hughes was an orphan with an inherited fortune and ambition to pursue big dreams. He dropped out of Rice University, which he was attending at the time of his father’s death, married Ella Botts Rice, the great-niece of Rice University’s namesake, and moved to Los Angeles to become a filmmaker.

A Hollywood Playboy

After some early success producing short films, Hughes made his mark by spending his fortune producing two major Hollywood movies, “Hell’s Angels” (1930) and “Scarface” (1932). Through the Hughes Tool Company, he then became an owner of RKO Radio Pictures, one of the major studios during the so-called Hollywood “Golden Age.” By 1948, he obtained total control of the studio.

Hughes’ tenure as the head of RKO was rocky. He shut down production for months to investigate the political leanings of employees. But he also invested large budgets into productions, and RKO became known as the producer of many classic film noirs through the 1930s and 1940s before Hughes eventually sold the studio in 1955.

Hughes didn’t just hire Hollywood stars for his films — he dated many of them. His list of Hollywood romances included Joan Crawford, Billie Dove, Faith Domergue, Bette Davis, Yvonne De Carlo, Ava Gardner, Olivia de Havilland, Katharine Hepburn, Hedy Lamarr, Ginger Rogers, Pat Sheehan, Mamie Van Doren, and Gene Tierney. Rice divorced Hughes in 1929, a few years after they moved to L.A.; he married actress Jean Peters in 1957.

Taking Flight

Outside of his Hollywood endeavors, Hughes was a widely successful entrepreneur and business owner. His early passion for flight matured into a daredevil’s appetite for aviation adventures. He founded an aviation company that developed new aircraft technology. He set an airspeed record by flying from Los Angeles to Newark, New Jersey, in seven hours and 28 minutes. He piloted a record-breaking around-the-world flight, completing the journey in 91 hours — less than four days.

During his life, Hughes survived four airplane accidents. He also used a fake name to secure a job as a bag handler at American Airlines and worked his way up to a co-pilot position before he was eventually discovered. He would later become the owner of Trans World Airlines (TWA). Other successful business ventures included real estate investment. (The Howard Hughes Corporation continues to develop properties around the Houston area.) After his father’s death, Hughes ensured that a portion of his inherited estate would fund a medical research institute. In 1953, he launched the Howard Hughes Medical Institute, which grew into one of the largest funders of biological and medical research in the United States.

Retreating from Public Life

Stories about Hughes’ eccentric behavior followed him his entire life. He once spent four months in a darkened screening room watching films and living off chocolate bars, chicken, and milk. By the late 1960s, however, Hughes had become a virtual shut-in, living in the Desert Inn in Las Vegas. Refusing to leave his penthouse, Hughes bought the hotel to ensure he would not be disturbed.

During his last years, Hughes lived in the Bahamas, Nicaragua, Vancouver, London, and Acapulco, though he remained locked in rooms. He suffered several ailments related to brain injuries and other accidents. By the time of his death in 1976 — from kidney failure while on an airplane headed to Houston — he weighed barely 90 pounds and had to be identified by his fingerprints.

In death, Hughes continued to capture public attention. Even though he owed his early success in life to the head start offered by his father’s will, Hughes did not leave a will, sparking years of conflict from would-be heirs looking for a piece of the billion-dollar fortune he left behind.

For another installment of Texas Titans, read about H.L. Hunt.

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