Howard Hughes (1905-1976)

Howard Robard Hughes Jr., Aviation Pioneer & Movie Producer, etc.

He was born and grew up in Houston, Texas. Through his mother, he was a direct descendant of the Rev. John Gano, Chaplain to the Continental Army, Member of the Society of the Cincinnati, and the man who is alleged to have baptized George Washington. Hughes' father invented the 64-tooth two-cone roller bit that is still used today to cut through hard rock while drilling for oil and petroleum. By the time Hughes was nineteen, both his parents were dead and as their only child he became sole heir to the Hughes Tool Company. Between 1960 and his death in 1976, he was generally considered to be the richest man in the United States. His net worth at his death has been estimated at anywhere between $2-4-billion of which he left $1.56-billion to charity, principally to the Howard Hughes Medical Institute (HHMI) that today enjoys an endowment of $22.6-billion making it the second-wealthiest philanthropic organization in the United States and the second-best endowed medical research foundation in the world.

His uncle, Rupert Hughes, was an acclaimed screenwriter and film director and from the late 1920s, Hughes made a name for himself in Hollywood by producing big budget controversial movies including The Racket (1928); Hell's Angels (1930) and Scarface (1932). In 1948, he bought RKO Pictures which became one of Hollywood's "Big Five" studios in its Golden Age. Having taken his first flying lesson at the age of fourteen he was hooked. In 1932 he established the Hughes Aircraft Company and again spared no expense on ambitious projects. In the 1930s and 40s, he set numerous world air speed records and in 1947 his built the Hercules, the largest flying boat in history and up until 2019 the plane with the longest wingspan. He bought and expanded TWA and Air West (Hughes Airwest) and in addition to winning multiple awards for his achievements in aviation he was inducted into the National Aviation Hall of Fame. In later years, he expanded  his empire again by investing in Las Vegas, buying up real estate, casinos, hotels and media outlets.

For all his good looks, intelligence, generosity, charm, and financial success, Hughes had suffered from acute OCD (Obsessive Compulsive Disorder) since childhood and in 1932 he was diagnosed with neurosyphilis. He was generally considered by all who knew him as eccentric, and his afflictions worsened with age and coupled with injuries from numerous air crashes he became addicted to codeine which led to serious mental decline. In later years, he became a recluse and was physically all but unrecognizable and his addiction resulted in his death from kidney failure. Nonetheless, in his younger years he had enjoyed a string of high profile affairs with many of the most famous beauties of his era, to mention just a few: Joan Crawford, Bette Davis, Debra Paget, Ava Gardner, Yvonne de Carlo, Hedy Lamarr, Olivia de Havilland, Katharine Hepburn, Ginger Rogers, Janet Leigh, Gloria Vanderbilt and Gene Tierney. According to their autobiographies, he proposed several times (unsuccessfully) to Joan Fontaine and was a close friend of Jane Russell.

Hughes was married twice, both ending in divorce. In 1925, he married Ella, daughter of David Rice who was a nephew of William Marshall Rice who endowed Rice University in Houston where Hughes had briefly studied before dropping out after his father's death. They divorced four years later in 1929. In 1957, he married the beautiful but down-to-earth Hollywood actress Jean Peters, eventually divorcing in 1971. Both wives received alimony and $78-million each in his will that was finally settled in 2010. He died without children.
Contributed by Mark Meredith on 01/03/2023 and last updated on 02/03/2023.