US: Howard Hughes

John Gehl sends us this bio of the eccentric American billionaire Howard Hughes (1905-1976), who is now the subject of a new Hollywood movie, and who in his lifetime made headlines as a businessman, aviator, and movie
producer. In his later years he was, ironically, much publicized for his aversion to publicity, given as he was to shrouding his person and business operations in mystery. Orphaned at 17, Hughes quit school and took control of his father's Houston-based Hughes Tool Company, shrewdly buying out all other relatives.In his twenties, with a yearly income of about $2 million, he moved to Hollywood and became a movie producer, making such films as "Hell's Angels" (1930), "The Front Page" (1931) and "Scarface" (1932). He introduced Jean Harlow, Jane Russell and Paul Muni to the screen.

In 1948 he bought a controlling interest in RKO Pictures Corporation, selling it in 1955, but remaining chairman of the board until 1957. Along with his interest in motion pictures, Hughes had a life-long fascination with aviation. In 1932 he founded Hughes Aircraft in Culver City, California. The company never succeeded as an airplane manufacturer, but became profitable as a producer of aircraft equipment, including radar and weapons guidance systems. In 1937, he bought a struggling airline that he enamed Trans World Airways. His management of TWA was controversial, and in 1966, after refusing to appear in court to answer antitrust charges, he lost control and sold his 78 percent share of the stock for more than $500 million. Hughes was a skilled pilot and competent aircraft designer. He set speed records with planes he designed and he circled the earth in record time, flying a Lockheed 14. In 1942 he began work on the design of his famous "Spruce Goose," an eight-engine, wooden flying boat intended to carry 750 passengers. In 1947 he piloted this machine on its only flight for a
distance of just one mile.

Never an extrovert, in 1950 Hughes went into complete seclusion in Las Vegas, Nevada, where he began to buy up much of the hotel and nightclub industry, but was seen by only a few trusted male aides. After years of working without sleep for days on end in a black-curtained room, he reportedly became emaciated and deranged, with an uncontrollable and morbid fear of germs. In his later years he began to move abruptly from one place to another, finally dying on a flight to Houston, Texas, to seek medical treatment. He died without a will, and considerable legal debate arose over the disposition of his estate. The courts finally made the Howard Hughes Medical
Institute the beneficiary of his vast fortune. Originally set up by Hughes as a tax shelter and public relations ploy, this Institute is now the largest U.S. source of funds for biomedical research.
See Michael Drosnin, Citizen Hughes.

RH: Such biographies ( of Ford, Carnegie, Mellon,  Rockefeller, etc.) are important because they tell us about the key figures who make our system work.

Ronald Hilton 2004


last updated: February 28, 2005