The Chronicles of Hollywood’s Mad Director: Howard Hughes

Howard Hughes is known for a lot of things, particularly his films. He directed classics like Scarface and Hell’s Angels, but there were more than movie ideas going on in his mind. He suffered from mental illness, substance abuse, and spent long periods of time in seclusion. Hughes inherited his parents’ fortune and followed his passion for flying. He then made his way to Hollywood to pursue his dream of making movies. Hughes was aware that his money gave him power, and he used it to his advantage.

Howard Hughes circa 1930s. / Howard Hughes next to Nancy Carroll in the cockpit of a plane
Photo by Glasshouse Images, Shutterstock / Granger, Shutterstock

He spent time as a ladies’ man and was linked to multiple starlets in the industry. He bought off whatever and whoever he wanted and couldn’t take no for an answer. Even though he was a trust fund kid, Hughes worked hard to increase his wealth, but he had a need for perfection. Despite all his money and success, Howard Hughes died a lonely man; he didn’t even have anyone to leave his estate to.

This is the crazy life and career of the legendary director.

Player’s Gonna Play

Nowadays, Hughes is mostly known for his wealth and madness. He may have been a troubled loner later in life, but, in his prime, he was quite the ladies’ man. During his time in Hollywood, he was linked to countless starlets, and his list of women reached legendary status. He dated plenty of beautiful actresses from Ava Gardner to Katharine Hepburn. He even scandalously dated sisters, Olivia de Havilland and Joan Fontaine.

Ginger Rogers and Howard Hughes at an event together
Ginger Rogers and Howard Hughes, engaged, in 1937. Photo by Everett Collection / Shutterstock

But the truth is even darker. He was dating de Havilland when he hit on Fontaine, who rejected him and told her sister what had happened. Instead of being mad at Hughes, de Havilland was angry with Fontaine. Hughes caused a wedge between the sisters and likely contributed to their infamous sibling feud.

Screaming for Ice Cream

Throughout his life, Hughes showed an inclination toward obsessive behavior, and his wealth and power surely helped enable him. He was once super obsessed with Baskin & Robbins’ Banana Nut ice cream. When the company discontinued the flavor, he ordered an industrial-sized batch of 350 gallons. You know, enough for the average person.

Howard Hughes in an airplane
Howard Hughes flying the plane, which crashed, 1946. Source: Shutterstock

His staff traveled all the way to Los Angeles to pick up the order, and they reconfigured an entire refrigerator system to store the ice cream. But they were in for a rude awakening. Hughes changed his mind and lost interest in the Banana Nut flavor. Instead, his obsession turned to French Vanilla flavor. The ice cream obsession is innocent enough, but his obsessive tendencies turned disturbing (more on that later).

Flying Risk Taker

Hughes’ fortune mainly came from his business, the Hughes Aircraft Company. He didn’t just helm the company but also his own product. Since he was a trained pilot, Hughes would sometimes perform tests for the Aircraft Company himself. However, these tests put him in several dangerous situations.

Howard Hughes and Roscoe Turner standing in front of their plane and car parked in the airport.
Howard Hughes and Roscoe Turner, a stunt flyer. Photo by Underwood Archives / UIG / Shutterstock

During a test-pilot session in 1946, Hughes crashed a military prototype. Luckily, he survived, but doctors prescribed codeine to him for his injuries. The pills did more harm than good. Eventually, Hughes developed a dependency on the drug, and, sadly, the addiction plagued him for the rest of his life. Unfortunately, this wasn’t the only time Hughes crashed his planes.

No Taxation

Hughes is known for a lot of things, one being that he wasn’t a fan of paying taxes. He had such deep-rooted hatred for taxes that he went through a great deal to avoid paying them. For example, to keep himself from claiming an official residence, Hughes would spend long stretches of time living in hotels.

Howard Hughes
Howard Hughes. Photo by Moviestore Collection / Shutterstock

He would also jump from location to location to make it harder to track him. Since he had no will or children but an immense fortune, Hughes left his wealth and Hughes Aircraft stocks to a tax-exempt charity that he created named the Howard Hughes Medical Institute. It sounds like it would have been much easier to just pay his taxes.

Toxic Masculinity

According to many of the ladies he was involved with, the only thing Hughes cared about was the chase. Once he caught the girl, he lost interest. Apparently, he only slept with the ladies he seduced one time. Then he would keep them around like they were in some sort of business arrangement.

Howard Hughes and Patricia Ellis sitting at a table with wine glasses in front of them
Howard Hughes and Patricia Ellis circa 1934. Photo by Kobal / Shutterstock

It’s no secret that Hughes was a huge perfectionist. For his Western, The Outlaw, Hughes strategically planned to sell the movie by showing off the beautiful physique of Jane Russell, the soon to be movie star whom he personally hand-picked for the part. But when it came to filming, Hughes wasn’t happy with the effects of gravity on her body, and he went to great lengths to get the effect he wanted.

The Original Wonderbra

While making The Outlaw, Hughes came up with a creative idea to raise Russell’s cleavage throughout the movie. He designed a unique, cantilevered underwire bra just for his leading lady. The actress, however, did not enjoy wearing it and described the bra as incredibly uncomfortable. I mean, a man designed it, and comfort certainly wasn’t his first priority.

Jane Russell standing next to wanted posters put up outside of an old building in The Outlaw
Jane Russell on set of The Outlaw 1943. Photo by Ira Hoke / Rko / Kobal / Shutterstock

But the actress did figure out a way not to have to wear it. She managed to hide Hughes’ uncomfortable invention and wore her own bra. She adjusted the straps and used tissue as padding. Thankfully, the star was able to pull it off and fool the director. The infamous bra he invented is now sitting in a Hollywood museum.

No Such Thing as Bad Publicity

If only the bra situation was the only controversy on the set of The Outlaw. When Hughes handed the finished film over to the Hollywood Production Code Administration, even they were uncomfortable with the emphasis on the actress’s cleavage. 20th Century Fox was ready to release the film but they noticed the censors, so they canceled it. Predictably, Hughes came up with a plan to get his film out.

Jane Russell and Jack Buetel in The Outlaw
Jane Russell and Jack Buetel 1943. Photo by Snap / Shutterstock

The director initiated a public outcry against his own film. The controversy over the film’s content spread in the media, and the more people heard about it, the more excited they were to see it. The demand for the movie was high, and, although it took three years, Hughes got what he wanted. The movie was released and became a massive hit.

I’ll Leave When I Want

On Thanksgiving 1966, Howard Hughes went to Las Vegas, where he rented the top two floors of the Desert Inn Hotel. He had such a wonderful time there that he decided to continue his stay through the holidays. The hotel, however, wasn’t very pleased with this. In fact, they demanded that Hughes leave.

Howard Hughes sitting in a chair casually leaning on a desk
Howard Hughes circa 1940s. Photo by Everett Collection / Shutterstock

Apparently, they needed room for the high rollers that come for the holidays and, of course, gamble. But Hughes felt very comfortable in the hotel and didn’t want to leave. So, what did he do? He bought the place. That way, he could leave whenever he wanted. If you’re wondering, he ended up staying for four years.

I Guess I Just Have to Buy the Hotel

During his time at the Desert Inn, Hughes also bought the Sands Hotel next door. You may be wondering why he needed another hotel. The answer is he didn’t. He bought it for a rather outrageous reason. They had a neon sign that bothered him, and he wanted it removed. (Wow… I’m sure he could have just asked them.)

Howard Hughes sitting in the back of a car circa 1947
Howard Hughes circa 1947. Photo by Granger / Shutterstock

I guess some people don’t know what to do with all their money. If only I could buy a hotel when a sign bothers me. While he was living at the hotel, Hughes basically isolated himself from the outside world. We’ll get to that soon and see what ultimately forced him out of his seclusion.

Hughes the Germophobe

As we previously mentioned, Hughes frequently exhibited obsessive behavior. The guy was so concerned about cleanliness that he seems to have been a hypochondriac. It was borderline Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder (OCD), especially when it came to germs. All of his staff members had to study a manual to understand exactly how the director wanted to be approached and served.

Howard Hughes on the set of the film Sky Devils with people and equipment surrounding them
Howard Hughes behind the scenes on Sky Devils 1931. Photo by Granger / Shutterstock

Here is one particular example. If he wanted canned peaches, the can needed to be disinfected, washed, scrubbed, and washed again. After that, the peaches had to be poured into an untouched bowl. The employees had to follow these strict instructions if they wanted to keep their jobs.

The Boy in the Bubble

Hughes’s obsession with germs and his extreme perfectionism are two sides of the same coin. Based on his behavior, it’s generally believed that he suffered from OCD. However, it should be noted that it is unclear if he ever got treatment or even a diagnosis for it. But after his death, experts traced his odd behavior back to a tragic source.

Howard Hughes as a student
Howard Hughes circa 1921. Photo by Everett Collection / Shutterstock

Hughes was born in Texas in 1905. At that time, polio outbreaks were common, and his mother, Allene Stone Gano, was so worried that her child might contract it. She went to really far lengths to protect him. She kept him isolated from other people and the outside world. Sadly, young Hughes had no friends growing up.

A Child Prodigy

Since his overprotective mother basically put the boy on house arrest, Hughes spent a lot of time alone. His neighbors frequently saw him riding his bike in circles in the driveway of the family home. What they didn’t know was that it was the first motorized bike in all of Houston. Hughes showed early skills in mechanics and engineering and built the bike himself at the age of 12.

Howard Hughes posing in a suit
Howard Hughes. Photo by Glasshouse Images / Shutterstock

Hughes proved that he had brains and was especially gifted when it came to science and math. At age 11, he built Houston’s first “wireless” radio transmitter. He began studying at Rice University but dropped out after his dad passed away. He then married Ella Botts Rice. No, the name is not a coincidence. She was the great-niece of the guy the school was named after.

A Sudden Paralysis

There was one particularly disturbing episode that punctuated Hughes’s lonely upbringing. When he was just a teenager, he suddenly became paralyzed one day, and he couldn’t walk or talk for months. Doctors never found a medical cause for the paralysis. After his death, it was speculated that it was a side effect of extreme stress, which later turned into paranoia and obsessive tendencies.

Howard Hughes posing in front of a Boeing pursuit plane
Howard Hughes. Photo by Everett Collection / Shutterstock

If sudden paralysis wasn’t difficult enough, Hughes suffered even more tragedy in his adolescent years. His mother died due to an ectopic pregnancy when he was 17. Two years later, his dad passed away from a heart attack, making Hughes a 19-year-old orphan.

How the Rich Get Richer

After his dad died, Hughes inherited 75% of his wealth and part of the Hughes Tool Company. He was still a teenager and had the whole world at his feet. At this point, he already completed flight training and started the Hughes Aircraft Company as a division of the company. This was also when he started thinking about using his money to create films.

Howard Hughes geared up coming out of the cockpit of an airplane circa 1935
Howard Hughes circa 1935. Photo by Granger / Shutterstock

The two passions stuck with Hughes for the next few decades. Just because he was a “trust fund” baby didn’t mean Hughes didn’t work hard to increase his wealth. The movie and aircraft companies that he had been developing turned profitable. Hughes Aircraft was sold with a net worth of an astonishing $5.2 billion.

Fake News

Hughes was forced out of isolation in 1972 for a rather strange reason. A man named Clifford Irving claimed that he co-wrote an autobiography with Hughes. The director didn’t think much about it, but then the guy started doing interviews and making media appearances promoting the upcoming book.

Clifford Irving and his wife Edith outside of federal court with media surrounding them
Edith and Clifford Irving arriving at federal court where they pled guilty to a federal charge of conspiracy for their roles in the fake autobiography of Howard Hughes on March 13th, 1972. Photo by Everett Collection / Shutterstock

At first, Hughes did nothing to deny these claims, which led many to believe they were true. However, they were completely false. The director eventually made a public statement revealing that there was no book, and he didn’t know what this guy was talking about. Irving was later arrested for fraud and spent 17 months behind bars.

Life for the Big Screen

Throughout the years, lots of prominent directors expressed their desire to make a movie about Hughes. Even Steven Spielberg wanted to make a “Citizen Kane”-like film about the director’s life, and Jim Carrey wanted to star in a different one. At some point, everyone was on board in one way or another.

Leonardo DiCaprio as Howard Hughes holding a headset up to his ear
Leonardo DiCaprio as Howard Hughes in The Aviator 2004. Photo by Warner Bros / Kobal / Shutterstock

Finally, Martin Scorsese was the first to complete one in 2004; the extremely successful film The Aviator starring Leonardo DiCaprio. However, the movie almost wasn’t made. It was so expensive that Scorsese had to use his own money and paid $500,000 just to make it, which is what Hughes used to do while he was creating his own films.

Career Comes First

Hughes took his first wife and moved to Hollywood, where he was ready to embark on a career as a filmmaker. Like many business ventures, the first few years were filled with ups and downs. The first movie he ever produced was an epic failure, but he was able to turn his luck around.

Howard Hughes with his wife Ella on their wedding day
Howard Hughes with Ella Botts Rice on their wedding day. Source: Pinterest

He made a few hits throughout the ‘30s, and his career seemed to be headed in the right direction. Unfortunately, things weren’t all peachy behind the scenes. At home, Hughes was unhappy, and so was his wife; his marriage was crumbling down. In 1929, his wife left him and, soon after, they officially got divorced.

Ladies’ Man

Hughes made the best of being a single man. Fresh out of his divorce, Hughes was spotted hanging out with some of the stunning starlets of Hollywood’s Golden Age. Throughout the ‘30s, the infamous director was linked to Bette Davis, Ava Gardner, Olivia de Havilland, Hedy Lamarr, Janet Leigh, Katherine Hepburn, Ginger Rogers, Mamie van Doren, Rita Hayworth, Gene Tierney, and several others.

Howard Hughes next to Nancy Carroll in the cockpit of a plane
Howard Hughes and Nancy Carroll circa 1937. Photo by Granger / Shutterstock

However, dating Hughes doesn’t sound like a bed of roses. He had already shown some eccentric behavior, and he doesn’t seem like such a gentleman. Actress Joan Fontaine stated that Hughes “had no humor, no gaiety, no sense of joy, no vivacity […] that was apparent to me.” It looks like the ladies were after his money.

A Production Nightmare

For his movie Hell’s Angels, Hughes wanted to combine his two passions, filmmaking, and aviation. Well, it didn’t take long for his dream to become a complete nightmare for everyone involved. His first director quit because of Hughes’s perfectionist demands. He spent so much time working on the silent film that by the time it was finished, talkies were more popular.

Jean Harlow standing in front of an airplane on the set of Hell’s Angels
Jean Harlow on set of Hell’s Angels 1930. Photo by Snap / Shutterstock

Hughes ended up reshooting most of the film to add dialogue. In the end, it all worked out for one woman, Jean Harlow, who later became the Hollywood It Girl. Harlow replaced the Norwegian accent with a thick accent when the film was switched from silent to talkie. Harlow was handpicked by Hughes himself.

The Cursed Movie Set

All of the reshoots and setbacks weren’t the only nightmarish parts of Hell’s Angels. Many dreadful events happened on that set, but there was one tragic incident in particular. The head stunt pilot working on the movie claimed that one of the maneuvers that Hughes demanded was way too dangerous. Hughes decided it would be a good idea to perform it anyway…

A scene from Hell’s Angel’s with older planes flying around the sky with one of them about to fall with black smoke coming out of it
A scene from Hell’s Angels 1930. Photo by United Artists / Kobal / Shutterstock

He crashed, of course, and almost got himself killed. He fractured his skull, which required surgery. His reckless stunt wasn’t even the extent of the hazardous events that happened on that set. One mechanic and four pilots died during the making of Hell’s Angels.

Spreading Rumors

We already mentioned how Hughes came up with a devious plan to gain publicity for his movie The Outlaw. That wasn’t the only time Hughes used the press to his advantage. Most of the time, Hughes was working outside of the studio system, which didn’t really happen in those days. The director took it upon himself to promote his movies.

Jack Buetel lying in bed with his eyes closed, Jane Russell holding his hand, and Carl Stockdale holding a Bible in a scene from The Outlaw
Jack Buetel, Jane Russell, and Carl Stockdale in The Outlaw 1943. Photo by Ira Hoke / Rko / Kobal / Shutterstock

He literally started a rumor that Hell’s Angels was the most expensive movie ever made. Sure, it was definitely not cheap to make. I mean, the movie was a massive success in the box office and still lost money because of production costs. But was it the most expensive film? No.

Haters Gonna Hate

If there is a word that not describe Hughes, its subtlety. The director was accused of glorifying violence and crime in his next film, 1932’s Scarface. He was required to reshoot some scenes more than once. You know what they say, you can’t please everyone all the time. There are always going to be haters.

Howard Hawks and other behind the scenes of Scarface
Howards Hawks, co-producer of Scarface, behind the scenes. Photo by United Artists / Kobal / Shutterstock

However, Scarface was so controversial that it was even banned in certain places. Hughes was livid and ended up removing the film from circulation altogether. Now, nobody can watch it. It was kept locked in his vault for decades and was finally released in 1979. Thankfully, thriller fans everywhere can enjoy the gangster film nowadays.

No Communists Allowed

After producing many of his own films, Hughes thought of expanding. He took money out of the Hughes Tool Company to buy shares in the dwindling company RKO Pictures to save it from the brink of ruin. As soon as he took over, RKO went from producing a few dozen movies a year to under 10. He also laid off about 700 employees. His reasons were extremely dark.

Howard Hughes in the cockpit of an old wooden flying boat
Howard Hughes in a Wooden Flying Boat 1947. Photo by Granger / Shutterstock

Hughes believed that Communism was a threat to the United States, and he was so paranoid about it that he published articles about its danger. He literally shut down RKO for six months so that the entire staff could be investigated. He wanted to make sure no communist sympathizers worked there.

Breaking Records

When he wasn’t scaring his employees, Hughes kept himself busy breaking flight records, and there was one particular record he had his eye set on: the record for the fastest flight around the world. It had been set in 1933, and Hughes was determined to break it. Go big or go home is what they say.

Police and people surrounding Howard Hughes plane after he landed from his 91-hour flight
Police surrounding Howard Hughes plane after he landed his 91-hour flight on July 14th, 1938. Photo by Underwood Archives / UIG / Shutterstock

After preparing for months, he was ready to travel in 1938. Hughes got his wish; he finished the whole flight in 91 hours, breaking the world record. Even though he was relatively well-known at the time, breaking this record really put his name on the map and made him more famous than ever. There was even a ticker-tape parade in NYC celebrating this accomplishment.

Friends in High Places

Hughes’s obsession with flight wasn’t all rainbows and butterflies; it had a dangerous, dark side. Throughout his career as a pilot, Hughes was involved in four nearly fatal accidents. Each took its own severe toll on his physical and psychological health.

Howard Hughes standing on a ladder under an airplane with a hatch open
Howard Hughes. Photo by Moviestore Collection / Shutterstock

Howard Hughes must have seen dollar signs flash before his eyes when WWII broke out. Realizing that bomber planes would be necessary, he designed the Hughes D-2. During that time, Hughes was good friends with Colonel Elliot Roosevelt – the president’s son. Thanks to Roosevelt’s recommendation, the military had already bought 100 of Hughes’s other planes. He tried to persuade the military to pay for him to develop the D-2, but it didn’t work.

Playing with Fire

His next big project was the Sikorsky-43, an amphibian aircraft, and Hughes’s most dangerous endeavor. He tested it out several times before loading up the aviation with examiners, staff members, and actress Ava Gardner- his girlfriend at the time. He dropped Gardner off in Vegas and proceeded to perform qualifying tests.

Ava Gardner, on-set of the Film, 'The Killers'
Ava Gardner, on-set of the Film, ‘The Killers’, 1946. Source: Glasshouse Images/Shutterstock

Thankfully, the starlet got off because the plane crashed in Lake Mead that day. Two people died in the accident: one inspector and one of his employees. Obviously, it wasn’t as safe as he had initially thought. This was a tragedy, but, for Hughes, the worst was yet to come. He was present during a strange amount of deaths.

Bigger Problems

It started off as an ordinary night out in Los Angeles until tragedy struck. Howard Hughes hit a pedestrian with his car. To make matters worse, the man passed away due to his injuries. As you can imagine, there was immediate controversy over the circumstances of that fateful night. Whose fault was it? Was there alcohol involved?

Howard Hughes sitting in court next to his lawyer
Howard Hughes in court regarding the accident that he was in that killed another man. Photo by Everett Collection / Shutterstock

At the hospital, Hughes was certified as sober. However, one doctor noted that he appeared intoxicated. A witness claimed that the driver was speeding and driving erratically, and Hughes was booked for negligent homicide. The story didn’t end there, though. Things went from weird to straight-up shady real fast.

He Said, She Said

As we mentioned, the witness initially alleged that Hughes was driving recklessly before he hit the victim. The witness stated that the pedestrian was standing in the safety zone by a bus stop. However, he completely changed his story and claimed the victim ran in front of Hughes’s car. Something smells fishy.

Howard Hughes sitting with a stack of papers and an intense look
Howard Hughes. Photo by Granger / Shutterstock

I don’t know about you, but I don’t trust people who change their stories. However, the woman who was in the car with Hughes at the time verified the story. In the end, the accident wasn’t considered Hughes’s fault. To me, it looks like he used his wealth to literally get away with murder… but what do I know?

Crash and Burn

When the first prototype of the Hughes XF-11, an Air Force reconnaissance aircraft, was completed in 1946, Hughes wanted to be the first one to fly it and perform the test flight. What he didn’t know was that it would also be the plane’s last flight. There was an oil leak, and Hughes did everything in his power to save the aircraft. He tried to land it at the Los Angeles County Gold Club, but that didn’t really work out.

Howard Hughes working on his airplane with someone in uniform standing behind him
Howard Hughes working on the plane, which he ended up crash landing in Beverly Hills. Photo by Granger / Shutterstock

Hughes ended up crashing in a Beverly Hills neighborhood near the golf club. The plane caught fire immediately, and Hughes managed to drag himself out of the wreckage and then passed out. A Marine named Sgt. Durkin saved Hughes from the flames. According to one of his biographers, Hughes sent a check to the Sargent every month to thank him for saving his life.

Not Comfy Enough

Hughes wasn’t a stranger to plane crashes, but none was as bad as the XF-11 crash. The aftermath was devastating. Hughes crushed his collarbone, cracked his ribs, and had third-degree burns all over his body. The worst part was that his chest got so crushed that his left lung collapsed, and his heart moved to the right side of his chest.

Howard Hughes sitting in the cockpit of the plane which later crashed
Howard Hughes in the plane which crash-landed. Photo by Underwood Archives / UIG / Shutterstock

It doesn’t come as a surprise that Hughes was bedridden after the accident. The obsessive perfectionist wasn’t happy with his bed. So he decided to design and customize a motorized bed that the patient could control. Despite the fact he never got to use his invention, his design pioneered modern hospital beds.

The Spruce Goose

During WWII, Hughes wanted to create and develop a flying boat that would help transport troops across the Atlantic safely. This venture became one of the most disastrous and controversial that he was involved with… and that’s saying a lot. Colonel Elliot Roosevelt helped push for the development of the H-4 Hercules, but he quickly regretted this move.

The Spruce Goose plane before the wings were attached
The Spruce Goose waiting to be transported to Long Beach, where they would attach the wings. Photo by Underwood Archives / UIG / Shutterstock

It was difficult to find material during the war, so the Hercules was built from wood and landed the nickname, Spruce Goose. However, the wood that was used was actually birch. When it was finished, the world was introduced to the largest flying boat and the biggest aircraft made out of wood. There was just one problem, though…

Where’s the Money?

By the time the Hercules was completed, WWII had just ended. Unfortunately, it missed the boat! It only flew for one mile once in 1947, with Hughes at the helm, of course. The trouble continued. Once the war was over, a Senate Committee was called to investigate spending during wartime, and Owen Brewster, the Senator of Maine, had his eye on Hughes.

Howard Hughes conferring with his attorney in court
Howard Hughes and T.A. Slack, his attorney, before testifying before the Senate War Investigating Subcommittee circa 1947. Photo by Granger / Shutterstock

Hughes and Roosevelt were ultimately required to testify and explain what had happened to the $40 million Hughes was given from the War Department. He was supposed to produce a product (the flying boat), and it was never delivered. They had a point; $40 million is a lot of money. But Hughes managed to turn the tables.

Two Can Play This Game

Hughes gained a controlling interest in the airline TWA throughout WWII. During the hearings, Hughes accused Senator Brewster of having a close connection to Pan-American Airways, its biggest rival. He claimed that Brewster took bribes to push for legislation that would give Pan-Am a monopoly over Atlantic flights. Obviously, these are strong accusations, but they got even more mind-blowing.

Howard Hughes conferring with Senator Homer Ferguson with people surrounding them
Howard Hughes conferring with Senator Homer Ferguson, chairman of the Senate War Investigation subcommittee 1947. Photo by Everett Collection / Shutterstock

Hughes went as far as to state the Brewster approached him and said that he would stop the hearings if he combined the two companies. The hearings seemed to have gone well for Hughes, who spent $60,000 in the next few months to run against Brewster and spread rumors about his communist sympathies. Brewster lost his seat on the senate and then retired… all thanks to Hughes.

Living through His Actor

After the war, Hughes dove right back into the movie-making world. RKO Pictures looked like it had a guaranteed hit in 1951 with His Kind of Woman. It starred Jane Russell and Robert Mitchum and featured a young Vincent Price. Filming went off without a problem… and then Howard Hughes stepped in.

Robert Mitchum looking away from Jane Russell while she looks at him in a scene from His Kind of Woman
Robert Mitchum and Jane Russell in His Kind of Woman 1951. Photo by Moviestore Collection / Shutterstock

The aging Hughes handpicked Robert Mitchum as the lead in many of his films throughout the 1950s. Mitchum later confessed that he felt like Hughes was living vicariously through him. At the time, Hughes’s playboy lifestyle calmed down, and his injuries from his plane crashes were affecting his physical body. Hughes frequently featured the young heartthrob romancing the beautiful starlets.

Are We Done Yet?

After the cast finished filming His Kind of Woman, they were excited about their next movie venture. But as always, there was a twist around the corner. The director already took years off of Russell’s career when the release of The Wild One was delayed. Then, he wasted another year with his taxing demands for reshoots of His Kind of Woman.

Howard Hughes, Donald Crisp, and others standing around
Howard Hughes and Donald Crisp. Photo by Kobal / Shutterstock

After a year of Hughes demanding reshoots for the movie, Vincent Price threw an “anniversary party” for the film. Mitchum, on the other hand, expressed his frustration and even got into a fight with a few stuntmen on the second to last day of filming. It seems like he had just had enough already.

The Hughes Way or the Highway

Hughes was a man of routine, AKA obsession. Every evening he ate the exact same dinner: a medium-rare New York strip steak, a salad, and peas. He couldn’t start eating until he arranged the peas by size first. If that’s not OCD tendencies, I don’t know what is. It sounds tasty, but it could get boring to eat the same thing every day.

Howard Hughes
Howard Hughes circa 1952. Photo by Everett Collection / Shutterstock

Later in life, Hughes neglected his compulsion went it came to germs and cleanliness. He rarely bathed and barely even brushed his teeth. We are going to get into all of that in just a minute. Considering he showed signs of hypochondria for most of his life, this was an extreme change for the director. But there may be a darker reason behind his filthiness.


In 1958, Hughes thought it was time to relax and enjoy some movies. He wanted to rent out a film studio on Santa Monica Boulevard from Goldwyn Studios for his own viewing party. However, it didn’t take long for the situation to spiral out of control. He didn’t leave the studio once during his four-month binge-watching session. That wasn’t even the worst part.

Howard Hughes
Howard Hughes. Photo by Everett Collection / Shutterstock

At this time, Hughes started developing disturbing habits that stayed with him for the rest of his life. First, Hughes got way too comfortable not wearing clothes. He pranced around, wearing nothing but a towel around his waist. He also stuck to just three foods: chicken, chocolate, and milk. Oh, and the germophobe stopped bathing, clipping his nails, and cutting his hair.

Strange Habits

As far as we know, Hughes’s bizarre behavior started when he locked himself in the studio for four months. He didn’t even leave to go to the bathroom and kept his urine in jars. Gross, I know. This wasn’t much better than his prior bathroom habits. His employees claim he always had terrible aim.

Howard Hughes and Ernst Lubitsch having a conversation
Howard Hughes and Ernst Lubitsch circa 1934. Photo by Kobal / Shutterstock

When Hughes was still participating in a social/public life, his obsessive behavior would come out sometimes. If someone came to speak to him about business and they had stains on their clothes or some other flaws, he wouldn’t talk to them until the problem was fixed. He sounds scary, but, of course, people went along with it because of his money and power.

Difficult to Live with

Hughes’s second and last time walking down the aisle was in 1957 with Jean Peters. Even though the marriage lasted 14 years, Peters was living an odd nightmare behind closed doors. Eventually, the pair moved into separate houses and only saw each other occasionally. However, Hughes preferred to contact her through memos. There were hundreds and thousands of these memos.

Jean Peters in a long pink halter dress
Jean Peters circa 1952. Photo by 20th Century Fox / Kobal / Shutterstock

When the couple did live together, they each had their own separate refrigerators. Peters would also put tissues on his toenails because he refused to cut them. Hearing his toenails clicking on the floor drove her crazy! If I were the actress, I would have gotten out of there too.

Stalker Much?

Even when they were living separately, Hughes had Peters surveilled throughout the entire marriage. After the divorce, he bought a house right next to hers so that he could continue watching her every move. Through everything, Peters didn’t share much about her marriage with her secluded ex-husband. Unfortunately, that means many of the details will never be known.

Jean Peters leaning against a wooden ledge on a boat
Jean Peters. Photo by 20th Century Fox / Kobal / Shutterstock

Among many other things, Hughes had an obsession with tissues. He used them to pick up items covered in germs and bacteria. When he quarantined himself in the movie studio for four months, he would constantly rearrange Kleenex boxes. At one point, his hypochondria got so out of hand that he walked around with tissue boxes on his feet. Apparently, wearing cardboard on your feet keeps germs away.

All Natural

Even though Hughes eventually left the studio after four months in seclusion, his crazy movie-watching habits did not change. He headed over to Beverly Hills Hotel, where he took over a large chunk of the property for his wife, staff, and various girlfriends. He continued to sit naked for hours or even days at a time watching movies, covering his genitals with only a napkin. But some think there is a reason for his disturbing lack of clothes.

Howard Hughes
Howard Hughes. Photo by Everett Collection / Shutterstock

Hughes could have been suffering from a condition called allodynia, a pain response that is triggered by things that don’t usually cause pain. It appears as though wearing clothes, cutting his hair, and clipping his nails caused him physical pain. The movies could have been a distraction from the discomfort.

Play It Again

Hughes constantly moved from hotel to hotel throughout the ‘60s before eventually settling at the Desert Inn. As we previously mentioned, he bought it so that he wouldn’t have to leave. It was there when he became seriously reclusive, and, from that point on, that’s all he was known for. He continued to watch movies, but he wasn’t satisfied with the television stations. That’s when he purchased KLAS, his own station that only played movies.

Howard Hughes
Howard Hughes honored in NYC for his round the world flight of 3 days, 19 hours, 17 mins. Mayor LaGuardia behind, 7/15/38. Photo By Everett Collection/Shutterstock

Hughes loved the 1968 Rock Hudson movie Ice Station Zebra. It was his favorite movie to the point where KLAS had to run it on loop. Sometimes, he would even call them up to ask them to rewind the film for him. Wow, if only Netflix had been around during that time. Hughes would have loved that.

The Mormon Mafia

After his parents died when he was just a teenager, Hughes was obsessed with science and health. He launched the Howard Hughes Medical Institute in 1953. The facility was basically a tax shelter for Hughes. It went on to become a massive contributor to the field of biomedicine. In terms of financial resources, it’s the second-largest medical research foundation on the planet, with $18.2 billion in endowments.

Howard Hughes
Howard Hughes. Photo by Granger / Shutterstock

Even if he hadn’t been a strange loner, Hughes would have never gotten to see the immense amount of wealth that his companies earned. The panel that helped Hughes control his assets was dubbed the Mormon Mafia because of how many Latter-day Saints were on it. Hughes bossed them around, and they had to cater to each of his financial desires.

Money and Power

When Hughes was living in Las Vegas, underground nuclear testing took place at the Nevada test site. This deeply disturbed Hughes. After one particularly strong explosion that sent shock waves to where the director was staying, he didn’t hesitate to complain. He attempted to bribe two successive presidents: Lyndon B. Johnson and Richard Nixon. He asked them to stop the tests for a million dollars each.

Howard Hughes in the back of a car during a parade with confetti and streamers being thrown everywhere
Howard Hughes during a celebration for his flight around the world. Photo by Granger / Shutterstock

He had no problem bribing people, especially politicians. He was aware that his wealth came with a huge amount of power, and he enjoyed the benefits. He didn’t really care what party they were affiliated with. He worked with both sides of the aisle. After Nixon got elected, he gifted him $100,000 for his home renovation. Hughes also gave Nixon’s brother over $200,000.

Wrong Information

Not many people know this, but Howard Hughes had a direct connection to the scandal of the century. Hughes’s payouts didn’t always help politicians in the long run. Exhibit A: Richard Nixon. Nixon’s election team was concerned about Robert Maheu, Hughes’s Director of Operations, who was tied to the Democratic strategist Larry O’Brien.

President Lyndon Johnson with Larry O’Brien circa 1965
President Lyndon Johnson with Larry O’Brien circa 1965. Photo by Everett Collection / Shutterstock

Sound familiar? O’Brien is the man whose phone the Watergate burglars tried to tap. Rumors were circulating that the Democrats were going to reveal the connection between Nixon and Hughes. Nixon was so curious that he might have partially caused the Watergate break-in. As it turned out, Nixon acted on misinformation; O’Brien had nothing about his previous dealings with Hughes.

CIA Connection

By the ‘70s, Howard Hughes was completely isolated. But, despite his mental illness and obsessive compulsions, he was still as sharp as ever. In 1972, during the Cold War era, the CIA actually enlisted Hughes to help them resurface a Soviet sub that had sunk near Hawaii. It was believed that it contained nuclear weapons and a codebook. They used his company name to hide their involvement.

Howard Hughes wearing a suit and walking with people around him
Howard Hughes. Photo by Everett Collection / Shutterstock

Even though they lost half of the Soviet submarine during the operation, they recovered two nuclear-tipped torpedoes and some cryptographic machines. In addition, they found six Soviet submarines and gave them a proper burial. Many people didn’t know about Hughes’s connection to the CIA until he was robbed in 1974. The thieves found secret documents and released them a year later.

Wasting Away

Later in life, Hughes was on a steady diet of Valium. Naturally, it started to take a toll on his body. In 1972, Hughes fell in his home, and his health needed to be examined. Doctors noted that 67-year-old Hughes was in the condition of someone 20 years older.

Howard Hughes
Howard Hughes. Photo by Globe Photos / Mediapunch / Shutterstock

An autopsy report showed that after years of abusing prescription drugs, Hughes’s kidneys failed. At the time of his death, the withering pilot weighed just 87 pounds. By this point, he had broken off syringes in his arms and was covered in bedsores. He was so unrecognizable that the FBI needed to take fingerprints to make sure it was really Hughes.

The Mysterious Will

Obviously, Hughes was an extremely rich man. He didn’t update his will; however, three weeks after his death, an official of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints in Salt Lake City Utah mysteriously found Hughes’s will on his desk. It was later known as “the Mormon Will,” and the origin is truly unbelievable.

Melvin Dummar holding a piece of paper while smiling
Melvin Dummar. Source: Pinterest

The hand-written will included donations to charities and inheritances for people in his company, his personal staff, and a bunch of cousins. However, a gas station owner named Melvin Dummar was awarded $156 million. When he was asked about his connection to Hughes, Dummar said he once saw a disheveled man walking, so he gave him a ride. The wandering man turned out to be Howard Hughes. But the story doesn’t end there.

The Final Battle

A strange man showed up at Dummar’s gas station after Hughes died in 1976 and gave him the hand-written will. Dummar had no idea what to do with it, so he took it to the Latter-Day Saints church office. After a two-year court battle, the will was declared invalid. This meant that Hughes passed away “intestate” (without a will).

Terry Moore
Terry Moore. Photo by Kobal / Shutterstock

Battles over his estate continued. An actress named Terry Moore claimed that she had married Hughes in 1947 and that they had never divorced. A psychological autopsy was eventually conducted to determine his state of mind when he made decisions toward the end of his life. A psychologist researched Hughes’s behavior in his later years to determine his mental state.

Permanent Vacation

Hughes spent the last years of his life moving from luxury resort to luxury resort. He was jumping all over the place from Nicaragua to the Bahamas, to Mexico, to Florida. I know it’s a cliché but “he died doing what he loved.” Reportedly, Hughes died on an aircraft that was taking him from Mexico to a Houston hospital. As we know, Hughes had a passion for planes so at least he got one last plane ride.

Howard Hughes sitting with a map and a pencil
Howard Hughes. Photo by Kobal / Shutterstock

His gruesome condition revealed the darkness of his final years. His official cause of death was ruled kidney failure. Unfortunately, it doesn’t come as a surprise. He weighed less than 90 pounds and was abusing prescription pills, so it was just a matter of time before his body gave out.

Don’t Say No to Me!

We know Hughes got around when it came to the ladies, but not everyone wanted him. Hughes was used to getting what he wanted, so he didn’t take rejection well. Actress Jean Simmons learned that the hard way. When she declined the tycoon’s advances, he sabotaged her career. She was under contract with Hughes, and he didn’t hesitate to make her life a living hell. He even told directors to be harsh with her.

Robert Mitchum and Jean Simmons drinking coffee at a restaurant in Angel Face
Robert Mitchum and Jean Simmons in Angel Face. Photo by Snap / Shutterstock

Hughes ordered Director Otto Preminger to tell Simmon’s co-star Robert Mitchum to slap her harder and harder while shooting a scene. Mitchum wasn’t having it, though. He turned around and punched Preminger directly in the face and then proceeded to ask him if that’s how hard he wanted it. Simmon’s later sued over the contract and won.