The Eccentric Mogul: 8 Facts About the Strange Life of Howard Hughes

The Eccentric Mogul: 8 Facts About the Strange Life of Howard Hughes

Larry Holzwarth - October 15, 2017

Howard Hughes was in many ways larger than life. He was of course fabulously wealthy. In his younger days, he became well known by flaunting his wealth. He was an aviation pioneer setting records for speed and endurance, with motion picture cameras on hand to record his achievements for posterity. He built huge and hugely successful companies including Hughes Aircraft, Hughes Tool Company, Hughes Medical Institute, and Trans-World Airlines.

The list of women he dated at various times included some of the most famous of his era, many of them years and even decades younger than he, including Ava Gardner, Bette Davis, Katharine Hepburn, Rita Hayworth, and Ginger Rogers. He made big movies which became big successes or big failures and then sold movie studios for big profits.

In his later years, he descended into mental illness, suffering from obsessive-compulsive disorder to the extent that he would sort the peas on his plate into order of size before eating them. On one occasion he had his staff put the motion picture Ice Station Zebra into a continuous loop, watching the film over 150 consecutive times while sitting naked. He forbade his staff from speaking to him unless he spoke to them first.

His reclusiveness became legendary as his fabulous wealth became a surreptitious source of funding for secret government projects. One of these was the building of the Glomar Explorer, a project in which Hughes’s name provided cover for the construction of a vessel built to recover a sunken Soviet submarine. Hughes said it was built for geological work.

Hughes has been depicted in fiction and non-fiction books, films, and television specials. His story remains one of controversy, conspicuous consumption, media hype, patriotism, and above all, money. Here are a few lesser-known facts from the life and legend of Howard Hughes.

The Eccentric Mogul: 8 Facts About the Strange Life of Howard Hughes
Howard Hughes in 1938, the year he set a speed record for around the world flight. ACME Newspictures
The Eccentric Mogul: 8 Facts About the Strange Life of Howard Hughes
Earlier versions of this pose inspired Hughes to design a bra for Jane Russell, which she secretly refused to wear. The photo became a popular pinup in WWII. George Hurrell

He personally designed a bra for Jane Russell

In 1941 Hughes was preparing to produce and direct The Outlaw, a western based on the story of Billy the Kid. A young actress named Jane Russell was cast in the female lead, a role which would lead to her becoming a star. Russell was then a little-known starlet, famous more for her figure than her talent. Bob Hope would one day quip that, “Culture is the ability to describe Jane Russell without moving your hands.”

Russell’s measurements were reported as being 38D-24-36 and at a height of 5’7″ she was described in the press of the day as “statuesque.” Hughes intended to use pictures of a provocatively posed Russell as publicity stills for the film, despite the sexual angle having little to do with the story of Billy the Kid.

When Hughes saw the early photos of Russell posed on a stack of hay, he was dissatisfied with the amount and appearance of cleavage apparent, as well as the way the actress’s blouse lay on her body. He designed an underwired push-up bra, having it built without asking Russell for any input regarding size, and demanded that she wear the bra for new photos.

Russell hated the bra, finding it to be uncomfortable as well as unflattering, and while she posed for new photos, she did so without wearing Hughes’s creation. Instead, the actress simply adjusted one of her own bras by adding supportive padding and tightening the straps. The resultant photos became famous, and a popular pinup for GIs during World War II.

Hughes was likely never told of his star’s rejection of his attempt at creating lingerie, given his staff’s fear of incurring the wrath of the boss. The photographs became famous, but they also became infamous, leading to a lengthy battle between Hughes and the Hollywood censors of the day over the footage featuring Russell’s breasts.

In order to have the film released Hughes started a negative publicity campaign, creating an outcry to have the film banned. All publicity being good publicity, the studio soon recognized that the film would attract an audience, and after about forty feet of film was excised to satisfy the morals of the censors it was released in 1943. It was soon pulled again due to moral outrage and re-released in 1946 after the GIs came home when it became a hit.

The Eccentric Mogul: 8 Facts About the Strange Life of Howard Hughes
Hughes landed an airplane on a fairway in order to join a round of golf with actress Katharine Hepburn. Google

He was an avid golfer who once landed his airplane on a golf course

In the mid-1930s actress Katharine Hepburn – a lifelong golfer – was being amorously pursued by Howard Hughes, himself a devotee of the game. One day while Hepburn was playing at Bel-Air Country Club with the course pro – some say she was taking a lesson – the pair were surprised to see a small airplane circling the course before landing on the fairway of the 7th hole, as they were preparing to putt on the corresponding green.

After landing, the pilot, Howard Hughes got out of the airplane with a bag of golf clubs and asked if he could join them to finish the round. It was the first of many rounds Hughes played with Hepburn, although the last at Bel-Air, as not even Howard’s wealth could calm the outraged club stewards.

Hughes began playing golf at the age of nine, after the gift of some clubs from his wealthy oil-man father. The family belonged to the Houston Country Club and young Howard played often enough to soon be playing quite well. When still very young, Hughes wrote down his ambitions for life wanting to be…”The best golfer in the world…The best pilot…The most famous producer of moving pictures…” One of his frequent golf partners was a Houston judge named Walter Monteith.

Monteith would one day sign the order granting full emancipation of the 19-year-old Hughes – 21 being the age of majority in those days – which gave Hughes full access to his recently deceased father’s fortune.

Hughes developed a friendship with professional golfer Gene Sarazen, one of the world’s top players then and a legendary player now. Sarazen agreed to trade golf lessons for flying lessons. During one flying lesson over a beach, Sarazen was expounding upon what he considered the weakest part of his game, playing out of sand.

Hughes took the opportunity to point out to the golfer the relationship of drag to flight, using the airplane’s wing flaps to demonstrate. The discussion led to the golfer making modifications to a golf club then known as a niblick – roughly what would today be a nine iron – and the result was the world’s first sand wedge. Hughes never became the best golfer in the world, but his impact on the game is there in nearly every bunker shot.

The Eccentric Mogul: 8 Facts About the Strange Life of Howard Hughes
Hughes residency on the eighth floor strained the resources of the Desert Inn’s staff. UNLV

He was responsible for months of free ice cream for Las Vegas visitors

In the mid-1960s Hughes traveled to Las Vegas in a private railroad car and took up residence at the Desert Inn, which he would eventually purchase outright to avoid being asked to leave. When the light of the neon sign for the Silver Slipper next door penetrated into his eighth-floor enclave at night, he purchased that casino and removed the sign.

Over the course of the next few years, he purchased several casinos, envisioning Las Vegas as a destination for glamorous high-rollers, and added local television stations to his holdings to help promote his vision. He also developed a taste for ice cream.

Not just any ice cream, but Baskin-Robbins Banana Nut ice cream. Rather than going out to purchase individual servings, or even gallons whenever the boss wanted to indulge his taste for Banana Nut, his staff decided to take the understandable step of laying in a supply in the Desert Inn’s freezers.

It was then that the staff learned that Baskin-Robbins had discontinued the flavor and after existing store stocks were exhausted there would be no more Banana Nut. Negotiations were opened for a special order, and a supply of 350 gallons of Banana Nut was prepared in and shipped from nearby Los Angeles. The staff was pleased to be ready to support their boss’s whim whenever he decided he wanted a serving of Banana Nut ice cream.

They were not prepared for their boss’s pronouncement that he was tired of Banana Nut and henceforth would prefer French Vanilla as his ice cream of choice. While the expense was incidental to someone like Hughes, the disposal of 350 gallons of ice cream was not. The Desert Inn tried to sell the supply but found that it was not popular with its clients. The Hughes staff wanted nothing to do with the ice cream, nor did Baskin-Robbins. Finally, the Desert Inn decided to simply give it away to customers in the hotel and casino. It took almost a year to get rid of the ice cream and according to a Hughes staffer speaking in 1996, they never did get rid of all of the Banana Nut.

The Eccentric Mogul: 8 Facts About the Strange Life of Howard Hughes
The Hercules H-4, built largely from birch rather than spruce, taxiing off California. Daily Mail

The Spruce Goose wasn’t made of Spruce

During the Second World War, the prevalence of German U-Boats forced the War Production Board (WPB) to consider alternatives to shipping large numbers of troops across the Atlantic by sea. Hughes and Henry Kaiser contracted with the WPB to produce flying boats to transport men and materiel across the Atlantic.

After Kaiser withdrew from the project, largely due to objections from the military that it would disrupt the flow of strategic materials such as aluminum needed elsewhere Hughes decided to go it alone, producing the largest flying boat ever built. It was also to be the largest aircraft ever built from wood. The airplane was designated the H-4 Hercules and was built in California, although the war ended before the Hercules was ready to fly.

The aircraft was controversial throughout its development. It was criticized for its size, for its cost, for its construction of wood when nearly all airplanes were built of aluminum (the DeHavilland Mosquito was a notable exception), and most of all for its lengthy delays in development. The media took to derisively calling the airplane the Spruce Goose, despite the main material in its construction being birch.

The nickname stuck, although Hughes despised it, and vigorously defended the huge airplane in the press and in eventual senatorial hearings over the lengthy delays and increasing costs of the two prototypes. Hughes stated in Senate testimony that if the aircraft was a failure, “…I’ll probably leave this country and never come back. And I mean it.”

In November 1947, the airplane was scheduled for taxi tests near Cabrillo Beach, California, and the press was there to record the plane taxiing in the water. After a few tests, most of the press left to file their stories. With Hughes at the controls of the airplane and with thirty-six souls on board, Hughes began what should have been the final taxi run and instead lifted the airplane into flight.

The Hercules flew for about one mile, a clear indication that the use of taxpayer money to fund the project was vindicated, despite the need for the massive flying boat being overcome by events. The airplane never flew again. After lengthy disputes over ownership of the aircraft, it is currently on display at the Evergreen Aviation and Space Museum in McMinnville, Oregon.

The Eccentric Mogul: 8 Facts About the Strange Life of Howard Hughes
The Lockheed Super Electra bearing tail number NC 18973 used by Hughes for his 1938 record setting round the world flight. Wikipedia

Around the world in just four days, not eighty

Howard Hughes did not make the first round-the-world flight, but in 1938 he shaved nearly four days off the previous record for doing so, held by noted aviator Wiley Post. Hughes’s achievement was one of his first to grant him national acclaim as an aviator, rather than as a wealthy playboy with a taste for making movies and dating Hollywood starlets. Motivated by the desire to prove that aviation was a viable and safe means of long-distance international travel, Hughes flew a Lockheed Super Electra and carried a crew of four.

The Super Electra would benefit from the favorable publicity by becoming a popular airliner, with Northwest Airlines, Aer Lingus, and KLM all using it in their fleets. The famous picture of English Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain disembarking from an airplane waving a copy of the Munich Agreement was taken as he left a British Airways Super Electra.

Acknowledging the dangers of extended flight over water Hughes had the Electra packed in every available nook and cranny with ping-pong balls as an aid to flotation in the event the aircraft was forced down in the sea. Medicines and a still to convert seawater to freshwater were included with the life rafts, and fishing gear was another demand by Hughes to increase the odds of survival if adrift.

Radio transmitters were included with the life rafts and in order to ensure transmission over distances, Hughes himself designed a kite for each raft to carry the antenna aloft. When it occurred to one of Hughes’s crew that an absence of wind would negate the value of the kites, balloons and a supply of helium to inflate them were added to the survival gear. Parachutes were added as well, in the event of a disaster occurring over land.

In the event the survival gear was unnecessary. The flight departed New York’s Floyd Bennett Field to Paris on its first leg, arriving at the French capital’s Le Bourget – where Lindbergh had landed – without incident. The next stop was Moscow, carefully avoiding a Germany which was in the process of preparing for another demonstration of military might throughout Europe.

After flying across the Siberian wastes with stops in Omsk and Yakutsk, Hughes crossed the Bering Sea to land in Fairbanks, Alaska; thence to Minneapolis and finally back to New York. Welcomed as a hero and given the honor of a ticker-tape parade, Hughes was more interested in the value of his contribution to the viability of long-distance air travel. Whenever he spoke of the round the world flight, he stressed the accuracy of the navigation and the time savings of flying over rail or sea transportation.

The Eccentric Mogul: 8 Facts About the Strange Life of Howard Hughes
Hughes critical injuries from the XF-11 crash led to innovations in hospital beds. Getty Images

His discomfort led to the modern hospital bed

Under an Army Air Forces contract, Hughes Aircraft developed a high speed, high altitude, reconnaissance airplane designated as the XF-11. The aircraft was required to obtain detailed observations of enemy territory and defenses, in particular, the home islands of Japan. This entailed an additional requirement of long-range capability. Hughes was personally involved in the design and development of the prototypes which were plagued with excessive costs, delays due to untested and unproven innovations, and managerial problems.

The original order of 100 aircraft was canceled in the spring of 1945, as it became apparent that Naval aircraft carriers could approach Japan with near impunity. Hughes was permitted to complete two of the prototypes for research and testing purposes.

In early July 1946, Hughes flew the XF-11 prototype for the first time. Ignoring the agreed-upon flight testing program, which was to end the flight once the recording cameras reached the end of their film rolls, Hughes remained airborne. When a serious problem developed in the airplane and Hughes was unable to return to the field, he attempted to land on the nearby Los Angeles Country Club Golf Course.

He came up short, crashing into three nearby houses, suffering numerous broken bones and severe burns, as well as causing his heart to move to the right side of his chest. When he awoke in the hospital he found that his physical pain was substantial, and the bed in which he lay was in no small manner adding to his discomfort.

Disregarding the effects of his pain and medications, Hughes summoned engineers and technicians to his bedside. He dictated plans for a mechanism of cables and pulleys connected to electric motors which would allow him to adjust the angle at which he lay by pushing buttons. He had the bed sectioned into six zones, each operated independently. He also requested that the bed be provided with running water, hot and cold, available at all times to the occupant.

By the time the engineers were able to comply with his requests, he had recovered to the point that he was no longer bedridden, and thus was unable to personally attest to their effectiveness. His engineers continued in the development of what became the basis for the modern hospital bed. Hughes, by the way, attributed his recovery to neither his bed nor his doctors, but rather to the health benefits of regular consumption of freshly squeezed orange juice.

The Eccentric Mogul: 8 Facts About the Strange Life of Howard Hughes
The FBI monitored Howard Hughes from his motion picture days through the rest of his life. Online Nevada

His FBI File was over 2,200 pages long

During the tenure of J. Edgar Hoover, the FBI prepared extensive dossiers on nearly all Americans of note, and many of these files are windows into their private lives. Howard Hughes was no exception. Although he was a lifelong patriot, participating in defense and research activities at the behest of the US government, Hughes also associated with individuals deemed by some to be America’s enemies.

As a movie producer and director Hughes supported anti-communist activities and the blacklist, as an industrialist he allowed his businesses to participate in CIA activities, and he was deeply but secretively involved in the Watergate Scandal of the 1970s.

The FBI files have led researchers to surmise that the famous “18-minute gap” of erased material on the Watergate tapes removed from the record references to Howard Hughes. Hughes’s relationship to the Nixon organization dated back to the 1960 presidential campaign, when Richard Nixon’s brother Donald was revealed to have obtained a questionable loan of over $200,000 from Hughes. When Watergate was unraveling as a scandal it was revealed that Hughes had worked secretly with the Democratic National Committee through its Chairman Larry O’Brien.

Their goal was to direct information regarding Nixon’s financial interests with Hughes to the campaign of Democratic candidate Hubert Humphrey. According to Terry Lenzner, who served as the Senate Watergate Committee’s Chief Investigator, it was Nixon’s desire to know what information the Democrats had on his relationship with Howard Hughes which prompted the break-in at the Watergate Hotel.

Howard Hughes’s will and the numerous frauds and hoaxes which surrounded the final distribution of his estate were worthy of FBI notice as well. One of the most famous is the so-called Mormon Will, which left most of his estate to Hughes Medical Institute and the rest largely to his staff and senior executives. Handwritten, it was supposedly found in a desk at the Church of the Latter-Day Saints in Salt Lake City.

The will was left with the Church by a gas station attendant named Melvin Dummar who claimed to have rescued Hughes from being stranded – unkempt and seedy in appearance – along the side of a road in 1967. Several days later a man appeared at Dummar’s gas station and presented him with the will. The will left Dummar $156 million. Found to be fraudulent in 1978, Hughes was declared instead to have died intestate. The FBI file contains evidence later uncovered which indicates that Dummar, however improbable, may well have been telling the truth.

The Eccentric Mogul: 8 Facts About the Strange Life of Howard Hughes

He was a close friend of Cary Grant

Howard Hughes and Cary Grant were longtime friends, with Hughes serving as best man at Grant’s wedding to actress Betsy Drake. Grant often told the questionable story of the two of them flying one night over Warner Brothers studio building in Hollywood, dropping bags of flour onto the roof and laughing riotously at the patterns the exploding bags left behind. Grant would often say that the two remained friends because neither wanted anything from the other.

Grant also described Howard’s wardrobe as sparse. “He owned only two suits. He never owned a tuxedo. If he needed one, he’d borrow one of mine.” Like Hughes, Grant remained an outsider for most of his career, eschewing the glitz of Hollywood for a more private existence.

Their friendship was close enough that when Hughes was released from the hospital following his horrific crash in 1946, it was to Grant’s home that he went to continue his recuperation.

Their friendship remained unexposed to the public eye for most of their lives, with Hughes never, and Grant seldom, expounding upon it to the press.