December 24, 1905– Howard Hughes:
“I’m not a paranoid deranged millionaire. Goddamit, I’m a billionaire.”
In the early 1920s, teenaged Howard Hughes, film director William Desmond Taylor, and movie stars Ramon Novarro and Antonio Moreno, were all sexually involved with each, often at the same time. Taylor was dizzy for Hughes, who was attending a private school on Santa Barbara, and planned to star him in a film. Hughes’ uncle, Rupert Hughes, a screenwriter, was set to write the script. It was Uncle Rupert who had introduced Hughes to Taylor.
Taylor knew he could make Hughes the biggest star in Hollywood, and he couldn’t keep his hands off him. Unfortunately, in 1922, in what remains one of the great unsolved Hollywood mysteries, Taylor was murdered.
After Taylor’s passing, Hughes abandoned any plans to become a movie star. He decided to become a producer, a field where he could be the boss. He also continued to pursue his passions for horses and airplanes. Hughes was a magnificent rider and a fearless aviator.
He was also especially handsome, lithe, well-endowed, wealthy, and accustomed to getting his way. He played by his own rules, sampling the drugs, booze, women, and men he fancied, buying beautiful cars and the best clothing for himself and his friends.
One of his boyfriends was Dudley Sharp. Sharp later had an affair with Hughes’ mother who became pregnant by Sharp, and died from complications of the pregnancy. A day later Sharp attempted to kill himself.
Howard Hughes Sr. began an affair with Gloria Swanson, and he moved Howard Jr. into a bungalow at the Pasadena Polo Club. Hughes was just 16-years-old.
He had a fling with silent film star Billy Haines, who knew everybody in Hollywood and made sure Hughes was invited to all the best parties. At a New Year’s Eve party, Hughes’ father humiliated him in front of other guests. After a heated argument, Hughes Sr. yelled at his son: ”You’re just like your Uncle Rupert, you’re nothing but a queer!” Hughes collapsed in tears into the arms of Sharp, father of his mother’s unborn child. Sharp later suffered the humiliation of having to ask Hughes for money for college. Hughes refused. Sharp later married and became U.S. Secretary of the Air Force under President Dwight Eisenhower.
In January 1924, Hughes’s father died suddenly of an embolism while working in his Houston office. When Hughes was told that his father had died, the first thing he did was ask the family lawyer to read him his father’s will. Hughes had just turned 18-years-old.
He had been left with 75% of the Hughes Tool Company. He badgered his relatives into selling him their stock so that he would have complete control of the company. He even slept with Uncle Rupert to get his shares.
Hughes married Ella Rice (her family endowed the Christian college, Rice University) with Sharp as his best man. He also had a brief affair with Douglas Fairbanks, Jr., who went on to marry Joan Crawford. After their divorce, Crawford turned down Hughes’ request for a date.
Hughes formed his own film production company and searched for actors to sign. He was interested in young, upcoming Gary Cooper and the young, blond cowboy star William Boyd.
Actor Richard Arlen hosted an all-male beach party on Catalina Island, and somehow a photographer got close enough to snap nude photos of Hughes and Boyd, which became the talk of Hollywood. Boyd’s studio, RKO, had to pay-off the photographer. In 1948, Hughes took over RKO and ran it into the ground.
Hughes spent a weekend in Mexico with actor Ben Lyon where they were photographed engaged in a torrid kiss. It took Hughes thousands of dollars to buy back the negative.
When handsome Randolph Scott propositioned a vice cop in Griffith Park and was arrested, Hughes bailed him out and paid a bribe to make the arrest disappear. Jean Harlow claimed that Hughes had three signed photographs of Scott in his bedroom and looked at them while having sex.
In 1927, obsessed with aviation and films, Hughes began shooting an epic film about fighter pilots, Hells’ Angels, that would not be completed until 1930, at a time when the average film was completed in three or four weeks. Hughes, made the film with $3.8 million of his own money, directed the dogfight scenes himself and performed some of the aerial stunts. When it was completed, Hughes decided that Hell’s Angels should to be a talking film and reshot all the scenes with dialogue, doubling the film’s cost. He was seriously injured in a plane crash while making Hell’s Angels. Amazingly, the film went on to make profit and made Harlow a star.
Two Arabian Nights, a film Hughes produced, won an Academy Award in 1929. His The Racket (1928) and The Front Page (1931) were also nominated for Academy Awards. He produced another hit, Scarface (1932), a production delayed by censors’ concern over its violence.
Hughes and Rice divorced in 1929. By the early 1930s, he had used most of Hughes Tool Company money to bankroll a string of projects. Moving on, he founded the Hughes Aircraft Company in 1932. He was chasing fame and fortune with uncommon zeal at 27-years-old.
By the 1930s, Hughes had learned his private life could get him into trouble. Cary Grant became his one real confidant. Grant was in the closet, so they had each other to share secrets. Grant was one of great loves of Hughes’ life. He cultivated a reputation for being a playboy, dating Katharine Hepburn, Ava Gardner and Ginger Rogers.
He produced and directed The Outlaw (1943) featuring Jane Russell. It also received considerable attention from censors, owing to Russell’s revealing costumes. Hughes designed a special bra for her, although Russell said it was uncomfortable and decided against wearing it.
Besides designing and building airplanes, he risked his own life testing planes and setting world airspeed records. Hughes set a transcontinental record by flying non-stop from Los Angeles to Newark in 7 hours, 28 minutes, and 25 seconds. In 1938, Hughes set another record by completing a flight around the world in just 91 hours, returning home ahead of photographs of his flight.
He survived four airplane accidents: one while filming Hell’s Angels, one in the Hughes Racer in 1939, one at Lake Mead in 1943, and the near fatal crash of the Hughes XF-11 in 1946.
He is credited with many aviation innovations, such as the first retractable landing gear, he is also remembered for one of his biggest flops—the H-4 Hercules, which the press nicknamed the Spruce Goose. Hughes labored on this oversized wooden seaplane for years, finishing it in 1947. It was flown only once.
After a terrible plane crash in 1946, Hughes began to retreat from the world. After facial reconstruction surgery, he started having debilitating headaches, and lost much of his hearing. He was having more and more frequent problems with impotence, especially with women. He started to use cocaine and suffered a nervous breakdown. Once the best dressed man in Hollywood, Hughes began to appear in public in wrinkled, sloppy clothes.
He became paranoid and insanely jealous of anyone who threatened to topple him. His jealousy over the feats of aviation by Charles Lindbergh brought him to fits of screaming and swearing. After the kidnaping of the Lindbergh baby, Hughes became obsessed with security.
In 1957, Hughes married actor Jean Peters. They met in the 1940s, and they had a highly publicized romance in 1947. They almost got married then, but she said she could not combine it with her career. He had his security officers follow her everywhere even when they were not in a relationship. They divorced in 1971. She agreed to a lifetime alimony payment of $70,000 ($450,000 in today’s dollars) a year, adjusted for inflation, and she waived all claims to Hughes’ estate. She refused to speak about the marriage to the press.
Hughes went on to design and manufacture aircraft, and to change the face of Las Vegas. In the 1960s, he lived on the top floor of the Desert Inn and conducted all his business from his hotel suite. Few people ever saw him, which led to speculation and rumors about his activities.
In the early 1970s, Hughes left Las Vegas, fleeing to the Bahamas and Mexico to have easier access to codeine, which he injected into his arms.
In 1972, an allegedly authorized biography of Hughes was announced, but it turned out to be a hoax. The author, Clifford Irving, was imprisoned for fraud.
Hughes died on April 5, 1976. After his passing, numerous fake versions of his will surfaced, leading to a long battle over his fortune.
The James Bond film Diamonds Are Forever (1971) features a tall, reclusive billionaire character named Willard Whyte who operates his business empire from the penthouse of a Las Vegas hotel.
Melvin And Howard (1980), directed by Jonathan Demme, stars Jason Robards as Hughes and Paul Le Mat as Melvin Dummar. The film is about Dummar’s claims of meeting Hughes in the Nevada desert and subsequent estate battles over his inclusion in Hughes’ will.
In Tucker: The Man And His Dream (1988), Hughes is played by Dean Stockwell. In The Rocketeer (1991) he is played by Terry O’Quinn. Rules Don’t Apply (2016), written and directed by Warren Beatty, Beatty plays Hughes from 1958 through 1964.
In 2004, Martin Scorsese’s The Aviator depicts his early days. Leonardo DiCaprio plays Hughes as a dashing, troubled young man. He was nominated for an Academy Award. But, the film has zero dude-on-dude action.
Because of his immense wealth and power, Hughes’ bisexuality was never public during his lifetime. However, his employees, friends and colleagues who survived after his death in 1976 were able to speak openly about the subject without fear of reprisal. Turns out, they had a lot to talk about. Much of it is covered in Howard Hughes: The Secret Life (1994) by Charles Higham.