When Howard Hughes died on April 5 1976, the state of his body compelled the FBI to resort to fingerprints for identification. Severely malnourished, he weighted 40kg and his hair, beard, fingernails and toenails had grown grossly long. X-rays revealed broken-off hypodermic needles still embedded in his arms.
A strange way for one of the world’s richest man to go, and not what Hugh Hefner has in mind. During his life, Howard was known as a film maker, industrialist, and aviator. At various points in his life he owned an international and two regional airlines, a major motion picture studio, mining properties, a tool company, gambling casinos in Las Vegas, a medical research institute, a vast amount of real estate; had built and flown the world’s largest airplane; and had produced and directed the movie ‘Hell’s Angels’ – a Hollywood film classic. However it is perhaps for the psychiatric disorder of his final years that he is best known.
His father was the wildcatter Howard Robard Hughes, his mother the Dallas heiress Allene Gano. When Hughes was four years old, his father patented a rotary drill bit able to penetrate thick rock, which revolutionizing oil drilling. He shrewdly decided to commercialize this himself thereby creating start-up capital for Howard Jr’s subsequent vast empire. Howard Jr. showed engineering ability himself, setting up Houston’s first wireless broadcast system when he was eleven years old.
Hughes’ early life was shaped by his mother doting on him with excessive concern about his health, his teeth and his bowels. Hughes appears to have been introverted from an early age, characteristics that were exacerbated by this mother’s worries. She is said to have disapproved of the young Hughes making friends in the belief that other people were disease carriers, thereby giving him an excuse to escape social pressures. When Howard wanted to attend summer camp his parents requested assurances that their son would be protected from contracting polio. When this was not forthcoming, it was decided to keep him home. After attending camp another summer, Hughes avoided the next year’s camp by complaining about headaches and bad dreams. Later, on the verge of adolescence, Howard became ill and was kept out of school for almost a year. He developed a form of paralysis which disappeared several months later
When Hughes was 16 his mother died during surgery, his father died two years later. As a result, at the age of eighteen, Hughes took control of his father’s company. Soon afterwards he became enamoured with the motion picture industry and moved to Los Angeles.
Hughes was married for the first time in 1925 to Ella Rice, a Houston socialite. By 1927 this marriage was failing, no doubt in part as he kept her at home isolated for weeks at a time. Following this he was linked romantically variously to Jean Harlow, Bette Davis, Katharine Hepburn, Ava Gardner, Jane Greer, Lana Turner, Rita Hayworth and Janet Leigh; there were also rumours of homosexual affairs, but evidence for this is equivocal.
Hughes wrote and directed ‘Hells Angels’, a film about First World War RAF pilots, in 1930 and during this production he cemented a lifelong passion for aviation. By the 1940s Hughes’ obsessive tendencies were becoming apparent and during the production of ‘The Outlaw’, which featured the barely covered breasts of its star Jane Russell, Hughes was obsessed with a minor flaw in one of Russell’s blouses, and wrote a detailed memorandum on how to fix the problem. He contended that fabric bunched up two seams, giving the distressing appearance of two nipples on each of Russell’s breasts. To remedy this he designed a complicated cantilevered bra; Russell never wore it.
During the last thirty years of Hughes’ life, his story becomes more incredible and his behaviour more erratic and bizzare. In 1946, while test-piloting the XF-11 photo reconnaissance plane, Hughes crashed the in Beverly Hills and wasn’t expected to live. The multiple fractures he sustained lead to the liberal administration of morphine and the beginning of a lifelong addiction to opiates.
In 1952 Hughes purchased RKO Studios and immediately cut the staff there from 2,500 to 600. His management over the next two years, which involved shutting down productions for weeks at a time to try to control dust, or to check the staff’s credentials to sift out communists, eventually lead to the studio’s downfall in 1955. In 1957 he married Jean Peters, who was 22 years younger than him. Their marriage lasted until 1971. During this time he was probably a bigamist as following his death his estate came to an out of court settlement with Terry Moore who claimed to have married him in 1949.
In 1966 Hughes became one of the richest men in the world when he was forced to sell his shares in TWA making him $547 million. In the same year Hughes and Peters moved to Las Vegas, although by this time, due to Hughes’ phobias, they tended to communicate by notes rather than by meeting. On arrival in the city, having reserved the top two storeys of the Desert Inn for 10 days, Hughes then refused to leave. The matter was finally resolved by Hughes buying the hotel for twice its valuation price.
In 1968 Hughes was still living in the Desert Inn, where he is reported to have seldom slept, instead spending the night watching old movies. Occasionally, he would nod off and missed parts of the film being screened. In the age before video recorders, he bought the Las Vegas KLAS-TV so that he could have the chunks he had missed rebroadcast.
Towards the end of this life, Hughes’ business holdings were overseen by a small panel dubbed ‘The Mormon Mafia’ because of the many Latter-day Saints on the committee. Although Hughes was not a member of the church, he considered them trustworthy. In addition to supervising day-to-day business operations and Hughes’ health, they also went to great pains to satisfy Hughes’ every whim. Remaining financially canny, Hughes moved hotels every 180 days to avoid personal income tax and during a visit to London Hughes Hughes fractured his hip during a nocturnal bathroom run. He refused to accept specialist advice that he exercise to get better, instead opting to remain bedridden, which led to his living in increasing squalor and filth.
Several doctors were kept in the house, but Hughes rarely saw them and usually refused to follow their advice; likewise despite having a barber on call he only had his nails cut once a year. In 1976 a 70-year-old Hughes, who had already been in a coma for three days, died at 1.27pm, en route by private jet from Acapulco in Mexico to a hospital in Houston. The official cause of death was chronic kidney disease, but it is just as likely to have been from dehydration, malnutrition and neglect.
Much of the strange behaviour that Hughes demonstrated in later life is attributed by some biographers to tertiary stage syphilis. This strikes me as rather unlikely. It very possible that brain injuries caused by numerous air crashes also played a part. Any psychiatric formulation would have to consider the possibilities of some or all of a severe obsessive compulsive disorder, a personality which was allowed to deteriorate due to the indulgence of his acolytes, dementia, and schizophrenia. It is clear that there was a failure of proper care towards the end of Hughes’ life, no doubt caused in part because of the great power he wielded in spite of his psychological incapacity.
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