The Mysterious Howard Hughes

Published: 03rd September 2015 10:34 AM  |   Last Updated: 03rd September 2015 10:34 AM   |  A+A-


We have all been taught as kids about germs and hygiene, and how important it is to wash our hands. Well, there was one man for whom germs became such an obsession that he became a recluse, petrified of any human contact. He was Howard Hughes, the fabulously wealthy American magnate. But germswere not his only obsession; he also liked to keep secrets. He hid his business transactions, his girlfriends, old planes, cars, his thoughts, his whereabouts, what he looked like, how he spent his money  and whether it was for a noble or an unscrupulous cause. Some of these were big secrets, such as the  $100,000 cash bribe for a president, and some  were trivial, such as where he got his apple strudel.

history.jpgHe concealed his motives so well  that even those closest to him had  no idea why he was doing what he did. But he mainly hid himself. Born in 1905, he vanished  from public view when he was in his fifties and died in 1976 on a plane bound for a hospital in Houston. The 1901 discovery of oil at Spindletop near Beaumont in Texas  drew Hughes' father Howard Sr, a Harvard dropout, to East Texas to  try and make his fortune as a wildcatter. But he discovered that drilling into hard-rock  formations with the standard 'fishtail' drill bit was  frustrating and laborious and he devised a superior two  cone bit that made drilling easier and revolutionised  the oil industry. He patented the technology in 1909 and with his partner formed the Houston-  based Sharp-Hughes Tool Company to manufacture the bit. 

After his  partner’s demise in 1912 Howard Sr bought his interest in the company. When he died in  1924 Howard Jr, his only child whose mother had died two years earlier, inherited the thriving company  and became a millionaire. But the 18-year-old Hughes was drawn to another more glamorous calling.  He dropped out of Rice University, left others to manage the oil-tool business and set out for Hollywood  in 1925. He went on to direct his first film, Hell’s Angels. In his quest to  make the aerial scenes in this action- adventure about World War I pilots as realistic as possible,  Hughes amassed an enormous fleet of vintage planes and hired scores  of pilots and mechanics. Three pilots lost their lives during production and Hughes himself crashed a  plane. Made with a whopping budget of $4 million, a huge amount at that time, Hell’s Angels debuted in  1930 and was one of the most expensive films of its time. It became  a huge hit and made Hughes a name to be reckoned with  in Hollywood. Planes were another love  and he became a superb flyer who set many records, built  the world’s largest flying boat and started an international airline, Trans World Airlines (TWA). 

In 1942, during World War II, he entered into a contract with the US government to design and build an aircraft capable of transporting 700 troops or a load of 60 tons across the Atlantic. This behemoth, which was known by various names including  H-4 Hercules, the Flying Boat and the Spruce Goose (a moniker that Hughes detested) had a  wingspan of 320 feet and was the largest aircraft ever constructed.  Even before the plane was completed the war came to an end and  in 1947 Hughes was summoned to testify before a US Senate committee  investigating whether he'd misused millions of dollars in government funds on the project. After his grilling in Washington, Hughes was determined to show that his massive aircraft could fly,  and in 1947 he piloted its first and only flight. The Spruce Goose derived its nickname from the fact that it was constructed of wood due  to wartime restrictions on steel and aluminium, though birch and not spruce was the primary building material. The massive   lane managed to fly 70 feet above the water for  just a mile before landing.

Members of the Senate committee issued a scathing report castigating Hughes' handling of the Spruce Goose project  but it proved inconsequential. After the aircraft’s lone flight, Hughes shelled out millions  to keep it in a climate-controlled hangar in Long Beach until his  death. It is now displayed at at an aviation museum in Oregon. The billionaire business mogul and aviator had always been eccentric  but as time went by he became increasingly so. In 1947 he locked  himself in a darkened screening room for four months, eating chocolate bars, drinking milk and relieving  himself into empty bottles. He finally emerged, only to move from one hotel penthouse to another. By 1950, he went into complete seclusion, even refusing to appear during antitrust hearings concerning  TWA, a company he controlled. His self-imposed seclusion gave rise to wild rumours about the former Hollywoodhobnobber's valium  addiction, cadaverous frame, scraggly beard and twisted fingernails. The Aviator starring Leonardo Di Caprio was based on the life of Howard Hughes.     

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