His life was an embarrassment of riches. His father’s invention of the Hughes drill bit, which revolutionized the oil industry, provided him with the financial means to indulge in a wide range of interests. In his heyday Hughes made a name for himself as an aviator, a filmmaker, a playboy, and a wheeler-dealer. But his posthumous fame rests on his reputation as an eccentric billionaire. The sheer size of his fortune still generates interest (James R. Phelan’s The Money: The Battle for Howard Hughes’s Billions was published just this fall). But no amount of wealth could insulate the reclusive Hughes from his lifelong fear of germs and disease.
An only child, he was born Howard Robard Hughes, Jr., on Christmas Eve, 1905, in Houston.
At age nineteen he moved to Los Angeles and bankrolled Hell’s Angels (1930), a paean to World War I flying aces, for $3.8 million. It was then the most expensive film ever made. He dated a succession of actresses, including Katharine Hepburn and Jane Russell, for whom he designed the cleavage-enhancing bra she wore in The Outlaw.
A pilot himself, Hughes set several records, including one in 1938 for an around-the-world flight completed in 3 days, 19 hours, and 17 minutes.
He built the world’s largest airplane, which boasted a 320-foot wingspan and, because of its plywood construction, was nicknamed the Spruce Goose.
During the fifties he invested in several Las Vegas hotel-casinos and amassed 6.5 million shares of TWA, which he lost in a 1960 antitrust suit that cost him $145 million in punitive damages alone.
In 1970 Hughes left the U.S. to live in the Bahamas, Nicaragua, Vancouver, London, and finally Acapulco. He broke a self-imposed public silence only once, in 1972, to denounce as a hoax a biography that writer Clifford Irving claimed to have based on exclusive taped interviews.
As Hughes aged, he saved daily urine specimens, became addicted to codeine and Valium, and let his beard, hair, and fingernails grow unchecked. When he died on April 5, 1976—aboard a plane en route from Acapulco to Houston—he weighed only 93 pounds.
Hughes’s failure to leave a valid will sparked a slew of forgeries and a free-for-all among potential heirs. Ultimately, the big winner was Uncle Sam, whose estate taxes ate up 60 percent of Hughes’s billion-dollar empire.