Hughes was a millionaire at 18.
The 1901 discovery of oil at Spindletop, near Beaumont, Texas, marked the birth of the modern petroleum industry, and drew Hughes’ father, Howard Sr., a Harvard dropout, to East Texas to try his luck as a wildcatter. After becoming frustrated by the difficulty of drilling into hard-rock formations with the “fishtail” drill bit that was standard at the time, he devised a superior two-cone bit, which made drilling easier and revolutionized the oil industry. Hughes patented the technology in 1909 and, with partner Walter Sharp, formed the Houston-based Sharp-Hughes Tool Company to manufacture the bit. After Sharp died in 1912, Hughes bought his interest in the company. When he in turn passed away in 1924, Howard Jr., an only child whose mother had died two years earlier, inherited the thriving company and became a millionaire. The 18-year-old Hughes dropped out of Rice University, let others manage the oil-tool business and set out for Hollywood in 1925.
His directorial debut, “Hell’s Angels,” was one of the most expensive movies of its time.
Hughes started his movie career as a producer on the 1926 film “Swell Hogan,” which turned out to be so terrible it never made it into theaters. However, he soon had a box-office success with 1927’s “Two Arabian Knights,” which earned an Academy Award for best comedy direction. Hughes went on to direct his first film, “Hell’s Angels,” when the initial two directors on the project quit after clashing with the young Texas millionaire. In his quest to make the aerial scenes in “Hell’s Angels,” an action-adventure about World War I pilots, as realistic as possible, Hughes amassed a huge fleet of vintage planes and hired scores of pilots and mechanics. Three pilots died during production, and Hughes himself crashed a plane. “Hell’s Angels” initially was shot as a silent film, but following the fall 1927 release of “The Jazz Singer,” the first feature-length movie with synchronized dialogue, Hughes decided to reshoot with sound. He spent nearly $4 million to produce “Hell’s Angels,” which debuted in 1930 and was one of the most the most expensive films of its time. It also was a hit and put Hughes on the map in Hollywood. He later produced additional films but his only other directorial effort was 1943’s “The Outlaw,” a Western featuring Jane Russell.
Hughes set an around-the-world flight record.
During the 1930s, Hughes began to seriously pursue his passion for flying, establishing Hughes Aircraft Company in 1932 (it eventually became a major aerospace and defense contractor) and setting a series of aviation records. In 1935, he broke the record for flying a plane over land, traveling 352 miles per hour near Santa Ana, California. Two years later, he set a record for transcontinental U.S. speed, journeying from Burbank, California, to Newark, New Jersey, in 7 hours, 28 minutes and 25 seconds. On July 10, 1938, Hughes and a four-man crew took off from Brooklyn’s Floyd Bennett Field on an around-the-world flight. After dipping his Lockheed Super Electra’s wings over the Old Saybrook, Connecticut, home of his girlfriend Katharine Hepburn, Hughes made refueling stops in Paris, Moscow, Omsk and Yakutsk (both in Siberia), Fairbanks and Minneapolis before landing back in Brooklyn. There, thousands of spectators greeted Hughes, who had set a new record for circumnavigating the globe, with a time of three days, 19 hours and 17 minutes. He was hailed as a hero and honored with a ticker-tape parade in New York City and celebrations around the country.
His famous Spruce Goose aircraft was flown only once.
In 1942, during World War II, Hughes contracted with the U.S. government to design and build an aircraft capable of transporting 700 troops or a load of 60 tons across the Atlantic. Known by various names, including the H-4 Hercules, the Flying Boat and most commonly, the Spruce Goose (a moniker Hughes detested), it had a wingspan of 320 feet and was the largest aircraft ever constructed. However, the war ended before the plane was completed, and in 1947 Hughes was called to testify before a U.S. Senate committee investigating whether he’d misused millions of dollars in government funds on the project. At the hearings, Hughes said of the Spruce Goose: “I put the sweat of my life into this thing. I have my reputation rolled up in it and I have stated several times that if it’s a failure I’ll probably leave this country and never come back. And I mean it.”
After testifying in Washington, Hughes was determined to show his massive aircraft could fly, and on November 2, 1947, he piloted its first and only flight. The Spruce Goose (the nickname came from the fact it was constructed of wood due to wartime restrictions on steel and aluminum; however, birch, not spruce, was the primary building material) traveled for a mile about 70 feet above the water at Long Beach, California, before landing. Members of the Senate committee later issued a report criticizing Hughes’ handling of the Spruce Goose project but the document proved inconsequential. After the aircraft’s lone flight, Hughes shelled out millions to keep it in a climate-controlled Long Beach hangar until his 1976 death. It’s now housed at an aviation museum in Oregon.
Hughes was part of a CIA plot to recover a sunken Soviet submarine.
In March 1968, during the Cold War, a Soviet submarine carrying nuclear-armed ballistic missiles accidentally sank in the Pacific Ocean. The Soviets embarked on a two-month search for the sub but were unable to locate it; not long afterward, the U.S. found it some 1,500 miles northwest of Hawaii, 16,500 feet below the water’s surface. Believing the 1,750-ton sub was a source of important intelligence information, the CIA launched a complex covert operation, codenamed Project Azorian, to recover it. The U.S. commissioned the construction of a ship with the specialized capabilities needed to lift the sub from the ocean’s depths, and the CIA devised a cover story that the vessel, named the Hughes Glomar Explorer, was being built for Howard Hughes, who planned to use it for a new commercial venture: mining minerals from the ocean floor.
The Glomar Explorer finally arrived at the wreckage site in the summer of 1974 but was unable to retrieve the whole sub because a portion broke off as it was being raised. A second recovery effort was planned; however, in the meantime there was a burglary at the Los Angeles headquarters of Hughes’ Summa Corporation, and among the stolen items was thought to be a secret document linking Howard Hughes to the CIA and the Glomar Explorer. The news media learned about the burglary and the story of the Glomar Explorer’s real purpose became public in 1975. As a result, the mission to recover the rest of the sub was scrapped.
When a Vegas hotel tried to kick him out, he bought the place.
Faced with a huge tax bill in California, he decided to move to Las Vegas in late 1966, arriving by private train car and taking up residence on the top floor of the Desert Inn. When the hotel’s owner tried to evict Hughes and his staff, who didn’t gamble, in order to free up rooms for high-roller guests, Hughes decided to buy the place (technically, he purchased a long-term lease), for $13 million. Afterward, he went on a Vegas buying spree, snapping up other hotel-casinos, an airport and airline and various tracts of undeveloped land. Also, because Hughes, by then a recluse who never left his Desert Inn penthouse, wanted to watch his favorite old movies on late-night TV—and the city had no all-night stations–he acquired a local TV station of his own.
After four years in Vegas, during which time he became one of Nevada’s biggest employers and private landholders, he left abruptly in 1970. He spent the final six years of his life living in hotels in the Bahamas, Nicaragua, Vancouver, London and Acapulco.
A planned Hughes autobiography turned out to be a hoax.
In December 1971, McGraw-Hill, a New York City publishing company, announced it would publish Hughes’ autobiography, with excerpts slated to appear in Life magazine. Shortly after the announcement, officials at the Hughes Tool Company denounced the planned book as a fake. However, McGraw-Hill and Life denied this charge and expressed confidence in the authenticity of the manuscript, which Hughes supposedly collaborated on with Clifford Irving, who’d previously published works of fiction and non-fiction. McGraw-Hill had handwritten letters said to be from Hughes along with other project-related items with his signature; these were submitted to a respected handwriting analysis firm, which determined they’d been written by Hughes. In January 1972, the reclusive mogul, then residing at a hotel in the Bahamas, held a press conference by phone with a group of journalists he’d once known. Hughes, who hadn’t spoken with the media in years, said the autobiography was made up and he’d never met Irving. The press conference generated headlines across the country, and weeks later Irving, who’d received a $750,000 advance, admitted the manuscript was a fabrication. He served 17 months in prison for his elaborate scheme, which was the basis for the 2006 movie “The Hoax,” starring Richard Gere as Irving.