“Howard Hughes was able to afford the luxury of madness, like a man who not only thinks he is Napoleon, but hires an army to prove it.”—Ted Morgan.
Howard Hughes was a larger than life billionaire who is still famous today for his extravagant and bizarre lifestyle. As a man of particular tastes, he was a genius aircraft designer and pioneering filmmaker who also happened had severe obsessive habits and a dark vindictive streak. Over the years, these odd habits have overshadowed his achievements, and his mark on our cultural canon is largely colored by his erratic, reclusive nature at the end of his life. From the strange to the obsessive to the brilliant, here are some of the most interesting facts about the Aviator himself.
42. Tragic Youth
Hughes knew tragedy at a young age, losing his mother to an ectopic pregnancy when he was 17, with his father following her into the afterlife after a heart attack two years later. He dropped out of university after his father’s death, got married, and headed to Los Angeles to begin his career as a filmmaker.
41. Too Cool for Schools
Hughes trusted himself, his brains and his financial inheritance, so much that he dropped out of college and moved directly to Hollywood in order to begin his dream of making films.
40. Pill Habit
After crashing a military prototype during a test-pilot session for his Hughes Aircraft Company in 1946, Hughes was put on codeine. The specific type of codeine he was taking also contained aspirin, caffeine, and phenacetin. Hughes would develop a dependency to this drug, and take it throughout the rest of his life.
39. Lonely Lifestyle
Because of his enforced house arrest by his mother, Hughes was often seen by his neighbors simply riding his bike around in circles in the family’s driveway. That bike, though, was known as the first motorized bicycle in all of Houston and was built by Hughes at only 12 years of age.
38. Tax Dodging
With a deep-seated hatred of taxes, Hughes went through elaborate plans in order not to pay any. He lived for great stretches of time in hotels in order not to have to claim an official residence, and he would jump around from location to location in avoidance. As he had no will and no children, he left the incredible wealth of his Hughes Aircraft stocks to a tax-exempt charity of his own creation called the Howard Hughes Medical Institute.
37. Medical Money
The Howard Hughes Medical Institute went on to become a massive player in the field of biomedicine. It is now endowed with $18.2 billion and is the world’s second-largest medical research foundation in terms of financial resources.
36. He Got Around
Though he grew into a recluse, Howard Hughes was kind of a ladies man when he was younger. During his time in Hollywood, his list of affairs grew to legendary proportions. He dated everyone from Ava Gardner to Katharine Hepburn and even sisters Olivia de Havilland and Joan Fontaine.
35. Scared Red
Buying into the “Red Scare,” Howard Hughes was so paranoid about the threat that he thought communism posed to the United States that he frantically published articles about its danger.
34. All About The Chase
All Hughes cared about, apparently, was the chase. He would only sleep with the women he seduced once, and then try to keep them around as if he had a business arrangement with them.
33. No Joy
According to the actress Joan Fontaine, Hughes “had no humor, no gaiety, no sense of joy, no vivacity […] that was apparent to me.”
32. Handing Out Money
Hughes wasn’t shy about bribing people, especially politicians. He knew his wealth gave him an enormous amount of power and he wielded it to his benefit. He didn’t necessarily care about party affiliation and worked both sides of the spectrum. After Richard Nixon’s election, he gave him a personal gift of $100,000, which went to his home renovation.
31. Role in Watergate
These payouts didn’t always benefit the politicians in the long run. Case in point: Richard Nixon. It was Hughes’s Director of Operations, Robert Maheu, who Nixon’s re-election team was worried about, as he had ties to the Democratic strategist Larry O’Brien. Don’t recognize the name? O’Brien was the guy whose phone the Watergate burglars were attempting to tap. Funny thing is, Nixon acted on misinformation, as O’Brien had no information about his previous dealings with Hughes.
30. Inventing the Underwire Bra
After casting soon-to-be star Jane Russell, Hughes wasn’t satisfied with her look in the press, so he decided to design a bra specifically for the leading sex symbol, in order to accentuate her breasts. However, Russell hated the bra and refused to wear it, instead adjusting her own bras in order to pretend she was wearing it. Hughes’s people knew about this but refused to tell him out of fear.
29. Good Publicity in Controversy
The film that Russell was cast in was called The Outlaw. Hughes wanted to feature Russell for her sex appeal, but the film was did not measure up to Hollywood’s production codes because of Russell’s cleavage. In order to get 20th Century Fox to release their film, which the company had canceled, he created a public outcry against his own film, because he knew that even bad publicity is good publicity. Though it would take three years, in the end, he got what he wanted, and the film was finally released and became a smash hit.
28. My Hotel Now
During Thanksgiving in 1966, Howard Hughes rented out the top two floors of the Desert Inn Hotel in Las Vegas. He enjoyed his time there so much, that he ended up staying through to the holidays. The hotel wasn’t too keen on this, however, and they demanded that he leave because they needed room for their high rollers to stay the holidays, and, you know, gamble. The thing is, Hughes was comfortable in the hotel. So, instead of leaving, he just bought the place. That way, he could live there as long as he wanted. Four years to be exact.
27. The Trust Fund
Howard Hughes inherited a vast sum of money because his father was a millionaire who had invented the “Hughes Rock Easter,” a self-sharpening oil well drill bit.
26. Funding Himself
Though he was a trust fund baby, Hughes didn’t reach incredible wealth on that money alone. It was his movie and aircraft companies that made him filthy rich. By the time that both of his flight companies sold they were valued at $5.5 billion.
25. Neon Lights
His time at the Desert Inn also saw him buy the Sands Hotel, the neighbor to the Desert Inn because they had a neon sign which really bothered him, and he wanted to remove it from his sight.
24. I Make You Scream For Ice Cream
During a bout of obsessiveness over Baskin-Robbins’ Banana Nut ice cream, Hughes was shocked to learn that the company stopped making the flavor. So, he ordered them to make an industrial-sized batch of 350 gallons. After his staff traveled to Los Angeles in order to retrieve the order and then reconfigured the Desert Inn’s entire refrigeration system in order to store the ice cream, Hughes was over the whole Banana Nut thing, and moved on to being obsessed with French Vanilla.
23. Studio Time
This one time, Hughes wanted to binge-watch movies. So, like any rational human being, he rented out an entire film studio on Santa Monica Boulevard from Goldwyn Studios and moved into the place.
22. Movie and a Treat
His binge-watching session went on for a full four months. Hughes got comfortable by wearing nothing but a towel around his waist and feasting on three foods: chocolate, pecans, and milk. Of course, Hughes didn’t even leave if he needed to use the toilet, because he was a fan of peeing in containers.
21. P’s and P’s
Whenever Hughes would eat peas, he first had to arrange them in size order on his plate before consuming them.
20. Iron Man
The Marvel character of Tony Stark is based on Howard Hughes. Stan Lee found him to be the perfect fit for the character, due to the lifestyle of the rich and famous Hughes.
Hughes’s mother purposefully kept him isolated from the rest of the world as a child. Subsequently, he didn’t have any friends during his childhood and his mom kept close tabs on him because she feared he would somehow contract polio.
18. Unexplained Paralysis
Eventually, he would come down with paralysis for a short period of time, but it wouldn’t last long. That said, he never received an official medical diagnosis for it, which probably led to even more paranoia.
17. Diagnosing Disorder
If Hughes was around today, his obsessive behavior would probably mean that he’d be diagnosed as Obsessive Compulsive Disorder (OCD).
16. Peaches and No Germs
If you wanted to be a member of Howard Hughes’s staff, you had to study and abide by a manual in order to understand exactly how he wanted to be approached and served. For instance, even when serving him canned peaches, the can had to be disinfected, washed, scrubbed, washed again, and poured into a bowl that no one had touched.
15. Movie Star Surrogate
The illustrious Robert Mitchum was handpicked by an aging Hughes to be featured in many of his films during the 1950s. Mitchum was amused when he realized that Hughes was living vicariously through Mitchum’s on-screen acting, as the roles would feature the young star romancing different beautiful starlets.
14. Marriage Games
Hughes’s second and final marriage was to the actress Jean Peters, and though it lasted for 14 years, it wasn’t fun for Peters. Her entire life was planned by Hughes, though they eventually lived in different houses, and they only saw each other a few times a year. Hughes mainly communicated with her through memos, which counted into the hundreds of thousands when all was said and done.
When Hughes and Peters did live together, they had separate refrigerators, and Peters had to put tissues in between Hughes’s toenails since he refused to cut them and their clicking on the floor reached unbearable volumes.
12. Keeping Silent
After their divorce, Hughes—who had Peters watched throughout their marriage—bought a house adjacent to hers so that he could continue to keep tabs on her. Through it all, however, Peters never publicly told all about her ex-husband, so most of the details will never be known.
11. Kleenex Feet
At some point, his aversion to germs was so great that he would actually walk around with tissue boxes on his feet. He believed that actions like this somehow insulated him from germs.
10. Psych Examination
Thanks to the many who claimed he was insane, his death led to a vicious battle for his estate, in which his body had a psychological autopsy performed on it in order to clear the record for his decisions later in life. This all had to happen, however, because he simply didn’t keep a will.
9. Life for the Movies
Howard Hughes was such a fascinating character that over the years prominent filmmakers wanted to make a film about him. From Steven Spielberg wanting to make a “Citizen Kane-like” film about his life to Jim Carrey wanting to star in another, and even Kevin Spacey set to direct one version, everyone has been on board at some point. Eventually, it was Martin Scorsese who was the first to complete one, the massively successful The Aviator in 2004.
8. Being Katharine
Even after Scorsese made The Aviator, Christopher Nolan continued to work on a film about Hughes’s life. As hard as it would have been to do, Nolan was considering using different sources on his life, as there is a mountain of stories about his interesting life. Eventually, though, he scrapped the idea. That doesn’t mean the idea is necessarily gone forever though.
7. Learning to Fly
While researching his role for The Aviator, Leonardo DiCaprio actually learned how to fly. Not a bad excuse to learn your way around an airplane.
6. Passion Projects
In order to get the film made, Scorsese had to dive into his own pockets and ended up paying $500,000 in total to get it finished.
5. All Day Movies
During his time at the Desert Inn he shrank into the reclusiveness that he would come to be known for from there on out. He loved his movies, but the television stations in the area did not satisfy him, so he bought his own station and aired only movies on it 24 hours a day. This station was known as KLAS.
4. Favorite Film
Hughes’s favorite movie during this time was the 1968 Rock Hudson film Ice Station Zebra. He loved it so much so that he had KLAS run it on loop for years. Often, he would even call up the station and have them rewind the film for him.
3. Water of Life
One of Hughes’s more, uh, bizarre, behaviors was the storage of his urine. He would pee into jars and put those jars into storage. His staff, obviously, wasn’t in love with this, as they also said that he had awful aim while using the toilet.
2. Weight Loss
Hughes was on a steady diet of Valium later in his life, and after taking a fall due to his addiction, doctors noted that the 67-year-old man now was in the condition of someone 20 years older. Only three years later, his kidneys would fail after years of phenacetin abuse, and he would pass away. When his body was found, Hughes was emaciated and weighed only 87 pounds.
1. Rejection Stories
Though he got around, not everyone wanted him, and Jean Simmons learned that he didn’t take rejection well the hard way. After denying Hughes’s advances (she was married), she had her career sabotaged by the tycoon. As she was under contract to Hughes, he made sure to make her life hell during filming by ordering directors to treat her as rough as possible and preventing her from taking other offers. Once, under orders from Hughes, director Otto Preminger continually instructed Simmons’ co-star Robert Mitchum to slap her harder and harder while filming a particular scene, until eventually Mitchum turned and punched Preminger in the face, asking him if that’s how hard he wanted it. Eventually, Simmons successfully sued to be released from her nightmare contract with Hughes.