To his aunts, uncles, and grandparents who watched him grow up in Houston, Texas, Howard Hughes Jr. (1905–1976) was a rather shy and awkward boy. His mother had nearly died giving birth to him and consequently could not have other children, so she completely doted on her son. Continually anxious that he might catch some illness, she watched his every move and did all she could to protect him. The boy seemed in awe of his father, Howard Sr., who in 1909 had started the Sharp-Hughes Tool Company, which would soon make the family a fortune. His father was not home much, always traveling for business, so Howard spent a great deal of time with his mother. To the relatives he could seem nervous and hypersensitive, but as he got older he became a remarkably polite, soft-spoken young man, completely devoted to his parents.
Then in 1922 his mother, at the age of thirty-nine, suddenly died. His father never quite recovered from her early death and passed away two years later. Now, at the age of nineteen, young Howard was alone in the world, having lost the two people who had been his closest companions and who had directed every phase of his life. His relatives decided they would have to fill the void and give the young man the guidance he needed. But in the months after the death of his father, they suddenly had to confront a Howard Hughes Jr. they had never seen before or suspected. The soft-spoken young man suddenly became rather abusive. The obedient boy was now the complete rebel. He would not continue college as they advised. He would not follow any of their recommendations. The more they insisted, the more belligerent he became.
Inheriting the family wealth, young Howard could now become completely independent, and he meant to take this as far as he could. He immediately went to work to buy out all of the shares in the SharpHughes Tool Company that his relatives possessed and to gain complete control of the highly lucrative business. Under Texas law he could petition the courts to declare him an adult, if he could prove himself competent enough to assume the role. Hughes befriended a local judge and soon got the declaration he wanted. Now he could run his own life and the tool company with no interference. His relatives were shocked by all of this, and soon both sides would cut off almost all contact with each other for the rest of their lives. What had changed the sweet boy they had known into this hyperaggressive, rebellious young man? It was a mystery they would never solve.
Shortly after declaring his independence, Howard settled in Los Angeles, where he was determined to follow his two newest passions— filmmaking and piloting airplanes. He had the money to indulge himself in both of these interests, and in 1927 he decided to combine them, producing an epic, high-budget film about airmen during World War I, to be called Hell’s Angels. He hired a director and a team of writers to come up with the script, but he had a falling-out with the director and fired him. He then hired another director, Luther Reed, a man who was also an aviation buff and could relate better to the project, but soon he quit, tired of Hughes’s constant interfering in the project. His last words to Hughes were “If you know so much, why don’t you direct it yourself?” Hughes followed his advice and named himself the director.
The budget began to soar as he strove for the utmost in realism. Month after month, year after year went by as Hughes ran through hundreds of crewmembers and stunt pilots, three of whom died in fiery accidents. After endless battles, he ended up firing almost every head of a department and running things himself. He fussed over every shot, every angle, every storyboard. Finally Hell’s Angels premiered in 1930 and it was a smash hit. The story was a mess, but the flying and action sequences thrilled audiences. Now the legend of Howard Hughes was born. He was the dashing young maverick who had bucked the system and created a hit. He was the rugged individualist who did everything himself.
The film had cost a whopping $3.8 million to make and had lost close to $2 million, but nobody paid attention to this. Hughes himself was humble and claimed to have learned his lesson on the production: “Making Hell’s Angels by myself was my biggest mistake. . . . Trying to do the work of twelve men was just dumbness on my part. I learned by bitter experience that no one man can know everything.”
During the 1930s the Hughes legend only seemed to grow as he piloted planes to several world records in speed, courting death on several occasions. Hughes had spun off from his father’s company a new business venture called Hughes Aircraft, which he hoped to transform into the biggest manufacturer of airplanes in the world. At the time, this required procuring large military contracts for planes, and as the U.S. entered World War II Hughes made a big play for such a contract.
In 1942 various officials in the Defense Department, impressed by his aviation feats, the meticulous attention to detail he revealed in his interviews, and his tireless lobbying efforts, decided to award Hughes Aircraft an $18 million grant to produce three enormous transport planes, called the Hercules, which would be used to ferry soldiers and supplies to various fronts in the war. The planes were called flying boats and were to have wingspans longer than a football field and stand over three stories high at the hull. If the company did a good job on this, bringing the planes in on time and on budget, they would order many more and Hughes could corner the market in transport planes.
Less than a year later, there was more good news. Impressed with the beautiful and sleek design of his smaller D-2 plane, the air force put in an order for one hundred photo-reconnaissance planes for $43 million, to be reconfigured along the lines of the D-2. But soon word began to spread of trouble at Hughes Aircraft. The company had started as a sort of hobby for Hughes. He had placed various Hollywood friends and aviation buddies in high-level positions. As the company grew, so did the number of departments, but there was little communication among them. Everything had to flow through Hughes himself. He had to be consulted on the smallest decision. Frustrated by all of his interference in their work, several top-notch engineers had already quit.
Hughes saw the problem and hired a general manager to help with the Hercules project and straighten the company out, but the general manager quit after two months. Hughes had promised him carte blanche in restructuring the company, but only several days into the job he began vetoing his decisions and undermining his authority. By the late summer of 1943, $6 million of the $9 million set aside for the production of the first Hercules plane had already been spent, but the plane was nowhere near completion. Those in the Defense Department who had endorsed Hughes for the job began to panic. The photoreconnaissance order was a critical one for the war effort. Did the internal chaos and delays with the Hercules bode problems with the more important reconnaissance order? Had Hughes duped them with his charm and his publicity campaign?
By early 1944, the order for the reconnaissance planes had fallen hopelessly behind schedule. The military now insisted he hire a new general manager to salvage something from the order. Fortunately one of the best men for the job was available at the time: Charles Perelle, the “boy wonder” of aircraft production. Perelle did not want the job. He knew, like everyone in the business, of the chaos within Hughes Aircraft. Now Hughes himself, feeling desperate, went on a charm offensive. He insisted he had realized the error of his ways. He needed Perelle’s expertise. He was not what Perelle had expected—he was completely humble and made it seem as if he were the victim of unscrupulous executives within the company. He knew all the technical details of producing a plane, which impressed Perelle. He promised to give Perelle the authority he needed. Against his better judgment, Perelle took the job.
After only a few weeks, however, Perelle regretted his decision. The planes were further behind schedule than he had been led to believe. Everything he saw reeked of a lack of professionalism, down to the shoddy drawings of the planes. He went to work, cutting wasteful spending and streamlining departments, but nobody respected his authority. Everybody knew who really ran the company, as Hughes kept undermining Perelle’s reforms. As the order fell further behind and the pressure mounted, Hughes disappeared from the scene, apparently having a nervous breakdown. By the end of the war, not a single reconnaissance plane had been produced, and the air force canceled the contract. Perelle himself, broken by the experience, quit his job in December of that year.
Hughes, trying to salvage something from the war years, could point to the completion of one of the flying boats, later known as the Spruce Goose. It was a marvel, he claimed, a brilliant piece of engineering on a massive scale. To prove the doubters wrong, he decided to test-fly the plane himself. As he flew over the ocean, however, it became painfully clear that the plane did not have nearly enough power for its enormous weight, and after a mile he gently set it down on the water and had it towed back. The plane would never fly again and would be dry-docked in a hangar at a cost of $1 million per year, Hughes refusing to take it apart for scrap.
By 1948 the owner of RKO Pictures, Floyd Odlum, was looking to sell. RKO was one of Hollywood’s most profitable and prestigious studios, and Hughes was itching to get back in the limelight by establishing himself in the film business. He bought Odlum’s shares and gained a controlling interest. Within RKO there was panic. Executives there knew of his reputation for meddling. The company had just brought in a new regime, headed by Dore Schary, that was going to transform RKO into the hottest studio for young directors. Schary decided to quit before being humiliated, but he agreed to first meet Hughes, mostly out of curiosity.
Hughes was all charm. He took hold of Schary’s hand, looked him straight in the eye, and said, “I want no part of running the studio. You’ll be left alone.” Schary, surprised by his sincerity and agreement with Schary’s proposed transformation of the studio, relented, and for the first few weeks all was as Hughes had promised. But then the phone calls began. Hughes wanted Schary to replace an actress on the latest film in production. Realizing his mistake, Schary immediately resigned, taking with him many of his own staff.
Hughes began filling positions with men who followed his orders, hiring exactly the actors and actresses that he himself liked. He bought a screenplay called Jet Pilot and planned on making it the 1949 version of Hell’s Angels. It was to star John Wayne, and the great Josef von Sternberg was to direct. After a few weeks Sternberg could not endure one more phone call and quit. Hughes took over. In a complete repeat of the production of Hell’s Angels, it took nearly three years to finish, mostly because of the aerial photography, and the budget soared to $4 million. Hughes had shot so much footage he could not decide how to cut it down. It took six years before it was ready, and by then the jet scenes were completely out of date and Wayne looked considerably older. The film subsequently fell into complete obscurity. Soon the once-bustling studio was losing substantial sums, and in 1955, with stockholders furious at his mismanagement, Hughes sold RKO to the General Tire Company.
In the 1950s and early ’60s, the U.S. military decided to adapt some of its fighting philosophy to the times. To wage war in places like Vietnam it needed helicopters, including a light observation helicopter to help in reconnaissance. The army searched out potential manufacturers and in 1961 selected two of them that had submitted the best proposals, rejecting the design of Hughes’s second aircraft company, which he had spun off from Hughes Tool (the original version of Hughes Aircraft was now run completely independently from Hughes himself). Hughes refused to accept this setback. His publicity team went on a massive lobbying campaign, wining and dining army brass, much as they had done some twenty years earlier with the photo-reconnaissance planes, spending money lavishly. The campaign was a success and the Hughes entry was now in the running along with the other two. The army decided that the company that came in with the best price would win.
The price Hughes submitted surprised the military—it was so low it seemed impossible for the company to make any money on the manufacture of the helicopters. It seemed clear that his strategy was to lose money on the initial production in order to win the auction, get the contract, and then raise the price on subsequent orders. In 1965 the army finally awarded the contract to Hughes, an incredible coup for a company that had had so little success in airplane production. If they were made well and on time, the army could potentially order thousands of helicopters, and Hughes could use this as a springboard into the production of commercial helicopters, an expanding business.
As the Vietnam War heated up, the army was certain to increase its order and Hughes would reap the bonanza, but as they waited for the delivery of the first helicopters, those who had awarded the contract to Hughes began to panic: the company was falling way behind the schedule they had agreed upon, and so they launched an investigation to find out what was going on. To their horror, there seemed to be no organized production line. The plant was too small to handle such an order. The details were all wrong—the drawings were unprofessional, the tools inadequate, and there were too few skilled workers on site. It was as if the company had no experience in designing planes and was trying to figure it out as it went. It was the exact same predicament as with the photo-reconnaissance planes, which only a few in the military could remember. It was clear that Hughes had not learned a single lesson from the earlier fiasco.
As they now could predict, the helicopters only trickled in. Feeling desperate, army brass decided to conduct a new auction for the much larger order of the 2,200 helicopters they now needed, hoping a more experienced company would come in with a lower price and force out Hughes. Hughes went into panic mode. To lose this follow-on bid would spell ruin. The company was counting on raising its price for this new order to recoup the enormous losses it had incurred with the initial production. That was the bet Hughes had placed. If he tried to come in with a low price for the additional helicopters, he could not return a profit, and yet if his bid was not low enough, he would be underbid, which was what eventually happened. The loss to Hughes in the end for the helicopters he produced was an astronomical $90 million and had a devastating effect on the company.
In 1976 Howard Hughes died in an airplane en route from Acapulco to Houston, and as the autopsy was performed on his body, the public finally became aware of what had happened to him in the last decade of his life. For years he had been addicted to pain pills and narcotics. He had lived in tightly sealed hotel rooms, deathly afraid of the slightest possible contamination by germs. At the time of his death he weighed a mere ninety-three pounds. He had lived in near-total isolation, attended to by a few assistants, desperately trying to keep all of this out of the public eye. It was the ultimate irony that the man who feared more than anything the slightest loss of control had ended up in his last years at the complete mercy of a handful of assistants and executives, who oversaw his slow death by drugs and wrested essential control of the company from him