Howard Hughes

Identification: Legendary American aviator and entrepreneur

Born: December 24, 1905; Houston, Texas

Died: April 5, 1975; in an airplane en route from Acapulco, Mexico, to Houston, Texas

Significance: Through much of the twentieth century, Hughes was the embodiment of the American businessman as a larger-than-life adventurer: half-hero and half-outlaw. His most important business contributions were in the field of aeronautics, the film industry, and in investments in Las Vegas casinos and real estate.

Much of Howard Hughes’s reputation came not from his enormous success or business talent—he was, for much of his life, one of the wealthiest people on the planet—but from the staggering diversity of his enterprises. From the late 1920’s through the 1950’s, he was a successful Hollywood producer/ director. Throughout the 1930’s and 1940’s, he gained fame as a daring aviator and test pilot, founding Hughes Aircraft and breaking world records flying airplanes that he had designed himself. He also owned and expanded Trans World Airlines. During the 1950’s he founded the Howard Hughes Medical Institute, which soon became one of the country’s primary centers of medical research. Other ventures he pursued included automobile and ship design, real estate, and management of hotels, casinos, airlines, and restaurants, many of which were in Las Vegas.

Another source of Hughes’s fame was the scandal that accompanied almost every enterprise. During his Hollywood years, tabloids and gossip columns continually linked his name with prominent film stars like Katharine Hepburn and Ava Gardner, and his hit film about Billy the Kid, The Outlaw (1942), drew fire from moralists because of the way star Jane Russell’s ample bosoms were displayed in an extremely low-cut blouse. After World War II, he was summoned before a congressional committee to account for his failure to deliver the famed Spruce Goose, a specially designed fighter plane made primarily of wood, in time to be of help during the war. During the 1970’s, his name was linked to the foremost political scandal of that decade—Watergate—when rumors circulated that he had lent a sizable sum of money to President Richard Nixon’s brother Donald.

This montage shows Howard Hughes along with charts listing his holdings and properties as of August 18, 1968. (AP/Wide World Photos)

A final factor contributing to Hughes’s status as celebrity-businessman is the aura of mystery that surrounded him throughout his life. So much about this successful American entrepreneur remains uncertain, beginning with the date of his birth, Christmas Eve, which may be apocryphal. Also uncertain is the number of his marriages, as he may or may not have been married to film actor Terry Moore from the late 1940’s until his death. In addition, his sexual preferences are debatable, as Hollywood gossip and a popular biography have suggested that he was gay or bisexual. Toward the end of his life, his very sanity was questionable, as he became a hypochondriac, germ phobic loner living in rigorously enforced seclusion, in hotels in Las Vegas, Houston, and other locales. This hermetic existence during his final years only heightened his celebrity, as he was spoofed in various television series and celebrated in song by different artists. Not until Donald Trump did another American businessman come close to becoming such a celebrity mogul.

Thomas Du Bose

Further Reading

  • Bartlett, Donald L., and James B. Steele. Empire. New York: Norton, 1979. 
  • Higham, Charles. Howard Hughes. 1993. Reprint. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 2004. 
  • Wildenberg, Thomas, and R. E. G. Davies. Howard Hughes: An Airman, His Aircraft, and His Great Flights. McLean, Va.: Paladwr Press, 2006. 

See also: Air transportation industry; Aircraft industry; Motion-picture industry.

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