Founder of Hughes Aircraft Co.
Quite possibly the most mysterious, elusive and downright bizarre billionaire the world has ever known, Howard Hughes is generally remembered as an eccentric recluse who was terrified of germs and spent the last years of his life shrouded in secrecy and rumor. Yet before being devoured by his eccentricities, Hughes was a true entrepreneurial genius who achieved remarkable accomplishments as a movie producer, an aviator and an industrialist. He inherited a fortune, and over several decades, transformed it into one of the most diverse empires in the annals of American business.
Hughes was born into wealth on December 24, 1905. His father, an ex-outlaw oil wildcatter, developed a revolutionary drill bit for the oil industry and used the resulting fortune to found Hughes Tool Co. Tragically, Hughes was orphaned at a young age. His mother died when he was 16, and his father followed her to the grave two years later, leaving Hughes an estate worth close to $1 million. Hughes disliked the administrative side of business and hired a young accountant named Noah Dietrich to run Hughes Tool Co. in 1925. Over the next five years, Dietrich turned Hughes' $1 million inheritance into a $75 million empire.
With Dietrich in charge of his company, Hughes was free to indulge in other pursuits. At the age of 21, he became a film producer. His first film, "Swell Hogan," was so bad it was never released, but he did better with his next two films, "Everybody's Acting" and "Two Arabian Knights," which won an Academy Award. He would go on to make such notable minor classics as the World War I aviation epic "Hells Angels," "The Front Page" and "Scarface."
Hughes temporarily abandoned the movie industry in 1932 to indulge in another of his passions-aviation. Hughes dreamed of breaking the world airspeed record, and he founded Hughes Aircraft Co. to design and build a plane specifically for that purpose. The result was the revolutionary Hughes H-1 racer, a breakthrough in aerodynamics that did indeed set a new world airspeed record of a then astonishing 352 mph in 1935. Sixteen months later, Hughes set another record when he flew the H-1 nonstop from Burbank, California, to Newark, New Jersey, in just seven hours and 28 minutes.
Hughes next set his sites on conquering the globe. In 1938, he and a four-member crew piloted a Lockheed Model 14 around the world in three days, 19 hours and 8 minutes. The flight not only set a new record, but also helped pave the way for the fledging commercial airline industry.
After his around-the-world flight, Hughes began to worry that other aircraft companies were outpacing Hughes Aircraft. To remedy this, he purchased a controlling interest in TWA and began designing experimental aircraft for the military.
He also returned to moviemaking with the controversial film "The Outlaw." Starring a scantily clad 19-year-old, busty newcomer Jane Russell, censors initially banned the picture. When Hughes finally received permission to show it, he shrewdly opted to wait two years, allowing public curiosity to build. Rightly condemned as a ludicrously bad film, "The Outlaw" nevertheless made millions.
During World War II, Hughes teamed up with Henry Kaiser and won a government contract to build three huge "flying ships," which were supposed to serve as troop carriers. Only one was ever completed, the famous Spruce Goose. The government cancelled the contract for the flying boats when it became obvious that they could not be completed in time for use in the war.
In 1946, Hughes' life took a terrible and irreversible turn. While testing a new aircraft in the skies over Los Angeles, his plane lost power and crashed into a Beverly Hills home. Hughes was dragged from the burning wreckage by a passing Marine, and it was later determined that he had broken nearly every bone in his body. Hughes eventually recovered physically, but his spirit would never be the same. During his recovery, he needed so much codeine to tolerate the pain that he became addicted to the painkiller and would remain so for the rest of his life.
After the accident, Hughes' behavior became more and more strange. So much so that when the Spruce Goose finally rolled off the assembly line in 1947, the military refused to believe that the behemoth could fly, and the U.S. Senate accused Hughes of perpetrating a hoax for his own amusement. To prove the Spruce Goose was no hoax, Hughes himself took the massive plane for a test flight on November 2, 1947. It would be his last major public appearance and his swan song as an aviator. Five years later, Hughes spun off his aircraft division from Hughes Tools and used the money to found the Howard Hughes Medical Institute in Florida.
Always a loner, Hughes became ever more reclusive. By 1963, he was so unwilling to show himself in public that when his 78 percent stake in TWA sparked an antitrust suit, Hughes refused to appear in court or even give a deposition. His failure to appear led to a default ruling against him, and he was forced to sell his TWA stock for $546 million.
To avoid paying taxes in California, Hughes moved to Las Vegas and used the money from the sale of his TWA stock to buy the Desert Inn and Casino, which became his home and headquarters. Over the next four years, he purchased several other hotels and casinos, a local television station, Alamo Airlines and nearly 25,000 acres of property surrounding Las Vegas. These new properties, combined with Hughes Tool and other real estate holdings in Arizona and California, gave Hughes an estimated net worth of $1 billion.
In November 1970, Hughes moved to the Bahamas, again to avoid taxes. He never returned to the United States. Drug addiction and deteriorating mental and physical health forced him further into seclusion. During the last years of his life, the wealthy hermit scuttled between secret retreats in Nicaragua, Canada and England before finally settling in Acapulco, Mexico. Years of drug use and a poor diet finally took their toll in 1976, when Hughes, an emaciated 94-pound wreck, died of kidney failure while in flight from Acapulco to Houston, where he was being taken for medical treatment.
Hughes remained controversial even in death. His failure to leave a valid will spurred a slew of forgeries and a free-for-all among potential heirs. In the end, the big winner was the IRS, who gobbled up 60 percent of Hughes' estimated $2 billion empire for estate taxes.
Howard Hughes should have lived the all-American dream. He was a true American hero and innovator. Yet he is remembered not for tremendous achievements, but for the tragedy his life became. It seems Hughes was living proof of the old adage, "Money can't buy happiness."
Bonfire Of The Biographies
After his record-breaking around-the-world flight, a national magazine wrote an in-depth biography of the daredevil tycoon. Determined to keep his private life private, Howard Hughes bought all 175,000 copies of the magazine and burned them in an airplane hangar.
His Biggest Supporter
While making the 1940 movie "The Outlaw," Howard Hughes was dissatisfied with the effect created by the brassiere worn by the film's star, Jane Russell. Using his knowledge of structural engineering, he designed a new brassiere to further enhance Russell's already prominent bust and started a nationwide trend.
Entrepreneur Editors' Picks
If You Focus on Problems, You'll Only Find More Problems. Here's How to Focus on Solutions.
Apple Asks This Jarring Interview Question as a Secret Way to Evaluate a Candidate