Today in 1976, Howard Robard Hughes, Jr. died at the age of 70 while in route from Mexico to a hospital in Houston, Texas. Hughes died as one of the wealthiest men in the world, leaving behind him not only a legacy of well-publicized odd habits, but a mark on several major industries as well.
Hughes was born in 1905 in Houston, Texas. His father was the inventor of the dual cone roller bit, a tool which allowed oil drilling in areas previously considered unreachable. When his parents died while he was still a teenager, Hughes was left with a significant fortune and the company business, the Hughes Tool Company.
Hughes’ formal education was sporadic, but this did not stop him from at least trying to attain his goals. He set out for Hollywood while still in his early 20’s, convinced that he could make it as a movie producer. Despite the fact that he was not, at first, taken seriously by the establishment, he eventually made several very successful films including Hell’s Angels, Scarface and The Outlaw. It was during this time that Hughes’ reputation as a ladies’ man was first established. Rumors of his affairs and troubled marriages would follow him the rest of his life.
Hughes’ love of aircraft led him to become involved in the burgeoning aircraft industry in California. In 1932, he founded Hughes Aircraft Company as a division of Hughes Tools. In 1935, Hughes set a world speed record in the Hughes H-1 Racer, a plane that combined all the aerodynamic breakthroughs of the day and influenced the designs of many of the fighter aircraft used in the Second World War. Hughes also became the principal stockholder of T&WA, the airline which would become Trans World Airlines.
Hughes’ best-known aviation feat is the building and single flight of the H-4 Hercules, better known as the “Spruce Goose”. We highlighted the H-4 in November, 2005 on the anniversary of her first and only flight; you can find a transcript of that podcast at mattstodayinhistory.com.
Hughes survived a plane crash in 1946 while piloting one of his company’s experimental aircraft, the XF-11. It is during his recovery that he probably first became addicted to pain-killers, a demon that would be with him for the rest of his life. He began wearing his famous mustache after the crash to cover a scar on his upper lip.
Although it is not well-known, Howard Hughes probably did more to break the Mafia’s control of Las Vegas than anyone. In the mid-60’s, he decided to move to Las Vegas and begin investing in casinos. At that time, every major gambling establishment in the city was mob-controlled. He bought six large hotel/casinos from Mafia front organizations in an effort to change the city’s image into that of “a well-dressed man in a dinner jacket and a beautifully jeweled and furred female getting out of an expensive car.”
Suffering from obsessive-compulsive disorder and drug addiction, Hughes became more and more erratic as the years went by. When he died, he was nearly unrecognizable; fingerprints had to be used to positively identify his body. He is buried in Houston, Texas, his boyhood home.