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The extraordinary life of Howard Hughes

The fascinating life of American filmmaker, business magnate and engineer has resulted in Howard Hughes being remembered for his contributions to the world of cinema as well as the aviation industry. Over the course of his illustrious career, Hughes became famous as one of the most financially successful people on the planet. He became a recluse later in his life while suffering from the debilitating after-effects of a deadly plane crash, further adding to the story of his remarkable life. On the 45th anniversary of his passing, we look back on the life of Howard Hughes as a tribute to the legendary pioneer.

Born in Texas in 1905 to a wealthy inventor and businessman in the oil-drilling business, Hughes displayed a healthy interest in science and technology from an early age. At the age of 11, Hughes used his engineering skills to build Houston’s first “wireless” radio transmitter and became one of the first licensed ham-radio operators in the area. The young boy kept experimenting with technology, constructing a motorised bicycle at the age of 12. His teachers and classmates recalled that he was an “indifferent” student who remained focused on his interests; mathematics, mechanics and aviation. Hughes took his first flying lesson at the age of 14 and later attended lectures on advanced mathematics and aeronautical engineering at Caltech.

Hughes lost both of his parents early on in his life, inheriting 75% of his family’s fortune and becoming an emancipated minor with complete control over his assets at the age of 19. After his father’s death, Hughes withdrew from university and moved to Los Angeles with his first wife Ella Botts Rice. Using the newly acquired family funds, the ambitious young man decided to venture into film production with the 1926 comedy film Swell Hogan. Although the project did not fare well, Hughes did not give up and followed it up with two financial hits – Everybody’s Acting and Lewis Milestone’s Two Arabian Knights. The latter ended up receiving critical acclaim as well, with an Academy Award win for Best Director. The first half of Hughes’ brilliant career also boasted of production credits on other memorable projects like Hell’s Angels in 1930 and, two years later in 1932, Scarface.

In the early ’30s, Hughes also acted on his lifelong interest in aviation by forming his own aircraft company. While designing and innovating prototypes for new aeroplanes, Hughes would often personally test the models and ended up risking his own life on several occasions. In the process, he broke multiple flying speed records and also built the famous H-4 Hercules (nicknamed the Spruce Goose), which was known as the largest flying boat in the history of aviation. Hughes is also credited for many innovations in the industry, including developing the existing technology for retractable landing gear. Even though the Spruce Goose only flew once, Hughes loved the aircraft and maintained it in a special hanger until his death. The plane is now on display at the Evergreen Aviation Museum in Oregon.

Starting from the ’40s, Hughes also revised his position in the film industry by eventually acquiring a part of the struggling RKO production studios in 1948 for almost $9million. He completely changed the operating mechanisms of the studio, dismissing many workers and constantly questioning the political affiliations of his employees in order to ensure that they were compatible with his anti-communist projects. This was the time of the infamous Red Scare, and the intolerant paranoia of McCarthyism and Hughes contributed to it as well, especially putting his female stars under the magnifying glass for any traces of “subversive” activities. Towards the end of 1954, Hughes managed to gain almost total control of RKO and became the first sole owner of a major studio since the time of silent films. He ended his 25-year run in the industry by selling the studio to General Tire and Rubber Company for a staggering $25 million. Despite his suppression of artistic freedom, Hughes remained popular for his successful business decisions as he walked away with a profit of $6.5 million.

Hughes maintained a vast portfolio of business interests until his death in 1976, ranging from military technology, aerospace, electronics and mass media to the petroleum industry, hospitality industry as well as medical research. He married actress Jean Peters in 1957, who was referred to as the only woman [Hughes] ever loved”, alluding to his extensive reputation as a womaniser. In the ’60s, Hughes retreated to the top floor of the Desert Inn in Las Vegas, where he lived like a recluse and met very few people. It was reported that he was suffering from episodes of obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD), chronic pain from the injuries he suffered earlier in his life, as well as drug abuse. Hughes was also thought to have been connected to the infamous Watergate scandal. For the last four years of his life, Hughes lived comfortably in a luxury resort in the Bahamas.

On the 5th of April, 1976, Howard Hughes was reported dead while on an aircraft en route to a hospital in Houston. The autopsy showed that Hughes had passed away due to kidney failure. Following the news of his death, many fake wills surfaced as the battle for his enormous financial legacy started. Ultimately, most of his assets went to his family members and for the support of philanthropic causes like healthcare. Hughes’ persona has left an indelible mark on popular culture, inspiring the development of characters like Iron Man and Batman. From video games like BioShock to television series like The Simpsons as well as films like Martin Scorsese’s The Aviator, the complicated legacy of Howard Hughes has been immortalised.