Skip to main content

Howard Hughes, Hollywood's Richest Hermit

  • Author:
  • Updated date:

Howard Hughes, one of the world's richest men,  died from dehydration, malnutrition and neglect. Even now, a generation after his death, he remains one of Hollywood's most intriguing and perplexing figures.

Hughes lived a quite extraordinary life and died an extraordinary death. X-rays taken at autopsy revealed broken hypodermic needles lodged in his arms, and his six-foot-four frame weighed less than 90lb (41kg). He had been seen by so few people for so long that the Treasury Department had to use fingerprints to identify his body.

Hughes had been a womaniser, a record-breaking aviator, a Hollywood film director, and he was one of the richest men in the world yet he lived the last years of his life in squalor, terrified of germs and of physical contact with other people.

Early Years

Howard Hughes was born in Houston, Texas, on December 24, 1905. His father was the founder of the Hughes Tool Company. His brother, Rupert Hughes, worked as a writer for Samuel Goldwyn's movie studios. Hughes grew up under the strong influence of his mother, who was obsessed with protecting her son from all germs and diseases. This obsession was to re-surface later in Hughes's life with tragic consequences.

A poor student, Hughes never graduated from high school. However, his father arranged for him to attend the Rice Institute by donating money to the institution. Hughes showed an early aptitude for engineering, mathematics and flying and took his first flying lessons at age 14.

Hughes' parents both died while he was still in his teens and, at the age of 18 Howard inherited a controlling 75 percent share in the multi-million dollar Hughes Tool Company including the increasing amounts of cash flow generated from oil drilling royalties. Hughes dropped out of Rice University shortly after his father's death. A year later, in June 1925, at age 19, Hughes married socialite Ella Rice, and shortly thereafter they left Houston and moved to Hollywood where Hughes hoped to make a name for himself making movies.

Hughes in Tinseltown

Hughes had determined to use his fortune to become a movie producer. He was at first dismissed by Hollywood insiders as a rich man's son. However, his first two films released in 1927, "Everybody's Acting" and "Two Arabian Knights" were financial successes, the latter winning an Academy Award for Best Director of a Comedy Picture. "The Racket" in

 Jane Russell in The Outlaw

1928 and "The Front Page" in 1931 were nominated for Academy Awards. He spent a then-unheard-of $4 million of his own money to make "Hell's Angels", which he wrote and directed and which became a smash hit, along with his 1932 film "Scarface" (which he produced).

Hughes's best-known film is probably "The Outlaw" starring Jane Russell, for whom Hughes designed a special brassière.

David Bacon ended

up with a stiletto in his

back. His murder was

never solved.

"Scarface" and "The Outlaw" received attention from industry censors; "Scarface" for its violence, "The Outlaw" for Russell's physical charms. He signed an unknown actor David Bacon in 1932 to play Billy The Kid. Bacon's murder the following year sparked an investigation which brought to light allegations of a supposed sexual affair between Bacon and Hughes

   With Jean Harlow

which may have indirectly led to Bacon's death.

Hughes was a notorious philanderer. He had affairs with many famous women including Katharine Hepburn, Bette Davis, Jean Harlow, Ava Gardner as well as a long list of minor starlets. He kept his wife isolated at home for weeks at a time and, in 1929, she returned to Houston and filed for divorce.

Hepburn and Hughes - Modern Screen Magazine Cover 1930's

Scroll to Continue

         Hughes dancing with Ginger Rogers

His Career in the Air

Hughes was an obsessed genius when it came to planes. He was an aircraft enthusiast, pilot, and self-taught aircraft engineer and he received many awards as an aviator, including the Harmon Trophy in 1936 and 1938, the Collier Trophy in 1938, the Octave Chanute Award in 1940, and a special Congressional Gold Medal in 1939 " recognition of the achievements of Howard Hughes in advancing the science of aviation and thus bringing great credit to his country throughout the world."

The aviation bug had firmly taken hold after the film Hells Angels and in 1932 he formed the Hughes Aircraft Company where he built and test-piloted the H-1, the world's most advanced plane.

In 1935 he set a new world speed record of 352 mph. Three years later he flew round the world in a record-breaking three days and 19 hours.

During the 1940s, however, Hughes' life, both in aviation and personally, began to spiral out of control. His fear of germs and contamination led to increasingly erratic, obsessive-compulsive behaviour that his wealth allowed him to indulge.

Moreover, his hopes of making Hughes Aircraft a major player in the industry took a knock when he was unable to deliver on two lucrative government contracts.

In 1946 he suffered horrific injuries when he crashed the XF-11, a reconnaissance plane of his own design, in Beverly Hills. And in 1947, the H-4 Hercules - a gigantic flying boat that came to be dubbed the Spruce Goose - was mothballed after just one maiden flight.

Hughes fared no better in Hollywood, gaining controlling interest of RKO only to run the legendary studio into the ground with his eccentric, absentee management.

In 1955 much to the relief of the Hollywood studio establishment, Hughes decided to get out of the film business in 1955 claiming "it represents 15 percent of my business and takes 85 percent of my time." The fortunes of RKO had diminished under the erratic leadership of Hughes, whose intolerable meddling drove many independent producers to other distributors while the studio incurred heavy liabilities.

The descent into madness

The account of Hughes's last years is not pretty. He was never the same after the fiery plane crash in 1946, when his chest was crushed and his body badly burned. Addicted increasingly to valium and codeine, he began to withdraw from the world. He avoided socialising, stopped playing his beloved golf, and his germ obsession began to spiral out of control. This included a fear of flies. Hughes hired three Mormon guards to work in eight-hour shifts at the bungalow (where he lived), not just to make sure he wasn't killed, but to intercept the insects.

Also in 1946, he threw out his golf clubs and clothes, convinced they were contaminated with syphilis. Over the next 20 years, Hughes became a shattered, reclusive shell of a man. He wore tissue boxes for shoes, took to storing his bodily waste in glass jars and drafted lengthy memos on the proper way to open tin cans without touching them.

Among other things, Hughes gave his staff complex instructions for handling objects. For example, before handing a spoon to Hughes, his servants were required to wrap its handle in tissue paper and seal it with cellophane tape. A second piece of tissue was then wrapped over the first protective wrapping. On receiving the spoon, Hughes would use it with the handle still covered.

Other instructions to his employees were even more elaborate. In order to remove his hearing-aid cord from the bathroom cabinet, servants were told:

Use six to eight tissues to turn the knob on the bathroom door

Then use six to eight new tissues to open the bathroom cabinet and remove an unused bar of soap

Clean your hands with the soap

Use at least fifteen tissues to open the door to the cabinet containing the hearing aid

Remove the sealed envelope containing the hearing aid with two hands using another fifteen tissues in both hands

Hughes' fear of contamination turned him into a complete recluse. He rarely ventured out of the exclusive hotel rooms he stayed in, so sightings of the tycoon were eagerly reported by the media.


Hughes died on April 5, 1976, while on an airplane owned by Robert Graf, en route from his penthouse in Acapulco, Mexico to The Methodist Hospital in Houston. It has also been argued that he died before leaving Mexico. His reclusive activities and drug use had made him practically unrecognizable; his hair, beard, fingernails, and toenails had grown grossly long, his once-strapping 6'4" (193 cm) frame now weighed barely 90 lbs (41 kg), and the FBI had to resort to fingerprints to identify the body.

A subsequent autopsy noted kidney failure as the cause of death. Hughes was in extremely poor physical condition at the time of his death; X-rays revealed broken-off hypodermic needles still embedded in his arms and severe malnutrition. The first doctor to examine him diagnosed the cause of Hughes' death as neglect. While his kidneys were damaged, his other internal organs were deemed perfectly healthy.

Hughes is buried in the Glenwood Cemetery in Houston.

The unique reference site for Hollywood's Golden Age

Click Here for the best of Classic Hollywood

From his reckless pursuit of love as a rich teenager to his final days as a demented and decaying eccentric, he tasted the best and worst of the century he occupied. Along the way, he changed the world of aviation and entertainment forever.

In the end his weaknesses overcame his strengths but he was an extraordinary man. In a tribute to this flawed but majestic American icon one critic said, "If Howard Hughes did not exist, no one would dare invent him. His life would defy a novelist!"

Hughes In 1947


Artist impression of Hughes in his final years, based on eyewitness descriptions. - There are no actual photographs of Hughes after 1956.


Reader Feedback on Howard Hughes

savvydating on March 10, 2017:

Quite interesting. I had heard that the medical community has stated Hughes would have been just fine had he been given the proper medication for OCD. I believe they also went on to say that the medication had not yet been created. That's too bad. He was a great man, in many areas of his life. (Except for neglecting his wife.)

Demaw on August 22, 2013:

Good write up on the sad ending of a life.

anonymous on May 08, 2013:

Great information on Hughes

NibsyNell on March 27, 2013:

Gosh, I never knew about all this! So sad!

ManipledMutineer on January 25, 2013:

Very interesting! I first came across Hughes in the LA Noir crime novels of James Ellroy. The depiction was not flattering!

kulla on January 21, 2013:

What an extraordinary tale.

Angela F from Seattle, WA on October 17, 2012:

Such a fascinating and tragic life. *blessed

Darcie French from Abbotsford, BC on July 10, 2012:

I learned a lot, Howard Hughes was indeed an interesting personality

Craig O from Las Vegas on July 08, 2012:

excellent lens, thank you so much for the contribution

anonymous on May 08, 2012:

An interesting yet very sad story. Sadly, riches can't buy the true wealth of a sound mind nor the love and care of close family and friends, both are precious & priceless.

anonymous on April 01, 2012:

Those were some glory days Howard Hughes had.

I suppose some people the world have not heard of him.

Nice to stop by here again. Happy April Fools Day! HAFD

julieannbrady on March 11, 2012:

Watching "The Aviator," it really put into reality all the interesting aspects of this man. It seems he had much sadness in his life. Money doesn't necessarily buy happiness, or so it seemed.

anonymous on March 02, 2012:

He was a great looking guy and seemed to have it all. What a shame he ended up like that. Nice job!

kieranrdblack on February 27, 2012:

Aviator, Director AND... Actor, what an American champion. His demise was very untimely and sad

RCGraphicsDesign on February 17, 2012:

He was an extremely interesting and strange individual. Thanks for the informative reading and a great lens.

goo2eyes lm on January 28, 2012:

how could his family neglect him and leave him in squalor. he did not deserve to die alone. at least, family should have assigned a nurse to take care of him.

KimGiancaterino on November 17, 2011:

I had a friend who lived next door to the mother of actress Terry Moore. She lived with Howard Hughes in the late 1940s and wrote a couple of books about it. I always thought it was so sad he died alone and neglected.

Blonde Blythe from U.S.A. on November 14, 2011:

Interesting and very well done lens! I remember hearing about Hughes on the news in his later years. Such a tragic figure!

Teri Villars from Phoenix, Arizona on November 13, 2011:

Interesting man. I remember my Dad talking about the "Spruce Goose." I had heard a while back that you could no longer see it, I am not sure if that is the case.

jgelien on November 09, 2011:

What a tragic end to a remarkable life. I enjoyed reading your lens very much.

Jim Sterling from Franklin, Tennessee on October 05, 2011:

Very interesting, thank you.

anonymous on September 28, 2011:

The long finger-nailed man who died in 1976 as Howard Hughes was a stand-in. Howard was actually living under another identity, given to him by the CIA, living in Alabama. The book, "Boxes, The Secret Life on Howard Hughes," by Douglas Wellman explains what really occurred. Eva McLelland relayed the details of the book to me and I spent 8 years confirming her story.

poutine on September 08, 2011:

I did read about him years ago. What a sad life.

Anthony Godinho from Ontario, Canada on August 11, 2011:

I recently watched the movie Aviator, starring Leo Dicaprio which was based on the life of Howard Hughes...pretty interesting life, but sad ending. You just never know where life can take you...enjoy every bit of it and stay in the moment!

Shadrosky on August 07, 2011:

Interesting lens...I saw The Aviator but knew little else about Hughes

anonymous on July 16, 2011:

All that glitters certainly isn't gold, a sad end.

Marelisa on July 05, 2011:

What a sad ending to such an interesting life. I only had a vague idea of who Howard Hughes was, so I learned a lot from this lens.

Sandy Mertens from Frozen Tundra on March 17, 2011:

Nice write up on Howard Hughes. He was an interesting person.

poutine on January 20, 2011:

I read a book about him years ago and found it fascinating.

anonymous on November 16, 2010:

nice bio of a great personality

anonymous on September 12, 2009:

Howard Hughes did NOT die in 1976. Summa Corporation, run by the Mormon Church, found a homeless man named Kevin Rowlands wandering the streets of Las Vegas who resembled my father. They put him up on the 9th floor of the Desert Inn. Do you honestly believe my dad would have ever stayed in anything below the penthouse for security reasons? No way.

Howard Hughes spent a good many years doing research in cybernetics at the Vandenberg Air Force Base in Santa Barbara County, California after 1976. I visited him there and we were in touch all the time.

I was not the only child. I have an older half-brother, Ernie Kanzler, who lives on a yacht in San Pedro, California (928) 301-4965. He is the son of Howard Hughes and Katharine Hepburn, and was raised by Ernest Kanzler, Sr., the brother-in-law of Edsen Ford.

Feel free to contact me anytime at (909) 228-4103 for further information.

You can visit my web site on to learn more.

Andrew J. Cipollo

anonymous on August 05, 2009:

standard BS about howard...same storys as written years ago.TRUTH is dad had bad kidneys and had to have a blood wash two times a week.He lost his fore arms and hands in the XF-11 and was hidding from the same mobsters he took down with the scarface movie.A more sane`ll never find.The estate mob crew is a rip off via bad judges from way back when in texas...all those judges were later removed for crimes and mob ties.The feds should have stepped in and cleaned up...but I never signed up for the weapons contracts and never would have.Peacemove even Dad joined fighting the AEC in atomic city.That got peace treatees from russia and limited nukes all via Howard Robard Hughes JR.Had we not fought the nukes in the long run it would have been MAD vs MAD and that's what is crazy here not Howard the national defence system itself or the handing over to the DOD by Howard Robard Hughes IIV.

Clairwil LM on March 12, 2008:

You've been nominated for lens of the week!

anonymous on February 25, 2008:

Anyone who started Hughes Aircraft Company had to be a little nuts!

kellfinder on August 29, 2007:

Nice lens, I just gave it 5 stars! I just watched a movie about him last night. My lens is all about James Stewart

Maybe you would like my lens, check it out :)

Classic LM on August 06, 2007:

Highly interesting! I gave you 5*s again!

Related Articles