The true tragedy of Howard Hughes is that the world often remembers him as only as a victim of mental illness. It’s true that a combination of psychological issues and injuries combined to eventually drive him into seclusion and deeply erratic behaviour. But such a reductive reading of his life overlooks his almost incomparable achievements. Industrialist, playboy, filmmaker, aviator, philanthropist - Howard Hughes was all of these things. A man of audacious ambition, incredible intellect and magnetic charm, he left an indelible mark on twentieth century America. His eventual decline adds a tragic coda to his life, but what a life it was.
Howard Hughes was born in Texas, the son of Allene and Howard Hughes Sr. From an early age he had demonstrated brilliant technical aptitude - building Houston’s first wireless transmitter at eleven, developing his own motorised bike at twelve and taking flying lessons at just age fourteen. Howard Senior had made his fortune in tools, having developed the revolutionary two-bit drill. Both parents died within two years of each other, leaving Howard Jr. a millionaire at nineteen.
Hughes Jr. decided to leave the running of his father’s tools company to others, and set out to make a name for himself in Hollywood. He initially began as a film producer, however his first feature was deemed so bad that it never got released. He eventually took over as director of the World War I action film Hell’s Angels, after the film’s first two directors found him too difficult to deal with. Hell’s Angels had a troubled production; Hughes, by this time an avid aviator, was obsessed with the authenticity of the aerial sequences and demanded constant reshoots. Three pilots died and Hughes himself was involved in a serious crash. When he discovered that other films were being filmed with sound, as opposed to silent, he then demanded that much of the film be reshot again, to incorporate this new technology. Not surprisingly it was the most expensive film ever made at the time, but it eventually became a successful hit for Hughes, and he followed it up with Scarface (which would be famously be remade by Brian de Palma in 1983) and The Outlaw.
Hollywood’s other appeal for Hughes was, famously, women, and on that front too he was, to put it mildly, successful. Katherine Hepburn, Ava Gardner, Ginger Rogers, Bette Davis, Faith Domergue, Olivia de Havilland and Rita Hayworth were all paramours of his at various times. He proposed to Joan Fontaine several times, however was rebuffed, as he was by Gene Tierney, who said he was ‘incapable of loving anything that didn’t have a motor in it.’ Nonetheless, the two became friends and Hughes would later financially support Tierney when her daughter was born blind and deaf, paying all of Tierney’s medical expenses.