Howard Hughes: Facts And Stories You Didn't Know (All The Weird Stuff)
Howard Hughes in the cockpit of an airplane in a leather flight helmet and goggles. (Getty Images)
Long before the term "social distancing" entered our everyday vocabulary, there have been people who chose to self-isolate. We called them recluses or—if they're very rich—eccentrics. Marlene Dietrich, J.D. Salinger, and Harper Lee are just a few of the celebrities who eventually told the world they were done with varying degrees of civility. Perhaps the most famous self-isolator was billionaire businessman and aviator Howard Hughes, as famous for his unusual lifestyle as his brilliant inventions. Here are some of the facts you didn't know about Howard Hughes, mostly because no one was around to know them.
Hughes Spent Four Months In Almost Total Isolation
In 1948, Hughes simply went into the screening room he'd built to watch movies in his home and didn't come out for four months. Alone and in the dark, Hughes ignored the pleas of others to end his self-isolation. Instead, he passed the time drinking milk and eating chocolate bars. He had no need for a bathroom, choosing to relieve himself in empty bottles, which he then lined up in precise rows on the floor. When he wasn't watching movies, he spent his time stacking and unstacking dozens of tissue boxes. He emerged from his self-imposed isolation in terrible physical condition: He hadn’t bathed in four months, nor had he cut his hair or fingernails.
Howard Hughes Transformed Las Vegas
Hughes had the kind of money that allowed him to buy real estate the same way we buy the candy bars in the checkout lane at the grocery store, so on a 1966 trip to Las Vegas, he started doing just that. For the next four years, Hughes bought up hotel after hotel and transformed the Vegas Strip into a modern tourist attraction. Notably, he bought the Silver Slipper casino because the rotating structure in the shape of its namesake on top of the building faced his hotel room, and he was convinced a photographer was hiding inside of it, taking pictures of him. After paying $5.4 million, Hughes not only closed the casino, he ordered it completely sealed up. Here's hoping there wasn't a photographer stuck up there.
Hughes didn’t limit his buying spree to just the hotels and casinos Vegas is famous for. He also purchased several ranches, an airline, restaurants, more than 2,000 mining claims, and some vacant land outside the city he was planning to use to build a utopian community in the desert. Hughes often stayed up all night watching television and movies, so after he found out that Vegas didn't have an all-night television station, he bought one.
Hughes Invented The Underwire Bra
Howard Hughes was more than just a film buff. For a while, he was a Hollywood heavyweight, producing dozens of movies. He even directed two of them, 1930's Hell's Angels and 1943's The Outlaw, the latter of which featured a young, buxom starlet named Jane Russell. Hughes couldn't stand it when even the smallest details were out of place, so he became obsessed with the way the actress's blouse fit across her ample chest for entirely practical reasons. He quickly determined that the issue was not with the blouse but with the bra she was wearing, so he designed a bra to accentuate Russell’s bust line and give her the support she needed. The result was the first underwire bra, which Russell—and breasted folks everywhere—found horribly uncomfortable.
Howard Hughes Survived Four Plane Crashes
They didn't call him The Aviator for nothing. Howard Hughes was a pilot who set some speed records in his younger years, designed and built his own airplanes, and made millions of dollars as the owner of several aviation-related businesses. He also survived four plane crashes that left him in constant pain throughout the rest of his life. Doctors prescribed him codeine with aspirin, caffeine, and phenacetin, and Hughes quickly became hooked on the pills. He remained addicted to them for the rest of his life.
He Had A Complicated Relationship With The Government
The aviation companies that Howard Hughes owned secured government contracts, meaning that government money was helping to line his pockets, yet Hughes couldn't say he was a big fan of Uncle Sam. He detested the whole concept of taxation, so he went to great lengths to avoid paying taxes to the federal government. One tactic he used was living in hotels, moving frequently so as not to claim an official residence. He also protested the testing of nuclear weapons at the Nevada Test Site, outside of Las Vegas.
Hughes Was Romantically Linked To Hollywood's Hottest Leading Ladies
In his younger years, when he lived in Hollywood and worked as a filmmaker, Howard Hughes was often seen with a beautiful actress on his arm. Among his conquests were Katharine Hepburn, Bette Davis, Ginger Rogers, Hedy Lamarr, Ava Gardner, Rita Hayworth, Janet Leigh, and sisters Joan Fontaine and Olivia de Havilland.
Howard Hughes Inspired Stan Lee
If you're a fan of the Marvel cinematic universe, you may notice some similarities between Tony Stark/Iron Man and Howard Hughes. That's because Stan Lee based Stark's character on the real-life eccentric billionaire. Both are genius inventors and businessmen who inherited a vast fortune from their equally brilliant fathers, then built on that fortune with their own brand of innovative inventions. Lee even named Tony Stark's father Howard as a nod to Hughes.
Howard Hughes And Watergate?
Howard Hughes wasn't loyal to one political party over another. Instead, he used his enormous wealth and clout to support whatever project or ideology struck his fancy, and he wasn't above bribing people to get his way. According to reports, Hughes gave Richard Nixon a "personal gift" of $100,000 shortly after he was elected as president, ostensibly for home renovations. Despite this, Nixon's reelection team was concerned about Robert Maheu, Howard Hughes's director of operations, who was apparently tight with Larry O'Brien, a key Democratic strategist. It was O'Brien's telephone that the Watergate burglars were trying to tap.
Hughes Was Paranoid About Communist Infiltrators
Howard Hughes, who was always distrustful and suspicious, grew even more paranoid during the "Red Scare" of the 1950s. He was convinced that communism posed a tremendous treat to national security and that communist infiltrators were living in the United States. He frantically wrote articles on the subject that were sent to newspapers for publication.
The O.G. Germaphobe
Howard Hughes had a lifelong fear of germs. When he was growing up, his mother so feared that Hughes would contract polio that she kept him isolated from other children and preached to him about the evils of germs, so as an adult, Hughes took steps to avoid the invisible menaces. He used a tissue to pick up and hold objects and even wore empty tissue boxes on his feet. He prescribed elaborate rituals to his employees that involved multiple hand-washings, sanitizing cans of food prior to opening them, and complex methods for minimizing contact with other humans.
Howard Hughes Loved Ice Cream
At one point in his life, Hughes became obsessed with a specific kind of ice cream: Baskin-Robbins's banana nut flavor. When the company discontinued the flavor, Hughes convinced them to send him 350 gallons of it. He ordered an entire refrigeration system in Vegas's Desert Inn to be cleared out and reconfigured to store the ice cream, but by the time it arrived, Hughes had grown tired of banana nut ice cream. He switched to French vanilla, and Desert Inn announced a new promotion: free banana nut ice cream for every customer.
A Recluse Again
In his later years, Howard Hughes reverted to his reclusive nature. From 1966 to his death 10 years later, he essentially disappeared from sight, limiting his exposure to other people and only leaving his hotel room to move to a different hotel. Due to his picky eating and drug addiction, Hughes's health declined, and he died of kidney failure in 1976.
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