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Last Updated: Saturday, 25 December, 2004, 08:20 GMT
The man behind The Aviator
By Neil Smith
BBC News

Leonardo DiCaprio
Leonardo DiCaprio plays Hughes in Martin Scorsese's The Aviator
Movie mogul, aviation pioneer, hermitic recluse: Howard Hughes, the subject of Martin Scorsese's new blockbuster The Aviator, led a fascinating life.

So much so that, nearly 30 years after his death, he remains one of Hollywood's most intriguing and perplexing figures.

Born on Christmas Eve 1905 in Houston, Texas, Howard Robard Hughes Jr became a millionaire at 18 when he inherited his late father's hugely profitable machine tool company.

But the young Hughes had no interest in drill-bit manufacturing, taking his fortune to California and setting himself up as a movie producer.

His first successful feature, 1927's Two Arabian Knights, won its director, Lewis Milestone, an Oscar. But it was his own debut as a director, 1930's Hell's Angels, that made his name.

Image of Howard Hughes and Katharine Hepburn
Hughes' relationship with Katharine Hepburn was the talk of Hollywood

The First World War aerial drama took three years to make and, at $3.8m (1.7m), became the most expensive picture of its time.

Too pricey to break even, it lost $1.5m (775,000) and cost three pilots their lives. Hughes nearly died himself when he crashed the stunt plane he was flying.

By this time, however, the aviation bug had taken hold. 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.


In Hollywood, however, he made headlines for different reasons. His 1932 thriller Scarface was released without censor approval, while The Outlaw caused an outcry in 1943 with its provocative, sexually explicit content.

Jane Russell in The Outlaw
An overtly sexual Jane Russell caused an uproar in Hughes' The Outlaw

Hughes and his aircraft engineers famously designed a special cantilevered bra for the film's busty star, Jane Russell.

The then 20-year-old model was working as a receptionist for Hughes' dentist when he discovered her.

In return, she joined the growing list of Hollywood beauties to be wooed and won by the dashing tycoon.

Katharine Hepburn, Ava Gardner and Hell's Angels actress Jean Harlow all fell under his spell.

He was also rumoured to have romanced Ginger Rogers, Bette Davis and Lana Turner.

During the 1940s, however, Hughes' life 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.

Hughes was an obsessed genius when it came to planes

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.

Indeed, while he had periods of lucidity in the next few decades, he would eventually cut himself off completely from the outside world.

In 1966 he moved into the Desert Inn hotel in Las Vegas, taking up residence in the penthouse suite and ultimately buying the establishment to avoid being evicted.


There he ran a vast empire that encompassed casinos, hotels, TV stations and the TWA airline. Albert R Broccoli, a personal friend, used him as the basis for the Willard Whyte character in the 1971 Bond film Diamonds are Forever.

Jean Harlow and Howard Hughes
Jean Harlow was just one of many stars who fell for Hughes before his decline

The final years of Hughes' life make grim reading. Addicted to valium and codeine, he locked himself away in darkened rooms where he kept his urine in jars, used tissue boxes as shoes and let his nails grow to grotesque lengths.

When he died in 1976 at the age of 70, his appearance was so altered his fingerprints were used to confirm his identity.

X-rays showed fragments of hypodermic needles broken off in his arms, while his emaciated body was said to have resembled that of a Japanese Prisoner of War.

It was a far cry from the larger-than-life legend who had taken Hollywood, and America, by storm.

The Aviator is released in London on 26 December, nationwide on 6 January and in the US on 25 December.


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