When I was growing up, the name “Howard Hughes” brought media-fueled images of an old hermit, huddled naked in his room with long fingernails and billions of dollars to his name.
And that was the image I had of Howard Hughes until Martin Scorcese’s wonderful film, The Aviator, came out last year and debunked that one-dimensional portrait. Since that time I have read a couple of books and watched a couple of DVD documentaries in my determination to learn more about this true American pioneer that his peers neglected after his death, and now whom history appears to be giving his rightful rehabilitation.
Tomorrow — December 24, 2005 — marks the 100th birthday of Howard Robard Hughes, born in Humble, Texas. He was truly an American original, an engineering genius, a man with a serious mental disorder (OCD), and a man who has had a significant impact on American culture since the time he stepped foot in Hollywood in the mid-1920s. A lot is known about his womanizing, eccentric behavior and tragic last years of his life. But not enough is told to the American public about what a fascinating, driven, brilliant and important man Hughes was to our nation.
There are too many milestones in Hughes’ life to try to note all of them in this short posting. So I will try to pick out a few that I believe have had the most long-term impact on American culture, science, business and politics:
- 1927 – Began filming Hell’s Angels, the most expensive Hollywood production of the time for which Hughes assembled the largest private air force in the world.
- 1935-38 – Hughes becomes an aviation hero, eclipsing Charles Lindbergh, by first setting the fastest land-speed record, then transcontinental speed record, then the record for fastest trip around the world in 1938.
- 1943 – As director of The Outlaw, Hughes created a firestorm among Hollywood censors by featuring Jane Russell’s cleavage. He would also invent the underwire push-up bra which Russell would model for years later.
- 1946 – Nearly killed in a crash of a prototype Air Force jet. While in the hospital, Hughes invented the automatic hospital bed.
- 1946-49 – As principle shareholder of TransWorld Airlines, Hughes the first cost-effective air routes to Europe and South America from the USA.
- 1941-56 – Turns Hughes Aircraft into multi-billion dollar empire and key supplier of air defense to the United States during WWII and the early Cold War. Hughes also conceived and manufactured the “air-to-air missle” technology, considered the most important development in the defense of North America since radar was invented.
- 1966-1970 – Hughes singlehandedly wrestled control of Las Vegas casinos from the mafia bosses from the East Coast. Modern-day Las Vegas moguls, including Steve Wynn, credit Hughes with creating the Las Vegas entertainment mecca that we know and love today.
- 1972 – Many now believe that the Watergate break-in was ordered mostly due to Hughes’ hiring of former Kennedy aide Larry O’Brien who became DNC Chairman and whose office was at the infamous hotel. President Nixon had a long-standing fear of Hughes’ power throughout his presidency.
There is no doubt that Hughes should rank as one of the most important figures of the 20th Century. Unfortunately, his mental deterioration and personal issues have clouded the image that most Americans have of this giant of industry and pop culture. I would highly recommend anyone interested in knowing more of the facts about Hughes, including the most recent information about his fight with obsessive-compulsive disorder, to read the great book, “Howard Hughes – The Untold Story“.
I would like to salute Howard Hughes in advance of his 100th Birthday tomorrow. I would also like to thank Martin Scorcese and Leonardo diCaprio for turning the horrible image I had of a crazy hermit fade into a truly three-dimensional picture of a fascinating American hero.