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Howard Hughes was a mysterious billionaire, heroic, tragic, brilliant, mad, pathological and extraordinarily wealthy. He was a great businessman or a terrible one; the jury is still out. But his life was fascinating and disturbing.

Orphaned at 18 and inheriting millions from his father's estate, Hughes headed to Hollywood where he dallied with Hollywood's most beautiful women including Jean Harlow, Billie Dove, Lana Turner, Jane Russell, Ida Lupino, Rita Hayworth, Ginger Rogers, Bette Davis, Olivia de Havilland, Gene Tierney, Ava Gardner, Gloria Vanderbilt—only 17—and Kate Hepburn, the latter introduced to him by his friend, Cary Grant. He produced and directed many movies, including "Scarface," "Hell's Angels" and "The Outlaw," the latter a trailblazing sex-Western starring Jane Russell. He wanted a studio and purchased RKO from uber-financier Floyd Odlum.

At the same time Hughes was an industrialist and aviation pioneer. While his company Hughes Tool was generating hundreds of millions of dollars in profits annually, Hughes established aircraft companies and airlines, including TWA and Northeast Airlines. He was also a speed junkie who wanted to break world speed, endurance and altitude records. He crashed several times, one crash so severe he nearly died--and opiates administered during his lengthy recovery became a lifelong addiction.

When he sold TWA for $546 million he turned his attention to Las Vegas and began acquiring hotels and casinos the way a child plays the game of Monopoly. He bought the Desert Inn, the Sands, Castaways, New Frontier, Silver Slipper, Harold's Club, North Las Vegas Airport and all the surrounding lands—and nearly a fifth of all the gambling in Nevada. Many credited Hughes for wresting control of the city from the mob.

But the airplane crashes, the drug addiction and his childhood predilection for illness, real or feigned, turned him into a bizarre recluse who lived in darkness, naked, his waste kept in jars, refusing to cut his hair or nails, carried to the bathroom, and watching old movies day and night.

President Richard Nixon's collapse, brought about by the Watergate fiasco, centered around Hughes. Hughes left us with many legacies from the Howard Hughes Medical Institute, with an endowment today of $17.5 billion and conducting some of the most far-reaching medical research, to the ubiquitous GPS. His Glomar Explorer raised a sunken Russian nuclear submarine and his Spruce Goose, the largest airplane ever built, remains an incomplete puzzle.

Award-winning author Daniel Alef brings to life the Howard Hughes story. [6,224-word Titans of Fortune Article with a timeline, bibliography and video links]]


Winston Churchill once referred to Russia as a riddle wrapped in a mystery inside an enigma. He could have said that about Howard Hughes, the titan who amassed a fortune and became the world's richest man.

Hughes has been the subject of many biographies, each vying to capture his spirit and soul, but so elusive were they that one biographer, Clifford Irving, simply manufactured the biography out of thin air. It was a hoax, but the subject was so mysterious that no one was sure—until the reclusive Hughes descended from Delphi and arranged a telephone conference with the nation's leading journalists to denounce the fictional work.

In 1971, "60 Minutes" maligned Hughes, but in a story broadcast in 2003, television correspondent Leslie Stahl painted a different portrait, describing him as a possible "patron of science." Even today no one has a clear grasp of exactly who or what he was.

Hughes was born on Christmas Eve 1905 in Houston, Texas. His father, Howard Sr., was an unsuccessful lawyer who had turned to mining and oil exploration after huge oil deposits were discovered near Spindletop, Texas. The family struggled for years until Howard Sr. struck a gold mine by developing a drill bit for oil exploration that could pierce hard bedrock. It revolutionized the drilling business and within a decade 75% of all oil wells were being drilled with the Hughes bit. Fortune literally and figuratively smiled upon the Hughes family.

However, creating his tool empire kept Howard Sr. on the road much of the time, as he moved from strike to strike; he had little time for his only child, leaving the kid’s upbringing to his wife, Allene, a descendant of one of the oldest families in Texas. Allene took over the chores of raising Howard Jr., keeping him so close to her apron that he grew up in solitude.  Allene also suffered from bacillophobia—a fear of germs—and kept her boy in relative isolation.  She was extremely possessive, heaping attention on the child as if he were a substitute for his father’s absence. She also imbued Howard Jr. with a sense of superiority, causing him to become the brunt of other children’s abuse. . .