Howard Hughes was probably the first truly famous, controversial, wealthy extrovert. When you think of an archetypal billionaire his name probably comes to mind. He lived his life his own way and was by any definition, completely unorthodox. In later life he became a recluse which only served to accentuate the mystique surrounding him.
Hughes was born on Christmas Eve 1905 in the lone star state of Texas, which seemed a fitting location for someone who was to go on to be larger than life. The entrepreneurial spirit existed in the family as his father was at the helm of the Hughes Tool Company. Howard did not apply himself and despite the fact that he was enrolled in private school, seemed to want to concentrate more on golf than anything else. Education was abandoned altogether when father Howard Sr. died when his son was just 18. Howard dropped out and inherited the family estate.
As he matured into adulthood, Hughes’ interest became very diverse and his ambition and ego plain to see: "I intend to be the greatest golfer in the world, the finest film producer in Hollywood, the greatest pilot in the world, and the richest man in the world." Family quarrels ultimately led to him turning over operation of the family business and beginning his successful focus on the movie industry. With assistance from his uncle Rupert, who worked for Samuel Goldwyn, Howard and his first wife moved to Hollywood to start making movies. Academy Awards and controversy followed, as he was never shy about pushing the boundaries. Even in those early days there were rumors about his involvement in espionage and "behind the scenes" activity.
As his burgeoning movie industry career unfolded, he also founded an aircraft company which, like his movie business, was also a subsidiary of the family tool business. Hughes again broke boundaries and never shied away from being controversial. Despite several clashes with authority he was an aviation pioneer, setting speed and endurance records. In July of 1938 he piloted a special Lockheed plane around the world and cut the previous New York to Paris record, set by Lindbergh, in half. This industry was his true pride and joy, as "I want to be remembered for only one thing — my contribution to aviation."
As the second world war approached, Howard become embroiled in one of his most famous controversies. He was contracted by the government to build three "flying boats" in short order and only produced one, which itself flew only once. He was ridiculed by the public, who labeled the plane "the Spruce Goose." The goose remains to this day one of Howard’s lasting legacies.
Socially, he never seemed to want to settle down, often dating Hollywood actresses, especially Katherine Hepburn. He seemed to be ever on the move and his empire peaked, postwar. Through all this expansion the boundaries between right and wrong became increasingly unclear and his huge empire was often linked with organized crime and the Central Intelligence Agency. Members of the Hughes staff were implicated in plots to assassinate Cuban leader Castro, a controversy that trailed all the way up to the White House.
Hughes became more and more embroiled in the seedy side of politics and scandal. "Every man has his price, or a guy like me couldn’t exist," he once said, unveiling his modus operandi for all to see. By the time of the infamous Watergate break-in of 1972 he was right in the middle of the forces that linked the conspiracies leading to the ultimate downfall of both the Kennedy brothers and the Richard Nixon administration.
Major deals and controversy continued to follow. Hughes became a primary stockholder in Trans World Airways but sold his stock in the company when it faced numerous lawsuits in the '60s. Later he was to take over Air West and placed himself in the midst of another row.
Towards the end of his life he moved to Las Vegas and became more reclusive. As news began leaking about the CIA assassination plots he could not be contacted, yet the Hughes Tool Company was still front and center in clandestine operations and was indeed contacted by the CIA to help in a Soviet spy mission.
In 1972 Hughes sold his remaining stock and ended his business dealings. His health was deteriorating markedly and he traveled to various different cities, including London, seeking treatment. Howard Hughes died April 5, 1976 and there followed a nasty battle for his estimated $2 billion estate, a controversy which seemed fitting in death for a man who was truly larger than life itself.