The enigma that was Howard Hughes


Howard Hughes was a Texan, a maverick movie tycoon who hit the movie industry like a whirlwind in the Roaring Twenties and remained a force for a couple of decades. At the age of 19 he inherited 75% of his family’s fortune. His father had patented the two-cone roller bit, which allowed rotary drilling for petroleum in previously inaccessible places. Instead of selling it, however, he chose to lease it, founding the Hughes Tool Company, the basis for Howard’s enormous wealth.

Little Howard 1908

In 1925 young Howard married and moved to Los Angeles, intent on becoming a film maker. In 1930 he released a World War One flying epic titled Hell’s Angels. It had taken three years to make. Half-way through production the release of the first ‘talkie’, The Jazz Singer, caused Hughes to switch his movie to sound, which meant ejecting his leading lady Greta Nissen, a Norwegian with a severe accent totally unsuitable to her character, a British aristocrat. Up and coming teenager Jean Harlow, a girl personally chosen by Hughes, replaced her. Every one of Greta’s scenes was then re-shot. Harlow would become a big star in time, but at 18 she knew nothing about acting. Director James Whale closed down the set for three days and gave her personalized instruction and tips. There is a solitary talking scene in Hell’s Angels that features her in color, the only footage ever shot of her that was not in black and white.

Harlow in color – Hell’s Angels (1930)

Stunt pilot-coordinator Paul Mantz considered one particular flying sequence far too dangerous for his team. Hughes, an experienced pilot himself, jumped into the cockpit and flew it instead. He crashed and was badly injured but survived. Three other pilots and a mechanic on the picture were not so lucky. Mantz himself would die flying a stunt in the excellent 1965 drama The Flight of the Phoenix. When he became aware that Darryl Zanuck at Warners was making his own WW1 epic The Dawn Patrol, Hughes sued the company for plagiarism, but lost the case. In all, the flying sequences in Hell’s Angels were excitingly done, but the screenplay and the acting by the three principals was mundane. Nevertheless, the picture made a substantial profit. For the record, Hughes and Harlow were never lovers. In fact, he seriously disliked her.

Hughes and Hepburn

With Ava Gardner

By the time of the picture’s release Hughes was a single man and dating numerous Hollywood stars and starlets. Among his known conquests were Kate Hepburn, Billie Dove, Ava Gardner, Faith Domergue, Ginger Rogers and Bette Davis. Just how far he got with Olivia de Havilland is debatable, although it is now common knowledge that he proposed marriage to her (unsuccessfully), and when rejected made the first of several similar offers to her sister Joan Fontaine, also without success. Gene Tierney also rejected his advances. She knew where his heart lay. ‘I don’t think Howard could love anything that did not have a motor in it’, she told friends. And she was right. Flying and engineering were his life. He and Gene remained good friends, nonetheless, Hughes paying for all medical expenses when she contracted rubella during her pregnancy with daughter Daria. Another one of his protégées, Jane Russell, was a close friend without becoming an intimate one.

Hughes and Tierney

Over the decades Hughes would woo hundreds of stars and starlets, yet he appeared to be more interested in collecting beautiful women and installing them in apartments so that he could briefly visit them – like so many exotic birds in gilded cages. He had over a hundred expensive apartments, hotel rooms and bungalows to house his ‘girls’. The rent was usually about $175 a week, which he paid of course. There were several strict rules, however, and they had to be followed to the letter. First, the girls were not allowed to go out on dates. Whenever a girl left her apartment one of his 100 detectives would follow her wherever she went – 24 hours a day, seven days a week, no exceptions, not even for huge stars like Ava Gardner. He also had their cars bugged (if they actually owned one). He kept an indexed card system that kept a record of each girl’s vital statistics, especially breast size and periodic cycles, but cards also contained shoe and dress sizes, personal habits, mother’s Christian name, and a record of the times he visited the apartment. He kept a rigid schedule that enabled him to see each one, sometimes for only a few minutes, once a week.

He also employed three Hollywood portrait photographers in a shop on Sunset Boulevard where he installed two-way mirrors in the change-rooms so that he could watch his selected stars and starlets try on skin-tight sweaters. He had a thing about sweaters on girls. If he liked the look of a girl she got a contract with RKO there and then. But mostly he just watched. When Randolph Scott arrived in Hollywood looking for an acting job he became friends with Howard and soon moved in with him. Hughes also took up with Cary Grant. The two men used to cruise the homosexual bars, their favourite being BBB’s Cellar. The gay community was well aware of the relationship between the three men.

Hughes & Grant with President Valdes of Mexico

18 February 1947.

In 1936 Howard’s enormous wealth and power helped extricate him from a criminal charge that would have sent a lesser-heeled man to prison. On the night of 11 July 1936 the vehicle he was driving knocked down and killed a man named Gabriel S. Meyer at the corner of Third Street and Lorraine in Los Angeles. An attending doctor at the hospital noted that Hughes had been drinking, and a witness told police that he had seen Hughes’ vehicle driving very fast and erratically when it slammed into Mr. Meyer who had been standing in the safety zone at a streetcar stop. By the time of the coroner’s inquiry, however, the witness had experienced a memory reshuffle, stating that poor Mr. Meyer had actually stepped out in front of Hughes’ car. Howard’s passenger at the time, a girl named Nancy Bayly, confirmed this and the accused walked away scot-free. ‘I was driving slowly’, he told reporters, ‘and a man stepped out of the darkness in front of me’.

Being booked 11 July 1936

Actress Jean Peters became his wife in 1957, yet even she was subjected to constant surveillance by his sleuths, both before and after the marriage. Actor Max Showalter appeared with her and Marilyn Monroe in the 1953 hit Niagara and became her good friend. Making the picture required numerous meetings between Max and Jean, all of them strictly professional, yet Hughes’ goons threatened to ruin his career unless he kept away from her. Jean and Howard divorced in 1971, five years before his death from kidney failure.

Showalter and Peters in Niagara

By then he was a truly pathetic figure, eating only chocolate bars and chicken, and drinking only milk. He was surrounded by dozens of Kleenex boxes as he sat naked watching television, endlessly stacking and re-arranging them and speaking to no-one. He did not bathe and urinated in bottles and containers. He watched the rather dull movie Ice Station Zebra more than 150 times, evidently obsessed with it; although no-one dared ask him why. He seems to have passed away aboard his private aircraft on April 5 1976, either between the Grand Bahamas and Texas, or between Mexico City and Houston. This is still disputed. Due to his emaciated condition caused by malnutrition and drug use he was almost unrecognizable. A sad end for a man who had so much to offer.


  1. Omg, these repeated claims of Howard Hughes homosexual affairs, even though both the “biographers” that claimed them have been exposed as frauds. Darwin Porter and Charles Higham. Darwin Porters biographies read like a bad porn story.

    • I doubt if anyone disputes the close friendship between Hughes, Randolph Scott and Cary Grant. Nor is there any doubt that Scott and Grant were lovers for decades, but was Hughes also intimate with one or the other or both? The gay community thought so according to several researchers, not just the two you mention, Nick. I am not so sure, however. Being friends with a gay person certainly does not automatically mean intimacy is involved. I am not even entirely convinced that Hughes was intimate with a great many women either. He liked collecting them, but I get the impression that sex was not all that important to him. In my article I mentioned that the gay community felt he was one of them because they often saw him at gay bars with his gay friends, but I did NOT say he was gay or bisexual because, frankly, I do not know if he was or not.

      • Dude (or Dudess), there are women on record talking about having sex with Hughes, one of the most recent ofc being Gloria Vanderbilt who talked about her first orgasm being with Hughes in public tv…..Hughes record with women is also well known, Faith Domergue for example is on record talking about why she broke up with Hughes, and that was why because he had like 4-5 mistresses at the same time as he was seeing her. There is so much source material from memoirs and interviews here. Hughes saw a lot of women.

        “Nor is there any doubt that Scott and Grant were lovers for decades” <–There is actually no such evidence, and the unsubstantiated claim for these two came from Charles Higham also, who also claimed a number of personalities were gay without providing a source. And a I have already told you, these "biographies" read like bad porn.

        "The gay community thought so according to several researchers, not just the two you mention" <—The other "researchers", base their claims on Higham and Porter, who as we already stated are well known frauds. They have never written about anybody that could sue for libel. You could just google them.

        "n my article I mentioned that the gay community felt he was one of them because they often saw him at gay bars with his gay friends" <–Except there is no evidence that any of these men were gay, there is no evidence Grant was gay, there is no evidence Flynn was gay, and gay bars seriously? Do you know how many gay bars the US had in the Hughes years?

        Much in your article seems to be based on Darwin Porter and Charles Higham…and I just feel people should know these two men for what they are, frauds.

        And the assumptions about these men, or rather slander, that was later assumed true by a lot of people (even though no evidence was ever provided), should be thrown out the window.

        It's easy to check up these things, or we could just assume that every famous person that is now dead was gay, and that somehow Higham and Porter just knows the truth without providing sources (and those that use Higham and Porter as their "source").

        • I appreciate your comments, Nick, but it appears to me that you seem to think I base everything I write on the works of two writers that have since been deemed frauds by other researchers. My research is infinitely broader than that I assure you. Also, I did NOT say Hughes never had sex with women, only that I doubt very much he was intimate with the hundreds (literally) that scores of writers have linked him with. He was simply far too busy with other things and other interests. I am not going to get into a slanging match with you on these issues, but I will make this comment on the matter: The studios spent an inordinate amount of time creating squeaky clean images for their stars, covering up their indiscretions and manipulating the press. Today, we have hundreds of biographies, memoirs and recollections being published annually (hundreds, not just the stuff churned out by Porter and Higham) by people from all walks of life who were involved in the industry that throw a whole new light on what really went on in Hollywood for around 60 years. Of course, not all of them are entirely factual or accurate, but then neither is every volume written on Napoleon or Hitler or (dare I say it) Jesus Christ. History, by definition, is at best based on fragmentary information, no matter who or what the subject might be, and historians are thereby compelled to sift through those fragments to determine what is most likely true or most likely false. Claudette Colbert once said that she only knew of one star who made it to the top WITHOUT utilizing the casting couch, and that was Bette Davis. And Miss Colbert included herself in the ‘casting couch’ group. Yet there are those today who still argue that having sex with executives was never part of the process. Maureen O’Hara made no mention whatsoever in her autobiography about her romances with Anthony Quinn or John Wayne, while Quinn devoted a whole chapter to her and their affair. Other actors have since written that she and the Duke were lovers for years as well. In such cases it comes down to which accounts we choose to believe and which we don’t. If I choose to believe Quinn that does not automatically make me a ‘muck-raker’. If I choose to believe O’Hara that does not automatically make me a responsible researcher.To rely wholly on the word of the studio executives’ memories from those halcyon days is tantamount to believing all that Porter and Higham write. And when writers write about deceased individuals it is NOT always to avoid libel. Life is far more complicated than that, as I am sure you would agree. I will shortly be compiling a biography about a lady’s recollections about the Hollywood of the forties and fifties. She and I will be discussing her life in Tinsel Town (and afterwards) in detail, and that will involve discussing numerous individuals who are no longer living. There is no ‘fear of libel’ involved in this. It is simply that the lady in question is now ready to publish her life story (she is 88), and many of her acquaintances from those days are no longer with us. Nick, I truly appreciate your comments and realize that you are very well read on the subject, but I am a little disappointed that you seem to have reached the conclusion that I am nothing more than a disciple of those two writers you mentioned. You will decide whether or not to accept my explanation here, and that is, of course, your prerogative. Either way, I have nothing more to say on the issue. Thanks again for your input.

      • I’m leaning towards Alan’s side of the story based on his credentials. So Nick, what are your sources other than to entirely believe the people that discredit those rumors also without any proof whatsoever. Where there’s smoke, there’s fire and in the lives of these celebrities, there are too much smoke.

        • Hi Ash. Believing or not believing what we read is pretty much a personal choice. At university I was always challenged by those who labeled me a ‘conspiracy freak’ because I ridiculed the lone assassin theory regarding the assassination of JFK. As far as my debunkers were concerned, if you believed in one conspiracy you believed in all of them.Similarly, when I write about movie stars, there are critics who insist that EVERY negative comment is untrue and every positive one is factual. Not everything is a conspiracy, but it is equally stupid and naive to say that NOTHING is. Not every negative comment about individuals is guaranteed to be true, but to accept only the positive stuff is equally dubious. As a historian, I must sift and analyze, then determine what I PERSONALLY feel is closest to the truth. If I am proven wrong I will apologize, but I categorically refuse to simply accept the studio versions of ANYTHING without thoroughly investigating them first. They worked to an agenda and that agenda was the same across the board – ‘tell the public what it wants to hear because it keeps the money rolling in’. I have no agenda, other than to interpret history as best I can. You are almost right, Ash, when you say ‘where there’s smoke, there’s fire…’, but not ALWAYS, just much of the time.

          One final word on ‘conspiracy freaks’ and ‘muck-rakers’, for I have been accused of being both. Those in positions of power use both labels to avoid having to defend their own views, because either one damages or destroys the credibility of the person they are attacking. It also enables the ‘official version’ to proceed unchallenged by most non-thinking individuals. I believe JFK was the victim of a conspiracy and so was his brother. I DO NOT believe that Princess Diana was the victim of a conspiracy, nor do I disbelieve the original moon-landing. I do not for one moment accept the official explanation for the 9/11 attacks. Why? Because there are about 10,000 holes in it! Governments lie to us all the time. To think otherwise is just plain dumb. Movie moguls lied to us all the time. To think otherwise is equally dumb. Thank you for your comments and your support, Ash.

          • You’re welcome. A few days ago I was searching something about Greta Garbo and I found this site and I got hooked instantly. I don’t believe entirely on every story I read but I love how each of these stories have made me to rethink my judgment about the stars of the past. Every theory has a lot of possibilities. Their personal lives were and still interesting today and far more intriguing than all of the movies they’ve ever been in. Thanks for generously sharing fragments of behind the curtain in Hollywood. I’m really glad I found this website.

          • Thank you for those kind words, Ash. I cannot guarantee everything I write is 100% accurate, any more than ANY historian can, of course. All I can do is research, analyze, assess and offer what I believe to be the truth as far as we know it. You will occasionally find me retracting something if further investigation on the subject has altered my opinion, but generally that does not happen very much, I am happy to say. Nevertheless, when I am proven wrong I am always prepared to apologise and re-assess. Just recently I read a wonderful book about Colonel George Armstrong Custer, written by the daughter of a man who devoted his entire life to examining records, artifacts, diaries, letters, court transcripts and the Little Big Horn battlefield itself, and it has made me reconsider my previous assessment of Custer’s conduct on that tragic day back in 1876. I now believe the man has been harshly judged on misrepresented viewpoints and opinion. Which all goes to show that our appraisal of history is always open to re-appraisal. As biographies and auto-biographies continue to emerge about the old stars our appraisal of Hollywood and its inhabitants will also evolve, I’m sure. I’m very glad you enjoy the site, Ash.

  2. Funny comment. Being curious, I just discovered many bios. about HH,
    including Porter’s. In one of his bio’s. of Bogart, previewed on internet, he connects, Bogart, Harlow, and C. Bow w/ Hughes.

    • In all honesty you could connect HH to just about everyone in Hollywood, male or female, although I am beginning to get the impression (from several researchers) that he was only intimate with a very few of them.

  3. Years ago, I read book by an M.D. on Obsessive Compulsive Disorder, and Hughes was one of those discussed. His washing rituals became so extreme,
    that he stopped bathing. Also, his home was filled
    w/ newspapers, shown in photo I saw. “Girls” being
    followed, and kept index cards, sounds like
    OCD to me. As a child, he was extremely concerned
    about germs. I learned much about him prior to seeing

    • I only scratched the surface with HH. He had so many issues. I remember one famous actress (I forget which one) telling an interviewer how she was astonished when Hughes let her take a bite from a cookie he was eating. She reckoned it was the equivilant of receiving a marriage proposal from him.

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