Remembering Howard Hughes: OCD, Aviation, And Film

Reviewed by Whitney White, MS CMHC, NCC., LPC

Published 06/22/2022

Howard Hughes is one of the most important and famous entrepreneurs in American history due to his influence on industry, film, aviation, and the American psyche. He is also remembered as an eccentric. This article will go through some basic facts while delving into generally accepted theory over Hughes’s mental state and trying to avoid speculation.

White and Orange Airplane on Runway

Howard Hughes Biography- Early Life

Howard Hughes was born December 24, 1905, and he died April 5, 1976. Hughes was one of the most renowned Americans of his time, and he was known for his manufacturing, aviation, and movie production. He was remarkably wealthy and famous for his work, but he may be best known for his eccentricities and reclusiveness.

Hughes’s father invented a rotary bit that was useful for oil well drilling in 1909. Thus, Hughes was born into a very wealthy family. He showed exceptional proclivity towards invention and engineering, and Hughes inherited the family company (Hughes Tool Company) upon his mother’s death in 1922 and father’s death in 1924. Hughes was 19 upon taking control of the already successful company. He inherited the controlling 75% share, and he ruthlessly sought and acquired the remaining 25%. 

Howard Hughes Biography- Hollywood

After moving to Hollywood in 1926 to make movies, Hughes entered the public sphere to a greater extent by making movies that got him into trouble with the censors of the time. Many of his films were Academy Award-winning, and they often glamorously went over budget. Hughes’s movies were also in the news because of his well-publicized arguments with moviemakers, such as Howard Hawks, the director of Scarface (1932).

Furthermore, to only add to his Hollywood fame, Hughes was almost always in relationships with beautiful stars of the day, and his dalliances were frequently reported in the papers. Most notably, he married Jean Peters in 1957, though they were divorced in 1970.

Howard Hughes Biography- Aviation

In part due to the expensive aircraft scenes of the hit Hell’s Angels, Hughes developed a fascination with planes. Hughes would go on to build, design, and test plans. He would set several death-defying records on his own, and he even designed the first retractable landing gear. Hughes is remembered best by many for his love of aviation. 

Hughes founded the Hughes Aircraft Company in 1932 in addition to his film and manufacturing businesses. He quickly made the papers by setting the world’s landplane speed record of over 352 miles per hour on September 12, 1935. After setting the transcontinental flight record in 1937, Hughes furthered his fame by circling the Earth in 91 hours in 1938. Hughes cemented his place on the world stage of aviation by acquiring 78 percent of the stock of Trans World Airlines. 

Grey Jet Plane

Hughes was well placed for the outbreak of World War II, which caused a dramatic burst in airplane production. Hughes obtained several government contracts, including the Hughes XF-11 and H-4 Hercules, both of which went over schedule and were not completed until the war was over. The Hercules is best remembered as The Spruce Goose, which did not fly until 1947. Hughes was investigated for war profiteering by the United States Senate, and the investigations were well-publicized. 

Howard Hughes Biography- Jean Peters

Jean Peters was an American actress best remembered as the second wife of Howard Hughes. They married in 1957 after knowing one another for over a decade. Peters filed for a divorce in 1970 after they had only talked on the phone for years. Peters requested $70,000 a year in alimony.

Though the two had a difficult relationship given Hughes’s eccentricities, the two never spoke poorly of each other in public. Peters declined multi-million dollar deals from publishers and biographers for her story on Hughes. She carried her intimate knowledge of Hughes to her grave. 

Howard Hughes Biography- Charity

Worth noting is the creation of the Howard Hughes Medical Institute, which was established to research the “genesis of life itself.” Using the profits from the Hughes Aircraft Company, the institute was created in 1953, and it became one of the most powerful charities in the world. 

The Howard Hughes Medical Institute carries on today with an endowment of $22.6 billion, making it one of the strongest nonprofit organizations today.  

Howard Hughes Biography- Seclusion in Later Life

Hughes’ reclusion began to increase in 1946 after a difficult plane crash. Howard Hughes went into almost complete seclusion in 1950. He even refused to appear in court to defend his company TWA, and he lost his controlling interest by default. 

The stories abound regarding Hughes’s reclusive nature. For example, one story dictates that Hughes purchased the Desert Inn, a resort casino in Las Vegas, after the staff and then the owner requested that he leave the premises. This sparked his purchases of other casinos and undeveloped land. Inadvertently, Hughes put Las Vegas on a new track after it had mostly been associated with an investment from the Mafia. 

Hughes fascinated the public. His seclusion opened him to substantial speculation and controversy. Many say that his diet was meager and filled with recreational drugs. People believe that he spent days without sleep. As will be mentioned later, stories about Hughes are often hard to verify due to his seclusion and due to the monetary incentive of anybody telling stories about him to the public.

Hughes died on a flight to Houston, Texas, from Mexico in 1976. Controversy, rumor, and speculation have followed Hughes for the decades since his death. There have been several hoaxes surrounding his Last Will and Testament, as well as nonexistent memoirs. The most famous rumor of an autobiography was prosecuted fraud from Clifford Irving in 1972 after he claimed to have a co-written autobiography with him. Irving spent 17 months in prison. 

After a substantial controversy over the Will, the court determined that Hughes had no Will. His $2.5 billion estates were split between 22 cousins. The Howard Hughes Medical Institute inherited Hughes Aircraft and sold it to General Motors in 1985 for $5.2 billion. 

Though he has deceased, Hughes remained in the public spotlight. Most notably, Leonardo DiCaprio portrayed the genius in the 2004 Martin Scorsese film Aviator. Books, articles, and film recognition continue to sprout up about him.

Did Howard Hughes Experience Mental Health Issues?

People will always have to guess at Howard Hughes’s mental state. He was exceptionally reclusive, so every bit of information that the public has learned about Hughes was against his wishes. People had every reason to expand, elaborate, and exaggerate stories about Hughes because it brought them fame and fortune.

That being said, Hughes was a well documented eccentric. Especially given his behavior later on in life, many people believe that Howard Hughes lived with Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder. 

Despite the unreliability of many accounts of Hughes, many accounts have surfaced. For example, Hughes always had a medium-rare New York strip steak, dinner salad, and peas for dinner.  Or, he reportedly had severe germaphobia and a neurotic passion for secrecy. 

During his filmmaking days, Hughes apparently fixated on a number of small details to go along with unpredictable and difficult mood swings. There are reports of severe seclusion throughout his life. 

Given his wealth and status, people tried to cater to his many fluctuating and often neurotic whims. For example, Hughes once expressed a fondness for Baskin-Robbins’ banana nut ice cream. His aides sought to secure a bulk shipment, but they found out that the flavor had been discontinued. Unswayed, the aides ordered a 350-gallon special order from Baskin-Robbins. A few days after the order arrived, Hughes was tired of the flavor, and the ice cream was delivered free to customers for a year. 

Howard Hughes was a powerful and neurotic man. Movies and books have been made describing his boldness, strength, intensity, and reported “madness.” While OCD is most often thrown around as a diagnosis, many people will never know what exactly troubled Howard Hughes, given the intense secrecy surrounding him. Hughes will always inspire speculation. 

OCD Background

The most common diagnosis attributed to Howard Hughes eccentricity and reclusiveness is attributed to Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder (OCD). OCD is a mental illness that causes the repetition of unwanted thoughts, urges, actions, or sensations. Some compulsive habits could mean over washing hands and feeling powerless to stop despite their cleanliness. 

These habits are beyond the sufferer’s control, are not enjoyable, take up considerable time, which leads to interference at work, school, social life, or some other significant part. 

If you think you may have OCD or are just curious to learn more, consider a free test at Mind Diagnostics. Here is the test: https://www.mind-diagnostics.org/ocd-test.

Conclusion

People will talk about Howard Hughes for many more generations. He was an eccentric that brought considerable interest through his personal life, aviation, movie producing, and mental health issues.