HOWARD HUGHES

19 November 2011

[Photograph of Howard Hughes]I was not even a teenager when there was a massive media buzz about an autobiography of the Billionaire recluse Howard Hughes. It was supposed to have been ghost written or co-written by some chap called Irving, but it was a huge hoax. My first media hoax.

It ignited in me an interest in this eccentric man.  Hughes apparently was obsessive about hygiene (as I was, although not to the same degree as Howard Hughes). Legend had it that he walked about with his feet in cardboard boxes! I was not quite as bad as THAT.

A mate of mine at school had loaned me a copy of Harold Robbins’s sixties’ novel, “The Carpetbaggers“, saying that it was really about Howard Hughes, and I was hooked.

Hughes died a few years later — just when I was thinking about my own future and what I might do for a living or might aspire to achieve.  The television and newspapers reflected on the amazing life of this man, and I was impressed.  I will admit that traits attributed to Hughes impressed me enough for me to include them in forming my own adult persona: Hughes was one of my role models even though his was such an alien world, such an impossibly different lifestyle.

Hughes inherited unbelievable wealth at the age of just 19.  He immediately dropped out of university studies and went to Hollywood to make movies.

I could identify with that (I could envy that too) — but the historical aspect was not lost on me; Hollywood was in its infancy, so was aviation and even driving cars.  It reminded me of The Great Gatsby. Hughes had no predecessors in all that he was interested in, from aviation to financial matters. Howard Hughes was a pioneer, a creative, thoughtful and considerate man. These were days before “celebrity”.

The satirists went to town after he died — especially with regard to his Will. All sorts of people, friends, relatives illegit children and whatnot appeared out of the woodwork to claim their right to millions of dollars.  This was mainly because of what happened with Melvin Dummar a petrol station attendant.

What happened was this – in ’67 Melvin found a man lying on the road. The man was dirty, said he was Howard Hughes, and asked for a lift to an hotel. Melvin gave him a lift and a few days later one of Hughes’s men dropped off a manilla envelope containing his Will — in which Hughes left Melvin 156 million dollars! Melvin put the Will in a safe with the Mormon Church in salt Lake City.

There was no profit for the Mormons in the Will, but the Will was rejected after a 7 month court case, and Melvin got nothing, and Howard Hughes was declared to have died without any Will whatsoever. The Billions were carved up later.

A lot of people said Hughes was like that, and more suggested that he’d left them other Wills — and it was all very amusing. Of course, it was not all plain sailing (see what I did there?);  a man walked in front of Hughes’s car and was killed. This was big headlines in its day, as one could imagine; of Hughes’s first four films, three had Oscar nominations, and his second film actually won the Academy Award.

A few years after, in the early 1980s, Hughes’s “Scarface” was remade, and that refreshed interest in Hughes. Just like the character in The Carpetbaggers novel, Hughes designed a bra — for Hollywood A-list pin-up Jane Russell.

Howard Hughes inherited wealth, then made financially successful and critically acclaimed Hollywood big-budget films. He dated all the world’s loveliest women, and designed a bra. Wow – what’s not to admire?

But it doesn’t stop there; Hughes was very interested in aviation.  He was an pilot, and started to win awards for that, setting records and winning races. This was early days for the industry, and Hughes was very interested in engineering and design, and with his funds, his contribution to the development of the airline industry is second to none.

A little detail caught my eye in the obits: in the UK people get recognised with a knighthood, an OBE or an MBE, that sort of thing, but in the USA they get a Congressional Gold Medal. Hughes got a special one – didn’t even bother going to the White House to receive it from the President! In the end President Truman had to pop it in the post.  Brilliant.

This resonates with me; I never go to awards ceremonies, and never will. I respected Woody Allen for never bothering to go to the Oscars.

Hughes had a few near fatal airplane crashes, and was so uncomfortable in his hospital bed that he actually designed a new hospital bed — and even though it was not ready for him to use, it has changed the design of hospital beds to what we have today. I marvelled at this. He also took care of people who helped him — including the man who pulled him from one of his crash wrecks.

Howard Hughes received a lot of satirical press; he was a larger than life character.  He managed to get the US government to fund the world’s most massive flying boat. This was hysterical. It was nicknamed “The Spruce Goose”. It didn’t take off (as they say, and in this case, literally).

It struck me as a teenager that this man did not hunger for fame or recognition. He was a talented pilot and engineer, and very astute with financial dealings.  His non-attention-seeking could be taken as a reclusive trait, but I would suspect that such a lifestyle would corrupt even the most down-to-earth, well-adjusted person.  I imagined everybody doing what you wanted, fawning to please. Everyone would be looking for wealth – who would be a genuine friend?

I could understand Hughes being happiest when working with other engineers on projects, especially as he was very precise and particular.  It must have been a joy to work on projects without the usual design constraints and corner-cutting.  But this allowance would develop into an Obsessive-Compulsive mental disorder as it was never restrained by money nor limited by demands of a client.

I learned from Hughes to trust in my own abilities, follow my own path, and pursue things not for awards or financial gain, but because they fascinate.  I also drift about different types of people, different social groups, even different countries. I can’t really say “incognito” because I’m not rich and famous, but I still do it; it gives me a good perspective on people across a broad social cross-section.  Like Hughes, if I do charity work or help someone, I hide it — and I mean, really hide it. I know Hughes did a lot that will never be recognised fully.

A big lesson from Hughes was to run my own life, always be my own boss, and to compartmentalise. It’s OK to have really diverse interests, just keep then separate and clearly distinct. Have friends, sure, but keep them in distinct groups away from each other, hold privacy as sacred.

Controlling social activity is essential. This Hughes-influenced trait means that I can be reclusive (this lets me get work done), and then I can go out and socialise when I want and on my own terms.  I run my life my way.  I got an answering machine before I got a cooker! I hate the idea of always answering the phone when it rings, or of having an unlocked front door allowing anyone and everyone into my life at all hours!

That’s a big influence, but probably the biggest influence Hughes had on me was in trying to overcome my obsessive-compulsive hygiene issues; I didn’t want to end up like he did!

So, yes, Howard Hughes was a big influence on me at a young age. I like that there is a lot we still do not know, a lot of speculation, intrigue and wonder. I am fed up with skeletons in closets, kiss-and-tells, knowing every single thing – which is the norm for famous people these days.  Hughes was not, for example,  a closet homosexual, he was not a Nazi, nor an evil power-hungry politically motivated dictator. Sure, his power and wealth did corrupt, but it only corrupted him, and only in that he got weird about privacy and hygiene. If you are going to have a role model, you could not get much better than Howard Hughes!

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One Response to “HOWARD HUGHES”

  1. Enid Says:

    I never knew that much about Hughes before, but I can appreciate how a man like that would affect you growing up. Beautiful story, informative and personal too. Thanks you!!


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