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Was the Real Howard Hughes Crazy?  The Aviator vs. Howard Hughes, Part III 

In his middle age, Howard Hughes went from merely eccentric and exacting to obsessive.  Richard Hack, author of Hughes: the Private Diaries, Memos and Letters, shows Hughes becoming increasingly bizarre in his personal habits and his approach to his work. 

In Part I and Part II, we discussed Hughes’ entry into the film industry in the ‘30s, his status as a playboy, and his development of Hughes Aircraft.  In this installment we see how Hughes Aircraft worked with the military during WWII, and later became the subject of the Senate’s ire for that very collaboration.  Also, we follow Hughes’ deteriorating mental condition, and address the question:  Was the real Howard Hughes crazy as portrayed in The Aviator

Incipient Mental Illness

In 1944 Hughes’ mental issues began to escalate.  Indeed, he had a mental breakdown.  At Hughes Aircraft, he had a habit of repeating the same instruction three or four times.  In The Aviator, DiCaprio’s Hughes unnecessarily repeats himself when negotiating over a new plane model:  

“So what kind of deal can you give me?  What kind of deal can you give me?”  

In the real history, Hughes’ accountant Noah Dietrich confronted him: 

“I think you ought to see a doctor…I made a tally on a pad.  You’ve repeated the same sentence thirty-three times.  You’ve been repeating yourself a great deal lately” (150). 

This might come as a surprise because at no point in The Aviator does Dietrich, played by John C. Reilly, confront Hughes so directly.  In the film they appear to have a close personal relationship.  Dietrich is portrayed as a good steward of Hughes’ finances, yet more of an enabler in terms of Hughes’ mental problems.  In the film, Dietrich indulges Hughes’ quirks while lamenting some of his financial decisions.  Dietrich was in fact as close to Hughes as any associate could have been; though the strain of managing Hughes’ whimsies took a toll on the accountant. 

Elsewhere, the film tends to mischaracterize or exaggerate aspects of Hughes’ mental illness.  For example, Hughes was diagnosed with syphilis in the ‘30s.  For that reason, he was treated with antibiotics (new at the time) and burned his existing clothes in order to eradicate any traces of the disease.  Burning his clothes was at least logical on some level. 

…the film tends to mischaracterize or exaggerate other aspects of Hughes’ mental illness.

In the film, there is no reference to syphilis.  Instead, DiCaprio’s Hughes burns his clothes after his break up with Hepburn.  Implied is that the breakup caused him to spin out of control, leading to this bizarre action.  He watches the bonfire nude, with an anguished and pained expression.  It suggests a fall (further) into madness.  

In fact, Hughes at one point decided to burn his personal letters (not depicted in the film).  While this is a tad melancholy, one can understand the spiritual significance of burning letters as a break with the past; whereas burning all your clothes seems insane without the context of the syphilis diagnosis.  

Hughes did in fact ask his accountant Noah Dietrich to buy him some new suits, as portrayed in the film.  DiCaprio’s Hughes abruptly asks Dietrich, “Are you recording this conversation?”  Here again Hughes seems quite mad, his paranoia spinning out of control.  Yet this elides over the fact that the FBI for a time was indeed listening to Hughes’ communications, having bugged his phone and engaged in other acts of espionage.  The FBI was investigating Hughes on the pretext of Hughes Aircraft’s military contracts (discussed more below).  Without this context, Hughes’ suspicion of being recorded seems unfounded and insane.

On the advice of his doctor to avoid a nervous breakdown, Hughes took a break in 1944.  He took to confining himself in hotel rooms and blocking out the light.  His mind racing, Hughes needed to slow down and get ahold of himself.  His frenetic pace of work had finally gotten the better of him. 

Yet he had not yet secluded himself entirely.  He still made himself available to the press after this prolonged absence and attended social events with starlets.  If wooing women can be viewed as a sign of good health, Hughes was back to form by 1945, after a prolonged eleven month absence. 

A studio executive described Hughes in the mid ‘40s as strange.  Lockes of his hair hung half in his face as he seemed to stair at his shoes while conversing.  He declined to shake hands, instead just touching the man’s hand, and otherwise seemed disconnected.  Later Hughes would instruct his assistants to use multiple Kleenex in order to open and close his bathroom door.  

Yet into the ‘40s, Hughes continued to carry on amorous affairs and lead an active love life, though he was somewhat obstructed by his pain medication for his grievous injury after his plane crash.  At the same time, he frequently cloistered himself in his suite at the Beverly Hills Hotel with the windows blacked out.  What was the cause of this behavior? 

Richard Hack attributes Hughes’ fear of germs to “his extended stay in Good Samaritan Hospital  and his subsequent exposure to syphilis” (189).  In this view, his fearful behavior did not come out of nowhere.  He had fallen victim to a disease which previously had no cure; and he survived a plane crash that left him with multiple broken ribs and a punctured lung.  It wasn’t for nothing that Hughes approached life with some caution.  Towards the end of the ‘40s, Hughes’ directions to his staff in order to avoid what he perceived as germs became increasingly elaborate and unreasonable.  

Mental Decline in the ’50s

Into the ’50s, Hughes’ behavior became more in line as it is portrayed in his worst moments of The Aviator.  His abode in the Beverly Hills Hotel became increasingly cluttered with stacks of old newspapers, meticulously ordered by Hughes.  Likewise, the infamous kleenexes were everywhere.  By the late ’50s, Hughes’ kleenex habit was up to 12 boxes a day. 

On the other hand, Hughes was still piloting his large plane the Constellation by himself into the late ’50s, so he must have had his wits about him. 

By the late ’50s, Hughes’ kleenex habit was up to 12 boxes a day.

In the late ’50s, Hughes also experienced an alarming weight loss due to his bizarre diet and eating habits, which consisted of things like almond chocolate bars and pecans.  While he stood at 6′ 3”, his normal 155 pound weight dropped down to just 100 (255).  He let his beard and hair grow long, giving him a haunted aspect; “[h]e resembled a specter from a nightmare…” (255).

Another contributing factor to Hughes’ mental and physical decline was drugs.  Codeine was his medicine of choice, but he also used Valium to help him sleep, something he found increasingly difficult.  At first, it was to help manage the pain from his various plane crashes.  But very soon it was a full-blown drug habit.  His behavior was that of a drug addict.  One wonders how he might have fared without drugs clouding his judgment and exacerbating his (apparent) OCD.

Aside from hi mental health, Hughes was disillusioned by the culture itself.  By the time his latest film, Stromboli, flopped in 1950, Hughes felt that he was out of step with the country: 

“While he loved planes, he hated the bombs that they were now designed to carry. He loved movies but could not understand why anyone would see a musical.  Frank Sinatra…Hughes did not understand television and was certain that glass tube emitted radiation.  He did not like the concept of women truck drivers or men who washed dishes. He had forgotten what his mother looked like; forgotten her perfume.  But most of all, he had lost track of himself” (194).   

The ’60s

During the ’60s, Hughes declined precipitously.  It was a struggle for him to move from his bed to his lounge chair in his Las Vegas suite.  Yet that didn’t stop him from buying up hotels and casinos to become “the Silver State’s biggest landlord” (294) by the end of 1967, after arriving in the dark of night in a stretcher just one year earlier. 

By 1968, Fortune magazine declared him the richest man in America.  Despite his mental faculties deteriorating, Hughes’ wealth had tripled in the preceding eleven years (302).  Meanwhile, his latest obsession was nuclear testing in Nevada, which was uncomfortably close to his home base in Las Vegas.

Hughes’ appearance by this time was haunting.

Hughes’ appearance by this time was haunting: “long, unwashed hair,” “curling fingernails,” and a “grey beard” (309).   Hughes maintained this unkempt and wild appearance into his old age.

The Projector Room

In The Aviator, many scenes take place in a darkened room with a projector.  This is a room in which Hughes seems to lose his mind to some extent, sometimes sitting naked, with plenty of kleenexes handy.  In fact, Hughes did have such a room where he continually played films which brought him comfort.  But the timeline is off.

Hughes began using such a room in his Beverly Hill’s Hotel bungalow in the ’50s, whereas the events in the film are concentrated on the ’30s and ’40s. In other words, Hughes’ mental problems manifested later in his life than presented in The Aviator. Furthermore, the extent to which Hughes was naked in this room can be attributed to factors other than mental illness:

"Given the bulkiness of the furniture in the cramped living room, the heat generated from the large projection equipment, and the lack of air conditioning, Hughes began to watch the films wearing little in the way of clothing.  When he had his rash, just a soiled white shirt.  At other times, he was completely naked with the exception of a single pink linen napkin covering his groin." (228)

The reason the air conditioner was off was because Hughes believed that it was the cause of mildew in the room. In fact, the mildew was caused by a lack of air circulation and light, as Hughes insisted on blacking out the windows, and certainly not opening any windows. This unhealthy environment could not have helped Hughes’ physical health either. The smell of Hughes’ bungalow was somewhere between “a wet goat and grass decaying in a pond” (242).

In The Aviator, the projector room is a kind of metaphor for the decline of Hughes’ mental health. It could indeed be viewed as such, though again, this is more the case in the ’50s, not the ’30s and ’40s. The film merely condenses these events into a tighter timeline for dramatic effect.

Plane Production 

Despite Hughes’ obsessions and mental breakdowns, the late ’30s and ’40s were highly productive for him and his companies. During WWII, Hughes took upon a project to construct a high-speed wooden bomber he called the D-2.  This was a whimsical project. 

The military was well aware that the last thing you want to make a plane out of is wood, which could break or catch fire under stress.  His project became the “brunt of jokes throughout the military.”  Nonetheless, Hughes had the money to invest.  Hughes Tool Company was booming due to an increased need for oil (and hence, drilling, with Hughes Tool drill bits).   

Another project at the time was The Hercules, a humongous wooden plane designed to transport troops across the Atlantic. The plane was derisively labeled “The Spruce Goose” in the press.  This nickname annoyed Howard Hughes, and indeed DiCaprio’s Hughes is depicted as irritated when hearing someone refer to The Hercules as “The Spruce Goose.” Perhaps it was a touchy subject, as the plane was in fact an unlikely aviation project.

In The Aviator, it appears as though The Hercules is Hughes’ idea.  Dicaprio as Hughes explains the rationale for the so-called flying ship:  

“The army needs a new airplane to carry the troops over to Europe.  These ships–they’re sitting ducks for the U-boats.” 

Yet the concept was originally conceived by Henry J. Kaiser, a builder and innovator of vessels, roads and dams.  He brought the concept to Hughes as a way to evade the deadly German submarines which wrought such devastation on America’s shipping to help the Ally war efforts across the Atlantic.  

The Hercules Proves it Could Fly

In fact, Kaiser had a tough time tracking Hughes down or getting his phone calls returned.  When Kaiser finally got a meeting with him, Hughes thought the idea of a flying ship was “crazy.”  In this regard, the real Hughes, as a business man, was more level-headed and dare I say normal than portrayed in The AviatorThe Hercules production is just one example of this.  

What would become the largest plane ever built might have seemed quixotic.  Though Hughes ultimately embraced the project, it wasn’t his idea.  Rather, he was recruited to the project by someone with a creditable reputation with the US government.   

Hughes was finally persuaded to change the D-2 from wood to metal, making the plane less preposterous.  In turn, President Roosevelt’s son was persuaded to recommend the D-2 as the US Military’s photo reconnaissance plane, ordering 100.  It was now the XF-11 Reconnaissance Flier.  As DiCaprio’s Hughes cites in The Aviator, it had a top speed of 450 mph. 

In no small part, Roosevelt the younger might have been persuaded by the sales tactics of Hughes Aircraft, and what Hughes referred to as the “boob buffet” which he supplied to Roosevelt (147).   Incidentally, the war ended before these planes were produced or saw action.  Only two were delivered to the Air Force. 

Meanwhile, the Hercules contract was nearly canceled by President Roosevelt in 1944.  The enormous plane’s wingspan filled a football field.  Ultimately, the war would end before the quixotic dream of the Hercules could be realized. Yet the plane remained an object of the public’s fascination.  

Hughes himself was now a frequent presence at Hughes Aircraft. The perfectionist labored over every detail of the aviation projects.  Impressively, he involved himself in every mechanical detail of the planes “[a]ll without training; all on instinct” (148).  It’s another testament to his mechanical genius.  

Military Contract Controversy 

Due to political factors, the army’s contracting with Hughes Aircraft came under enormous scrutiny following the end of the war.  There were accusations of bribery, inappropriate use of women as bait for contracts, general malfeasance, and profiteering for government contracts on planes such as The Hercules as well as the XF-11. 

This was led by Senator Owen Brewster of Main, who led the Subcommittee on National Defense. While the investigation was purportedly to seek out malfeasance in Air Force contracts, Brewster likely had ulterior motives.  He received massive donations from Juan Trippe of Pan Am, whose international flight business was threatened by Hughes’ TWA expanding with flights to Paris.  

The hearings were blatantly of a political purpose, to put aside whatever facts they might have aimed to discover.  It is not unlike modern Senate and Congressional hearings such Benghazi or January 6th (to give examples of both political parties acting out of self-interest, yet professing great moral indignation).  

Hughes During His Fiery Senate Testimony

To add to the political stakes, Republican Senator Brewster was a man of rising political fortunes, with his name being bandied about as a VP candidate.  Finally, the stakes were raised because this would be one of the first live hearings, at a time when Americans were just beginning to have televisions in their homes. The hearings were a prototype for political spectacle; one in which Hughes thrived. 

This is where things get a little tricky in terms of sussing out The Aviator from the historical events.  

In the film, it is Senator Brewster, in a wily performance by Alan Alda, who proposes a merger between Pan Am and TWA.  This would be in everyone’s interests, he suggests.  He also suggests that the investigation would go away in such an event.  Yet in reality, it was Hughes who teased at this possibility. It was Hughes who introduced the concept of a merger to both Brewster and Trippe.  He only did so to entrap Brewster and expose his corrupt purposes; and this he did in the live, public hearings.  As Noah Dietrch stated: 

“Howard could teach a few lessons to the master of manipulation, Machiavelli himself” (170).  

With this brilliant strategic move a slightly different picture of Hughes emerges than that in The Aviator.  In the film, we see DiCaprio’s Hughes displaying righteous indignation at the Senate Hearings.  In reality, we may still say Hughes was fighting for a good cause (as well as his own self interest).  But the real Hughes was more shrewd in this tangle with the Republican Senators than we might have believed; more willing to use his own underhanded tactics to best the Harvard educated lawyer Senator Brewster. 

In 1947, the hearings sputtered out.  The culpability and corruption began to appear to lie more with the military than Howard Hughes.  Therefore, for the Republicans in the Senate, it no longer served their interests.  This Senate hearing, though triumphant for Hughes, left him feeling leery of the spotlight.  Instead, he let his subordinates take on the more public facing roles in his companies as he remained the mastermind in the background.  He would instead give orders from a “darkened suite in Beverly Hills” (183).  

Hughes was later embroiled in another potential lawsuit regarding the malfeasance of two employees of Hughes Aircraft of which Hughes knew nothing.  Hughes settled this dispute by donating 100,000 to the Democrat National Committee, distributing the sum into 20 different individual checks.  

“Every man has his price,” he said (183). 

Works Cited 

Hack, Richard. Hughes: the Private Diaries, Memos and Letters.  Beverly Hills: New Millennium Press, 2001. 

The Aviator. Directed by Marin Scorsese, performance by Leanardo Dicarpio, Warner Bros Pictures, 2004.

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