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Howard Hughes as an Old Man: Mental Illness and Decline, Part IV  

While Howard Hughes continued to lead a relatively normal life into middle age; as an elderly man, it was all downhill for the now hotel-mogul.  He completely isolated himself from other people. Perched in his Las Vegas hotel room, Hughes stopped cutting his fingernails and his hair, let his teeth rot away, and scarcely moved, but from his bed to his barcalounger. 

Meanwhile, his personal relationships were nonexistent. Even his relationships with his own employees deteriorated due to Hughes’ increased distrust and paranoia.  All of this turmoil was fueled by his increasing dependence on codeine and valium.  Hughes tranquilized himself into a slow fade towards his ultimate demise.  

Las Vegas 

Hughes moved into the Desert Inn in Las Vegas, where he occupied the top suites with his assistants.  After several years, the hotel owners desired the return of these profitable hotel suites.  Hughes, stubborn as ever, opted to buy the hotel rather than leave.  From there, he went on a hotel buying spree, becoming the most powerful mogul in Las Vegas, with the most real estate and casinos. (SEE ALSO: Was the Real Howard Hughes Crazy?)

He controlled this Las Vegas empire from his blackened out hotel suite, never leaving his room.  He talked on the phone with associates and sometimes politicians. But he never met with anyone except his trusted aides, who catered to his increasingly bizarre whims and requirements.  Hughes was content to keep germs at bay, from his “darkened penthouse”  (Howard Hughes, the Man and the Madness). 

Despite Hughes’ notorious reputation, his image was in some ways an improvement for Las Vegas (Howard Hughes, the Man and the Madness).  In the ‘50s and ‘60s, the city was mostly known as being run by the mob.  Now there was a legitimate business man to provide some respectability for the town.  

The authorities in Vegas let Hughes get away with behavior that would not have been allowed by any other individual.  For example, Hughes refused to stand before the Gaming Control Board.  Of course, with Hughes’ agoraphobia, he was hardly going to make such an appearance.  Because the local government was eager for Hughes’ injection of capital, they waived all the usual requirements. As we shall see below, Hughes’ time in Las Vegas was marred by indecision and increasing conflict with his chief representative, Head of Nevada Operations Bob Maheu. 

Business Problems and Personnel Problems

Business was still humming for Hughes in 1968: He was declared the richest man in America by Fortune Magazine (302).  He was also pleased to see Richard Nixon reach the White House (he had reached into his deep pockets to provide 100k in campaign contributions, facilitated by his “alter-ego” Robert Maheu). Yet Hughes was disappointed when he realized that he would have little influence in the Nixon administration: 

“The president was only too pleased to accept his campaign contributions, but never seriously considered approaching him for advice.” (316)   

Hughes was envious of the opening of the International hotel in Las Vegas, so he spent much time and money purchasing, renovating, and then opening the Landmark Hotel.  The Landmark Hotel, Hughes reasoned, was taller than the International and located across the street, hence looking down on it.  As Hughes and his representative Maheu worked out the details of opening the hotel, Hughes became increasingly impossible to deal with.  

As a result, his relationship with Maheu deteriorated.  Hughes’ correspondence was bizarre, filled with circumlocutions, but little in the way of solid details, such as when to open the hotel.  Hughes took great umbrage to Maheu’s contention that the Hughes Organization appeared “not very well organized” (325).  Yet how else could you describe an organization with a leader who refuses to make decisions?  

Hughes’ feud with Maheu became increasingly petty and ugly, taking up much of Hughes’ head space during his time in Las Vegas.  He stewed in his vindictiveness behind his blackened windows.  After the Landmark Hotel troubles, Hughes began to plan on how to extricate himself from his business relationship with Maheu, which would be difficult considering that Maheu had established himself as Hughes’ public front man. 

Nevertheless, in 1970, Hughes continued making purchases on the Sunset Strip, including the Dunes Hotel.  He felt his cozy relationship with the Nixon Administration would avert any anti-trust actions from the DOJ.  Yet his Nevada operations were still not profitable.  It was his other businesses, such as Hughes Tools and Hughes Aircraft, which generated his considerable revenue. 

Hughes was in such a stooper by 1972 that he was persuaded by his executives that Hughes Tools needed to be sold, despite that he specified in his will that he never wanted to lose control of the company his father built.  Hughes had referred to the company as “a permanent monument, marking [Hughes’ father’s] initiative, judgment and foresight” (355).  The purpose of selling Hughes Tools was to provide funding against the event of an expensive judgment in the TWA anti-trust litigation.  Ultimately, the Supreme Court found in Hughes’ favor. Selling the company, as it turned out, was not necessary.  

Hughes no longer had the mental acuity to follow what was happening in his businesses, and was therefore at the mercy of his aides to tell him what to do.  When he lost Hughes Tool Company, it represented a turning point away from his roots.  Unfortunately, his aides had their own agenda. 

The Bahamas

In 1970, Hughes absconded from Las Vegas for the Bahamas with his personal aides.  As usual, he was transported via stretcher.  It isn’t clear if he used a stretcher due to his lack of mobility or as a kind of subterfuge.  At this point, perhaps he really did need the stretcher.  “The Old Man,” as his aides secretly referred to him, was quite frail, his muscles having wasted away from staying in the same room in Las Vegas for so long.  

His aides moved the 65 year old in the black of night, causing much intrigue and suspicion on the part of Maheu.  Maheu maintained that it was a kidnapping and that Hughes was too sick to be transported down nine flights of exterior stairs (Howard Hughes, the Man and the Madness).  Could it have been a power grab by Hughes’ aides? 

Hughes’ routine at this point was drugs, films, sleep, and bathroom. 

After Vegas, Hughes would stay in the 9th floor of the Britannia Beach Hotel in the Bahamas.  But he was soon obligated to leave the Bahamas too due to immigration and political troubles. 

One thing that got Hughes’ attention, though, was some trouble with the US government.  While living in London, it occurred to him that there were strong extradition laws between the United States and England.  Hughes was under investigation by the SEC and under a lawsuit for stock manipulation of Air West (now Hughes Air West) prior to his takeover of the company.  Hughes, therefore, saw fit to return to the Bahamas, which had no such extradition treaty with the US and no IRS breathing down his neck.  It was a surprising move, given the political and immigration trouble he had in the Bahamas during his previous stay.  

With Hughes in the Bahamas, his Las Vegas properties atrophied from a lack of care and were in desperate need of restoration and renovation.  Hughes, meanwhile, was too out of it to make any decisions or delegate his authority for someone to make the needed changes. 

Drug Use and Mental Health

The story of Howard Hughes’ decline is really the story of his drug use.  Hughes’ routine at this point was “drugs, films, sleep, and bathroom” (357).  As portrayed in The Aviator, Hughes enjoyed watching films repeatedly in rooms with blacked out windows. 

His increasingly debilitating (apparent) OCD was becoming more severe, as his mind was dulled by drugs.  Had he a clearer head, perhaps he could have addressed his mental illness issues. 

In the ‘50s and ‘60s, Hughes had periods in which he was spaced out from his pain medication, but he also showed sparks of his old self.  During these moments of alertness, Hughes could still conduct business shrewdly and actively.  Now the situation had deteriorated: 

“While the billionaire was consuming an ever-increasing amount of codeine, self-dissolved and injected, he never approached his pervious periods of lucidity.  His writing became scrawled into elongated sentences, their message garbled by his inability to concentrate.  Major decisions were left hanging as minor activities tallied hours of his time.” (333) 

How much drugs did Howard Hughes ingest?  More than double the amount of codeine that a terminally ill cancer patient would be prescribed.  In addition, Hughes ingested “massive amounts” of valium, which Hughes referred to as “blue bombers” (Howard Hughes, the Man and the Madness).  It is a stark reminder that drugs which are prescribed by a doctor can be just as pernicious as drugs obtained illegally (whether Hughes’ doctors acted legally is another matter).  The drugs were a weight around Hughes’ neck. They stopped him from entering his old age with dignity, robbed him of his mental faculties and even his physical mobility.  

Public “Appearance” 

Clifford Irving was a fraudster author who was about to publish a biography of Hughes.  He claimed that Hughes had met with him extensively and collaborated. Hughes felt compelled to set the record straight.  Of course, Hughes wasn’t going to appear in public. Instead, he arranged to speak with journalists via speakerphone. These journalists knew Hughes before he became a recluse and could therefore confirm his identity: 

“Hughes was comfortable speaking with the men, helped along by a recent injection of codeine.  Thus sedated and anxious to clear up any misconceptions, Hughes sat naked on his Barcalounger and calmly gave the performance of his life.” (349)   

In this telephone interview, Hughes mendaciously laughed away suggestions that his hair was down to his shoulders and that he didn’t clip his fingernails.  The reporters laughed along with him, assuaged to hear the old Hughes sounding sensible.  It’s strange that Hughes knew his appearance was unacceptable, yet took no action to change it.  

Finally, Hughes did receive a haircut and even let his fingernails and toenails be cut in order to briefly meet with the president of Nicaragua.  Hughes had a short stay in the third-world country after absconding from the Bahamas when political trouble was brewing.  This time Hughes exited the hotel via wheelchair, a less dramatic transport than his usual stretcher.  

In this brief rally, Hughes’ mental and physical condition apparently improving, he simply walked into the lobby of his next abode, a hotel in Vancouver: 

“Still dressed in his soiled bathrobe, pajama bottoms and sandals, Hughes made no effort to rush through the lobby, preferring instead to look around at the sumptuous furnishings and yacht-filled marina.” (352)  


In this brief period of lucidity, we see what might have been: Hughes got himself animated and excited to fly again, with the help of a test pilot and an old friend.  True, he was not in complete control of the flight due to his failing eyesight and hearing; the test pilot often took over the controls.  And yet: 

“Those moments spent flying were the happiest in the last decade of the billionaire's life.  His mood was elevated, his humor intact, his mind sharp, and his outlook refreshed.  Unfortunately, it was not to last.” (362) 

Towards the end of his life, Hughes was taking an amount of codeine “beyond human tolerance” (371).  In a state of oblivion, drifting away from reality, Hughes’ life slipped away in 1976, at the age of 70.  Autopsies revealed lethal amounts of codeine in his body as well as broken off hypodermic needles inside his limbs.  Bob Meheu considered Hughes’ death was due to the “sheer negligence” of those around him (Howard Hughes, the Man and the Madness). 


Biographer Richard Hack asserts that Hughes’ aides at that time had a vested interest in Hughes’ marginalization; that Hughes’ vegetated state gave them more power, and his seeming return to normalcy frightened them.  They therefore sought to usher Hughes into yet another hotel bedroom with blackened out windows.  His aides preferred that the aging billionaire did not see the light of day.  Sadly, they succeeded, and it was another retreat from the world. 

With that said, ultimately Hughes’ fate was in his own hands.  Yes, his aides were like vultures bent on acquiring and then maintaining their own power, and may be considered complicit in Hughes’ prodigious use of codeine and valium (Howard Hughes, the Man and the Madness).  But Hughes put himself in such a position as to be subject to the worst instincts of those around him.  Human nature being what it is, they took advantage of him.  Hughes’ own vices were such that this was allowed to happen. 

A man who should be a lion of American history, Howard Hughes’ reputation is at least in part sullied by his shameful reliance on drugs and his disappointing retreat from the world.  If only his enormous creative energy had been allowed to mellow into a more dignified and stately old age, he would occupy a more proper place as among the greatest Americans to ever live. 

After Death 

After Hughes’ death, the man of mystery continued to tantalize those around him: where was his will?  Did he write a will? It was a question that concerned his aides towards the end of his life, and now their concerns proved valid.  The fact that Hughes did not clarify where his will was (if it existed) left a legacy of disorder and confusion in the wake of his death.  How much time was wasted trying to find the will, as well as the court determining who would be in charge of his various businesses and estates in the meantime? 

There were many false claimants to Hughes’ fortune, and many forged wills emerged too.  The vacuum left without a will turned into a circus.   But what else could you expect when a billionaire dies without stating his intentions for his estate?  One might call it inconsiderate of Hughes, if this oversight were not instead attributed to his madness or his disconnect from reality in his later years. Meanwhile, the IRS was busying estimating the value of the Hughes estate, and calculating a significant chunk as a tax bill. 

Another development after Hughes’ death was some measure of accountability for those that enabled his prodigious drug use.  Dr. Norman F. Crane and Hughes’ senior aide John Holmes were indicted for “illegally supplying the billionaire with drugs for over two decades” (383).  They both entered pleas of no contest.  Another of Hughes’ doctors, Dr. Wilbur S. Thain, was likewise under investigation.  He, however, was found innocent, citing the fact that he had tried to reduce Hughes’ intake of codeine.   

See Part I, Part II, and Part III of this exploration of Richard Hack’s definitive biography Hughes: the Private Diaries, Memos and Letters and Martin Scorsese’s The Aviator.

Works Cited

  • Hack, Richard. Hughes: the Private Diaries, Memos and Letters.  Beverly Hills: New Millennium Press, 2001. 
  • Howard Hughes, The Man and the Madness. Directed by Nick Millard. 1999
  • The Aviator. Directed by Marin Scorsese, performance by Leanardo Dicarpio, Warner Bros Pictures, 2004.

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