Born Into Luxury: How Howard Hughes Got His Start

“I’m not a paranoid deranged millionaire. Goddamit, I’m a billionaire.”

While he was perhaps known more for his eccentricities and womanizing than his good business sense, Howard Hughes was indeed one of the most successful entrepreneurs of the 20th century. He managed to turn his $1 million inheritance into a $2 billion fortune. Equivalent to $6.6 billion in today’s dollars, Howard Hughes was and still would be considered one of the richest men in the world.

He was born in Houston, Texas on Christmas Eve, 1905 to entrepreneur parents Allene and Howard Hughes Sr.. His father had invented the dual cone roller bit, a revolutionary rotary oil drilling device that went on to make the family a small fortune. They created the Hughes Tool Co. to commercialize the invention. When his parents later died within two years of each other, fighting ensued between the remaining family members over the inheritance of the company and the wealth the family had amassed. Hughes Jr. instructed his lawyers to buy out his relatives and the teenager eventually attained control over both the money and the company when he became a legal adult in 1924.

Ever an ambitious child, Hughes said once, “I intend to be the greatest golfer in the world, the finest film producer in Hollywood, the greatest pilot in the world, and the richest man in the world.” Encouraging his education, Hughes’ parents sent him to two of the finer schools in Massachusetts and California. But, Hughes was always better at golf than he was school. His father later arranged for him to study math and engineering at the California Institute of Technology and Rice University by making donations to the schools, but Hughes never managed to attend any school long enough to earn a diploma. It was in California where Hughes’s passion for filmmaking was inspired as he spent much time with his uncle, Rupert Hughes, a screenwriter for Samuel Goldwyn’s movie studios.

Incidents in his early life would greatly affect Hughes in his later years. His obsession with cleanliness stemmed from a parental encouragement to be anti-social. His mother disapproved of him making friends because she believed that other people were disease-carriers. In 1917, Hughes’ hometown of Houston also experienced one of the US’s worst race riots, with 17 people left for dead. It is speculated that this incident was a prime factor behind Hughes’ racist attitudes.

In 1925, Hughes married his first wife, a Houston socialite named Ella Rice. They decided to move to California in order for Hughes to begin pursuing his passion for film. Rice and Hughes would later divorce, with Hughes beginning a string of affairs with famous actresses, including Jean Harlow, Bette Davis, Katharine Hepburn, Ava Gardner, Jane Greer, Rita Hayworth and others. He was also often romantically linked to men, including Errol Flynn and Cary Grant.

After hiring a young former race-car driver turned accountant by the name of Noah Dietrich to run the family company, Hughes had freed up his time to begin embarking on his true goal of creating a name for himself.

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