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15 Gross and Shocking Facts About Howard Hughes's Many Obsessions

Updated December 8, 2020 559 votes 128 voters 2.3m views15 items

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The life of Howard Hughes had two sides. On one hand, Hughes had a brilliantly inventive mind, made immense contributions to aviation and motion pictures, and built brands that made him one of America's first billionaires. But any discussion of Hughes must also mention his reclusiveness, germ phobia, and obsessive-compulsive disorder. Hughes lived the American dream, and yet he reportedly died in poor physical condition. Still, he led an intriguing life that spawned numerous accounts of his eccentricities. 

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    Howard Hughes Was So Phobic Of Germs, He Covered His Bare Feet With Kleenex Boxes

    Photo: SDASM Archives / Wikimedia Commons / No known restrictions

    Howard Hughes's estate attorney had a psychological autopsy performed after his death. As Hughes left no will, they hoped to gain a legal record of his mental health in the face of numerous claims against his estate.

    It was determined that, as a child, Hughes had been isolated and lacked friends. His mother constantly monitored his health, terrified that he would come down with polio. Hughes did experience a brief period of paralysis as an adolescent, but this condition (which had no medical basis) simply disappeared after a few months. 

    Hughes also showed symptoms of obsessive-compulsive disorder. As he grew older, he became increasingly worried about being exposed to germs from other people. He would insist that anyone serving him food cover their hands with paper towels, and he even wrote a manual for his employees on the proper procedure for serving canned peaches: first remove the label, then scrub the can thoroughly and wash it again, and finally pour the peaches - without letting the can touch the bowl.

    Later in life, Hughes reportedly walked around with Kleenex boxes on his feet, which he believed offered protection from germs, and even incinerated clothing that came into contact with sick people.

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    Robert Maheu Was Hughes's Right-Hand Man, Yet They Never Met Face-To-Face

    Photo: SDASM Archives / Flickr / No known copyright restrictions

    Robert Maheu was a former FBI agent who built a business performing covert operations around the world. Typically, he was retained when the US government or CIA wanted to keep certain clandestine activities at arm's length. Maheu was heavily involved in such enterprises as the Bay of Pigs and the recruitment of the American Mafia to kill Fidel Castro. 

    Howard Hughes initially retained Maheu in 1955 to investigate business rivals and romantic interests. Over time, Maheu became a major advisor to Hughes, especially when the billionaire began to buy up mob-controlled casinos on the Las Vegas Strip. It was up to Maheu to delicately remove underworld influence over Hughes's properties. Hughes would talk daily to Maheu for hours, send the man numerous memos, and entrusted him with the most sensitive negotiations. 

    In 1970, the two had a falling out. Maheu was fired, and Hughes left Las Vegas for good - you might think this was the last time the two saw each other. But, in the 15 years that Robert Maheu worked closely with Howard Hughes, the two had never met face to face.

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    Hughes Was Obsessed With His Wife Even Though He Only Saw Her A Few Days A Year

    Photo: Viva Zapata! / Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain

    Despite his apparent interest in women, Howard Hughes only officially married twice. His first wife, Ella, left Hughes in 1929 after four years of marriage. In 1957, Hughes married actress Jean Peters. Strange rumors persist to this day about their 14-year marriage. 

    Although Peters never spoke publicly about her relationship with Hughes, some strange stories eventually emerged. Even early on, when Hughes and Peters still occupied the same bedroom, she reportedly placed tissues between his toenails, which he refused to cut, so that their clicking would not wake her. Some even claim Hughes wouldn't let her shop, smoke, or vacuum

    Eventually, they reportedly only met for 20 minutes each day; by the last 10 years of the marriage, they saw one another only a few days a year. They spent part of their marriage living in separate Beverly Hills Hotel bungalows, communicating via telephone and memos that totaled 100,000 pages. 

    Hughes reportedly hired people to follow her wherever she went and report on her whereabouts. This may have continued after their divorce, when Hughes bought homes adjacent to hers. When Hughes died, Peters maintained her silence about the specifics but did say this:

    I eventually realized that he was a sociopath, a man utterly incapable of understanding the needs of another person. He was very manipulative, even though he was just darling and charming at the same time. And even though he was affectionate in some ways and totally persuasive, it was a charade, I guess.  

    Before he died, Hughes sent Peters a final message telling her that he had always loved her - but it was delivered by one of his employees. 

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    He Played His Favorite Movie On Loop Every Day For Months

    Photo: Trailer Screenshot / Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain

    Ice Station Zebra was a 1968 action-submarine thriller starring Rock Hudson, Ernest Borgnine, Patrick McGoohan, and Jim Brown. Although it did reasonably well at the box office and helped Rock Hudson's flagging career, the film was described in a review by Roger Ebert as "a dull, stupid movie." 

    Nevertheless, it was reportedly Howard Hughes's favorite. That probably isn't too surprising considering the film takes place in the sterile Arctic where there are no germs or IRS agents. The movie would be shown repeatedly on KLAS, the Vegas television station Hughes owned. In his autobiography My Way, musician Paul Anka wrote of Vegas, "We knew when Hughes was in town. You'd get back to your room, turn on the TV at 2 am, and the movie Ice Station Zebra would be playing. At 5 am, it would start all over again."  

    Hughes would evidently call the station and have them rewind to a certain scene if he wanted to see it again. In the final months of his life, his employees said the film ran through a projector on a seemingly never ending loop. 

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