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

Updated December 8, 2020 352 votes 81 voters 2.3m views

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

    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.

    Shocking fact?
  • 2

    Howard Hughes Demanded His Employees Store His Urine In Containers

    Howard Hughes Demanded His Employees Store His Urine In Containers
    Photo: Acme Newspictures / Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain

    Many of Hughes's habits were unusual, but few stand out more than his alleged fixation on his own urine. In Howard Hughes: A Secret Life, Charles Higham describes the billionaire as being remarkably reckless with his aim around the toilet. Despite that, Hughes also reportedly urinated in jars, which he then kept. This practice was dramatized in the 2005 film The Aviator.

    In 2012, several of Hughes's former business associates came forward to contradict these claims in the book We Knew Howard Hughes: A Collection of Memoirs. Concerning the urination stories, co-author Jim Whetton said, “He never did such a thing. The man was a recluse, period. That’s it.”

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  • 3

    Howard Hughes Nearly Drove His Employees Crazy Over Ice Cream Flavors

    Howard Hughes Nearly Drove His Employees Crazy Over Ice Cream Flavors
    Photo: Library of Congress / Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain

    One of the most famous Howard Hughes stories involved a specific flavor of ice cream. Once Hughes decided to live at the Desert Inn full-time, his meals would be prepared in the hotel's kitchen and transported to him in his suite. Hughes especially liked Baskin-Robbins Banana Nut ice cream. For a long time, Hughes's personal assistants would buy this flavor in bulk, storing it in the hotel's freezers. 

    One day, when these employees went to buy more gallons of Banana Nut, they were stunned to find out that the company had discontinued the flavor. The frantic aides contacted Baskin-Robbins's main office and pleaded for them to sell them some more Banana Nut. Baskin-Robbins would only agree to manufacture its usual industrial-sized batch of a single flavor: 350 gallons.

    Two Hughes employees were sent to LA in a refrigerated truck to pick up the order. Kitchen employees had to jam the ice cream into any available space in the hotel restaurant freezer, but finally, Hughes's employees breathed a sigh of relief. But, within days after the shipment of ice cream arrived, Hughes notified his personal assistant that he no longer wished to have Banana Nut ice cream; from now on he would like French Vanilla. It took the Desert Inn a year to get rid of all of the Banana Nut.

    Shocking fact?
  • 4

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

    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.

    Shocking fact?