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.
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.
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.”
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.
Some believe many of Hughes's unusual personal habits manifested late in life, when he was overcome by addiction to codeine and physical and mental illness. However, an incident in the late 1940s suggested Hughes may have faced challenges long before he disappeared entirely from public life.
Hughes really enjoyed watching films; in fact, he so enjoyed this practice that he reportedly moved into a projection room he leased at Goldwyn Studios on Santa Monica Boulevard and began a marathon movie-watching session that lasted for four months. He would recline on a chair in the dark, sometimes naked, subsisting on milk, chocolate bars, and pecans. Hughes did not even stop for bathroom breaks, allegedly urinating into containers and bottles.