Book Review: Howard Hughes: The Untold Story by Peter Harry Brown and Pat H. Broeske

Howard Hughes: The Untold Story
Peter Harry Brown and Pat H. Broeske


I’m embarrassed to say that I didn’t know much about Howard Hughes when I opened this biography. Most of it happened before I was born and I was too young to understand what happened later in his life. But I knew his name and I had a vague knowledge of his involvement in aircraft and the movies. That was it.

Hughes had a lot going on in his life. He was a dashing billionaire inventor and pilot, ran two giant corporations, built a major airline, was a filmmaker and used his money to get and control whatever he wanted, including a shockingly long list of glamourous women.

Born in Texas in 1905, Hughes grew up an only child, smothered by his mother’s obsessive attention and fear of germs. Already different and uncomfortable around other children, he preferred to play alone in the workshop his father built for him, where he tinkered with many inventions. He became a millionaire at nineteen, when his father died and left behind a successful oil drill bit business (Hughes Tool Company). The timing of his life, his engineering genius and business instinct resulted in decades of profits in the tool, aircraft and government contract businesses. With all this going on, he plunged into movie-making and made many successful films.

But there were many things askew in Howard Hughes. Obsessive Compulsive Disorder, a condition that was less understood at the time and often untreated or self-treated, affected all aspects of his life. More than a dozen head injuries, a syphilis infection and an alarming drug habit no doubt contributed to an increasingly bizarre and reclusive life.

He surrounded himself with staff and security who would do anything he asked, including hunting down beautiful stars and starlets, some of them in their teens, setting them up in bugged apartments, with detectives reporting on their every move. He seduced hundreds of famous women, including Jean Harlow, Kathryn Hepburn, Ava Gardner and Lana Turner, married twice, and was engaged to multiple young women and girls at the same time. He declared his love to all of them and some of them bought it. Hughes’s behavior with women was glamorized at the time, but from a modern reader’s perspective, it is disturbingly predatory.

Despite these conditions, he continued to negotiate huge deals for Hughes Tool Company, Hughes Aircraft, RKO Pictures and Trans World Airlines. He was also a political contributor, sometimes to both parties and had ties to President Richard Nixon’s adversary, Democratic National Committee Chairman Larry O’Brien. It’s believed that Nixon’s interest in knowing more about O’Brien’s relationship with Hughes was one of the reasons for the Watergate break-in.

In his prime, Howard Hughes was deemed an American hero, but in his final years, he was barely lucid. And it turns out, his loyal staff had their sights on his riches and pumped him with shocking amounts of codeine and painkillers. He died at age seventy in 1976.

There is much more in this book, too much to mention and better to read first-hand. There is no question that Hughes’s unbelievable life story fits Mark Twain’s observation that “Truth is stranger than fiction.”

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24 thoughts on “Book Review: Howard Hughes: The Untold Story by Peter Harry Brown and Pat H. Broeske

  1. The life of Hughe’s really was stranger than fiction … I knew a little about him from the film The Aviator with Leonardo DiCaprio in starring role. Entertaining, shocking, at times unbelievable, it gave some insight into Hughes, this books seems to do so with much more detail and knowledge. I’m intrigued!

    BTW, I’ve ordered my copy of The Dutch House at the library. Either it is very popular or there are few copies … I am #31 in the queue!😀

    1. Hi Annika – another phrase that came to mind was “you can’t make this stuff up” and it’s true. I haven’t watched The Aviator yet. I meant to pick it up at work today and I forgot. Oh the holds list of The Dutch House. I put a hold on every format I could and finally got the eBook version about a month ago. The list was very long! I hope you like it as much as I did 🙂

  2. I grew up knowing about Howard Hughes. As a history and business buff, I pretty much followed everything he did after I was old enough to understand. I was saddened by the way his story ended. During the time he was holed up at the Xanadu Princess in the Bahamas I was visiting the island and I tried to get up to see him. I met one of those staffers and knew he was in the wrong hands. Pure thug comes to mind. I need to get this book. Thanks, Barbara.

    1. Hi John. That’s a fascinating Howard Hughes side story. It’s very sad how things ended up for him. I think he would have led a very different life if he’d lived in our times now. Yet that period of time was ripe for an inventive mind like his. Thanks for reading and commenting. I owe you an email and will reply tomorrow!

  3. Several years ago I read a biography on Howard Hughes. I found it fascinating. I must admit, I could relate to some of his germaphobe tendencies. 🙂 Thanks for the review, Barbara.

    1. Hi Jill. I don’t think there is anyone to compare Howard Hughes to. He had a lot of issues, and how he was able to run all his companies despite his illnesses and obsessions is the most fascinating part. Thanks for reading and commenting. Hope you’re having a good week!

  4. I didn’t know much about Hughes until The Aviator came out, but he really is fascinating for both his ambition, his persistence, and his mental woes. His Spruce Goose isn’t far from where I live and it is jaw-dropping huge in a way you can’t understand until you see it. I might have to check out this book :))

    1. Hi Tammie. That’s so interesting that you’ve seen the Spruce Goose. I watched a video of his test flight of it. It almost looks like a joke it’s so big. I will watch The Aviator soon. He really was a fascinating figure in history, even though the way he dealt with women was pretty shocking. Thanks for the visit – hope you’re having a good week 🙂

  5. I remember Howard Hughes and his sad end, but not all the details John mentioned. I like how commenters extend the value of a great blog post. Thanks, Barbara!

    1. Thanks, Marian. Yes, John’s story was interesting. I agree, the end of HH’s life was indeed sad and it was shocking that his aides took advantage of him. Thanks for visiting and commenting!

  6. I didn’t know any of that about HH either. I know of his name, but what a weird life he lived. To be that wealthy and to be that unhinged is sad.

    1. Hi Ally – yes, in many ways he was doomed from the start because of the overly intense relationship with his mother and how protective she was. Thanks for stopping by!

    1. I didn’t really pay attention to news or business when I was growing up, so I knew almost nothing about HH going into this book. I don’t know if that’s a good thing to be totally unaware, but I can say that I was a happy child!

    1. He was. I don’t think I can think of anyone who was like him. And had HH been born at a different time, he probably would have turned out differently. Thanks for reading and commenting, George!

  7. I have heard of this man before, Barbara, and I knew about the bad behaviour of his household staff. I didn’t know the rest. It is such a shame that brilliant minds often addle.

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