Howard Hughes; a psychological autopsy

Howard Hughes; a psychological autopsy – includes related article on Hughes’ relationships with women

Raymond D. Fowler

Howard Hughes A Psychological Autopsy

Howard Robard Hughes Jr. was born on December 24, 1905. He died on April 5, 1976, on board a private jet bound from Acapulco, Mexico, to his birthplace in Houston, Texas. Once a very public celebrity who had captured the attention and imagination of the wrold, Hughes had become, during the second half of his life, a shadowy figure who shunned publicity and avoided personal contacts.

In the absence of any reliable information, rumors flourished. Some people thought Hughes had been dead for years; others thought he continued to wield control over a growing financial empire; still others were convinced that he was a helpless, and perhaps even psychotic, prisoner of his staff.

Questions about Hughes’s mental health were especially important to his lawyers in light of the complex legal tangle that followed his death. A number of judgments against Hughes would have to be appealed, and the size of his estate–plus the fact no will could be found–was expected to attract a variety of false heirs. Since allegations that Hughes had been mentally ill were expected, Andrews and Kurth, the Houston law firm that had long represented Hughes and his business interests, needed to know as much as possible about the mental condition of Hughes during his life. They turned for help to Raymond D. Fowler, then chairperson of the University of Alabama psychology department.

George Dean, one of the lawyers associated with the Hughes estate, wanted to establish, post mortem, the mental status and level of functioning of Hughes at various periods of his life. He asked Fowler to conduct a psychological autopsy on Hughes.

Psychological autopsy is a technique that has been developed to help coroners discriminate among suicide, accident and murder when the cause of death is unknown. Psychologists use letters, descriptions of behavior and interviews with friends, relatives and associates to establish the probable cause of death. The post-mortem diagnosis and assessment of mental status performed by Fowler are a natural extension of the usual psychological autopsy.

The accuracy of any such diagnosis, of course, depends on the availability of information. Fortunately, Hughes lived one of the most completely documented lives in history. From his earliest days, virtually every record that had anything to do with his life was saved. During his years as a multimillionaire businessman, his employees filed every written communication, made summaries of his phone calls and recorded practically everything he did in his professional and personal life. In addition, the worldwide search for a will and related legal matters resulted in court testimony or depositions from almost everyone who had ever known Hughes.

Fowler had access to all of this information and also interviewed people in Houston, Los Angeles, Las Vegas, New York and London to get first-person accounts of their contacts with Hughes. He consulted with dozens of psychologists and psychiatrists on diagnostic issues and spent hundreds of hours with Dean and other attorneys as they refined both the psychological and legal aspects of the case.

Fowler’s psychological autopsy of Hughes, a synopsis of which follows, describes a man who from childhood was troubled by serious psychological problems that were later exacerbated by numerous head injuries and drug abuse. These findings played an important role in the nearly 10 years of complex litigation that followed the death of Hughes. According to Dean, Fowler’s affidavits and testimony were used in legal actions that saved the Hughes estate millions of dollars.

Howard Hughes Jr. was the child of a hearty, extroverted but often absent father and a quiet, softspoken mother who focused her full attention on her only child. Young Howard, usually called Sonny, was thin and slightly built, and Allene Hughes constantly worried about his health, particularly his teeth, feet, digestion and bowels, for which she gave him nightly doses of mineral oil as a laxative.

He was separated from his mother for the first time when he went to summer camp at the age of 10. While he was there, his mother worried incessantly and wrote the camp with instructions about caring for his health. Both parents requested reassurance that Howard would be protected from “the violent germs’ of polio, which they felt could be so easily carried “even by a well person.’ Eventually, Allene Hughes took Howard out of camp because of her fear that he might be exposed to polio.

She also worried about what she called his “supersensitiveness,’ nervousness and inability to make friends. In fact, Howard was a shy, introverted loner who seemed more comfortable with his parents and adults than with other children.

During Howard’s second year at summer camp, his mother again expressed fears for his health and wrote to one of the counselors that Howard was becoming more nervous and sensitive and that his feelings were too easily hurt. She hoped the counselor would be able to help Howard take teasing without feeling hurt and resentful and learn to get along better with the other boys. When Howard returned to Houston from camp that year he complained of bad dreams, not sleeping well and feeling tired all the time. He never went to summer camp again.

The basis of Howard’s later psychological problems is evident even this early in his life. Psychologists call this pattern of shy, anxious and socially uncomfortable behavior an “avoidant disorder.’ Youngsters suffering from it have difficulty making friends, avoid new social contacts and experiences and fear looking foolish or being teased. They may want friends, but their anxiety and lack of self-confidence make them too awkward to initiate social contacts or to accept them when offered.

As children grow older, the avoidant pattern may subside without leaving any permanent effects. But in Howard it is easy to see the groundwork being laid for more serious and enduring personality problems. His mother’s overprotectiveness and preoccupation with his real or imagined illnesses and his social difficulties may well have heightened his anxieties and reinforced his avoidant tendencies. In the absence of healthier peer models, it is not surprising that Hughes accepted and internalized his mother’s excessive fears for his health.

Using illness to escape social pressures, which continued throughout Howard’s life, seems to have been well established by the time he reached adolescence. When Howard was 12, he and a group of boys interested in shortwave radio formed a club that met in his room. This atypical involvement with other boys was interrupted when Howard became ill and had to stay out of school for much of the winter and spring.

When he was 13, he developed more frightening symptoms. He was suddenly unable to walk and appeared to be paralyzed. His parents, desperately afraid that he might have polio, brought a physician from New York to care for him full time. Howard was immobilized for several months, but the condition was never diagnosed and disappeared without any specific treatment. Whether the illness was real or imagined, it may well have served as a way for Howard to avoid the increasing social demands characteristic of the early teenage years.

After his recovery, he was sent to boarding school, where he was lonely, unhappy and unable to relate to the other students. A developing hearing problem, apparently hereditary, may have isolated him even further. At the second school he attended, he bought a horse and spent much of his time riding alone. By midadolescence, the avoidant behavior of childhood had become a stable personality pattern.

In 1922, when Howard was 16, his mother died unexpectedly during a minor surgical procedure. His father, usually a strong and decisive man, was deeply anguished and became depressed. He insisted that Howard drop out of boarding school and return home despite the pleas of his school adviser that his greatest need was “contact with the other fellows.’

Two years later the senior Hughes died of a heart attack during a business meeting. This second sudden death was extremely traumatic for the boy and resulted in a period of depression, overconcern with his health and increased social withdrawal. The loss of the only two people with whom he had a close relationship deepened his fears of death and increased his vulnerability to later disorders.

Shortly after his father’s death, Hughes assumed control of the family business, the Hughes Tool Company. Taking control seems to have strengthened his self-confidence and his growing determination to achieve power, prominence and independence. His next move, at the age of 19, was to marry Ella Rice, a woman two years his senior from a prominent Houston family. Hughes did not know her well and seems to have selected her more for her social qualifications than for any personal feelings.

The courtship was unusual. When Rice refused to marry him, he asked his aunt, Annette Lummis, to help. She went to Rice’s mother, telling her that Hughes should not go alone to Hollywood “with all that money.’ They were married three weeks later. The couple moved to Hollywood and took up residence in a hotel, but Hughes ignored his wife and devoted all of his energies to the movies and flying. Ella returned to Houston in 1928, and they were divorced in 1929.

At the age of 20, Hughes seemed determined to escape the role of the shy, withdrawn schoolboy. He told Noah Dietrich, his business manager, that he wanted to become the world’s most famous film producer, the top aviator and the world’s richest man. In his determined pursuit of these goals, Hughes produced a series of films, some of which are classics. Two Arabian Knights, which he produced at the age of 20, won an Academy Award in 1928. As a pilot, he set cross-country and around-the-world speed records, and the income from the business he inherited provided him with almost unlimited funds.

These achievements gave Hughes the international fame he craved, but he seemed embarrassed and uneasy with the visibility it entailed. He dated many famous movie actresses but seemed more interested in collecting them than in establishing serious relationships (see box, “Howard’s Way with Women’). He was in contact with great numbers of people and was active in the Hollywood social scene, but his relations with most people were distant and cool. This detachment was heightened by his progressive hearing disorder, which made conversation difficult.

Despite these problems, Hughes was much more socially involved in his early 20s than he had been in adolescence. It was the time of his maximum creativity and drive and also the period of his life during which he exhibited the least psychopathology.

But by the time Hughes was 24, things began to change for the worse. He kept odd hours, hated to be photographed, avoided large parties and was even shier and more uncomfortable around strangers. His excessive fear of disease and the extraordinary precautions he took to avoid germs added to his growing reputation as an eccentric. He gargled often and avoided people with colds. One time, when he found out that an actress with whom he had been having an affair had been exposed to a venereal disease, he stuffed all of his clothes in canvas bags and ordered them burned.

As a child, Hughes dealt with his anxiety first by avoidant behavior and later by using illness as an escape. His increasing fear of germs as a young man suggests the beginning of an obsessive-compulsive disorder. Obsessions are persistent, recurrent and distressing thoughts. Compulsions are repetitive types of behavior designed to protect against a future situation. Hughes’s fear of and precautions against germs had already gone beyond what most people regard as normal and eventually escalated into seriously disruptive behavior.

The onset of obsessive-compulsive symptoms coincided with the extreme pressures Hughes imposed on himself during the filming of Hell’s Angels, which he produced, directed and edited to be sure everything was exactly as he wanted it. The movie became an obsession. He devoted himself to it to the exclusion of all else, often working through the night and into the next day.

During the making of Hell’s Angels, Hughes crashed in a small plane while filming a flying scene. He was pulled unconscious from the wreckage with a crushed cheekbone. He spent days in hospitals and had facial surgery, but his face was never the same. This was the first of a series of injuries that were to plague Hughes for many years.

Hughes ran over and killed a pedestrian, crashed a seaplane off the coast of Long Island, experienced oxygen deprivation from a defective oxygen mask and crashed another seaplane in which two passengers died and his head was severely gashed–all within 10 years. In one car accident, his head smashed the windshield, and he was incoherent and semiconscious for a couple of days. Several less dramatic car accidents and falls also resulted in injuries to his head and face.

By 1944, Hughes’s head and face had been battered repeatedly and three people had died. For almost anyone, these would have been upsetting experiences, but they were probably even more traumatic for Hughes, who had lost both his mother and father within a two-year period.

A single head injury, even if there is no apparent structural damage, can affect psychological functioning seriously and may exacerbate existing emotional problems. A series of traumas, such as Hughes had, greatly increases the probability of brain damage. The accidents, particularly those that occurred between 1939 and 1944, may have been both a cause and an effect of his increasing emotional disorder.

In 1944, when Hughes was 38, he was under such intense stress that he began to lose his psychological equilibrium. In addition to facing the pressures of his substantial but shaky financial empire, he was in the process of designing a new high-speed jet fighter, the FX-11, completing the design for the wooden Flying Boat (known as the Spruce Goose by its detractors), trying to manage TransWorld Airlines and developing a publicity campaign for his controversial movie, The Outlaw.

During this time of increasing stress and disorganization, Hughes exhibited a new disturbing symptom: He began to repeat himself without knowing he was doing so. He would give his business manager a specific instruction, for example, and then repeat it for a half hour. Preparing a memorandum on writing good letters, he dictated over and over again “a good letter should be immediately understandable’ and then did the same with the phrase “think your material over in order to determine its limits.’ His characteristic preoccupation with details became so extreme that, according to his business manager, he was attempting too much and accomplishing nothing.

At the height of this stress and emotional turmoil, Hughes’s longtime attorney resigned. He refused Hughes’s urgings to reconsider, and the relationship ended bitterly. Soon afterward, Hughes experienced his first major breakdown and vanished from Los Angeles without telling anyone where he had gone.

Thirty-one years later a Hughes Aircraft pilot revealed that he and Hughes had spent many months flying around the Southwest, checking into motels under assumed names. Hughes, he said, would often sit for days in a darkened motel room without speaking and then give instructions to fly somewhere else. Another time Hughes ordered the pilot to spend several days learning by heart some instructions that Hughes had spent several days composing. The instructions were: “Do not convey, communicate, telephone or telegraph any message from me to anyone in California unless I repeat it to you word for word 10 consecutive times.’ Despite these instructions, the pilot maintained contact with a Hughes Aircraft executive who kept him supplied with the money necessary for expenses.

Hughes returned to Los Angeles after an absence of seven months, but he paid little attention to his work and spent most of the next year flying aimlessly around the Southwest, doing touch-and-go landings at various airfields and then returning to Los Angeles at night. He was morose and withdrawn and his obsessive-compulsive fear of germs became even more pronounced.

It seems likely that all the stress Hughes was under increased his already high anxiety. People may try to relieve anxiety with defense mechanisms that become compulsive, as they did with Hughes. They continue them because, as tiresome as it may be to carry out seemingly meaningless actions, such as touch-and-go landings, failing to continue the ritual leads to painful increases in anxiety. For Hughes, the landings were a reassuringly familiar activity that helped him avoid social stresses while allowing him to control at least some part of his environment.

At the age of 40, just as Hughes was beginning to involve himself again in the operation of Hughes Aircraft, he had his most serious accident yet, a near-fatal crash while he was testing the experimental FX-11 fighter plane. He had numerous broken bones and severe burns. His chest was crushed, one lung was collapsed and his heart was displaced to one side of his chest. No one believed he would live through the night. Because of his intense pain, Hughes was given morphine, which he demanded in ever-increasing quantities during his convalescence. Sometime later, realizing that Hughes had become addicted to morphine, his physician put him on codeine. For the rest of his life, Hughes used codeine on a regular basis, gradually increasing to dangerously high doses.

The rapidity and persistence of the addiction suggest that it was as much psychological as physiological. Hughes developed a tolerance for increased doses of the drug, one of the signs of physical addiction, but he chose for psychological reasons to take doses vastly beyond those required by physical dependency. If the drug had not been serving a vital function as a reducer of psychic pain, he could have broken the habit. Instead, he chose to remain addicted. In addition to allaying his fears of death and illness, codeine intoxication helped blunt the intensity of his social anxieties and the stresses of his complex business life. In his later years, when he had little left except his vast wealth, he clung to his drugs because, as he said, they were his only pleasure.

Two months after his FX-11 accident, Hughes was flying again. The following year, he was subjected to grueling hearings before a Senate committee investigating his multimillion-dollar contract to build the Flying Boat. He stood up well to the often hostile committee, displayed an excellent memory and gave the impression of someone who kept his finger on the pulse of his company at all times.

After the hearings, Hughes, having experienced an emotional breakdown, near-fatal injuries and a growing dependence on drugs within the past three years, began to restructure his life. Angered when he learned that the police had tapped his phone and bugged his hotel room while he was in Washington, and as uncomfortable as ever with social contacts, he began to isolate himself even further. He established layers of employees between himself and other people and became increasingly unavailable for direct contact, even with his executives.

Some days he seemed lucid and paid attention to business affairs. Other times, his energies focused on peculiar rituals to deal with his anxieties. Because of his growing conviction that people were spying on him, he held the few business meetings he still attended in parked cars in isolated locations. His social life diminished, and he became a mystery man. The words “wealthy eccentric’ and “billionaire recluse’ began to be applied to him.

At the same time, his fear of germs became worse. He made people who worked with him carry out elaborate hand-washing rituals and wear white cotton gloves, sometimes several pairs, when handling documents he would later touch. Newspapers had to be brought to him in stacks of three so he could slide the middle, and presumably least contaminated, copy out by grasping it with Kleenex. To escape contamination by dust, he ordered that masking tape be put around the doors and windows of his cars and houses. His employees were told not to touch him, speak directly to him or even look at him. When asked about this behavior, he defended it by saying, “Everybody carries germs around with them. I want to live longer than my parents, so I avoid germs.’

By the age of 45, Hughes was suffering from a complex system of mental disorders. His avoidant personality disorder, masked for years by flamboyant publicity-seeking, reasserted itself as he cut himself off from society almost completely. His obsessive-compulsive disorder, first evidenced before his breakdown and disappearance, now manifested itself even more pervasively in his fear of germs. And now, to add to his difficulties, he had a substance abuse disorder, his growing dependence on codeine.

Hughes’s increasingly eccentric lifestyle made it almost impossible for him to attend to business, and his refusal to relinquish authority to his executives resulted in serious financial problems in the early 1950s. His response was to retreat to Las Vegas, where he ignored calls from his headquarters, spent his evenings in casinos and let his employees provide for his needs, including procuring women for him.

Meanwhile, in Los Angeles he faced overwhelming problems on all business fronts and a deteriorating relationship with his business manager, Noah Dietrich, who had been his closest adviser for more than 30 years.

At the age of 51, in the midst of his growing troubles, Hughes suddenly married Jean Peters, an actress he met just before the FX-11 crash. The reason for this marriage, in 1957, remains obscure. Hughes may have felt that marriage would block any attempt on the part of his executives to have him declared incompetent. Or it may have been that he feared he would lose Peters after 10 years of on-and-off companionship. In any event, he was now too disturbed to meet the demands of an intimate relationship. They lived in separate bungalows on the grounds of the Beverly Hills Hotel in Los Angeles, saw each other only occasionally and communicated primarily by telephone. They remained married for 14 years but were separated for much of that time.

Four months after the marriage, Hughes’s relationship with Dietrich ended bitterly, like the one with his lawyer 13 years before. Hughes again dropped out. He flew off to Montreal and did not return for six months.

After his return to Los Angeles in November 1957, Hughes again went into seculsion, and his obsessive-compulsive symptoms and drug abuse intensified. He used his power and wealth to get others to carry out elaborate rituals–waving newspapers to scare away imaginary flies, opening doors with their feet to avoid touching the knobs, putting tape around windows and washing their hands and everything else in sight.

Apparently no one questioned Hughes’ increasingly bizarre instructions. Instead, his employees complied with every order and performed tasks that were peculiar, inconvenient or even humiliating as if they were aspects of a normal business operation. They developed elaborate procedures for obtaining drugs without anyone knowing for whom they were intended. Only a few trusted members of his staff knew of his deteriorating mental condition and his growing dependence on narcotics.

Meanwhile, his mental condition continued to fluctuate. One day he would dictate a rational-seeming financing plan for TWA. The next day he would be devising an elaborate plan for protecting himself from germs on thank-you notes.

Once again, the intensification of obsessive-compulsive behavior heralded a breakdown. In 1958, Hughes began to spend much of his time screening movies in a rented studio, and he finally stopped going back to his hotel at all. He lived in the studio for about four months, during a period that marked his most serious psychological breakdown.

During this time, Hughes would watch movies around the clock for several days at a time, sleep for 24 hours or more, then resume the screening. He ate almost nothing but candy bars, nuts, milk and bottled water, brought to him in brown paper bags that had been stored on shelves for long periods to allow contamination to dissipate. He deteriorated physically and lost so much weight that his employees thought he would die. He urinated on the floor and refused to bathe or otherwise care for himself but spent hours cleaning every nearby surface. He discarded his clothes and remained nude except for shoes and sometimes a shirt, the way he remained for the rest of his life. His lifelong constipation, greatly worsened by codeine, caused him to spend periods of 20 hours or more sitting on the toilet.

A series of three major breakdowns in 13 years had left Hughes a shattered relic of the creative, dynamic young man he had seemed in his 20s. After the third breakdown, in 1958, he had periods of apparently rational behavior but was never able to resume a normal life. Naked, dirty and emaciated, he remained in darkened rooms and limited his contacts to a few employees who kept him alive and carried out his desperate rituals. He left California permanently in 1966 at age 60.

Like an icon, his fragile body was transported from city to city and country to country for the last 10 years of his life. In each location, he spent most of his days in bed taking vast quantities of drugs, watching the same movies over and over and dreaming, perhaps, of better times.

Photo: Young Howard and his doting mother.

Photo: Hughes: the dashing, creative movie producer in his early 20s. Then things began to fall apart.

Photo: The record-breaking aviator had numerous crashes in which his head and face were battered repeatedly. After his last crash in 1946, he was almost unrecognizable.

Photo: Hughes’s last stand: He stood up well under the pressure applied by an often hostile Senate committee.

Photo: Naked, dirty and emaciaed he remained in darkened rooms and limited his contacts to a few employees who kept him alive and carried out his desperate rituals

COPYRIGHT 1986 Sussex Publishers, Inc.

COPYRIGHT 2004 Gale Group