Saturday, June 21, 2014

From Time magazine, 1976: Howard Hughes once sat on a toilet for 72 hours...and other stories of his final years

The joke is that a poor person is crazy, a rich person is eccentric. Such seems to be true of Howard Hughes and his mental illnesses, which led to his seclusion and bizarre behavior during the final years of his life. He was often referred to in the press as “an eccentric billionaire.”

His problems had always been there, usually manifested in his obsessive-compulsive disorder.

According to some biographical information about Hughes, his germophobia could have been brought on by his mother, who was in deathly fear of her young son developing polio. She reputedly checked him every day for signs of illness.

Other sources speculate that Hughes’ late in life habits of sitting naked in the dark watching movies, his poor hygiene and disregard of personal appearance (hair and beard grown long and tangled, finger-and-toenails uncut) may have been as a result of allodynia, which is pain upon being touched. Hughes survived several air crashes over the years, and some think that as a trade-off for his survival the crashes may have left him with a lifetime of pain. It would also have contributed to his addiction to codeine, with which he injected himself. Codeine would explain his chronic constipation (mentioned in the article below), and the famous story of him sitting on a toilet for 72 hours.

Hughes died weighing 90 pounds, in an emaciated state resembling survivors of the Nazi death camps. Official cause of death was kidney failure, but his death was also caused by neglect and not being under medical care. His quality of life might have been improved had he allowed himself to be put under the care of professionals. That would be where the eccentricity of a rich person’s mental illness would come in. He could afford to live like he chose to live, and no one could do anything about it. He gave orders, others obeyed them. Hughes seems more like an emperor with whom no one dares disagree. If one of the richest men in America wants to sit naked in a dark hotel room watching Ice Station Zebra over and over, then by golly, who is going to tell him he can’t?

The article from Time, December 13, 1976, has an excerpt from the book, Howard Hughes, the Hidden Years by James R. Phelan, published shortly after Hughes’ death. It uses descriptions of those years by two aides who were with Hughes at the time. There were rumors in the years leading up to Hughes’ demise as to his physical deterioration. It took his death and the attendant interest in Hughes, which had pretty much accompanied his whole life as a playboy, movie-maker and aviator, to bring the public the full picture and details of his serious medical problems, including mental illness.

Author James R. Phelan died in 1997 at age 85. Over many years he wrote extensively of Hughes and his business affairs. The book excerpted in the article, Howard Hughes, The Hidden Years, was a best seller in its time, but is now out of print. Various editions are available through third party booksellers on and other sites that offer out-of-print books.

Copyright © 1976 Time, Inc.

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