Howard Hughes with plane.
Credit: NY Daily News Archive via Getty Images
This is not the picture that comes to mind, typically, when we talk about Howard Hughes. When we talk about Hughes, we almost always picture an infamous shambles of a man wrecked by madness or money or ambition or a toxic combination thereof, a Gothic, cobwebby freak fitting somewhere between 'Citizen Kane' and the necrophiliac old maid in William Faulkner's "A Rose for Emily." The vision conjured is that of a pale-skinned, demented bonesleeve of a man, wandering a penthouse hotel suite with fingernails long as vipers, trackmarks down his arms, and empty Kleenex boxes for shoes.

As pathetic as it is potent, this is the image of Howard Hughes that has tattooed itself on the national imagination – partly because it's an accurate rendering of Hughes in his twisted twilight, partly because Hughes's glories lay embedded too deep in the past for all but the oldest fogies among us to be able to recall them firsthand. But also, and more darkly, because the trajectory of Hughes's bizarre decline satisfies something within us, some pinched, puritan strain of schadenfreude. At his peak, in that glam newsreel era between 1926, the year he stormed Hollywood, and 1947, when he finished and flew (however briefly) the Spruce Goose, that magnificently bloated airplane that would come to symbolize overambition, Howard Hughes was almost too much to bear: too rich, too handsome, too smart, too brave, too lucky, too goddamn everything. Every woman wanted him, as the old saw goes, and every man wanted to be him. Three decades later, in the wake of Hughes's 1976 death and the subsequent revelations about his Gollum-esque old age, America let out a national cackle at Hughes's long and secretive fall from grace. The man who had everything died with nothing. A rubber-stamp case of obsessive-compulsive disorder was swiftly spun into a national parable, with ministers using Hughes as a prop for sermons about the perils of greed. The bedridden Hughes became an icon representing the flip side of success, the anti-Horatio Alger.

All that may change this month, when Miramax releases 'The Aviator,' a sweeping, blonde bombshell-strewn biopic – directed by Martin Scorsese and starring Leonardo DiCaprio – that exhumes the dashing Hughes of the 1930s and '40s, when testosterone, not codeine, surged through his veins, and when his accomplishments, rather than his eccentricities, made him a household name. "He was a genius of his time," DiCaprio says. "He paved the way for aviation as we know it today, made huge advances in satellite technology and helicopters, and was one of the first businessmen to go out to Las Vegas and start buying up hotels."

Born in 1905 in Houston, Texas, Howard Robard Hughes Jr. grew up amid the scent of new money. His father, a former wildcatter in the Texas oil fields, struck it rich by developing a new drill bit for oil wells, one that could smash through the crusts of rock that had thwarted oilmen for years. Buoyed by sudden wealth, the elder Hughes commenced living large: traveling in a private railcar (with a separate car just for his wardrobe), decking out the Hughes home with European furniture, and sending young Howard, his only child, to top-tier private schools. But Howard didn't take to schooling; an aunt once described him as "a wondering boy that had no thought for books." All that truly intrigued the shy, awkward Hughes was mechanics: the innards of machinery, its bolts and nuts and gears, the way things worked. As a boy he built a radio transmitter, broadcasting his own radio show around a 15-block radius, and also a motorcycle, which he created by hooking a small engine up to his bicycle. When Hughes was 15, his father bought him a 10-minute ride on a Curtiss seaplane in New London, Connecticut; the boy was exhilarated, seeding a future obsession. A chance visit to a movie set when he was 16 – Hughes had an uncle in Hollywood – introduced him to the mechanics of filmmaking, which was like a lot of other mechanics, with the addition of beautiful women everywhere you looked. By the time Hughes's father died, in 1924, just two years after his mother's death, Howard Hughes – now the orphaned heir to a nearly million-dollar fortune – had already charted his life's course. On the back of a Foley Bros. men's store receipt, he wrote, "Things I want to be, 1. The best golfer in the world. 2. The best pilot. 3. The most famous producer of moving pictures." Like a winning poker hand, the world lay spread before Howard Hughes – a world he meant to pass through by putting, fucking, and flying, not necessarily in that order.

By early 1938, when he was 32, Hughes had already accomplished much of his life list. He had a two handicap on the golf course, several world records in an airplane of his own design, and an outsize reputation in Hollywood as a director, producer, and playboy. He'd blown a giant wad of his money on a World War I aviation melodrama, Hell's Angels – at a cost of $3.8 million, it was then the most expensive film ever made, due partly to the emergence of motion-picture sound technology midway through production (Hughes ended up firing his lead starlet, whose Norwegian face was perfect for silent films but whose vowel-soup of an accent rendered her troublesome in talkies), and due partly to Hughes's petulant perfectionism. But, really, who cared about the money? Like his father, Hughes was living large. For the filming of 'Hell's Angels,' he amassed a collection of 78 vintage planes – a greater air force than that of most countries.

Around the same time, his movie-magnate status was landing him in the sack with a jaw-dropping cast of Hollywood actresses that, it was rumored, eventually included Jean Harlow, Ginger Rogers, Jane Russell, Bette Davis, Rita Hayworth, and a 17-year-old Elizabeth Taylor. With his pal Cary Grant as his wingman, Hughes spent the 1930s cutting a wide swath through Hollywood's female populace; when he entered the Stork Club or El Morocco, starlets were his cufflinks. (This despite his secret preference for debutantes: "They're better in bed and they buy their own flowers," he told Grant.) "He was the ultimate collector," a Hughes confidante once said. "Where others had stamps, Howard had girls." He rarely bothered with elaborate pickup routines, opting instead to simply stare down his latest finds until they wilted and went home with him.

"He just looked at me, not saying a word," an actress once recalled. "Don't just pant in lust, Mr. Hughes," another woman finally chided him.