Return Flight

updated 10/13/2003 AT 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 10/13/2003 AT 01:00 AM EDT

The Aviator, Martin Scorsese's new drama now shooting in Montreal and scheduled for release late next year, focuses on the personal life of Howard Hughes before the dashing billionaire became a paranoid recluse and died in 1976 at age 70. Through the 1930s and '40s, the oil-drill magnate's exploits held America in thrall: A daredevil pilot and Hollywood mogul, he directed and produced movies—and memorably romanced some of the day's most glamorous stars, among them Ava Gardner and Katharine Hepburn.

as Howard Hughes

as Jean Harlow

Hughes gave Harlow something far more enduring than a fleeting romance: By tapping her as leading lady in the first film he directed, 1930's Hell's Angels, Hughes made her a star.

as Katharine Hepburn

In the '30s, Hughes's affair with Hepburn grew so serious, they moved in together. But neither would compromise career for marriage. Said Hepburn years later: "Ambition beat love."

as Ava Gardner

Their 1940s affair was as torrid as it was titillating. A recent Hughes biography claims that once, after Hughes hit Gardner, she beaned him with a bronze bell—costing him two teeth.

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