Noah Dietrich is often credited as the "mastermind" behind the Howard Hughes empire. Some say it was 80 percent Noah Dietrich's genius and 20 percent Howard Hughes' taste for gambling that created the fortune. In spite of vast differences in their characters they were a dynamic combination, and together they soared.
Noah Dietrich was born February 28, 1889 in Madison, Wisconsin and was the fourth of six children born to Sarah Peters and German-born evangelical Lutheran minister John Dietrich. John Dietrich, a widower, brought a daughter, Amanda, to the marriage. The household of nine was very religious and caring but undemonstrative. John's income as a preacher provided only the bare necessities, therefore young Noah learned early on that if he wanted something he would have to rely on his own resources. Maintaining close friendships was difficult for Noah, who had to change schools every two years when his father was assigned to a new congregation. Noah forged a tight bond with his younger brother Paul, however, that endured until Paul's death in the 1960s. At school, Noah was known as a mathematical whiz and a straight-A student with plans to attend college, but this dream was dashed when his father retired, making it imperative that Noah find a job to help support the family.
In 1910 Noah married and moved with his wife to Maxwell, New Mexico, where he was offered a job as cashier at a bank. After six months, he decided to head west for the booming town of Los Angeles. There he became auditor for the Los Angeles Suburban Land Company, a syndicate that included General Harrison Gray Otis, owner of the Los Angeles Times, and his son-in-law Harry Chandler. They had purchased two large land parcels in the San Fernando Valley that spread from what is now North Hollywood to Calabasas. When the syndicate shut down Noah was hired as auditor for the Janss Investment Company, which was selling home sites in the San Gabriel Valley and was making plans to develop Westwood.
In 1917, when Noah was 28 years old, he began a new job as assistant comptroller for the E.L. Doheny Oil Companies, which had offices in New York City. His wife, preferring the warmer climate of the West, took their two daughters and moved back there. Noah soon followed. His next position was as senior accountant for Haskins & Sells, a Los Angeles public accounting firm that was then one of the most prominent in the country.
It was in 1923 that Noah realized he needed to become a CPA in order to advance in his profession. He tutored himself and passed the three-day exam without difficulty.
After earning his certification, he served as comptroller for H. L. Arnold, which distributed three lines of automobiles in three different states, for five years. The position offered a Ford dealership in Phoenix and this tempted Noah, as automobiles had always fascinated him: In the early 1920s he had held the driving-speed record from Los Angeles to Oakland. Noah didn't take that opportunity, however, after fate stepped in and introduced the 36-year-old Noah to the then 19-year-old Howard Hughes.
The Dietrich-Hughes association began Thanksgiving Day, 1925. The young Howard Hughes had recently inherited Hughes Tool Company (valued at $660,000), which manufactured drilling bits for oil companies. He needed somebody with extensive business experience to oversee the Houston-based plant. Noah was hired at a $10,000 a year salary to run the company, thus freeing the young heir to pursue other interests. He immediately became Hughes' right-hand man and trusted business advisor, a relationship that would span more than three decades. Noah served as Chief Executive Officer for what he developed into the far-ranging Hughes empire. He was both director and vice president of Hughes Tool Company, director and chairman of the executive committee of Trans World Airlines (TWA), chairman of the board of RKO Pictures Corporation and director of Hughes Aircraft. In 1956, Noah was one of the highest-paid corporate executives in the United States.
After he and his first wife divorced, Noah married a second time in the 1930s and had three more children. In 1955 he married for the last time. His third wife had two young daughters from a previous marriage. One of the high points of 1956 was his tour of Europe with his family and a safari to East Africa with his two sons. He embarked on a similar tour in 1960.
In March of 1957, after 32 years with Howard Hughes and only two vacations, Noah Dietrich quit.
While enjoying semi-retirement, he was asked to serve as a commissioner of the City of Los Angeles, a director of the Metropolitan Water District of Southern California, and was also a much sought-after guest speaker throughout the United States. He wrote a book about his experience as advisor and confidante of Howard Hughes, Howard: The Amazing Mr. Hughes. He also opened financial consulting offices in Century City in Los Angeles.
In the mid 1970s, after undergoing two major operations and suffering from myasthenia gravis (the muscle disease that killed Aristotle Onassis), he finally retired. In spite of these setbacks, he still possessed a brilliant mind, a great interest in life and a positive attitude.
People often wonder why Noah stayed with the eccentric Howard Hughes for so many years. The answer is simple: He loved the job, and he possessed an incredibly good disposition, which enabled him to deal with the stress of it.
Unlike his former employer, the last years of Noah Dietrich's life were happy ones.
On February 15, 1982 he passed away peacefully and near people who loved him.