(FORTUNE Magazine) – If Howard Hughes is remembered at all today, he is recalled as a real head case. Perhaps that's not surprising for someone who spent his early years chasing Hollywood actresses and crashing airplanes, and his later years as a reclusive paranoid junkie. Yet Hughes enjoyed a business career that is as remarkable for its variety as it is for its multiple successes. As a film producer, he created such classics as Wings, Scarface, Hell's Angels, and The Front Page. He took a small domestic airline and expanded it into TWA, eventually selling it for $547 million. Almost as an afterthought, he started Hughes Electronics, a pioneering aerospace contractor, which was eventually sold to General Motors for $5.3 billion. And lest we forget, he designed--and piloted for its single flight of one mile--the largest airplane ever built: the infamous Spruce Goose.

At his death in 1976, Hughes left an estate worth $1.1 billion, presciently invested in seven Nevada gambling casinos, as well as in Las Vegas' premier shopping center and an airport. He also controlled rich stretches of undeveloped land in Nevada, Arizona, and California. Capping a lifelong habit of procrastination, Hughes died without leaving a will or, for that matter, a legally established place of residence. California and Texas fought over him for tax purposes, and more than 1,000 people staked claims as heirs to his fortune. What became of those claims--and Hughes' wealth--is the subject of The Money: The Battle for Howard Hughes's Billions, a briskly and informatively written book by the late investigative journalist James Phelan, author of an earlier work on Hughes, and Lewis Chester.

Although some of the schemes to get Hughes' money were carefully concocted, they all eventually collapsed under scrutiny. Best known is the famous Mormon will, apparently hand-written by Hughes and delivered by a "mystery woman" to the headquarters of the Mormon Church in Salt Lake City. It left one-sixteenth of Hughes' money to Melvin Dummar, a 32-year-old filling-station operator who claimed to have come upon Hughes in the desert on a cold night in 1968 and given him a car ride to Las Vegas. Dummar's story fell apart after investigators found his fingerprints on the will and discovered he had studied a book containing samples of Hughes' handwriting.

At least Dummar made out better than a woman named Martha Jo Graves, who emerged in the summer of 1981 with another will, this one typed on the stationery of the Beverly Hills Hotel, where Hughes hung out. She claimed to have discovered the will in a metal lockbox belonging to a deceased Los Angeles attorney. Conveniently, the will left 20% of the Hughes estate to the Acme Mining Co., a shell company of which Graves was both president and major stockholder. Also conveniently, the two witnesses to the will turned out to be friends of hers. Both eventually recanted their story, and Graves was sentenced to a year in prison.

By far the most plausible tale belonged to Terry Moore, a film actress, who actually had an affair with Hughes when she was 18 and he was in his 40s. She contended that she had married Hughes in 1949 in a car on a secluded section of Mulholland Drive, where Hughes recited a ceremony of his own composition. Later she said the couple were married again in a ceremony conducted by a ship's captain on a yacht sailing in Mexican waters. But despite their holy vows, Moore tired of Hughes' frequent absences and infidelities. So she married football star Glenn Davis in 1951, only to divorce him shortly thereafter and take up with Hughes again. Moore then married for a second (or a fourth) time in 1956. Although her case turned out to be legally unwinnable, she still managed to settle with the estate for $390,000.

Resolving such issues took more than ten years. When the estate was finally paid out, Hughes' 22 legitimate heirs split what was left (about $500 million), while taxes consumed another $300 million. His best-known legacy, the Spruce Goose, has suffered along with its creator's reputation. It was auctioned off in 1992 to an aviation buff, who planned to build a museum for it. The plane was cut into 38 pieces and shipped to Oregon, but the money for the museum hasn't materialized. So the plane languishes in storage, abandoned and, for now, forgotten.