Thursday, Dec. 23, 2004 | 11:01 a.m.
Howard Hughes — record-setting aviator, Las Vegas casino mogul, acclaimed film producer, eccentric recluse -- was as much myth as he was man.
And nowhere is the Howard Hughes' myth larger than in Las Vegas, where Hughes lived from 1966 to 1970. In his short time here he left an enormous legacy and a reputation as a bedraggled hermit, cloistered in the Desert Inn.
Hughes is credited with bringing legitimacy to Las Vegas -- paving the way for major corporations to invest in Southern Nevada's gambling houses -- but originally he had no intention of doing that, longtime Hughes confidante, alter-ego and public liaison Robert A. Maheu said.
"Hughes never intended to buy a hotel -- he just wanted a place to sleep," Maheu said.
Martin Scorsese's new film "The Aviator," which opens Saturday, looks at Hughes' life before Las Vegas. The movie has already widened interest in Hughes and has Maheu's phone ringing with calls from the curious.
In Hughes' life it's difficult to separate the truth from myth, much of it created by Hughes' sheltered life, immense need for secrecy and psychological struggles.
Maheu, for instance, served as the billionaire's alter ego for 13 years yet never met him in person. Their work was done over the phone or through notes.
But Maheu says much is misunderstood about Hughes, an aviation pioneer as well as a key figure in Las Vegas.
Hughes' stay, which would end with him being spirited out of the valley he owned much of, started when he rented the top floor of suites at the Desert Inn -- rooms reserved for high rollers -- with the intention of staying there just 10 days. It turned into three months.
Even the hotel wanted them out.
"We weren't gambling and we were tying up their best rooms -- they were justified in trying to kick us out," Maheu recalled. "I told him (Hughes) if you want to sleep there you are going to have to buy the place."
Hughes forked over about $13.5 million and the DI was his. It turned out to be a financial boon for Hughes, who was facing a heavy tax burden on interest income generated from selling his stock in Trans World Airlines for $546.5 million. He had initially bought TWA for $80 million.
The casino's gross was treated as, what the government called, "active income," which sheltered some of Hughes' windfall from the airline sale.
"Hughes called me and said the purchase of the hotel 'solved my tax problems,' " Maheu said. "He said we need to buy more of them. But he never intended to change the face of gaming because he never cared about that."
Maheu said he started looking for resorts in financial trouble with the federal government and soon bought for Hughes the Sands, Castaways, Frontier, Silver Slipper and the Landmark.
He also made a bid on the Stardust, but the federal government, fearing the creation of a monopoly, stopped Hughes from making that purchase.
Once Hughes started buying casinos, he "wanted to be the biggest in the business" Maheu said, noting that Hughes' place in Las Vegas history forever is secure because he did what no one else of his era could have done.
"You could not find a person who could have accomplished so much so quickly," Maheu said. "Las Vegas was in the doldrums and overall the economy was not good. Also the owners of the hotel-casinos at the time had gotten older and were looking to get rid of their entities.
"All of the elements were in place and Hughes had the money to do it -- and he had no board of directors to answer to."
When Hughes was done buying, his Nevada empire was valued at $300 million and included Harold's Club in Reno, nearly every vacant lot along the Las Vegas Strip, 25,000 acres of prime real estate where Summerlin now stands, thousands of acres around McCarran International Airport, an airline, several ranches around the state and 2,000 mining claims.
He also had bought undeveloped California coastal properties in Marina del Rey.
Maheu was a key in Hughes' operation.
By 1957, Hughes had begun avoiding public appearances. Hughes, famously known for his secrets, turned to Maheu, a former FBI agent, who ran an investigations company. Maheu's client list included the CIA.
Hughes, who then was living in the Bahamas, offered Maheu a $500,000 contract.
"I was intrigued by him," Maheu said. "He wanted me to be his alter ego."
That wasn't an easy task.
"He told me he never again wanted to appear before a regulatory body, a commission or anywhere else," Maheu said. "In each instance I had to tell government boards that I was in charge or they would want Hughes to come before them."
That presented a sticky situation as Nevada law required Hughes to be licensed to operate casinos, which meant he would undergo an extensive background check and would have to appear before the Nevada Gaming Commission.
Then-Gov. Paul Laxalt, however, did not press that issue and instead persuaded the Gaming Commission to allow Maheu to appear on Hughes' behalf.
"He (Laxalt) realized that Hughes was a much better choice to run casinos than the mob," Maheu said.
Hughes, after all, was an American success story. He was an aviation pioneer, movie-maker and successful businessman.
Hughes was born Howard Robard Hughes Jr. on Dec. 24, 1905. His father, Howard Hughes Sr., made a small fortune developing a drill that could crack through hard rock and reach large deposits of crude oil.
While the invention revolutionized oil drilling, young Hughes did not inherit a large fortune when his father died in 1923 and left him an interest in the Hughes Tool Co., Maheu said.
"It is one of the biggest myths that his father left him this huge fortune," Maheu said, noting that Hughes' inheritance was valued at less than $1 million. "What is forgotten is that as a teenager Hughes became a dominant factor in the world oil industry."
At age 19 Hughes dropped out of Rice University and took his relatives to court. A judge allowed him to buy out his family's interest in the tool company. At that time, he hired accountant Noah Dietrich, who is credited with making investments that turned Hughes into a billionaire.
Also at age 19 Hughes married his first wife, Ella Rice. In 1925, they moved to Hollywood where Hughes' Uncle Rupert was a screenwriter.
Hughes quickly got into filmmaking. His third movie, "Two Arabian Knights," won an Oscar. He would go on to produce 25 films, including "Scarface," "The Front Page," "The Outlaw" and "The Conqueror."
Hughes bought RKO Studios for about $10 million in 1948 and sold it for more than double that figure in 1955.
But while building his Hollywood empire, Hughes neglected his wife and she divorced him.
Hughes then became renowned as a playboy filmmaker who discovered movie goddesses Jean Harlow and Jane Russell and frequently visited Las Vegas with a gorgeous starlet on his arm.
Hughes' second wife, actress Jean Peters, married him in Northern Nevada in 1957. They divorced in 1970 after living most of their marriage apart.
After Hughes' death, and during lengthy court action over his estate, it was learned he also, for a while, was married to actress Terry Moore.
Maheu, who worked for Hughes for 13 years, notes that "The Aviator" focuses on one of the least appreciated sides of Hughes -- his changing the course of aviation history and ushering in the space age.
In 1932 Hughes formed the Hughes Aircraft Co. and set out to build faster planes. He set several national speed records. In 1938 he broke the record for a 'round-the-world flight and was given a ticker-tape parade in New York.
In 1944 Hughes was awarded a government contract to design the "Spruce Goose," a large flying boat. With a wingspan of a football field plus 30 yards, it was the largest plane ever built. Although it got off the water in 1947 and flew a short distance, it was considered, by some, a folly.
Not so, says Maheu, who years later was given the task of saving the historic plane from being dismantled and destroyed.
"I hope they (producers) treat the flying boat accurately in the movie," Maheu said. "He (Hughes) once explained to me his thought process for building it. He wanted to build the biggest flight frame that could stay in the air, then from there close the gaps for future designs.
"I have talked with a number of heads of airlines who have told me that the industry learned from that aircraft a great deal about stress, hydraulics and other factors that go into building today's planes. It was not a failure."
Maheu said some of the aerospace industry had its roots in Hughes Aircraft Company and that in the 1960s Howard Hughes gave the directions and ran the show. He wanted to be an astronaut, Maheu said.
In the mid-1960s, when four-fifths of the world did not have the capability for instantaneous communications, a Hughes-built communications satellite went into space and became the first vehicle of its type to create the information delivery system that now is often taken for granted, Maheu said.
"It created the communicative world we enjoy today," Maheu said. "People today talk about Hughes' long fingernails after he got mentally ill and forget about many of the important things he accomplished when he was healthy."
Some of that, people close to him have said over the years, is exaggeration, but Hughes suffered from some form of mental illness.
A psychologist hired by the Hughes estate said a series of plane and auto crashes -- all before age 40 -- turned Hughes from a dashing, 6-foot-3 figure into the mentally shattered man he became in later years.
During the shooting of his 1930 hit film "Hell's Angels" about World War I pilots, Hughes crashed his small plane, shattering facial bones and putting him in the hospital for several days.
He later crashed two sea planes, suffering a head laceration in one of them, and crash-landed a plane on Lake Mead in 1943.
Hughes also once drove a car that hit and killed a pedestrian. In another car crash, his head smashed the windshield and he was incoherent for days.
His most serious crash, however, was in 1946 in California, when his experimental FX-11 fighter plane went down. Hughes suffered burns, a collapsed lung and a displaced heart. His lengthy hospital stay also resulted in a lifelong addiction to injections of painkillers.
Still, for all of his accidents, Maheu says Hughes was not a reckless man.
"He was a perfectionist," Maheu said. "When he played golf, he had cameras following him so he could later watch the footage and perfect his stroke.
"When he made 'Hell's Angels,' the flight scenes had to be perfect. He'd reshoot scenes if he saw a plane doing something it should not have done. But he was not a daredevil. That's a myth that really irks me."
But it's no myth that in his time in Las Vegas, few people saw him. While living at the Desert Inn, Hughes was such a hermit he never left his hotel suite.
Except for six assistants -- five Mormons and a Catholic who were collectively nicknamed the "Mormon Mafia" -- few people saw Hughes in person. Maheu never did.
The Mormon Mafia consisted of the lone Catholic, Johnny Holmes, along with Chuck Waldron, Howard Eckersley, James Rickard, Lamar Myler and George Fracom, all members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. They took orders from Hughes Corp. executive William "Bill" Gay.
Much of what actually went on in Hughes' penthouse suite is conjecture, though reports from sources have painted a picture of a pathetic paradox.
Hughes had a lifelong fear of disease and germs. He reportedly washed his hands in rubbing alcohol and drank only bottled water. Yet reports are that he also lived in a filthy room and rarely bathed.
Todd Waldron, son of late Mormon Mafia member Chuck Waldron, said, however, that his late father maintained that much of what has been reported about Hughes' weird hygiene habits was exaggerated.
Waldron said that while Hughes wore his hair over his collar and had a beard, it did not go down to the floor as depicted in lampoons of Hughes. And he did not grow exceptionally long fingernails, Waldron said.
"He (Hughes) grew the beard, I believe, to hide the scars from the (1946 plane) crash, but he kept it fairly neat and had a personal barber see him on a regular basis," Waldron said.
Though little is known of Hughes after he went into seclusion, it is known that he enjoyed watching television. While in Las Vegas, Hughes, a movie maker turned movie buff, hated that the local TV station went off the air at night. So he bought KLAS-TV, the local CBS affiliate, from Las Vegas Sun publisher Hank Greenspun.
Hughes kept the station on overnight and aired late-night movies.
Leaving Las Vegas
As Hughes' mental illness grew, a rift developed between Maheu and the Mormon Mafia.
Maheu, who said he has no kind words for the Mormon Mafia that deposed him, said he twice turned down offers to join the group in a plan to spirit Hughes away from Las Vegas.
"I told them to go to hell," Maheu said. "I told him (Hughes) about what they wanted to do and he just laughed. By then he had gotten so sick he didn't realize what was going on."
Maheu said by 1970 Hughes was so ill he could no longer communicate by phone.
On Nov. 5, 1970, members of the Mormon Mafia escorted Hughes from the Desert Inn by van to Nellis Air Force Base, where they boarded a jet for the Bahamas. Hughes never returned to Las Vegas.
He instead spent much of the rest of his life traveling, stopping in Canada, England, Nicaragua and finally the Mexican resort city of Acapulco.
Hughes, reportedly weighing just 94 pounds, died on April 5, 1976, aboard a plane from Mexico to his hometown of Houston. The official cause was kidney failure. He was 70 years old.
Maheu maintains that Hughes died of neglect.
"Here is a man who created the biggest medical research entity in the world (the Howard Hughes Medical Institute), yet an autopsy found he had an oozing sore on his head and hypodermic needles broken off in his arm," Maheu said.
Authorities used fingerprints to confirm that the man who was dead on arrival in Houston indeed was Hughes.
Although in the years that followed numerous documents turned up purporting to be Hughes' will, judges ruled none was legitimate. One of the more intriguing wills was offered by Utah gasoline station operator Melvin Dummar.
Dummar had claimed he once picked up a disoriented Hughes in the Nevada desert and took him back to Las Vegas. The so-called "Mormon Will" left a chunk of the Hughes fortune to Dummar, supposedly for being a Good Samaritan.
Maheu, who testified against the authenticity of the Mormon Will in a Clark County court, said there was "no way" it could have been real.
"Hughes never would have been out in the desert during that time in his life to be picked up by him (Dummar)," Maheu said, noting he could never convince Hughes to go down to the hotel lobby, let alone step outside.
Hughes' estate eventually was divided among his cousins. One of them, William Lummis, emerged in the 1980s as executor of the estate and ran the Hughes empire, including serving as chairman of Summa Corp., Hughes' corporate gaming arm.
Eventually, the gaming properties were sold and a major real estate development company -- the Howard Hughes Co. -- emerged to again change the face of Las Vegas with the creation of Summerlin and several other developments.
Maheu said he is looking forward to seeing the new movie about Hughes.
"It's a great storyline and you have a great director and a great actor," Maheu said. "I just hope the myths are not there.
"My heart still bleeds for what happened to Howard Hughes. I often said after I got off the phone with him that I just finished talking to the poorest man in the world. He was so unhappy."