Howard Hughes: Neon Ozymandias

The Aviator and Las Vegas, in Three Acts

I met a traveller from an antique land
Who said: “Two vast and trunkless legs of stone
Stand in the desert . . . Near them, on the sand,
Half sunk, a shattered visage lies, whose frown,
And wrinkled lip, and sneer of cold command,
Tell that its sculptor well those passions read
Which yet survive, stamped on these lifeless things,
The hand that mocked them, and the heart that fed:
And on the pedestal these words appear:
‘My name is Ozymandias, king of kings:
Look on my works, ye Mighty, and despair!’
Nothing beside remains. Round the decay
Of that colossal wreck, boundless and bare
The lone and level sands stretch far away.”

—Percy Bysshe Shelley, 1818

I. The Welcoming

Howard Hughes by Adria MercuriIllustration by Adria Mercuri

Howard Hughes

It was November 1966, and Howard Hughes wanted to get away from it all.

Earlier that year, he had fled the Beverly Hills Hotel (his bungalow home since 1957) for Boston’s Ritz-Carlton. But Beantown, filled with nosy reporters and germy humidity, wasn’t congenial to America’s richest man. So, another move, this time to Las Vegas. A room at the Desert Inn on the Las Vegas Strip, he was sure, would give him the privacy he needed.

Hughes didn’t pick the Desert Inn out of the Boston Globe’s travel pages. He had stayed at the Flamingo extensively in the early 1950s and even produced the 1952 RKO flop The Las Vegas Story starring bombshell Jane Russell.

There was more than personal nostalgia drawing him back. Las Vegas Sun publisher Hank Greenspun convinced Hughes to give Las Vegas another try. After all, he already owned 22,000 acres on the city’s western edge. Known as Husite, the parcel had been the subject of speculation for more than a decade. More land was available for cheap, and property taxes were low. There were no personal or corporate income taxes, either. And, in Las Vegas—a company town if ever there was one—everyone, from porters to politicians, and especially the local news media, would respect the privacy of a man like Hughes.

So Greenspun worked the phones in Las Vegas, negotiating unsuccessfully with the Dunes before persuading Moe Dalitz to rent the top floor of the Desert Inn to Hughes.

That was how Hughes found himself in a sealed sleeper car, steaming past the cities and through the prairies of America. The man who once set air-speed records now watched the landscape slowly peel away.

At the time, Howard Hughes may have been more powerful than the president. Having inherited a fortune as a teenager, Hughes had become a record-breaking aviation and aerospace pioneer, Hollywood mogul, airline entrepreneur and political force, with massive real estate holdings, numerous business investments and lucrative defense contracts. Forced by court order to sell his interest in Trans World Airlines that year, he was flush with more than a half billion dollars in cash.

And he was coming to Las Vegas.

A bathing beauty, 1969 at the Desert Inn.Las Vegas Convention and Visitors Authority

A bathing beauty, 1969 at the Desert Inn.

Before dawn on November 27, a small fleet of automobiles, including a Ford station wagon, converged on the Union Pacific rail crossing at Carey Avenue. They were soon met by Hughes’ private train.

In a flutter of movement, file boxes, suitcases and unidentifiable equipment were moved from train to truck. Finally, two men carried a stretcher from the train bearing a lanky figure, his face shrouded. Up he went into the back of the station wagon.

The armada sped toward the Desert Inn. Once there, the truck and a few cars peeled off to the side of the building, while the station wagon and another car pulled into the porte cochère. Two members of the entourage jumped out and held an elevator, while two others lifted the stretcher from the rear, carried it through the sleepy casino and into the elevator, which sped upward. The party entered a suite on the top floor. Hughes made himself comfortable in a bedroom. He was home.

Hughes would remain in that penthouse for the next four years, waited on by five male nurse-secretaries who delivered his memos, prepared his food and attended to his increasingly bizarre requests.

To run his Nevada interests, Hughes relied on Robert Maheu, a former FBI agent who replaced Noah Dietrich as Hughes’ right hand in 1957. His energetic work among Nevada’s political and business leaders did much to quiet the storms Hughes provoked.

Even a god-king had to obey the one unbreakable law of Las Vegas: Thou shalt not keep gamblers away from the tables.

In Las Vegas, any wiseguy with a bankroll could set himself up as a boss, provided he kept out of the affairs of others. Hughes’ curve-breaking wealth made him a god-king. So the staff of the Desert Inn—and Dalitz—learned to live with their new guest.

Meanwhile, Las Vegas Review-Journal associate editor Colin McKinlay had ferreted out Hughes’ arrival. He reported that Hughes, in ill health, had arrived at the Desert Inn under mysterious circumstances. Greenspun, who had held his tongue, responded with a front-page editorial in the following day’s Sun.

“Welcome to Nevada, Howard Hughes,” Greenspun began, before asserting that Hughes’ whereabouts and health were “none of their business.” This was a modern Prometheus. “The lunar probes,” Greenspun declared, “are products of his genius.”

Having been hounded out of Boston, Hughes could bring inconceivable prosperity to Nevada. He had already “conquered outer space,” and was now ready to make some money for Nevadans. All he asked in return was a little “private space.”

“We hope,” Greenspun concluded, “he finds it.”

It may be incredible that a newspaper publisher would celebrate reporters not pursuing a major story, but this was Howard Hughes. The reporters stayed away.

Still, even a god-king had to obey the one unbreakable law of Las Vegas: Thou shalt not keep gamblers away from the tables. As the December lull bled into the preparations for New Year’s Eve, Dalitz and his managers grew antsy. He wanted to toss the billionaire—he might be the richest man in America, but he wasn’t playing. A phone call from a friend, Teamster boss Jimmy Hoffa, convinced Dalitz otherwise. This being Las Vegas, a deal could be made.

Hughes and Dalitz were the principals, but it was Maheu and Dalitz’s confidante, Allard Roen, who negotiated the deal. As can be expected, there was a fair amount of back and forth in the talks, but in the end it came down to Maheu and Roen, who reportedly finalized the sale in an elevator ride. On March 22, 1967, Maheu announced that Hughes had bought the Desert Inn, including its casino, hotel and golf course.

Howard was staying.

The New FrontierLas Vegas Convention and Visitors Authority

The New Frontier

II. The Buying

When Hughes moved, he moved quickly.

With banker E. Parry Thomas’ help, he bought, in addition to the Desert Inn, the Sands, the Castaways, the Frontier and the Silver Slipper. His purchases weren’t restricted to casinos. By September 1967, he had already acquired or optioned 21.6 acres of land south of the Frontier, the Pyramids Hotel and surrounding land near the Sands, the Hank Greenspun-founded KLAS, then (and now) the city’s CBS affiliate, Alamo Airways, the 518-acre Krupp Ranch, Spring Mountain Ranch, Warm Springs Ranch and the North Las Vegas Air Terminal (and 1,200 adjacent acres).

All of that, in addition to the Husite land and his assorted other 1950s purchases, meant that just a few months after returning to town, Hughes had an empire.

This spree only whetted Hughes’ desires; he reportedly was interested in buying the Las Vegas Review-Journal, an advertising agency, a second local television station and McCarran Airport. In late 1967, it seemed that Hughes was bent on buying the entire state of Nevada. His acquisitions made him, almost overnight, the state’s largest employer, and gave him a political blank check.

It is impossible to overstate just how big Howard Hughes was to Nevada in the late 1960s. Las Vegas was barely removed from the Kefauver-Kennedy open hostility toward legal gambling (see “The Book That Tried to End Las Vegas,” Vegas Seven September 4, 2013), and the threat of federal action against alleged organized crime redoubts in the city’s casinos was still serious.

For Gov. Paul Laxalt, Hughes’ purchases were a dream come true. His predecessor, Grant Sawyer, had barely headed off a federal mob-hunting raid on the Strip. No one, however, could impugn the integrity of a Howard Hughes-owned casino.

“Mr. Hughes’ involvement here has absolutely done us wonders,” Laxalt told Esquire magazine in 1969. “I just returned from a trip to the East … and their questions are no longer concerned with the Mafia, the skimming, the underworld. … Now they are interested in Mr. Hughes and other corporate types here and how they are getting along. I can see the change in the national press.”

Las Vegas hotel marquees 1968Las Vegas Convention and Visitors Authority

Laxalt, as Greenspun had predicted, respected Hughes’ privacy, hand-waving away the requirement that all casino owners appear in person before the Gaming Commission—a mere phone conversation would suffice.

And Hughes promised not just to buy, but to build anew as only an emperor can. In early 1968 he announced plans for a 4,000-room, $150 million addition to the Sands Hotel that would catapult Las Vegas into the next era. With a 24-hour shopping center, ice skating rink and rooms for games from chess to skeeball, the New Sands would let him put the Hughes stamp on the city while denying capital to rival Kirk Kerkorian, who was attempting to finance his International Hotel. His vast westside real estate would host a supersonic terminal, making Las Vegas an international transportation hub. Finally, he would underwrite a medical school.

One man owning this much of Nevada made a few people nervous, but with locals such as Greenspun and Thomas guiding him, most figured it was for the best. For his part, Maheu proved an astute vizier, knowing which hands to shake and which clubs to join. While Hughes provided the cash, his empire owed much to Maheu. Together, it seemed that they would remake all of Nevada.

But it was another purchase that revealed Hughes had his limits. In March 1968, he declared his intentions to buy the Stardust, a profitable but notoriously mobbed-up casino. This, the Anti-Trust Division of the U.S. Justice Department ruled, was too much. Although the state Gaming Commission, in a split vote, permitted Hughes the Stardust, the feds felt otherwise.

Denied the Stardust, Hughes felt the table starting to tilt against him. Yes, he bid for the unfinished Landmark and opened it shortly after Kerkorian’s International, but he could feel the walls closing in. He couldn’t stop atomic testing, and he’d been unable to establish complete control over Nevada. Though he was ruler of all he could see (if he ever looked out of his blacked-out windows), Hughes, when he did sleep, never awoke a happy man.

This was no life for an emperor.

III. The Vanishing

The aviator was flying again.

At 9:30 p.m. on November 25, 1970, the lights of Las Vegas were fast receding as Hughes’ Lockheed JetStar headed southeast high above. Most of the city was anticipating the following day’s Thanksgiving holiday. In the Crystal Room at the Desert Inn, nine stories below Hughes’ still-warm bed, Edie Adams and Bob Newhart had just finished their show.

Sands in 1953Las Vegas Convention and Visitors Authority

Hughes, along with assorted bric-a-brac (including an oversize pair of stereo speakers), was hustled down the fire stairs and into a waiting blue van. After a brief delay (Hughes had sent an aide back up the stairs for some papers he’d missed), the van left for Nellis Air Force Base, five decoy limousines having already sped south toward McCarran. As he had been threatening for months, the billionaire was leaving Las Vegas.

After so many years of staring at the same four walls, Howard Hughes was once more above the clouds. The billionaire was almost giddy, walking around the cabin, joking and not once nodding off.

Yet Hughes could not remain in transit forever. After refueling in Albuquerque, New Mexico, the JetStar—which Lockheed kept on standby at Hughes’ request for more than a year—headed for the Bahamas. Hughes and his entourage quickly passed through customs before being whisked to the Britannia Beach Hotel, where Hughes was, once again, installed in a ninth-floor penthouse.

The following day, another JetStar, this one crammed with files and equipment from the ninth-floor suite, departed McCarran. This was not a midnight joyride; Hughes was gone for good.

Like many other things that seem too good to be true, Hughes’ time in Las Vegas ended in tears and lawsuits.

Why did he leave? For Maheu, it was, plain and simple, a palace coup; Hughes’ attendants, led by prominent Hughes Tool executives, removed the billionaire from out of Maheu’s Nevada Operations control in order to seize his empire. Hughes himself acquiesced to the move, possibly swayed by whispered tales of Maheu’s faithlessness, possibly still freaked out by atomic testing and a host of other bugbears that plagued him in his Desert Inn bedroom. Or, it may simply have been a case of the grass being greener somewhere and not soaked with Lake Mead’s water, which Hughes had always felt was filthy.

The Las Vegas public didn’t learn about Hughes’ departure until December 3, when the Sun announced, in a screaming above-the-fold headline, “HOWARD HUGHES VANISHES.” It was all a mystery; not even Maheu knew where Hughes had been taken—in fact, he was informed that Hughes had fired him.

When, 10 days later, sheriff’s deputies raided Hughes’ former suite, they could only confirm that the billionaire was no longer there. A personal phone call from Hughes to Governor Laxalt finally settled the question of whether Hughes had been kidnapped or was even still alive. With Maheu out, business continued as usual for the Hughes Nevada properties.

Hughes would spend the next six years in several hotels: the InterContinental in Managua, Nicaragua; the Inn on the Park in London; the Xanadu Princess in Freeport, Bahamas; and the Acapulco Princess in Mexico. He died en route from Acapulco to Houston on April 5, 1976, leaving behind years of court battles over his estate.

Hughes’ legacy in Las Vegas is still a matter of debate.

Like many other things that seem too good to be true, Hughes’ time in Las Vegas ended in tears and lawsuits. Both Bob Maheu and Hank Greenspun became embroiled in litigation with Hughes; in Greenspun’s case, the action stretched on long after Hughes’ death. All promise of mutually assured prosperity vanished, just like the man himself had taken flight.

And the Hughes empire, so huge, so dominant in the Age of Aquarius, was destined to vanish. Summa Corporation, which was spun off from Hughes Tool in 2007, had sold off all of his casinos by 1987, and did not much improve them in the intervening years. Not one of his Las Vegas casinos remains in business. The last—the New Frontier—closed in 2007, four decades after he bought it.

The Landmark Hotel and Casino crumbles to the ground.

The Landmark Hotel and Casino crumbles to the ground.

For all of Hughes’ power, as far as the hospitality industry is concerned, he (and his heirs) kept his casinos in a holding pattern while they were eclipsed by bolder operators. Hughes may have brought respectability to Nevada gaming, but it was Kirk Kerkorian and Jay Sarno who set it on its modern path, and Steve Wynn, William Bennett and Sheldon Adelson (among many others) who really saw its future.

His most lasting impact was far from the Strip. In 1988, Summa (renamed the Howard Hughes Corporation in 1994) began developing the sprawling Summerlin master-planned community on the Husite land. Outside of Summerlin, the Hughes Center, Hughes Airport Center and Hughes Cheyenne Center still bear the reclusive billionaire’s name and, though few tourists ever visit them, they provide office, warehouse and industrial space.

But on the Strip, it’s as if Hughes was never there. Not a single hotel room owes itself to him, not a single girder was planned by him. Once all-conquering, the Great Recluse Emperor of Las Vegas might as well never have ruled. He did not even leave behind a statue to be immolated by the years. He has truly vanished.

And so, a half century after Hughes’ arrival, the poet’s words ring true: Nothing beside remains.

For more on Howard Hughes’ cultural impact including his films, casinos and real estate legacy, visit VegasSeven.com/HowardHughes50.

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