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TYCOONS: The Secret Life of Howard Hughes

12 minute read

He was the world’s ultimate enigma—a man so secretive, so hidden from view that no outsider could say with certainty even whether he was alive, much less how he looked or behaved. He was one of the world’s richest, most imperious, capricious, outrageous, eccentric and powerful men. From his hideaways atop a series of luxury hotels on three continents he spun a web that ensnared an entire state, reached into the highest levels of the U.S. Government and became entwined with the tentacles of the Central Intelligence Agency. Yet for all his power, he lived a sunless, joyless, half-lunatic life in those same hideaways, a virtual prisoner walled in by his own crippling fears and weaknesses. Once a dashing, vibrant figure, he neglected his appearance and health during his last 15 years until he became a pathetic wraith.

Now, eight months after his death aboard an air ambulance en route to a Houston hospital, the layers of secrecy are being peeled away. The real Howard Hughes is finally coming to life.

The peeling-away process has already started as two former key Hughes aides have been questioned in pretrial investigations into the secret life and death of the hermit billionaire. Their evidence will be used in the first major trial, scheduled to begin Jan. 10 in a Nevada state court. The trial concerns the so-called Mormon will, a handwritten document that some claim is Hughes’ last testament. More layers will fall away as Texas officials press an investigation into the legal domicile of the wandering billionaire in hopes of collecting as much as $300 million in inheritance taxes.

Another major layer is being peeled away in this issue of TIME, in the excerpts from a forthcoming book that contains many startling, fresh glimpses into Hughes’ life. Titled Howard Hughes: The Hidden Years, it will be published next month by Random House, and was written by James Phelan, 67, a crusty investigative reporter who has been covering the elusive billionaire for more than 20 years. Phelan managed to interview the only close associates from Hughes’ latter years who so far have been willing to talk. Excerpts from their often chilling testimony follow.

A number of Hughes associates, notably Noah Dietrich and onetime Aide Ron Kistler, have written about their experiences. But they date from long before Hughes went into total isolation. Only Phelan’s two sources shared Hughes’ hidden years —and broke the silence still maintained by the rest of the penthouse staffers. One is Melvin Stewart, 49, an open-faced Mormon and former barber who was the nurse who tended Hughes’ bedsores and took care of him. Beneath the easygoing manner of a small-town Utah boy, Stewart is keen and tough-minded. The other is Gordon Margulis, 45, a muscular, street-smart cockney who spent his early years in London’s tough East End. In 1965 Margulis set out to visit his sister in New York City, then rambled throughout much of the country, ending up in Las Vegas. In need of work, he took a job as busboy at the Desert Inn, thinking that a busboy drove the golf carts around the links. Instead, he soon found himself delivering food to the Hughes penthouse, where the aides presumably were impressed by his discretion and savvy.

Margulis’ main job was to prepare Hughes’ food. But he also acted as his bodyguard and during the last three years, when Hughes was no longer able to walk, lifted him whenever he needed to be moved. It was Margulis who placed the emaciated Howard Hughes aboard the jet ambulance for his last flight—a scene re-created on TIME’S cover by Artist Jim Sharpe.

Neither Stewart nor Margulis was a member of the ultrasecret inner circle of so-called executive assistants. These six men, five of them Mormons, kept a 24-hour-a-day watch over Hughes and screened all his communications. According to Stewart and Margulis, the executive aides acted in effect as his keepers, at salaries ranging as high as $110,000 a year. By contrast, Stewart and Margulis performed menial jobs at relatively low salaries—about $25,000 a year. (They will collect one-third each of the profits from the Phelan book.) They were on the perimeter of the inner circle, but, especially in Stewart’s case, they had constant access to the boss; they saw and heard a great deal.

Hughes emerges from The Hidden Years as a tortured, troubled man who wallowed in self-neglect, lapsed into periods of near-lunacy, lived without comfort or joy in prison-like conditions and ultimately died for lack of a medical device that his own foundation had helped to develop. Among the main points:

> Hughes was hooked on drugs. After he moved into the penthouse atop Las Vegas’ Desert Inn in 1966, he was consuming vast amounts of Empirin and later Valium. While beneficial for headaches and nervousness when taken in small amounts, overdosage causes doziness and mental lapses. Later Hughes began openly injecting himself—often in the groin—with hypodermics rilled with a clear fluid. Stewart and Margulis do not know what the syringes contained, but they observed the effects: Hughes would become drowsy and incoherent. His drugs, “my medication,” were kept in a metal box that was always taken with him. Whenever he was flying from one hideaway to another, Hughes would clasp a Kleenex box containing his syringe and would take several shots in a five-or six-hour period.

> Hughes’ physical appearance was horrifying. His straggly beard hung to his waist; his hair reached mid-back. His fingernails were two inches long, and his toenails grew and grew until they resembled yellow corkscrews. When he was still able, he walked with a pronounced stoop. Often he went naked. Sometimes he wore a pair of drawstring whiteunderpants (he had an aversion to buttons, metal snaps andzippers). On the three occasions during the hidden years when he metoutsiders, he underwent an elaborate barbering, cleanup and clipping of his finger-and toenails.

>Although four doctors rotated in taking care of Hughes, his medical condition was appalling. His former 6-ft. 4-in. frame had shrunk three inches, and his weight fluctuated between a high of 130 Ibs. and a cadaverous 90 Ibs. He suffered variously from anemia, arthritis and assorted other ills. Nothing plagued him more than constipation; at one time, he sat on the toilet for 72 straight hours, occasionally propping himself on a chair set next to him so he could support himself while dozing.

> After he went abroad in 1970, he no longer watched television, so he no longer knew what day it was, or sometimes even the month or season. His main amusement was watching movies. He liked any kind of plane picture except Waldo Pepper. He thought The Blue Max was great. Hughes bought prints of all the James Bond pictures, but he liked only the ones with Sean Connery. Other favorites were The Sting, Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, The Clansman and The High Commissioner. His main favorite was Ice Station Zebra, the story of a U.S.Soviet confrontation on the North Pole. He saw it at least 150 times. When his spirits were high, he sang aloud time and time again the lyrics of that jazz hit, Hey-Baba-Rebop. He drank only Poland mineral water bottled at the spring in Maine. It had to be in quarts—he refused to drink water from pint bottles. His Flying Dutchman-like wanderings from country to country cost him an estimated $ 150 million per year.

>Stewart and Margulis concede that Hughes first created his penthouse prison of his own volition. But they imply that the aides and doctors made no attempts to persuade him to change a way of life in which he was literally wasting to death.

The men who run Hughes’ Summa Corp., his aides, and his doctors may issue denials and rebuttals (those whom TIME sought to interview for their version either refused to talk or failed to return phone calls). It is true that they were dealing with a capricious, iron-willed man. They may argue that they were only obeying orders: Hughes wanted to live in utter privacy, away from the bedevilments of process servers and litigious lawyers hoping to cash in on his billions. He wanted, they may contend, protection from the prying press, which Hughes loathed with a passion. He also wanted isolation from the bacteria-filled world. Hughes was obsessed by a fear of contamination from other humans. Secretaries who typed memos that were to go to Hughes were ordered to wear white gloves while hunting and pecking. Whenever Hughes was lifted, he would place a Kleenex—”insulation,” he called it—on the palm of the right hand with which he gripped the person who carried him.

Much of the uncovering of Hughes’ past is going to take place in courts of law. At last count, 14 lawsuits were outstanding against Hughes and his wholly owned firm, the Summa Corp., which was founded in 1972 as an umbrella company for his many enterprises.

By far the most interesting cases focus on the vast estate he left behind, estimated as high as $2.3 billion. Hughes left no authenticated will—or at least none so far has been found. Although 30 or so purported wills have surfaced, most have been immediately dismissed as fakes or humorous hoaxes.

The Mormon will, however, has been taken seriously. It is so nicknamed because it appeared mysteriously, three weeks after Hughes’ death, on the desk of a public relations officer in the Salt Lake City headquarters of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. The scrawled writing on the envelope instructed David O. McKay, president of the Mormons from 1951 to 1970, to deliver it to the clerk of Clark County in Las Vegas—a city whose glitter had attracted Hughes. Handwritten and partly smudged, the document runs for three pages and is filled with misspellings (cildren for children, for example). Purportedly written in 1968, it divides Hughes’ estate into shares ranging from one-sixteenth to onequarter. Among the beneficiaries: the Mormon Church, Hughes’ medical foundation, ex-Wives Ella Rice and Jean Peters, and “my aids [sic] at the time of my death.”

All that seems reasonable enough. But another beneficiary is a Utah service-station operator named Melvin Dummar, who claims that he found a thin, raggedly dressed old man sprawled alongside a remote desert road in southern Nevada one night in 1968 and drove the old fellow back to Las Vegas. Dummar says that when his passenger got out, he claimed that he was Howard Hughes and borrowed 250 from him.

Another peculiarity of the Mormon will is that it names as executor Noah Dietrich, Hughes’ onetime chief lieutenant. Hughes had a severe falling-out with Dietrich in 1957, and the two men never patched up their relationship. Even so, Beverly Hills Attorney Harold Rhoden, who represents Dietrich on the case, has submitted the will to eight noted handwriting experts who have declared that the handwriting is Hughes’.

The Summa Corp. and Hughes’ assorted relatives all contend that the Mormon will is a fake. Summa is run by a triumvirate: Frank William Gay, 55, who is president and chief executive officer; Nadine Henley, 70, one of Hughes’ earliest assistants, who is senior vice president; and Chester Davis, 66, an abrasive Wall Street lawyer, who is Summa’s legal strategist. Hughes’ maternal nephew, William Lummis, 47, joined Summa as chairman to avoid a struggle for the spoils between the company and the relatives.

Meanwhile, with their customary secretiveness, Summa executives and Hughes’ former aides and doctors are ducking subpoena servers sent out by Rhoden. Among other things, the lawyer is trying to establish whether Hughes actually could have left the Desert Inn and ended up some 150 miles from Las Vegas, where Dummar says he found him. So far, Rhoden has managed to collar only two executive assistants for depositions. Testifying under oath, the two gave contradictory accounts.

John Holmes, the senior aide, swore that no logs were kept to record Hughes’ movements. Ray Crawford, a key aide until 1970, said detailed accounts were kept. Holmes testified that Hughes wore a neat Vandyke. Crawford describes Hughes as having a long, scraggly beard and hair that reached below his shoulders.

Under questioning, Holmes made an admission that may haunt the Summa lawyers once the trial begins. Holmes recalled that Hughes told him that he had written a holographic will, a last testament whose unwitnessed authenticity rests on identifying the handwriting of the author.

Whatever the outcome of the legal proceedings, Hughes will be one of the hottest show-biz properties of 1977. People the world over will be seeing and reading more about Howard Hughes next year than at any time since he was setting new air records and squiring numerous beautiful women in the 1940s and ’50s. Warner Bros, is planning to make The Howard Hughes Story, possibly starring Warren Beatty; Universal has an option on The Melvin Dummar Story. NBC, CBS and ABC all are producing specials on Hughes. The British Broadcasting Corp. and CTV are teaming up to produce a 90-minute dramatized documentary. Seven books are in the works, including a William Morrow edition titled His Weird and Wanton Ways: The Secret of Howard Hughes, by Richard Mathison.

For the Phelan book, Random House plans an exceptionally big first printing of 50,000 copies. To the closest aficionados of Hughesiana, large parts of Phelan’s book will not be new, and the writing is sometimes flatfooted. But Phelan has unearthed an impressive amount of new material, and the story he tells is suspenseful, sometimes pathetically humorous, and always absorbing.

In his prime, Hughes was the archetypal American hero —the daring aviator and indefatigable tinkerer who spurred science to new horizons. He owned one of the most crucial defense firms in the U.S. (Hughes Aircraft), a flag-carrying airline (TWA) and myriad companies whose prosperity guaranteed the welfare of dozens of communities. Even during the hidden penthouse years, Hughes exercised great influence at the highest levels of Government. As he wasted away in the Desert Inn, the CIA used him for a cover in an operation fraught with serious international repercussions.

The circumstances of his last years and his death require clarification. In his book, Phelan makes no claim to have uncovered the whole truth. But he has made a beginning.

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