• U.S.

The Nation: Scenes from the Hidden Years

41 minute read

Herewith excerpts from James Phelan’s book.

Mell Stewart, then a suburban Los Angeles barber, was mysteriously summoned to the Beverly Hills Hotel in spring, 1961.

In due course a man edged up to Stewart in the hotel lobby, gave him the password, and said “Follow me.” He led him out of the hotel lobby and through the lushly landscaped gardens to a bungalow. At the door he gave a coded knock —one rap, followed by four quicker raps, a pause, and then two more raps. It was a knock Stewart would use hundreds of times in years to come.

Stewart was admitted by a man who introduced himself as John Holmes (see box on aides). Holmes gave Stewart detailed instructions. He was to scrub up, doctor-style, in the bathroom before beginning the haircutting. Then he was to put on a pair of surgical gloves. He was to have no foreign objects, such as pencils or pens, on his person. And finally, he was not to speak to the man whose hair he had been summoned to cut.

“You can make signs, but you are not to say a word to him,” said Holmes. “And you are not to tell anyone about this entire matter.”

Stewart sat and waited for several hours, his imagination speculating wildly on the reasons for all these James Bond-like instructions.

Finally Holmes said, “Okay, Mr. Hughes will see you now,” and took him into the bedroom.

What he found stunned him.

“I’m a country boy,” Stewart says, “and I expected that a billionaire would surround himself in luxury, with Rembrandt paintings on the walls and exquisite furniture. I found a skinny, bare-assed naked man sitting on an unmade three-quarter bed. His hair hung about a foot down his back. His beard was straggly and down to his chest. I tried not to act surprised, as if I was used to meeting naked billionaires sitting on unmade beds. I started to put my case with the barber tools on a chair. Hughes shouted, ‘No, no! Not on the chair!’ ”

Hughes turned to Holmes and said, “Get some insulation for our friend to put his equipment on.” Holmes got a roll of paper towels and laid out a layer on a nearby sideboard. The sideboard was already covered with a sheet, and so was the other furniture in the bedroom.

Holmes spread another sheet on the floor, and then placed a chair in the center of it. Stewart scrubbed up and started to pull on the rubber surgical gloves.

Hughes looked at him quizzically. “What the hell are you going to do with those gloves on?” he asked.

“I began to feel like Alice in Wonderland,” Stewart says. “Holmes had ordered me to put on the gloves and not to speak to Hughes under any circumstance. Now Hughes had asked me a question, and I didn’t know how to make signs that would explain why I was putting on the rubber gloves.”

Stewart summoned his courage and broke the no-talking rule. “I put on the gloves,” he said, “because Mr. Holmes told me to put them on.”

“You can’t cut hair with rubber gloves on!” said Hughes in exasperation. “Take them off.”

Barbering Hughes took three hours. There were a series of special procedures, which Hughes outlined in detail. Stewart was to use one set of combs and scissors to cut his beard, but a different set to cut his hair. Before Stewart began, Hughes ordered a series of wide-mouthed jars filled with isopropyl alcohol. When Stewart used a comb, he was to dip it into the alcohol before using it again, to “sterilize” it.

While Stewart was trimming his hair on either side of his head, Hughes carefully folded his ears down tight “so none of that hair will get in me.”

Stewart trimmed his beard to a short, neat Vandyke and gave his hair a tapered cut well above the collar line.

A few days later an emissary gave Stewart $ 1,000.

When Hughes moved to the Desert Inn in November 1966, he constructed elaborate precautions in his penthouse.

The ninth-floor button was removed from the elevators that served the new high-rise addition. Only those with a key could take the elevators above the eighth floor. Directly facing the elevator door, when one emerged, was an armed guard at a desk.

Beyond the guards’ desk, Hughes had a partition installed with a locked door. This served a dual purpose. If anyone managed to manipulate the elevator lock or acquire a copy of the key, they would be isolated in the landing space with the guard. The second purpose of the partition was to preclude Hughes’ guards from glimpsing Hughes in the event he left his darkened bedroom. In his four years at the Desert Inn, his own guards, stationed only a few yards away, never saw their employer.

The eighth-floor bedroom immediately below Hughes’ room was kept vacant and locked. This was to forestall any “enemies” from eavesdropping with special listening equipment.

The aides occupied the middle room of a three-room suite called Penthouse One. [It was the command post, referred to as The Office in the aides’ jargon.] It had a door with a peephole grill. Anyone passed through the partition door had to undergo a second inspection before being admitted to The Office.

Whatever his other phobias, Hughes did not suffer from claustrophobia. His bedroom was the smallest on the penthouse floor. It measured only 15 by 17 feet (“infinite riches in a little room”), considerably smaller than the usual “master” bedroom in a low-priced tract house. Even this meager lebensraum was further cramped by stacks of newspapers and magazines.

To summon his aides he had a small silver bell, but he rarely used it. Alongside his lounge chair he kept a brown paper bag for his “contaminated” Kleenex insulation. When he wanted an aide, he snapped his finger smartly against the bag. His overlong fingernails produced a drumlike whaap whaap that brought an aide on the double.

His eyesight was bad, but he would not wear glasses. He used a number of magnifying glasses that he called “my peep-stones,” one of which had a battery-powered light for use when the dim-lit bedroom was too dark. Except for rare occasions, he spurned his collection of hearing devices. “He could understand if you stood face to face and talked loudly,” Stewart says. “But often he would say, ‘Aw shit, write it out for me.’ ”

Surrounded by self-created disorder, he wanted certain things just so. He liked his documents neatly and precisely stacked. From behind the closed door of his bedroom, sometimes for an hour or more, would come a muffled thump, thump, thump. The first time Margulis heard it, he asked, “What the hell is that?”

“The boss is stacking his papers,” the aide on duty said.

Later Margulis watched him many times. “He would take a thick sheaf of papers, whack them down lengthwise to align them, turn them, whack the topside, then the third side, then the bottom. Then he’d do it all over again, over and over.”

As Margulis soon learned, Hughes was an incredibly capricious eater.

At the Desert Inn, he went for a marathon stretch subsisting on Campbell’s canned chicken soup. [During his Campbell’s soup period he maintained Margulis on full-time duty to warm up his canned soup to the precise temperature he preferred.] While living week in and week out on a diet that a ten-cent-store clerk would have spurned, he was as finicky as a habitue of Maxim’s about its preparation.

“It was not unusual for Hughes to take eight hours to consume the two bowls of soup produced by a single can,” Margulis recalls. “He would eat a spoonful and then get interested in watching a movie on his projector—often a movie he had already seen twenty times. The soup would cool down and he would send it back to be reheated. It had to be heated carefully, so that it would be hot enough but not too hot.

“He would eat another spoonful or so, get involved in the movie again and send the soup back to be reheated. There were times when I reheated the same can of soup ten or twelve times.”

When he came off his marathon canned chicken-soup diet, he switched to the hotel’s vegetable soup. “Now this is only a trial period,” Hughes said, “because I want it just the way I like it, and it has to be right.”

Hughes instructed that his soup be prepared separately from that for hotel diners. It was to be cooked only in a stainless steel pot and with bottled Poland water. He tried the vegetable soup three times, labeling them Batch One, Two, and Three, and then designated one of the batches as acceptable.

“The chef told me later,” said Margulis, “that he had used the same recipe each time.”

[When Hughes settled on a menu,] he would demand the same meal every day. This precipitated the great Baskin-Robbins ice-cream fiasco.

He tried some of Baskin-Robbins’ 31 varieties of ice cream, chose banana-nut as his favorite, and had two scoops of it with every meal for months.

The staff kept it constantly on hand.

One day the ice-cream supply was running low, and Mell Stewart was sent to the local Baskin-Robbins to replenish it. He came back with bleak news. The ice-cream chain, which adds new varieties periodically and drops others, had discontinued the Hughes favorite. No more banana-nut.

The aides went into a panic. There were only about six or eight scoops left, and then what? One of the aides saw a way out of the looming crisis. He told Stewart to telephone the Baskin-Robbins office in California and ask if they could make up a special batch of banana-nut.

“I got on the telephone and talked to one of the executives,” Stewart says. “He said they didn’t ordinarily do this, but it could be done.

“I asked what was the smallest batch they could make on special order. He said 350 gallons.”

Stewart’s mind reeled. “[But] by now 1 was beginning to understand how things worked in the Hughes organization,” Stewart said. “You did what you had to do. So I took a deep breath and told him to make up the batch at once.”

The food manager at the Desert Inn had been alerted that some ice cream was coming in for Hughes and that it was supposed to be kept secret. “We still had a few scoops of the old banana-nut left when the new banana-nut arrived,” Margulis says. “So we were all set for the rest of Hughes’ lifetime.”

When the ice cream was served to Hughes the next day, he ate it and declared, “That’s great ice cream, but it’s time for a change. From now on, I want French vanilla.” appointed a relative newcomer to the organization as his alter-ego and chief representative to the outside world: Robert Maheu, a former CIA and FBI operative. Hughes built Maheu a $640,000 mansion on the grounds of the Desert Inn.

The single most important feature of the Maheu house was a direct telephone line to the Hughes penthouse. Hughes could now pick up the telephone and talk to his new right-hand man without going through the Romaine switchboard.*

“There were times when I thought the telephone had grown to my ear,” says Maheu. “One day I spent 20 hours on the phone with him. It was not unusual for him to call me ten, fifteen, even thirty times a day.”

Could, these conversations have been captured on a split-screen movie and shown to someone unfamiliar with the pair, the viewer would have assumed that Maheu was the billionaire and that he was talking to some scruffy indigent who had just had all his clothes stolen.

Hughes plainly saw Maheu as his alter-ego. Maheu was the magic telephone booth into which Hughes could limp and then spring forth as the long-vanished SuperHughes. He could stride out into the world in the form of Maheu, deal with Presidents, governors, bankers, and Mafia chieftains, whisk himself where he wished in an executive jet, throw big parties without a thought of all the germs the guests harbored.

Reclining on his paper-towel insulated lounge chair, the billionaire wrote entire scripts for Maheu-Hughes to play out for him in the exciting but fearsome world. When Maheu did not come back as quickly as possible with his report on a project, Hughes would get anxious. “Let me hear from you, Bob. I want to know that you agree with me.”

He was sensitive to Maheu’s disfavor. “You frequently get annoyed with me if I interrogate you in any way that might possibly be considered as an expression of uncertain faith and confidence. Now, Bob, I don’t know if I can do anything at this late date, but I certainly think we both should give it an all-out effort. Why don’t you work your angles and I will work mine and let’s hope that between us we can accomplish it.” The “apprehensions and restlessness” centered on a possibility that Arnold Palmer and Jack Nicklaus might not appear at a Hughes-sponsored golf tournament.

In one memo, Hughes glimpsed that his mind was not functioning properly. “Bob, I have only three really serious problems that might prevent an activation of the mining properties, the new hotels, the automobile race track, and even a few more Nevada projects. These three are: 1. The new Showboat [a rival Las Vegas casino]. 2. The race track legislation which must have the most immediate attention.

“Bob, I know this sounds odd, but I cannot remember the 3rd item. It is equally important with the other 2. So that makes it even more surprising that I have forgotten it. However, I will remember it very soon and convey it to you just the minute my brain starts to work.”

Sometimes Hughes would sit for hours, silent and brooding, in his little Desert Inn bedroom. He would gather the long hair streaming down his back, pull it up over the top of his head, then let it fall, gather it up, let it fall. [Then] he would pick up the phone and tell Maheu: “Bob, I’m lonesome.”

Hughes soon found himself unwittingly involved in a power struggle that pitted Gay, an old-line Hughes executive, and Davis, the chief legal counsel, against Maheu for control of the empire. The executive aides blocked Maheu’s communications with Hughes and convinced Hughes that Maheu had been stealing from him. Enraged, Hughes ordered Davis and Gay to fire Maheu, but first Hughes secretly slipped out of Las Vegas on the eve of Thanksgiving Day, 1970, to avoid the fireworks.

The door to Hughes’ bedroom opened and the billionaire was brought out on a stretcher. His grey hair, a foot and a half long, was incongruously topped by a snap-brim brown Stetson, the kind that had been his trademark back in the 1930s when he was breaking world records as a pilot. (Months earlier Mell Stewart had scoured Las Vegas men’s shops to find the Stetson. Hughes had insisted that the proper out-of-date hat be found for him.) His eyes were sunken, with dark circles under them, and his weight was down around 115 pounds. He was clad in a pair of blue pajamas, and from what Gordon could see, his legs and lower arms were almost bone thin.

He was lying face up on the stretcher with a pillow covered by a plastic bag under his head. “He was in bad shape, but he was lucid and coherent,” says Margulis. “We picked him up. I took the front end of the stretcher with Eckersley, Holmes, and Francom at the other end.”

The penthouse floor has two interior fire escapes. One opens off the elevator landing where the guard was stationed. The other is at the far end of the corridor and exits on the Strip side of the Desert Inn. The departure was made by this path so that Hughes could not be seen by his own guard.

The silent group moved out of The Office, turned right and went down the fire escape. Margulis went first, holding the front of the stretcher high to keep it level. They descended carefully, a step at a time, for nine floors, like a solemn religious procession bearing aloft a sacred relic or ikon.

“It’s pretty narrow in here,” Hughes piped up during the descent. “I guess it’s a good thing I’ve lost weight.”

“Keep your arms at your side,” Margulis cautioned him, “and we’ll make it all right.”

On the ground floor a lookout signaled all-clear, and the pace quickened. The stretcher was swiftly placed in a waiting, unmarked van. Eckersley, Holmes, and Francom piled in, and the van slid out onto the deserted Strip and headed for Nellis [Air Force Base near Las Vegas].

At Nellis the two pilots were ordered to walk off in the darkness and face away from the plane. With Hughes sequestered in the rear of the plane, the two pilots were allowed to board but were warned not to look back at any time during the flight.

On Thanksgiving Day, Margulis went through a charade to establish that Hughes, by then safely hidden 3,000 miles away, was still at the Desert Inn. He went down to the Desert Inn kitchen in the morning and ordered a “special turkey dinner for the boss.” The chefs spent most of the day preparing it. When it was ready, Margulis put it on a serving cart, wheeled it to the elevator, and took it up to the abandoned penthouse.

“Dinner for the boss,” he told the guard, as he pushed the cart through the partition door. The dinner was consumed by two functionaries. [Meanwhile,] Stewart and three others cleaned up the billionaire’s little bedroom. “It was—well, pretty awful,” says Stewart. “There hadn’t been a maid in the room for four years, and it had never been vacuumed or dusted.”

Stewart’s job was to dispose of Hughes’ empty bottles of pain-killing drugs. They had been stacked on a wide shelf in the bedroom closet, and when Stewart opened the door he was astonished at the sight. “There must have been a hundred of them,” he says. “I didn’t count them, but they were stacked on top of each other, and they almost filled the shelf space.”

The three other functionaries had to deal with an even darker Hughes secret. For years he had had the habit of urinating into a wide-mouthed Mason jar while reclining on his lounge chair. His kidneys were malfunctioning long before they failed in Acapulco and precipitated his death. Relieving himself took hours, and he was too weak to sit all that time in the bathroom. Instead of being emptied, the jars had been capped and stacked in a [room across the hall]. The employees had to get rid of a three-year supply of Hughes’ urine and then destroy the jars. One aide kept going off to an adjoining bathroom to retch.

Hughes was spirited to the top floor of the Britannia Beach Hotel on Paradise Island, just off Nassau. It was a destination that Maheu had earlier warned him against because the blacks were seizing political power there. But Hughes reckoned the blacks “ought to be content and happy with tourists’ tips.” He lived there for 15 months in quiet seclusion. Then Author Clifford Irving produced a bogus biography of Hughes. Hughes was only mildly disturbed. “He did not get any of my money,” he would say. Still, in order to denounce the book as a fraud, Hughes held a telephone conversation with a group of reporters who had known him in earlier days. The uproar caused by the Irving hoax attracted the attention of black politicians to the rich Whitey—and his aides living without proper residence or work permits in their country. They decided to break down his door to have a look at him.

While Bahamian officials rampaged through Hughes’ penthouse and seized three aides for immediate deportation, Hughes was hidden in a spare room on the sixth floor of the hotel. Meanwhile, a former Secret Service agent named Jim Golden arranged for an 83-ft. powerboat to spirit Hughes to Florida.

On the sunny afternoon of February 15, 1972, if any of the guests lounging around the pool of the Britannia Beach Hotel had lifted their gaze toward the top floor they would have observed an astonishing sight. They would have seen the richest man in the United States being hustled down the outdoor fire escape on a stretcher borne by three men.

Hughes was loaded into a van behind the hotel. The party drove, with the van’s lights off, out of the hotel grounds and down to the waiting Cygnus. [Captain Bob] Rehak and his mate, a man named Donald Hout, were waiting. This time the rituals [to keep Hughes invisible] were dispensed with and Hughes, clad only in pajama tops and his old bathrobe, was loaded into the wheelhouse, in full view of the two strangers.

The trip to the mainland took twenty-two hours. The sea was rough and the Cygnus pitched and rolled. After a while they took Hughes back into a stateroom and gave him some Dramamine to ward off seasickness, but he proved a good sailor and made the trip well.

Margulis fared much worse. The ship reeked of fresh paint and diesel oil, and within an hour Margulis was stricken with seasickness. “I just stretched out on the floor of the stateroom and tried to tell myself that I wasn’t going to die. After a while I didn’t care if I did.”

Hughes asked Eckersley, “What’s Gordon doing on that floor? Floors are filthy, and he knows better than that.”

[Eventually] Rehak brought the Cygnus into Biscayne Bay and docked it at a luxurious house that Bill Gay maintained there. Gay wanted Hughes moved into the house for a few days [and to have] some dental work [done, but] “Hughes never liked that Florida house, and he refused to go into it,” Margulis said. “Golden had made arrangements and a U.S. Customs man was waiting in Florida to pass us on through to Nicaragua.”

Hughes was driven in a van to Fort Lauderdale airport, and a leased executive jet took him to Nicaragua. A few weeks later, the captain of the Cygnus gave an interview to the Miami Herald in which he described in detail the appearance of his famed passenger —long toenails, unkempt hair, beard and all. Even though it was accurate, Hughes apparently felt compelled to dispel that image. Hence when Nicaraguan President Anastasio Somoza sent a request through U.S. Ambassador Turner Shelton for a meeting, Hughes, who was about to leave for Canada, decided to accept.

Some of the aides were upset. If he started meeting with outsiders, where would it all lead? If Hughes re-entered the world, their control over him would end and so would their reason for existence. Then one day Hughes sent word that he wanted to be barbered and groomed. Mell Stewart brought in his tools and set about lopping the great fall of hair and the straggling beard. Margulis accompanied Stewart, and this displeased Hughes.

“What’s Gordon doing in here?” Hughes demanded.

“He’s going to help me,” Stewart replied.

“But Gordon handles the food,” Hughes complained. “We don’t want my food handler in here when I’m getting my hair cut.”

“Mr. Hughes, haven’t you ever heard of soap and water?’ Stewart asked in exasperation. “When he’s through here, Gordon goes and washes up.'”

Grooming Hughes in Nicaragua took longer than usual. Other than minor moustache trimming, Hughes hadn’t been barbered for three or four years. One of his oddities was that he never made any reference to—or explanation of—his long periods of self-neglect. Neither did his aides. It was a subject that was not discussed, the way a close family might ignore a behavioral peculiarity of a distinctly eccentric but very rich uncle.

When they trimmed his nails, Hughes insisted that they leave his left thumbnail about a half-inch long and squared off.

“That’s my screwdriver,” he said. “Don’t trim my screwdriver too short.” He used his thumbnail to flick pages in his documents, and to tighten loose screws or make adjustments in his movie sound equipment or other appliances.

“The only reason I could figure out why he used his thumbnail,” said Margulis, “was that it did away with handling a screwdriver, which might have germs on it. Handling inanimate objects had developed into a complicated ritual. When you were going to bring him a spoon, for example, the spoon handle had to be wrapped in Kleenex and Scotch-taped. Then you would take another piece of Kleenex to hold the Kleenex wrapping, so the wrapping wouldn’t get contaminated. He would lift the wrapped spoon off the piece of Kleenex you were holding it with.”

“He looked like a different man when we got him shaved and barbered and groomed,” said Stewart.

The audience with Somoza and Shelton took place aboard the Hughes executive jet at the airport. Hughes was removed from the hotel in a wheelchair, taken to the airport, and put aboard the plane before his visitors arrived.

He greeted the president of Nicaragua and the U.S. ambassador wearing his pajama bottoms, his bathrobe and his old sandals. The tall, emaciated billionaire and the stocky, bespectacled dictator hit it off well. They had much in common; in many ways their coming together was comparable to a state visit between two sovereigns.

The meeting lasted some forty-five minutes. As the conversation went on, the senior aides began to get restless, and Somoza said that he did not want to hold up their departure.

“Don’t worry about it,” said Hughes. “This plane isn’t going to go anywhere until I’m ready.” [Later Ambassador Shelton told the press:] “His hair was cut short like he used to wear it. He shook hands with both of us, and had a firm handshake. It is absolutely nonsense what has been printed about his nails being as long as Fu Manchu’s. His fingernails were as well manicured as yours or mine.”

From Managua, Hughes was whisked in an executive jet to Vancouver on March 12, 1972. His anxiety about the progress of the flight is reflected in his handwritten notes to Aide Holmes (see illustration). The top floor of the Bayshore Inn, overlooking Vancouver Bay, had been reserved for Hughes and his entourage.

When they took Hughes up the elevator to the suite they had picked out for him, Hughes went over to the window and looked out, instead of scuttling into his bedroom.

“The aides had picked the big middle room for The Office,” Margulis said. “The boss gazed out the window a little while and watched a seaplane landing in the harbor. He said he liked the view.

“The aides didn’t like that one bit,” said Margulis. They told me to get him away from the window and into his bedroom.

“Then something happened that really frosted me. The boss said he liked the big room and the view and said it would make a nice sitting room for him. He hadn’t had a sitting room for years, and he’d always had the windows taped and never looked out.

“They warned him that somebody could fly past the sitting room in a helicopter and shoot his picture with a telephoto lens. ‘Here’s your room,’ they told him, and took him into another little blacked-out bedroom, with the draperies all taped down tight. He just went along with them, and they had him back in his cave again. After a while he got into bed, and called for a movie, and everything was just the way it had been for years.”

Upon his arrival in Canada, government authorities granted Hughes the customary six-month tax holiday. Two weeks before it ended, he flew back to Managua, where no one bothered him about taxes. Then, in the early morning of Dec. 23, 1972, a series of earthquakes, rated at 6.25 on the Richter scale, struck the Nicaraguan capital, destroying 75% of the city and leaving 7,000 people dead.

Hughes had narrowly escaped injury when the quake toppled his movie sound amplifier. [Jim] Rickard had caught it just as it was about to fall on the billionaire.

“Hughes was lying in bed naked,” Stewart said. “The room was still heaving and it felt as if the hotel was going to collapse in a heap. The boss had to be the calmest man in Managua. He kept saying that he would be all right. He didn’t show any anxiety about getting out of the hotel. He asked me ‘What is the extent of the damage?’

“I dashed to the window, looked out, and told him the whole town was falling down. I don’t know whether he didn’t hear me or didn’t understand, but this didn’t seem to bother him. He said something about watching a movie.”

Stewart tried to get the naked billionaire dressed, but couldn’t find any of his drawstring shorts. Hughes kept saying that he was all right, he’d borrow Stewart’s underwear.

“I yelled at him that mine wouldn’t fit him,” Stewart said. “We could have put two Hugheses in one pair of my shorts.”

Stewart finally located a pair of shorts, Hughes’ old bathrobe and his sandals, and got the emaciated billionaire dressed. Before he would leave, he demanded that Stewart retrieve his metal box of drugs.

“That box was always the first thing the boss thought about. He wouldn’t move anywhere without that box,” said Stewart.

Hughes was put on a stretcher and, since the quake had knocked out the elevators, carried down a cluttered stairwell.

The Hughes party had two Mercedes in the parking lot. They put Hughes in the back seat of one of them and Stewart with him, and drove to an adjoining baseball field. Aftershocks from the quake were still shaking the hotel and they parked in the open so the hotel wouldn’t crash down on them.

When the quake waned, Stewart went back into the hotel and retrieved a pillow and a blanket for Hughes. As soon as he was made comfortable, he went to sleep.

Eckersley dropped off Hughes and Stewart at the Somoza house, where Stewart secluded the billionaire in a large cabana alongside the pool.

Hughes seemed strangely aloof from the devastation around him. “He never asked once about the death toll,” Stewart said. “At one point he did say some funds should be sent down from his organization to help rebuild the hospitals. Later I was told that Bill Gay vetoed the idea of giving Nicaragua any money.”

From the smoldering ruins of Managua, Hughes sought refuge at London’s handsome Inn on the Park, where the arrangements were made by the British branch of the Rothschild family. While in London, Hughes received one of the greatest thrills of his life—after twelve years of bitter litigation, which he had lost at every level of the federal judiciary, the Supreme Court reversed earlier rulings and declared that he was not guilty under antitrust laws of imposing self-serving deals on TWA, and dismissed a $170 million judgment that had been hanging over his head. His spirits were so buoyed that he decided to take the controls of an aircraft again.

But if he was going to fly, he would have to have some clothes. He could hardly man the controls of a jet wearing his drawstring shorts and an old bathrobe. Margulis got the assignment of outfitting Hughes. “We went out to Simpson’s in the West End, a very expensive establishment. I’d always wanted to buy clothes at Simpson’s. I bought eight light-blue shirts—four with short sleeves and four with long sleeves—and two suits. I didn’t ask the price of anything. I don’t know what the salespeople thought.

“After I bought those clothes, Mr. Hughes decided that he wanted the kind of old leather flight jacket that he had worn when he was flying back in the 1930s and 1940s. We went back out and scoured London, and finally found the right kind of leather jacket in a thrift shop.

“Then we discovered that his old snap-brim hat was missing, the one Mell had rustled up for him in Las Vegas. It probably got left behind in Managua during the earthquake. So I had to go out and find a snap-brim Stetson, which wasn’t the easiest thing to do in London in 1973. I located some at Dunn’s hat shop. We were in luck and they had his size.

“While we were fitting him out, I tried to get him a new supply of drawstring shorts, because he was down to just a couple of pair. If there is any shop in London that carries drawstring shorts I wasn’t able to find it.”

The where-do-we-get-drawstring-shorts question was solved internally by the Hughes entourage. Fred Jayka [an outer-circle jack-of-all-trades] said he was an amateur tailor and would be happy to whip up some underwear for the billionaire.

[Hughes] was sixty-seven years old, hadn’t flown for at least twelve years, and his eyesight was so poor he couldn’t read without a magnifying glass. His weight was down to around 120 pounds, and he was poorly coordinated. On top of all this, he did not have a valid pilot’s license. His medical certificate had expired in the late 1950s. For several years thereafter, rather than risk a turndown by an examining doctor, he had simply flown without one.

No one in his entourage was about to raise any legal objections to the billionaire’s plans. None of them, however, was eager to go along with him physically. Stewart put it bluntly. “Howard Hughes doesn’t have enough money to get me on a plane that he’s flying.”

Jack Real [a former Hughes flying companion who was a member of the entourage] had a private jet brought in and stationed at Hatchfield airport. [He] had lined up a young English jet pilot, Tony Blackburn, to fly with Hughes. No one seriously thought that Hughes actually proposed to handle the plane in the takeoff and landing; he could hold down the copilot’s seat and take over the controls for a while. When this was diplomatically spelled out, he objected strenuously. “What do you mean, I fly copilot?” he complained. “I’ve never flown copilot in my life.”

Blackburn, a young man with his whole life ahead of him, was adamant. Hughes grumbled but gave in.

Finally one morning, Margulis got the order for the chicken sandwiches that Hughes [always asked for when he] was going off on a plane. [Margulis] made up a packet, along with the mandatory bottle of Poland water, and helped Hughes descend from his hideout down the service elevator to the hotel garage. With his snap-brim hat and his leather jacket, the man who had broken the round-the-world flight record almost forty years earlier boarded an old Daimler limousine and went off to relive the joys of long-gone days.

A few weeks later, disaster struck. As he was being helped by an aide to the bathroom, Hughes slipped and fell, fracturing his right femur. Hughes wanted to be operated on in his hotel room, but British Surgeon Walter Robinson insisted that he would perform the operation only in a hospital. Hughes relented—but he demanded to leave the clinic before the fracture had properly mended. Result: he refused even to try to walk again. From then on, his life, which had seemed on the upturn, took a tragic downward plunge. He was taken to the Xanadu Princess Hotel in Freeport, where the Bahamians this time were happy to welcome him. Then, after two years, he was moved again—this time to the pyramidal Princess Hotel in Acapulco.

When they wheeled him into the elevator at Acapulco, the door malfunctioned. The door would close, but the elevator wouldn’t move, and then the door would open again.

“We just stayed there, while the door opened and closed, until finally Hughes became aware something was wrong,” said Margulis. “He asked me what the hell was going on. I made a little joke. I told him, ‘This is your new room. We’ll bring your bed in soon, and this is where you’re going to live.’

“He caught on in a little while, made his O.K. signal with his thumb and his first finger in a circle and managed a little smile. It was the last time I ever saw him smile.

“Then the elevator worked and we took him up to his new bedroom. When I carried him in, it was like carrying a frail, long-legged child.”

In Acapulco, Hughes’ condition worsened, but his retinue seemed confused and powerless. The chief physician, Dr. Wilbur Thain, a general practitioner from Utah who is the brother-in-law of Bill Gay, was not even there. He had gone off a few days earlier to Florida. In his absence, the other physicians seemed unable to take any decisive action. On Saturday, April 3, 1976, Margulis stepped into the small, blacked-out room where Hughes lay dying.

It was dark, silent, timeless, a room that could have been anywhere or nowhere, a setting out of Kafka.

Facing Hughes at the foot of his bed, as always, was his movie screen. Behind his bed, as always, was his movie projector. Alongside the bed was his special amplifier for the movie sound track, its controls in easy reach. For years he had lain in bed watching movies, immersed in a series of two-dimensional worlds that he chose himself and totally controlled. He ran his favorites over and over, the sound turned up to accommodate his impaired hearing, the dialogue booming and reverberating in the darkened room. He had run his No. 1 choice, Ice Station Zebra, more than 150 times, until his functionaries knew the entire sound track by heart.

But now the screen was dark, the amplifier silent. His body was starved, dehydrated and atrophied to a pitiful skeleton resembling those of the victims of Dachau and Buchenwald. He weighed barely ninety pounds. His one-time 6′ 4″ frame had shrunk three inches. His legs and arms were pipestem thin, so fragile that a strong child might have snapped them like a wishbone. On his back were two severe bedsores that had plagued him for years. His pelvis jutted sharply, uncushioned by flesh. On his right side one could see the outline of a metal surgical pin that had repaired, after a fashion, the hip bone he had snapped more than two years earlier in a fall.

Margulis stood inside the bedroom door, a dozen feet or so from his employer. He could see the shallow rise and fall of Hughes’ thin chest. He watched the figure on the bed for four or five minutes. Then Hughes opened his eyes and stared for a long time at the ceiling. Finally he turned his head to the left, away from Margulis. He reached out a thin arm to a Kleenex box and took out a hypodermic syringe tucked in under the open flap. It was filled with a clear liquid. Hughes held it for a while in his left hand, contemplating it. He turned it several times and tilted it, as if to assure himself that the syringe was charged. Then he reached across his chest and inserted the needle laterally into the outside of his right arm alongside the shrunken bicep.

The movement apparently exhausted him. He fumbled clumsily with the plunger but couldn’t depress it. He tried several times and gave up. The syringe hung for a moment from his right arm, and then dropped to the bed.

Margulis then summoned Aide George Francom. Hughes turned his head and stared at him.

“I didn’t get it,” he said, making a weak gesture toward his right arm. He was not aware that the syringe had fallen from his arm. “Give it to me, George,” he said.

Francom shook his head firmly. “That’s a doctor’s job,” he said. Although Hughes couldn’t hear him, he could see his gesture of refusal. He turned to Margulis. “Give me all of it, Gordon,” he commanded.

“I won’t fool with that crap,” Gordon told Francom, and turned to walk out.

“Hey, Gordon,” Hughes called weakly. “Hey, ay, ay, ay.”

[Gordon] had known about the drug injections for years. One day he had come upon Hughes and his syringe by happenstance. At first Hughes had hidden the syringe away whenever he saw Gordon. But after a while he abandoned his dissembling and had shot himself up openly in Gordon’s presence. Hughes used the syringe in his arm and also, in a routine that made Gordon cringe, shot drugs into his groin, usually on the upper inside of his thighs.

Hughes’ drugs were the province of the doctors, or at least some of the doctors. There were four in the Hughes entourage,-but they were not on an equal footing or in agreement about their patient. There had been an argument with one of them because he had refused to apply for a narcotics license, and this had angered Hughes.

“Fire the son of a bitch,” Hughes had ordered. Then he added, as he usually did when someone had achieved close access to him, “but keep him on the payroll.” By retaining people he had “fired” on his payroll, he kept a rein on them, so they would not disclose any of his secrets to the outside world.

Others of the Palace Guard were also involved somehow with Hughes’ drugs and metal “medication” box, Margulis and Stewart had observed. From time to time, certain aides would bring in sealed packets or envelopes to replenish or add to whatever was in the metal box. These packets were referred to cryptically as “The Man’s goodies.”

What Hughes plainly needed, Margulis thought, was forced intravenous feeding, but not until his last few hours was an attempt made to drip nourishment into his wasting body. In his last three days Hughes consumed only a few swallows of water and milk and a few spoonfuls of dessert. “At least the aides said he ate a little dessert,” Margulis said, “but I didn’t see him do it.”

At some point during his last days in the humid, blacked—out bedroom his kidneys failed, and he began to suffer uremic poisoning. As the subsequent autopsy disclosed, his kidneys had atrophied to less than half their normal size and weight.

“When the doctors decided to run [a] test,” said Margulis, “a Mexican nurse was called in to pick up [the blood] for testing. Then they couldn’t tell the nurse what they wanted done with the sample because she didn’t speak English and no one spoke Spanish.”

Finally one of the aides remembered that a man on duty at the Summa office in Las Vegas, John Larsen, spoke Spanish. “So they set up a conference call with Larsen, which took further time,” Margulis said. “Dr. Chaffin was on the phone in The Office, the nurse was on an extension in Eric Bundy’s telephone room, and they were both connected with Larsen in Las Vegas. The doctor would tell Larsen in English what he wanted done. Larsen would question him until he was sure he understood the instructions. Then he would translate them into Spanish and relay them back to the nurse, who was in the room next to Dr. Chaffin. When she had questions, she would put them in Spanish to Larsen in Las Vegas, and he would relay them in English back to Dr. Chaffin.

Medical specialists said later that the proper procedure would have been to put Hughes on a kidney dialysis machine. Ironically, his Howard Hughes Medical Institute in Florida had done considerable research to advance this life-saving procedure. But there was no kidney dialysis machine available at the Acapulco Princess Hotel.

“Even before the test results came in,” Margulis said, “everybody was asking what we would do if he died. But nobody said, ‘Let’s do something.’ We had one meeting and tried to decide whether to fly Hughes to Mexico City, Houston, Bermuda, or back to London. But it broke up without any decision.”

Sunday [April 4] it was decided to summon Dr. Thain back to Acapulco. Jack Real was instructed to rustle up a jet plane, and the aides located Dr. Thain through his secretary. The plane picked up the doctor in Fort Lauderdale late Sunday night and rushed him back to the Mexican resort and his dying patient. [When it became plain that Hughes would have to be moved, he was washed and barbered.] Equipment for intravenous feeding was flown in from Los Angeles.

Near dawn Monday, the doctors decided to call in outside help. One of them summoned Dr. [Victor Manuel] Montemayor [house doctor for a number of Acapulco resort hotels]. He arrived at the Hughes penthouse at 6 a.m. He spent two hours examining the emaciated billionaire and later said he was “aghast” at his condition. He was shown the blood analysis disclosing the failure of Hughes’ kidneys, and his own examination showed that Hughes was drastically dehydrated, with a pulse so weak that the Mexican doctor could get no reading in several attempts to take his blood pressure.

The doctors explained to him, he told reporters later, that Hughes was a difficult patient, “that some times he refused medicine and food. And once he had refused, that was final. Nobody could change his mind.”

Despite Dr. Montemayor’s dismay at the lack of decisive action, hours passed before the billionaire was moved. To the very end, the entourage went through the old familiar rituals of secrecy, masquerade, and concealment. Before they removed Hughes, they reserved a suite at the Houston Methodist Hospital for him in the name of “J.T. Conover.” They put a Houston ambulance on a stand-by alert at the airport for an unnamed patient “suffering from diabetes.”

At 9 a.m. an aide aroused Gordon Margulis by telephone. He dressed hurriedly and went to The Office and found a scene bordering on panic. “Everyone was swarming around like a bunch of blue-assed flies, shredding papers and documents,” he said. He went into the bedroom. For the first time since the final crisis had closed in, Hughes was wearing an oxygen mask. It was connected to a huge oxygen cylinder Margulis had never seen before, twice the size of the stand-by equipment the Hughes party normally carried.

After a while word was passed to the penthouse that an ambulance was waiting. A guard was sent down to make sure that there were no onlookers. With this ritual observed, someone took off the oxygen mask so Hughes could be moved. Gordon Margulis lifted the frail seventy-year-old billionaire, as light as a child, and put him on a stretcher. He and an aide carried it to the service elevator. Margulis raced back, wrestled the huge oxygen cylinder aboard, and Hughes was put back on it.

The decision to hospitalize Hughes had come too late; his heart gave out while the jet raced toward Houston. According to Dr. Thain, he died at 1:27 p.m., a half-hour out of Houston airport. Late in the day of the death, [Arelo] Sederberg [the Summa spokesman] was authorized to state that Hughes had died of a “cerebral vascular accident,” medicalese for a stroke. But the official autopsy attributed his death to renal (kidney) failure and said nothing about a stroke. The Summa officials did not reconcile this contradiction.

Hughes’ body was claimed by his Houston relatives, and he was buried in a private Episcopal ceremony in a grave next to those of his mother and father. In Las Vegas, his death was commemorated in another manner.

The casino managers complied with the request of Summa’s public relations director for a minute of silence. For a brief moment the casinos fell silent. Housewives stood uncomfortably clutching their paper cups full of coins at the slot machines, the blackjack games paused, and at the crap tables stickmen cradled the dice in the crooks of their wooden wands.

Then a pit boss looked at his watch, leaned forward and whispered, “O.K., roll the dice. He’s had his minute.”

* Around-the-clock communications and message center Hughes maintained in Los Angeles. * In addition to Dr. Thain, the physicians were Dr. Norman Crane, a former Beverly Hills internist; Dr. Lawrence Chaffin, a California surgeon; and Dr. Homer Clark, a Salt Lake City pathologist.

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