• U.S.

The Nation: The Keepers of the King

4 minute read

They had no lavish corporate suites, no direct authority over other senior Hughes employees, practically no business experience. They did, however, have two striking advantages: they were, with a single exception, adherents to Mormonism, a religion that embodies Howard Hughes’ aversion to drinking and smoking; and they had direct, unlimited access to the king himself. They also never talked; one reporter described them as “men without mouths.”

They were Hughes’ so-called Mormon Mafia, the six gentlemen in waiting who were recruited by Summa Corp. Vizier Bill Gay, himself a Mormon, and attended the anchoritic Croesus day and night, in eight-hour shifts. They were assisted by four physicians on 24-hour call and five lesser functionaries, including Gordon Margulis and Mell Stewart. For their services the six senior aides were (and apparently still are) paid as much as $110,000 a year each. They equipped his various hideaways, decided which messages would reach him, censored his reading matter. In short, they controlled Howard Hughes. The six:

HOWARD ECKERSLEY, about 51, a University of Utah psychology graduate who became a Hughes favorite one day in the 1950s by filling in when the master’s regular movie projectionist showed up drunk. Eckersley has seven children and is an energetic tennis player despite having suffered a broken back on Okinawa in the World War II Navy. In 1972 he was charged by Canadian authorities with stock fraud in connection with a mining venture. The case was never brought to trial, but Eckersley’s standing in the Hughes empire declined.

GEORGE FRANCOM, 62, friendly, soft-spoken and devoutly religious. Francom joined Hughes as a driver and guard after attending three colleges and serving in the Air Force Medical Corps. He has four children and spends his spare moments in quiet pursuits: reading books on religion, going on nature-study walks and, when Hughes was in the Bahamas or Acapulco, swimming and snorkeling. More than any of his colleagues, Francom agonized over his employer’s welfare. “He wanted to minimize the dope Hughes was taking,” Mell Stewart told TIME. “He wanted Hughes to get up and walk, exercise. He saw the collusion, the lies. George wanted to do things for the boss, but the others wouldn’t let him. They told him to play ball or be ostracized.”

JOHN HOLMES, 60, the primus inter pares of the Mormon Mafia, though the only non-Mormon among them (he is a Roman Catholic). Holmes worked in Southern California as a salesman for a tobacco company before he signed on as Hughes’ personal driver in the early 1950s. He joined the inner circle in 1957, and is now one of Summa Corp.’s five directors. Tense, quiet and politically conservative, Holmes is said to have been a very heavy coffee drinker and a chain-smoker—but never in Hughes’ presence.

LEVAR (“BEEBE”) MYLER, 53, the only other member of the Mormon Mafia on Summa Corp.’s board of directors. A former Air Force mechanic and picture-frame maker, Myler signed on in 1950 as a chauffeur for Actress Jean Peters, Hughes’ second wife. Overweight, short-tempered and ailing (gout, heart trouble), he was standoffish and kept mostly to himself.

JIM RICKARD, 57, a former lumberjack and World War II fighter pilot who sold insurance before joining Hughes as an $80-a-week driver two decades ago. His first job was to chauffeur the flock of Hughes’ starlets. He went into the movie business himself with a drive-in theater in Idaho but returned to the Hughes fold after it failed. Rickard is a convert to Mormonism.

CLARENCE (“CHUCK”) WALDRON, 41, a onetime cabinetmaker who joined the Hughes organization as a driver about 20 years ago. Phelan describes him as something of an embarrassment to his five low-profile colleagues. “Sometimes he would burst into falsetto song, dance alone to music in public places or suddenly begin to imitate a horse neighing or a dog barking,” writes Phelan. A onetime high school football player, Waldron has three children. A fourth drowned last summer in the Bahamas.

More Must-Reads from TIME

Contact us at letters@time.com