Howard Hughes spent a lifetime collecting friends, enemies, women, businesses, and casinos. Not bad for a fellow born into a Texas family with little money. His birthday was Christmas Eve, 1905, and perhaps that’s why he did things like moving to Las Vegas on Thanksgiving Day, November 24, 1966. He was at the least, eccentric, at the most, patently obsessive-compulsive, and his time in Nevada certainly didn’t change anyone’s mind about his peculiarities.
Howard’s mother died in 1922, and his father passed away in 1924, so at the age of 19, the young man found himself in charge of the Hughes Tool Company, which his father and a partner began as the Sharp-Hughes Tool Company a decade earlier. And, instead of leaving well-enough alone, Howard took the $300,000 the business had in cash and waved it at his relatives, who eventually agreed to sell their willed shares in the business. Then, Howard hired Noah Dietrich to run the business and set about learning about this flying thing.
Howard Hughes was an innovative engineer, making structural changes to planes Mr. Dietrich’s hard work paid for. Over the years, he set speed records, construction records, and money-spent records. His time in early aviation as a flyer was similar to his time as a Hollywood movie producer. He plunged into things quickly, spent his cash recklessly, but somehow managed to come out of every precarious situation alive and eventually richer than before. Several plane crashes did take a toll on his body and mind, eventually, leaving him unable to make any quick decisions without considering every option a dozen times.
Howard in Las Vegas
Howard hated to pay taxes, and in the early ‘50s, he purchased several plots of barren land around Las Vegas - including what became known as the Husite property, for $62,000 – with the thought of enjoying Nevada’s no-income-tax laws. And, he hated to pay his workers, refusing to enrich Noah Dietrich for all the work he had done. Instead, he dumped Dietrich and hired Robert Maheu, a lawyer, who worked for the CIA and the FBI, to run his businesses.
On the Thanksgiving Day Howard finally rolled into Las Vegas on a private train, the Husite property was worth $25 million, but that was nothing compared to the $450 million Hughes collected when he'd sold his TWA stock a few years earlier. And, it was nothing to spend a little cash on a nice suite in Las Vegas.
He wound up at the Mob-owned Desert Inn, where Maheu haggled with Moe Dalitz over prices. In the end, they arrived at $26,000 per night for the entire ninth-floor and penthouse, a ton of cash in the '60s. Interestingly, Maheu never met with Howard Hughes in person; they spoke only by phone. And while Howard’s mind was sharp, his compulsions were running rampant. He refused to leave his room, even when he lost fifty pounds and refused to eat. Even when he gave himself shots of morphine and codeine, breaking off the needles in his arm so often that he couldn't move without more pain.
When he got up from bed, he wore empty Kleenex tissue boxes for slippers and peed into used milk jars and lined them along a wall of his room where they stayed. Outside the Kleenex boxes, his toenails grow inches long, curling up as they grew.
When New Year’s Eve approached, Dalitz wanted the rooms and penthouse for high rollers, but Howard wouldn’t budge. Dalitz told Maheu to get out.
Howard’s Casino Buying Spree
When Maheu told Hughes, he replied, “That damn Moe, I know about Kleinman, I know about Hoffa, I know about the Purple men (Purple Gang), tell him I’ll buy his little hotel.”
Maheu returned to Dalitz at the bar and offered to buy the property, to which Moe replied, “Well, I’m always interested in negotiating.”
After weeks of crazy negotiations where Dalitz would agree in principle, and Howard would demand changes to their agreement, Dalitz confided to his partner, Roen, “I’m ready to shoot the old fool.”
On March 22, 1967, Hughes paid $13.2 million for the land and buildings. And, although being approved by the Nevada Gaming Commission and the Clark County Licensing Board had always demanded a buyer appear in person, Hughes was buying as a corporation. His licensing took effect in the name of Hughes Tool Company.
The board never met with Hughes, who was likely to be 61 years old, about six-foot-two, and down to 150 pounds. Or, he could have been dead, for all anyone knew at the time.
There was no official count of money at the casino cage, so it's impossible to know how much cash left with Dalitz and his partners. It’s also impossible to know how much cash left Hughes’s future casinos, but the government estimates $58 million disappeared in skim.
Those other properties included the Silver Slipper for $5.8million, so the damn giant spinning, neon-lit slipper Howard hated, could be turned off. What turned on, was a veritable ATM for Nevada politicians, who took $858,000 in contributions directly from the cashier’s cage.
Hughes also bought the Castaways and the Frontier casinos, where Maheu kept the Old Crew at each property, so the Mob could keep ripping off the owners. And, he bought the unfinished Landmark casino where he spent a fortune on a casino that never made a dime. In 1970, Hughes bought his final casino, Harold’s Club in Reno. It too was well past its prime.
Hughes After the Casinos
Howard drove his staff buggy with phone calls and memos, but late at night, he liked to watch old movies, and when a local station stopped playing them, he bought KLAS-TV and played the movies he wanted all night long.
After running out of casinos to buy, Hughes bought Air West airline. Once the deal closed, it became Hughes Air West, often referred to as Air Worst. Clint Eastwood repeated that line in the movie The Gauntlet.
In his final Nevada move, Howard instructed Maheu to approach then-President Johnson and later President Nixon about accepting a million-dollar bribe to stop the nuclear testing at the Nevada Test Site outside of Vegas. They both declined the offer.
With no end in sight, Hughes was wheeled out of the Desert Inn on a stretcher late one night and flown to the Bahamas, where he bought the Xanadu Princess Resort on Grand Bahama Island. He still wasn't eating because of the germs on top of his cans of food and he dropped to just 125 pounds.
Hughes died April 5, 1976, on a flight from a new penthouse at the Acapulco Fairmont Princess Hotel in Mexico to the Methodist Hospital in Houston. He weighed only 90 pounds, and the FBI used his fingerprints to identify his body.
His fling in Las Vegas saved several casinos and made the 1960s and ‘70s profitable for the town, his business, and the Mob. When his estate settled in 1983, 22 cousins split 2.5 billion dollars. The Howard Hughes Medical Institute (non-profit) owned the Hughes Aircraft Corporation, so they sold it off to General Motors for $5.2 billion. Today, the Medical Institute has a 22.6 billion dollar endowment.