As Gaming Today is a journal about wagering, I would bet a stack of gold doubloons and give 7-to-5 that the man’s name that has been uttered the most in Las Vegas over the last half century would be: (Drum roll, please) Howard Hughes.
You might think it would be Elvis Presley or Frank Sinatra or Harry Reid, but you would lose. When that corny phrase: “The man, the myth, the legend,” is uttered, it most appropriately applies to a brilliant and controversial man who spent four brief years living here.
Some amateur historians consider Hughes a visionary and puppet-master who reshaped the Strip and the future of the city. Others regard him as a whack job who became a puppet for his handlers, who understood if they controlled the billionaire they controlled his fortune.
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Nearly 45 years after Hughes died in Acapulco en route to Houston, his original home, his aura lives on here for many reasons: primarily through the company that bears his name and has prospered by building residential communities and shopping plazas, office towers and parks, and by supporting a number of philanthropic causes.
When Hughes stole into Las Vegas from Boston under the cover of darkness on Thanksgiving Eve, 1966, his stated intention was to stay for just three weeks. Desert Inn principal owner Moe Dalitz was assured that the billionaire industrialist, movie producer, and record-breaking pilot would depart the ninth-floor penthouse suites a week before the Christmas and New Year’s holidays to make room for the DI’s high-rolling guests.
But Hughes quickly found he liked being in Las Vegas, and he mentioned that he might build a medical center and upscale airport in southern Nevada. So when the deadline for his departure came and went, Dalitz was irritated.
Moe let Bob Maheu, Hughes’ chief confidant and virtual alter ego, know that unless Hughes left at the appointed time, he would have him thrown out into the DI parking lot. Neither Hughes nor his aides gambled a penny, Dalitz argued, and those recently remodeled penthouses suites were for gamblers.
Parry Thomas, who ran Valley Bank in those years and had a clearer grasp of the big picture than anyone, became involved at that point and negotiated a sale of the DI to Hughes. Thomas explained to me in his book “Quiet Kingmaker” that purchasing the hotel was the only way that Hughes would be allowed to stay in his comfortable quarters.
To pull off that transaction, it took some intricate reasoning with Teamsters’ boss Jimmy Hoffa, whose union pension fund controlled the property. Thomas promised Hoffa that if he would order Dalitz to sell the hotel, he could get his friend and highly regarded antitrust attorney Edward Morgan to represent the union leader in hearings with Bobby Kennedy’s crime commission.
This was huge for Hoffa, who was facing certain prison time for misusing Teamster pension funds. Dalitz was extremely unhappy about the deal, and he let Thomas know it. But the eventual transaction turned into a sea change for the Las Vegas Strip. That is because over the next three years Thomas orchestrated five other hotel takeovers for Hughes, all from hidden interests controlled by organized crime.
The national perception was that a businessman of Hughes’ stature purchasing these hotels would go a long way towards sanitizing the image of Las Vegas. That fact alone, whether accurate or not, puts Hughes on the symbolic Mount Rushmore of important figures in the city’s history.
I’ve heard countless times through the years that “so and so actually met Howard Hughes during his years at the DI.” Of course it’s hard to either prove or disprove such a claim, seeing as no one had camera phones in those years, and anyone bringing a Kodak into Hughes’ suite would have been gang tackled by the aides who attended to his every need. I’m skeptical whenever I hear of such a “sighting.”
It seems unimaginable, but Maheu told me he never physically met Hughes, although he worked intimately for him for 20 years. And Thomas told me that while he had dinner with Hughes twice in the 1950s, when Howard would come to Las Vegas on social occasions, he never saw him after that, even when they were in heated negotiations over a hotel purchase.
I met one person who for certain met Hughes, and a couple others I’m inclined to believe met him. I interviewed the latter three of them on camera and their stories were credible.
Former Nevada Governor Mike O’Callaghan, whom I worked with when he was an executive at the Las Vegas Sun, flew to London with Nevada Gaming Control Board chairman Phil Hannifan in 1973, and personally interviewed Hughes to determine his gaming suitability. There’s no dispute about that meeting.
One that convincingly claimed he met Hughes was the well-chronicled Utah deliveryman Melvin Dummar, who was named as a beneficiary in the much litigated Mormon will. I got to know Melvin fairly well and liked him a lot. If he was lying to us during the time we spent with him, he missed his calling as either a fiction writer or an actor.
When our camera crew drove Melvin to a remote spot near the Cottontail Ranch near Beatty, an emotional Dummar laid on the ground at the precise spot where he claimed to have found Hughes bruised and bleeding 50 years ago. He then returned him to Las Vegas, which is why he claimed he was remembered in Hughes’ final papers. The rescue of Hughes was immortalized in the Oscar-winning film Melvin and Howard.
We’ll almost certainly never know exactly what transpired during those years between 1966 and 1970, when arguably the most famous man in the world elected to spend his time in Las Vegas. But the curiosity about what actually happened back then seems to grow stronger with each passing year.
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