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Hughes’ aide had great tales

I’ve found that the best interviews I’ve enjoyed through the decades are with folks in the last chapters of their lives, even into their late eighties or early nineties. Accomplished men and women who’ve been achievers all their lives tend to have great recall about their high and low points, even if they couldn’t tell you what they had for dinner the previous night.

An additional bonus is that in their final years octogenarians are far less guarded than in the prime of life. “What do I have to hide?” is a typical response to a probing question. 

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Howard Hughes’ right-hand man for 15 years, and through his four-year hotel-buying spree in Las Vegas in the late 1960s, was Robert Maheu. I had the pleasure of spending many hours with Maheu 15 years ago, when he was 88. He would live just another two years, but in our conversations he was as alert and convivial as someone 20 years younger.

“You have to keep the mind working,” he said. “I get my regular checkups, and if there’s a problem I go to the Mayo Clinic and have it checked out thoroughly. I’m involved right now in about nine different projects, two at the national level. I’m on the phone usually by 6 in the morning. If the bell rings on my fax machine at 3, I get up to read it. If I get bored for a minute, I play backgammon, at the top level.”

Maheu’s career spanned a long stretch with the FBI, and he performed high-level undercover assignments for the Central Intelligence Agency. One of those that occurred in the early 1960s was to orchestrate the assassination of Cuban dictator Fidel Castro. In 1975 Maheu told a U.S. Senate Select Committee on Intelligence that he met with Mafia figure Johnny Roselli, who had strong Las Vegas ties, and together they hatched plots to poison Castro’s food, and inject cyanide into his cigars. 

Neither plot worked, but his role in the strategies labeled Maheu as a guy who was not afraid to take on major international challenges. During those years, Bob also was in the middle of an oil profiteering war between the two men who controlled international shipping channels, Aristotle Onassis and Stavros Niarchos.

Maheu’s first job with Hughes was to quash a blackmail plot against him in 1954. Their super close working relationship — always done through notes and phone calls and never once in person — lasted until shortly after Hughes left Las Vegas in 1970. The billionaire’s aides and advisors, often called the Mormon Mafia, convinced Hughes that Maheu had stolen money from him and had unfairly pilfered the power and glory that rightly belonged to him.

The firing by Hughes greatly pained Maheu. He resented how he’d been kicked from the kingdom. But as much as he loathed the way he was dispatched, when on a cruise ship in 1976 he was informed that Hughes had died, he broke down in tears. He even got emotional retelling the story to me 30 years later.

Among other remarks he shared in our interview sessions were these:

• “I want Hughes to be remembered for his accomplishments in the aviation industry. I’ve had a belly full of the long hair and long fingernail stories.”

• “People should remember that the first soft-landed vehicle on the moon was a Hughes vehicle.”

• “All the growth in our Valley can be traced back to Hughes legitimizing many of the Strip properties. Howard was not a builder; he was a buyer. The work we did here was not building Las Vegas. We simply made it ready for others.”

• “It’s sad, but Hughes had to die so that his empire could be saved.”

When I asked Maheu why recalling Hughes’ death was so emotional to him all these years later, he said, “When I heard about his condition upon being taken from the plane in Houston in 1976, how he had sores oozing through his head and a bone protruding through his shoulder, and the autopsy revealed six broken hypodermic needles in his arm, I couldn’t help but cry. ... It’s ironic that the man who built the greatest medical foundation known to man had to die like a bum on the Bowery.”