As fantastically wealthy manipulators go, Howard R. Hughes was king. The billionaire’s Midas touch had less to do with his fabled technical and financial genius than with endless secret deals and covert political bribes. “I can but any man in the world,” Hughes liked to boast. Indeed, Hughes’s conspiratorial authority stemmed from his ability – and eager inclination – to purchase loyalty from anyone, including the president of the United States, in a position to advance his, well, idiosyncratic designs.
Everything about Hughes was larger than life, including his paradoxical legend. Heir to a Houston fortune based on a drill bit patent that revolutionized oil mining, the dashing young Hughes captured the American imagination during the Great Depression years. Cowboy aviator, Hollywood playboy, patriotic military contractor, maverick financier, Hughes was like a comic book hero whose can-do exploits knew no limits. Later in life, as his eccentricities metastasized into madness, the darker portrait emerged: the stringy-haired old man, a ranting lunatic with a mortal fear of germs holed up in a penthouse hermitage.
Throughout his life, Hughes’s obsession with control expressed itself in a mania for espionage and spookery, especially as it applied to nurturing his substantial neuroses. However, despite his seeming omnipresence in the eye of many a stormy conspiracy, Hughes was just as manipulated by others. Known to spooks as the “Stockholder,” Hughes fronted for CIA covert operations, sometimes unknowingly; Hughes, the demented shut-in, saw his empire manipulated by remote control.
We join the Hughes saga during the late 1950s, with the arrival of the shadowy and somewhat sleazy Robert Maheu, fountainhead of many real and imagined Hughes conspiracies. In the late fifties, Hughes hired Maheu to intimidate would-be blackmailers and spy on dozens of Hollywood starlets toward whom Hughes felt possessive. Maheu was a former FBI man whose private security firm fronted for the CIA on ultra-sensitive (read: illegal) missions.
By the time he became Hughes’s private spook, Maheu already had impressive credentials, supervising contract kidnappings for the CIA and acting as the Agency’s literal pimp, hiring prostitutes to service foreign dignitaries and their peculiar sexual appetites. Maheu’s most notorious CIA job was a go-between in a failed 1960 plot to assassinate Fidel Castro, which recruited the Mafia to do the “hit.” Friendly with the darndest folks, Maheu enlisted the aide of Vegas mobster John Roselli (“Uncle Johnny” to Maheu’s children), Chicago godfather Sam “Momo” Giancana, and powerful Florida mob boss Santos Trafficante.
Apparently, Hughes had no involvement in Maheu’s freelance CIA work but delighted in the spook’s exploits and connections, which only enhanced the billionaire’s reputation and influence. (According to journalist Jim Hougan, Maheu informed Hughes of his efforts on behalf of the CIA to off Castro.) By some accounts, however, the Stockholder was the Agency’s single largest contractor. In dedicating his resources to the CIA, though, Hughes wasn’t guided entirely by selfless motives. During the late sixties, he asked Maheu to offer his empire to the Agency as a CIA front. At the time the Hughes fortune was threatened by major legal troubles; the beleaguered billionaire hoped to deflect the nettlesome litigation with a “national security” shield.
One of Maheu’s extracurricular assignments that Hughes did support was a successful effort to foil a “Dump Nixon” movement threatening the unlikable vice president’s place on the 1956 Eisenhower ticket. As Maheu fell into Nixon’s orbit, Nixon in turn felt the pull of Hughes’s considerable gravitational field.
Hughes thought of the Red-baiting Nixon as his man, and the billionaire’s audacious patronage suited Nixon’s political ambitions. Unfortunately for Nixon, Hughes cash would always be something of a liability. During the 1960 presidential race, the press reported that the Hughes Tool Company had loaned $205,000 to Nixon’s hapless brother, Donald (who was attempting to revive his failing Nixonburger restaurants). Disclosure of the Hughes loan, which was never repaid, damaged Nixon in the final days of the campaign, giving Jack Kennedy a much-needed boost. Typically, Hughes fared better on his end of the apparent quid pro quo. Less than a month after his loan to the vice president’s brother, the IRS reversed a previous decision and granted tax-exempt status to the Howard Hughes Medical Institute, and obvious tax shelter of dubious charitable merit.
Or course, the archconservative Hughes could be bipartisan when it came to greasing presidential wheels. He ordered Maheu to offer both Presidents Johnson and Nixon a million-dollar bribe to stop nuclear bomb tests in Nevada. In the mid-sixties, Hughes had holed up in a Las Vegas penthouse, and he considered the nuclear testing to be a personal threat to his health. Maheu claims to have disregarded both orders.
The next bomb to explode in the Nixon-Hughes orbit was a metaphorical one that would prove politically fatal to Nixon. Because the shadow of Howard Hughes hung over Watergate, staff investigators of the Senate Watergate Committee were convinced that the phantom billionaire was the key to understanding the scandal. But under pressure from senators, investigators deleted from their final report forty-six pages that concluded Hughes had indirectly triggered the break-in. Some have suggested that committee chairman Sam Ervin and his Senate colleagues, many of whom were recipients of Hughes money, staved off personal embarrassment by burying the Hughes connection.
But what role, if any, did Hughes play in Watergate? Always tangled in power politics, the billionaire seems to have been a motivating, albeit peripheral, presence in the scandal. Hughes’s former Washington lobbyist, Lawrence O’Brien, was chairman of the Democratic National Committee (DNC) during the Watergate era. O’Brien had joined the Hughes payroll in 1968 when “the Old Man,” exercising his option to purchase the powerful and well connected, ordered Maheu to hire Bobby Kennedy’s key men in the aftermath of the senator’s assassination. And as the self-absorbed Hughes saw it, “aftermath” meant before the blood had dried, on the night of the assassination.
O’Brien drove Nixon to paroxysms of rage. Not only was he a former major domo of the Kennedy clan and the Democratic Party’s top apparatchik, O’Brien was now plugged in to the Hughes empire, and theoretically privy to the billionaire’s many deals with the president. At first, Nixon ordered his staff to delve into the O’Brien-Hughes connection with an eye toward collecting dirt on the DNC chairman. Later, White House aides worried that O’Brien might have damaging information on Nixon-Hughes dealings. One of those affairs involved an unreported $100,000 cash contribution to Nixon from the billionaire. Nixon’s banker and bagman, Bebe Rebozo, stashed the cash in Florida. It’s possible that this secret and illegal money fix became part of the notorious White House slush fund that subsidized dirty tricks and, later, bought the silence of the Watergate burglars.
There were other quid pro quos. Hughes’s generous support of the Nixon regime coincided with exceedingly favorable treatment (some would say exceedingly illegal treatment) on antitrust issues, aiding his efforts to corner the market on Las Vegas hotel-casinos.
According to the traditional view of the scandal, O’Brien’s office was the primary target of both break-ins at the Watergate office complex. However, a persuasive revisionist theory suggests that O’Brien wasn’t the burglars’ primary target. Indeed, this view doesn’t necessarily contradict that the Nixon White House was obsessed with the O’Brien-Hughes connection. It seems likely that some of the White House cohorts in crime, including “plumber” G. Gordon Liddy, were misled to believe they were bugging O’Brien’s phone “to find out what O’Brien had of a derogatory nature about us,” as Liddy put it in his 1980 book, Will.
Nixon, then, possibly fearful of losing another election thanks to Hughes, may have set the Watergate machinery in motion, without specifically knowing what Liddy et al. were doing. As H. R. Halderman, Nixon’s chief of staff, later wrote: “On matters pertaining to Hughes, Nixon sometimes seemed to lose touch with reality. His indirect association with this mystery man may have caused him, in his view, to lose two elections.”
Of course, it’s clear that Hughes, himself was in the dark about Watergate, just as he was literally in the dark in “malodorous” hotel rooms worldwide, shooting up codeine and gobbling down Valium “blue bombers.” By the early seventies, Hughes was a withered bundle of neuroses who handled all objects with Kleenex “insulation” as a prophylactic against germs. His decaying teeth; corkscrewing toenails; greasy, shoulder-length hair; and Rip Van Winkle beard seemed to mock his dapper appearance of the thirties and forties. His human contact was limited to his Mormon nursemaids.
Hughes seems to have lost control of his empire a year and a half before the Watergate break-ins. During the so-called Thanksgiving coup of 1970, a struggle within the Hughes organization for control of the Old Man and his assets came to a head. The heavy-handed conspirator was oblivious to the deft conspiracy carried out by his top staff. Hughes executives, led by Bill Gay, the Mormon administrator who had shrewdly handpicked the billionaire’s attendants, spirited Hughes on a stretcher from his ninth-floor penthouse in Las Vegas’s Desert Inn Hotel, down the fire escape and into an awaiting jet, which whisked him away to the Bahamas.
The cognizant loser was super spook Robert Maheu, whose controversial rise within the Hughes apparat came to abrupt halt. Gay and company resented Maheu’s unsubtle power grabs, luxuriant salary and perks, questionable business decisions, and penchant for promoting himself as the Old Man’s “alter ego.” Maheu, in turn, accused his rivals of kidnapping Hughes against his will.
The Thanksgiving coup spawned other conspiracy theories. One IRS agent reported to his superiors that he believed Hughes died in Las Vegas in 1970 and that “key officials in charge of running his empire concealed this fact at the time in order to prevent a catastrophic dissolution of his holdings.” According to the IRS conspiracy theorist, a double “schooled in Hughes’s speech, mannerisms, and eccentricities” had been deployed. (In fact, Hughes did employ doubles during the sixties to distract press hordes while the rich and famous invalid made his stretcher-bound escapes.)
But Hughes was still alive – and apparently a willing dinizen of the Bahamas, as he subsequently informed the world in a rare telephonic press conference. In the same interview, Hughes took the opportunity to denounce Maheu as a “no-good, dishonest son of a bitch” who “stole me blind.”
With Gay’s control over Hughes’s nursemaids, it was easy for Maheu’s rivals to monopolize the Old Man’s ear even before the exodus from Vegas. Spiriting Hughes to the Bahamas enabled Gay and company to cut off Maheu from his power base and to insulate Hughes from having to testify if any of the ongoing legal actions against corruption in his empire; this was crucial, for if Hughes were to appear publicly, it might have become obvious that the emperor wore no clothes and had no sanity – rendering him incapable of managing his affairs.
Considering the testy Old Man’s decline and his pathological fear of facing human beings, then it’s a bit surprising that he managed to make several personal appearances before small audiences. During a short stay in Managua he met face to face with Nicaraguan dictator Generalissimo Anastasio Somoza and a U.S. ambassador and later, to his custodian’s alarm, demanded to pilot airplanes as he had in his prime. Considering this sudden coming out after years in phobic seclusion, perhaps the doppelganger theory isn’t so outlandish after all, though accounts of Hughes stripping to the buff at the controls and demanding to fly in a blinding rainstorm sound like the real McCoy. Regardless, Hughes’s brief forays outside of his musty hotel cloister would soon come to an end, following a bathroom fall that broke his hip. Thereafter, Hughes would remain bedridden until his death two and a half years later.
It’s not clear how much the Stockholder knew about his minders’ agreement to act as cover for a CIA project to raise a sunken Soviet submarine northwest of Hawaii. The top secret “Project Jennifer” involved the Glomar Explorer, as massive ship supposedly owned by Hughes’s Summa Corporation. Ostensibly Hughes’s latest oversize business venture, the Glomar Explorer was to test pioneering techniques of mining the ocean floor. That, anyway, was the CIA’s cover story. In reality, the ship was designed to plunge a prehensile steel claw on a three-mile tether to the ocean floor in an effort to retrieve a Soviet submarine that contained valuable code books. When word of the real doings in the Pacific eventually leaked to the press, Hughes was hailed once again as a figure larger than life. In fact, by then the six-foot-three maverick financier was an emaciated 90-pound husk more concerned with enemas than spy craft. Finally, on April 5, 1976, a jet ambulance ferrying Hughes’s cadaver from Acapulco touched down in Houston. Such was the reclusive millionaire’s enigma that his fingerprints were taken and sent to the FBI for verification. It was Howard R. Hughes, all right. The IRS agent had been right.
His overall condition suggested abject neglect. X rays revealed broken hypodermic needles lodges in his arms. He was malnourished and dehydrated. Why hadn’t his doctors checked him into a hospital long ago, regardless of his protests? In Acapulco, Hughes had lain in a coma for three days before his person doctors summoned a Mexican physician, who was “aghast” at the patient’s condition. The Mexican police suspected foul play.
Even Maheu has modified his original kidnapping theory – but was Hughes in some sense the willing captive of his staff? Clearly, his own mental and physical decline had rendered him incapable of managing his affairs long before his death. Early on, his withdrawal into seclusion enabled his staff to control his interaction with the outside world. Later he was, for all intents and purposes, preserved in a state of suspended animation, his drug-glazed eyes fixed on a third or fourth showing of ironically titled B-movies like The Brain That Wouldn’t Die while his employees conducted the Hughes interests. In a sense it’s a tribute to Hughes’s conspiring mind that the Stockholder continued to front for the CIA long after he was little more than an extremely wealthy vegetable.