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Hughes Las Vegas

Las Vegas and the man that caught the VISION

Howard Hughes enjoyed flying to Las Vegas.  The weather conditions were always good for test flying his airplanes and he enjoyed the night life and entertainment.  His frequent visits began in the early 1940s.

Hughes mother passed away when Howard was just thirteen years old, his father who was a bit extravagant and had a "flair for the ladies”, introduced Howard to the "nightlife" of wine, women and song.  Las Vegas offered all that and more.  Although Hughes was not an incessant gambler, at the age of 17 while vacationing in Europe, as the story was told, at a casino in Brussels, young Howard parlayed a five dollar bet into $9,990, which he quickly pocketed.  Howard's fascination with casinos eventually led him to Las Vegas to acquire a gambling empire. The enormous cash flow appealed to him.

There are many, many stories about Howard Hughes and Las Vegas, some of which I will share here. Hughes enjoyed test flying seaplanes at Lake Mead.  In the spring of 1943 Hughes spent nearly a month there test flying his S-43 Sikorsky amphibian aircraft, practicing touch and go landings in preparation for flying the Spruce Goose. He liked the weather conditions at the lake during the day and enjoyed Las Vegas at night.

On May 17, 1943 Hughes flew his Sikorsky from California carrying two FAA aviation inspectors and actress Ava Gardner.  Hughes dropped Gardener off in Las Vegas and proceeded to Lake Mead to conduct qualifying tests in the S- 43.  The test flight did not go well.  The Sikorsky crashed killing one CAA inspector and a Hughes employee.  Hughes suffered a severe gash on the top of his head when he hit the upper control panel.

Glenn Odekirk, who was driving the observation chase boat, immediately took Hughes to the Boulder City Hotel.  "We got a bottle of bourbon and poured a little on his head because Hughes did not want to go to a hospital".  Hughes had bloodstains on his pants, so we went to a dry goods store and bought a new pair for him.  Hughes was very tall so the pants were about 6 inches too short.  Howard wore them for a couple years; Hughes never cared too much about what he wore."

There had always been a rivalry, love triangle between Howard Hughes and Frank Sinatra over actress Ava Gardner. Years later after Hughes purchased the Sands Hotel; Sinatra was playing an engagement there. Sinatra enjoyed his gambling and booze.  When Hughes cut his credit off, the angry not so sober Sinatra drove a golf cart about the property breaking some things, nothing major.  When this was reported to Hughes his comment was; "Do you mean that's skinny little Italian kid that used to sing for Tommy Dorsey”? Industrialist vs a lounge singer!

After Hughes sold controlling interest in TWA for a whopping $546 million, he moved his headquarters of operation to Las Vegas occupying the top floor of the Desert Inn Hotel, arriving by train in a private railroad car. Subsequently, he bought the Desert Inn, the Sands, the Frontier, the Silver Slipper, the Landmark and the Castaways, six hotel casinos gaming operations, all without appearing before the Nevada State Gaming Commission. This is unprecedented even today.

He further acquired the North Las Vegas Airport, Alamo Airways, KLAS TV - 8, the Spring Mountain Ranch, mining claims and massive acreage of raw land that eventually became a greater fortune than the sale proceeds from TWA.  Summerlin, his mother's maiden name, has become the premier master planned community development in the United States.

Hughes, living sequestered atop the Desert Inn, had little or no physical contact with the outside world and was guarded and controlled by what some referred to as the Mormon mafia led by William “Bill” Gay.  Hughes always had a penchant for secrecy and privacy; however this group of mere chauffeurs and male secretaries took complete advantage of Hughes desire for privacy and his weakened state from drug dependency. The inner circle took things way too far!

They created a power structure within the empire that made it nearly impossible for his friends and former associates to communicate directly with Howard.  Hughes private aides respected and were devoted to Hughes, but their loyalty was to Bill Gay.  Even Bob Maheu who ran the Las Vegas operations only communicated with Hughes via memos and telephone. Some Hughes outside loyalists jokingly claimed the newly named SUMMA Corporation was a synonym for Southern Utah Mormon Missionary Association, others, Stall Until More Money Arrives.

Glenn “Ode” Odekirk related the story to me about the rise to power of Bill Gay.  Ode’s sister was married to Howard's corporate copilot.  Hughes flight plans and schedules were usually communicated through the headquarters at Romaine Street.  One morning Hughes called him from the airport and asked: "where in the hell are you, and why isn't the airplane ready?"  It was determined that the person in charge of communications at the headquarters had a drinking problem.  Hughes fired him.  Nadine Henley, Hughes personal secretary, recommended Bill Gay, a Mormon, who was the company chauffeur at the time for the communication position, and thus began the rise to power of Bill Gay.

As quietly as Hughes had arrived in Las Vegas, so did he depart. On Thanksgiving Eve 1970, Hughes suffering from a bout with pneumonia was secretly moved from the Desert Inn to board a Lodestar Jet at Nellis AFB that had been arranged by Jack Real and headed for the Bahamas. Bill Gay was successful at undermining and discrediting Bob Maheu in Hughes eyes. Maheu was unaware they skipped town. Hounded by lawsuits and subpoenas, Hughes never returned to Nevada.

Ode and Howard flew thousands of hours together. There was a bond in there.  Ode had left Howard in 1954 but attempted to communicate and get in to see him many times only to learn later Bill Gay had told Hughes that Ode was dead. 

Jack Real, on the other hand, was a key executive for Hughes, but Bill Gay limited his access to Howard and screened his letters and telephone calls for years.  Jack recently wrote a book titled "The Asylum of Howard Hughes" which describes his distain for the inner circle. Jack Real was considered Hughes ‘last best friend’ and was on board the jet returning Hughes to his birthplace, Houston, Texas in route from Mexico when Howard Hughes died.

Howard Hughes did not leave a will.  His longtime associates believed that if there was a written will, it was probably destroyed because it did not benefit the possessor.  Howard was too meticulous in every detail in all a manner of things not to have written one.  The so-called Mormon will was a total hoax.

In the 1950s Hughes always park is airplanes at Alamo Airways, at what is now McCarran Airport's Executive Terminal that was owned by the late George Crockett.  George and Howard became friends.  Hughes had George purchase a lot of raw land in Crockett's name to lessen real estate speculation in Las Vegas.  George asked Howard: "why in the hell are you buying all this dirt (land)"?  Hughes remarked: "I'm buying it for a little Will".

William R. Lummis, Hughes nephew, next of kin and an attorney became the executor of the massive Howard Hughes estate.  Lummis inherited a monumental task, for Hughes assets and liabilities were a tangled mess.  It became a virtual "feeding frenzy" for lawyers.  The litigation and liquidation took nearly 15 years to complete.  There were 22 heirs who each received $33 million. 

The Hughes aircraft Company was sold to General Motors for $4 billion, the proceeds of which funded the Howard Hughes Medical Institute in Chevy Chase Maryland, and is now the wealthiest charitable trust in the world with assets of nearly $13 billion.  The Howard Hughes Medical Institute annually funds upwards of three quarters of $1 billion in grants for medical research and education.  This is in accordance to a will written by the young 21 year-old Hughes which states in part ““the objects and purposes of which shall be the prosecution of scientific research…(It) shall be devoted to the search for and development of the highest scientific methods for the prevention and treatment of diseases.”

This legacy, although not greatly publicized, is a gift to mankind that will benefit the world and the universe around us for eons. Thank you - Howard Hughes.

Bob McCaffery


In His Own Words

 Hughes; "I like to think of Las Vegas in terms of a well-dressed man in a dinner jacket, and a furred female getting out of an expensive car. I think that is what the people expect here -- to rub shoulders with V.I.P.'s and stars. He would possibly be dressed in sports clothes, but if so, at least in good sports clothes. I don't think we should permit this place to degrade into a freak or amusement park category, like Coney Island”.  

When Howard Hughes slipped into Las Vegas on a special Union Pacific train on the night of November 27, 1966, and took up his residence on the top floor of the Desert Inn, Hughes had already become an eccentric and increasingly mysterious recluse. Although he continued to play monopoly with his companies and fortune through an army of dedicated agents and aids, his public career as a celebrity -- the great Industrialist-Aviator-Movie Producer -- was over.

Howard Hughes did not build a Hotel/Casino in Las Vegas.  His idea of Las Vegas was the movie set for his 1952 production of The Las Vegas Story with Jane Russell, Victor Mature, and Vincent Price. He had used the Flamingo, as Alan Hess recounts, "to represent all that was glamorous and exciting about Las Vegas . . . as the example of grandeur and the luxury of plush gambling on the Las Vegas Strip." That was the Las Vegas that Howard Hughes returned to in 1966, to hide from subpoenas and the media, and to build an empire in the desert. But by 1966 the glamour world of the Flamingo was a delusion from the past. Hughes was living another reality in 1966 controlled by a cohort of Mormon advisors, communicating with his lieutenants, even the chief of his Nevada Operations, Bob Maheu, via memo

Hughes had purchased the Desert Inn, as the story goes, because he couldn't get a room there, and took over the top floor. He then proceeded to purchase the Sands, the Frontier, the Silver Slipper, the Landmark and the Castaways. Hughes is credited with bringing corporate legitimacy to Las Vegas, and running out the Mafia. The State of Nevada did oblige Hughes by changing its gaming licensing laws for him, thereby ushering into Las Vegas publicly traded hotel corporations like Hilton and Marriott, who changed the face of Las Vegas and whose hotels looked like hotels and corporate towers, not like roadside motels with big signs.

Hughes contribution to the Las Vegas Casino world was the opening of the troubled Landmark property as a casino. Originally built as an apartment building, the Landmark had struggled with financing, purpose, and location. The Hughes properties turned out not to be the spectacular success that some had expected (and hoped) was inevitable of any Hughes enterprise. The Frontier, like the Sands, was already being completely revamped by 1967, dropping its original western theme and joining the new Sands on a renovated Strip. The Silver Slipper remained notable mostly for its YESCO sign, a giant pop art silver slipper. A planned mega-4000 room expansion for the Sands never materialized. It was for

Sheldon Adelson to completely re-do the Sands -- in fact by blowing it up -- to make way for the Venetian; the only part he kept was the Sands Expo/Convention Center.

His hotels were not the most profitable part of Hughes's Nevada Operation, and were unloaded after Hughes left town in 1970, to die soon after. The fact that the Hughes Corporation owned significant chunks of the Las Vegas valley, to be developed by its Summerlin Corporation subsidiary, was the lasting legacy of Howard Hughes in Las Vegas: master planned communities within a master planned community where even Howard Hughes would feel a sense of pride. 


Memos from Howard Hughes to Robert Maheu, 1967, quoted by Michael Drosnin in Citizen Hughes, pp.107-108

When Howard Hughes slipped into Las Vegas on a special Union Pacific train on the night of November 27, 1966, and took up his bizarre residence on the top floor of the Desert Inn, Hughes had already become an eccentric and increasingly mysterious recluse. Although he continued to play monopoly with his companies and fortune through an army of dedicated agents and aids, his public career as a celebrity -- the great Industrialist-Aviator-Movie Producer -- was over.

Howard Hughes did not build a thing in Las Vegas; in fact he was spooked by the city. His idea of Las Vegas was the movie set for his 1952 production of The Las Vegas Story with Jane Russell, Victor Mature, and Vincent Price. He had used the Flamingo, as Alan Hess recounts, "to represent all that was glamorous and exciting about Las Vegas . . . as the example of grandeur and the luxury of plush gambling on the Las Vegas Strip." That was the Las Vegas that the delusional Howard Hughes returned to in 1966, to hide from subpoenas and the media, and to build an empire in the desert. But by 1966 the glamour world of the Flamingo was a delusion from the past. Hughes was living another reality in 1966 controlled by a cohort of Mormon advisors, communicating with his lieutenants, even the chief of his Nevada Operations, via memo. Hughes was horrified by what he would have glimpsed from his penthouse windows had they not been permanently covered to shield him from the dangerous sunlight and germs. Circus Circus was bringing Coney Island next door, and his nemesis, the federal government, was shaking his penthouse by testing nuclear devices just down the highway. To the paranoid Hughes, Las Vegas had become a place of Fear and Loathing.

Hughes had purchased the Desert Inn, as the story goes, because he couldn't get a room there, and took over the top floor. He then proceeded to purchase the Sands, the Frontier, the Silver Slipper, and that monument to failed dreams, the Landmark, with its space-needle saucer-on-a-stick. Hughes is credited with bringing corporate legitimacy to Las Vegas, and running out the Mafia. The State of Nevada did oblige Hughes by changing its gaming licensing laws for him, thereby ushering into Las Vegas publicly traded hotel corporation like Hilton and Marriott, who changed the face of Las Vegas and whose hotels looked like hotels and corporate towers, not like roadside motels with big signs.

Under Hughes, or Hughes's people, his hotels continued business as usual, and for all intents and purposes under their previous management. Moe Dalitz still ran the Desert Inn, Jack Entratter and Carl Cohen, the Sands. The story was that people like Dalitz and Entratter were tired of Bobby Kennedy's Justice Department's relentless investigations of their business associates and decided to sell out to Hughes. But the economic changes that were affecting Las Vegas hotels and driving the expansion of convention centers and room additions would have occurred without Hughes. How Hughes's people marketed their hotels as tourist, convention and entertainment centers was no different than what other hotels were doing, or from what Hughes properties had been doing before he took them over.

Hughes contribution to the Las Vegas Casino world was the opening of the troubled Landmark property as a casino. Originally built as an apartment building, the Landmark had struggled with financing, purpose, and location. The Hughes properties turned out not to be the spectacular success that some had expected (and hoped) was inevitable of any Hughes enterprise. The Frontier, like the Sands, was already being completely revamped by 1967, dropping its original western theme and joining the new Sands on a renovated Strip. The Silver Slipper remained notable mostly for its YESCO sign, a giant pop art silver slipper. A planned mega-4000 room expansion for the Sands never materialized. It was for Sheldon Adelson to completely re-do the Sands -- in fact by blowing it up -- to make way for the Venetian; the only part he kept was the Sands Expo/Convention Center.

His hotels were not the most profitable part of Hughes's Nevada Operation, and were unloaded after Hughes skipped town in 1970, to die soon after. The fact that the Hughes Corporation owned significant chunks of the Las Vegas valley, to be developed by its Summerlin Corporation subsidiary, was the lasting legacy of Howard Hughes in Las Vegas: master planned communities within a master planned community where even Howard Hughes might have felt safe from the horrors of the Strip and the Test Site.

Hughes fled Las Vegas, haunted perhaps by the Merry-Go-Round of Circus Circus; the Circus Circus, about which Hunter S. Thompson in his drug apocalypse, Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, said "is what the whole hep world would be doing on Saturday night if the Nazis had won the war." But to Hughes it meant kids. Hughes described this apocalypse in his own words in a memo:

"The aspect of the Circus that has me disturbed is the popcorn, peanuts, and kids side of it . . . And also the Carnival Freaks and Animal side of it . . . In other words the poor dirty, shoddy side of Circus life. The dirt floor, sawdust and elephants. The part of a circus that is associated with the poor boys in town, the hobo clowns, and, I repeat, the animals. The part of the circus that is synonymous with the common poor -- with the freckled faced kids, the roustabouts driving the stakes with three men and three sledgehammers . . ."


His presence in Las Vegas needs more explanation than he is willing to give. Since the beginning of this year he has made his home in a series of austere single rooms at the Flamingo Hotel in Las Vegas , flying his private plane to Los Angeles only when his presence there is absolutely essential . . . .

In a resort city that consists essentially of a strip two-and-one-half miles long and a few hundred yards wide, Hughes manages to keep himself almost completely inaccessible. His hotel room telephone is permanently plugged; his private numbers are closely guarded secrets

Hughes: I don't like this on account of the residence deal. There is going to be a hearing next month as to the validity of my Las Vegas residence. We have a whole set up to submit. Just say that the numbers are a closely guarded secret.

Then too it is no secret that he has invested heavily in Las Vegas land, and perhaps plans construction of some major division of Hughes Aircraft. The land is relatively cheap, the climate is perfect for flying and the terrain for airstrips, and power is available from nearby Hoover Dam. Hughes is mum on the subject

Hughes: Strike out "invested heavily" and the rest of the sentence after "land" - I'm not going to do that. This sort of rumor has caused a lot of real estate flurries already and if it is in print the real estate men will make more of it than they have. I don't want that. Can't you say, "purchased some land" instead of "invested," and the rest of it is misleading.

White: I won't quite do that - but I will say it has been rumored he will build a plant.

Hughes: Will you say "purchased" instead of "invested"?

White: I will say "bought"

Hughes: About the construction will upset my employees at the aircraft. If I deny it, then I have to give the reason for it. I think there were rumors a year ago but they are dormant now. If you awaken them, I will make enemies in Las Vegas .
Click Images to Enlarge
Hughes Hotels
Sands, Frontier, Silver Slipper. Castaways
Desert Inn Landmark
Spring Mountain Ranch Bob Maheu
Head of Hughes Las Vegas Operations
Howard Hughes
Business Park
Sikorsky S-43
Landing on Lake Mead
Howard and actress Ava Gardner Sikorsky wreckage recovered

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