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Las Vegas: An Unconventional History | Article

Howard Hughes (1905-1976)

Courtesy: LOC NYWTS Photograph Collection

On Thanksgiving Day in 1966, Howard Hughes, one of the wealthiest men in the world, arrived in North Las Vegas via a private train. He was placed on a stretcher, put into a van, and ushered to the Desert Inn on the Strip, near where he had lived in 1954. His friend, Hank Greenspun, had reserved the top two floors of the hotel's penthouse suites for Hughes and his entourage of Mormon assistants, lawyers and Robert Maheu, his chief of security. For four years, Hughes remained in the city, not once leaving the confines of his suite. In those four years, Hughes would become Nevada's largest private employer, largest casino owner, largest property owner and largest mining claims owner. More importantly to Las Vegans, Hughes' presence would help to soften the image of Las Vegas in the eyes of the general American public, making way for the city's corporate, mainstream era.

Orphaned at 18
Howard Robard Hughes Jr. was born in 1905 in Houston, Texas. His family became extraordinarily wealthy when his father, Howard Hughes Sr., helped patent a drill bit that transformed the oil industry. The fortune made from this invention was put into the Hughes Tool Company, from which members of the Hughes family held stock. He was orphaned as an eighteen-year old Rice University student, and became a millionaire. Disliking school and wanting to strike into business, Hughes bought out all of his relatives' stock in the family company.

A Passion for Innovation
Hughes Tool Company served as the foundation for Hughes' forays into other enterprises. He filmed a Hollywood movie. He created Hughes Aircraft to manufacture new airplane designs. As a pilot, he broke speed records and engineered a number of flying stunts. He owned a controlling share of Trans World Airlines. In 1938 Hughes recorded the fastest around the world flight. Deemed "one of the greatest businessmen in history," Hughes suffered many business failures, at times losing tens of millions of dollars on a single failed enterprise. During World War II, he was one of the largest military contractors in America, and then squandered millions of dollars building the largest airplane ever, dubbed the "Spruce Goose." The cumbersome plane flew only once.

Most Eligible Bachelor
Hughes was romantically linked to actresses including Jean Harlow, Katherine Hepburn, Jane Russell and Ava Gardner. As a result of his fame, money and good looks, the twice-divorced Hughes was seen as a national hero and one of Hollywood's most eligible bachelors.

The Crash
Remarkably, Hughes, with his fondness for flying experimental aircraft, survived all of the accidents resulting from this interest. The most serious crash happened in 1946. While testing a photo-reconnaissance plane, Hughes flew into a residential area of Beverly Hills. Most assumed that he would die; almost every bone in his body had been broken. He was left with herniated spinal disks that kept him in constant, excruciating pain. The morphine that was prescribed to help Hughes deal with the pain would become an addiction for the remainder of his life.

By the time Hughes arrived in Las Vegas in 1966, he had been in isolation for eight years. Tormented by his narcotics addiction and personal demons, Hughes had become notoriously secluded. The only public photos released were from years earlier. He was emaciated; at more than six feet tall he weighed between 115 and 120 pounds. His uncut fingernails spiraled and his long gray hair hung to his shoulders. Despite his obsession with germs, not once did he allow the Desert Inn's housekeepers to clean his room. He remained in his 250 square foot bedroom, mostly naked, for four years, negotiating purchases and business deals with the curtains drawn and windows and doors sealed shut with tape.

Buying up the Strip
Hughes was allowed to stay until 1967, when the Desert Inn's co-owner Moe Dalitz made it clear to Hughes that he needed to move out of the hotel, as his entourage was occupying valuable rooms. Instead, Hughes opted to buy the Desert Inn for $6.2 million in cash and $7 million in loans. When Hughes refused to appear in public to apply for a gaming license, Nevada Governor Paul Laxalt helped him to obtain the license by pleading on his behalf. State officials complied with Laxalt's request, realizing that Hughes' wealth, fame and good name would benefit Nevada. Soon, the Nevada legislature passed the Corporate Gaming Act, paving the way for later corporations to bypass the financial background checks required to own casinos.

A Monopoly on Las Vegas
When Hughes became aware of the profit potential of the Desert Inn, he was determined to own as many Las Vegas resorts as he could. Maheu recalls Hughes asking, "How many more of these toys are available?" Hughes bought the Frontier, the Sands, the Castaways, the Landmark, the Silver Slipper, North Las Vegas Airport, Alamo Airways, and thousands of acres of undeveloped land. In one year alone, Hughes spent more than $65 million, an average of more than $178,000 per day. Hughes finally stopped when, in 1968, he tried to buy the Stardust. At the time, Hughes had control of one third of the revenue earned by all the casinos on the Strip, and the United States Justice Department issued a monopoly lawsuit against Hughes.

Losing Money and Interest
While Hughes was on his buying spree, Las Vegas politicians hawked Hughes as a force driving mobsters out of the city. Americans, who viewed Hughes as a national hero, began to see Las Vegas in a different light. But neither Hughes nor anyone in his organization knew how to run a casino. As a result, many of the previous employees of the casinos, middle managers and former "Miami hotel men" who had Syndicate ties, kept their jobs. And, they continued to skim both the IRS and now Hughes. As a result, Hughes lost enormous amounts of money. He realized the extent of the skim in the summer of 1970, when he was informed that, in less than four years, some $50 million had been skimmed off of his profits. In the first six months of 1970 alone, Hughes had lost $6.8 million.

Leaving Las Vegas
Bleeding money and increasingly physically and mentally frail, Hughes left Las Vegas on Thanksgiving Day 1970, exactly four years after arriving. He was carried out on a stretcher down the fire escape of the Desert Inn, put on a private jet at Nellis Air Force Base, and flown to the Bahamas. He would never return to Las Vegas, and he died in April 1976 at the age of 70. Although he never set foot out of the Desert Inn during his four-year stay, Hughes' presence had a profound effect on Las Vegas. By associating his myth with Las Vegas, he changed the city's public image.

A New Era for Las Vegas
Beloved by Americans for his daring and good looks, Hughes brought to Las Vegas a new and much-needed aura of respectability, glamour and wholesomeness. He was heralded as the man who helped save Las Vegas from the throes of organized crime, turning Las Vegas into a legitimate gambling industry and making it appealing to other businessmen. Within two years, hotel corporations would arrive in Las Vegas.

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