Half a century ago, Nevada’s world turned upside down. On November 27, 1966, a Union Pacific train stopped where the tracks cross Carey Avenue in North Las Vegas. A stretcher carried a man to an ambulance. But he didn’t go to the hospital. He went to the Desert Inn Hotel. Howard Hughes had moved to Las Vegas.
He would stay four years. His role here would be significant. It also would be misunderstood and become mythical.
Howard Robard Hughes was born in 1905 in Houston, Texas. His family owned a tool company, and he inherited it. When he was in his twenties, he moved to Hollywood, and started directing and producing films and courting starlets. His movie successes included The Front Page and Scarface. He also got into flying, both owning and piloting planes. He set several speed records and became internationally famous for an around-the-world flight. He built an all-wooden plane that became known as the Spruce Goose, a name he hated. He also crashed in a plane in 1946. He broke nine ribs, injured both lungs, and suffered several fractures, cuts, and burns. Over the years, the lingering pain left him dependent on drugs. Add in possible mental health issues and, increasingly, he became reclusive. After he hired onetime FBI and CIA operative Bob Maheu to help with security, Maheu became his public spokesman and face.
Maheu organized the train trip to southern Nevada. As Geoff Schumacher details in his book Howard Hughes: Power, Paranoia, and Palace Intrigue, the news that Hughes had arrived didn’t even become known until he had been at the Desert Inn for a few days. Four months later came the news: he had bought the hotel.
Why? Well … supposedly, owner Moe Dalitz ordered him out. Hughes was staying in the penthouse, which was for high rollers. Hughes was the lowest roller imaginable. He never left his room. His staff took up other valuable space. So, rather than be ejected, Hughes ponied up. But the other story is that the negotiations had gone on for some time, involving such intermediaries as mobster Johnny Rosselli, Las Vegas Sun publisher Hank Greenspun, and Teamsters attorney Ed Morgan. Anyway, Hughes paid more than thirteen million dollars and had his hotel.
Interestingly, Hughes didn’t have to go before the Nevada Gaming Control Board or Clark County’s gaming licensing board. He’s the only such exception in our history. They said Hughes was well known enough. There’s also the fact that Hughes didn’t want to do it. More importantly, the state was glad to have him.
Nevada had an image problem. It still does. Back then, it was worse. Books like The Green Felt Jungle and Gamblers’ Money depicted Las Vegas as the mob’s paradise and money laundering machine.
After being elected governor in 1966, Paul Laxalt had promised FBI director J. Edgar Hoover, who had been complaining about organized crime, that he would get Nevada’s house in order. He also didn’t want Hoover getting involved if he could help it. With help from powers like Parry Thomas, Laxalt pushed the Corporate Gaming Act through the legislature to enable publicly traded corporations to buy Nevada casinos. That would help the image. But so would a billionaire no one could control. Or so it appeared. More next time.
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