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Gambling News by Gambling Headquarters

Tuesday, April 04, 2006

Hughes Wasn't a Wacko, or Was He?

 

The late billionaire Howard Hughes, who once owned six casinos in Las Vegas, was known as a recluse, shunning any public contact in his declining years.

But Philip Hannifin, former chairman of the Nevada Gaming Control Board, recalls his face-to face meeting with Hughes on the top floor of a hotel in London about a year before Hughes' death, 30 years ago next Wednesday.

Hannifin and then-Gov. Mike O'Callaghan went on a secret mission to meet Hughes and try to dispel some of the rumors that swirled around the billionaire - he was unkempt, living in a drug-induced haze and not able to make a decision.

Hannifin said that wasn't the case in London on March 9, 1973.

"He was well barbered and manicured," Hannifin said, recalling that Hughes held a hearing aid the size of a deck of cards. "He was alert."

But Hughes wasn't dressed for a meeting - he was wearing a robe and slippers. "I found that kind of strange," Hannifin said.

In Hughes' life, that was mild.

After living atop the Desert Inn for nearly four years, Hughes suddenly left town on Nov. 5, 1970. Rumors flew - he had been kidnapped by his aides; he was dead.

A fight ensued over his empire and his frontman, Robert Maheu, was ousted. The new regime needed the blessing of the Gaming Commission.

But Hughes had never been before the state Gaming Commission. Maheu had represented Hughes, and the commission wouldn't approve any changes until the governor met Hughes.

"He (O'Callaghan) wanted to make sure that he, Hughes, wanted Bill Gay and Chester Davis to be in control (of the Nevada casinos.) O'Callaghan wanted to put an end to all the b.s.," Hannifin said.

The late O'Callaghan and Hannifin, now retired, flew to London for the meeting on the top floor of the Inn on the Park overlooking Hyde Park. Hannifin recalls they were in a large room with Gay and Davis and Hughes walked in by himself.

Hughes assured O'Callaghan that Gay and Davis were in charge. The governor planned to talk to the press when he returned to Nevada and told the recluse that.

"Hughes went ballistic," Hannifin said. "He (Hughes) believed he made a commitment" to phone three or four journalists first.

"They were yelling at each other like two old bulls in a pasture. Gay and Davis were fluttering around, and I started to giggle."

He said he believed this was the first time Davis, a New York lawyer, had ever seen Hughes. "Maheu never saw him," Hannifin said.

Maheu said he had the "damnedest relationship" with Hughes, communicating over the telephone and through notes and memos, but never meeting.

The only thing O'Callaghan would say on his return to Carson City was that Hughes had a "commanding personality." Despite reports of a fear of germs, there were no special precautions taken and Hughes shook hands both at the start and at the end of the meeting with both O'Callaghan and Hannifin.

When asked about the appearance of Hughes, O'Callaghan told a press conference, "This is a personal matter and I don't intend to discuss it."

But O'Callaghan said that when Hughes disagreed, "his voice raised."

Before O'Callaghan and Hannifin left, the trip was kept secret. Bob Stewart, O'Callaghan's press secretary, said he was told the governor was hunting in Southern Nevada.

Stewart said O'Callaghan, who after two terms became a Las Vegas Sun executive, never discussed the appearance of Hughes. "Mike was careful never to give a hint," he said.

In 1977, a year after Hughes died, Hannifin accepted an executive job with Hughes' casino company, Summa Corp. There he was told something that would only further the Hughes' myth: Aides spent two weeks cleaning up Hughes before that meeting in London.

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