On Thanksgiving Day 1966 the Desert Inn Hotel Casino in Las Vegas, Nevada reserved its entire top floor to a well known but never seen guest, and the Vegas strip, and the city of Las Vegas would never be the same. The guest was Howard Hughes and he was ailing in body and mind; he was frightened and looking for a place to hide.
Although he had not been seen publically in over 10 years he was still world famous. During his lifetime he had made films, set world records, designed aircraft, and created new industries. He had just sold his stock in TWA airlines and collected the largest check ever written: $546 million. The visionary businessman immediately saw the citys potential, while at the time it was little more than a desert town with a string of casinos, Hughes recognized that Las Vegas could become a major city. Hughes predicted that the city of less than 100,000 people would someday be a thriving American metropolis.
Let the Buying Begin
Hughes began a $100 million buying spree including casinos such as the Castaways, the Frontier, the Landmark, the Sands, the Silver Slipper and the the Harolds Club Casino in Reno. He also bought most of the land on the Vegas strip, a local television station, two airports, a golf course, and extensive mining claims. In little more than a year Hughess ravenous buying had made him the largest private employer, the largest landowner, and the most powerful individual in the state of Nevada.
The king had his kingdom, and the acquisitions seemed to give Hughes new vitality. From his penthouse above the strip, he ruled his new domain with a legal pad, scrawling out new ideas, plans for the future, and instructions for managing his new kingdom. Hughes announced plans to build the worlds largest resort in Las Vegas; the New Sands would be a $100 million colossus with 4,000 rooms, making it a city within a city. Hughes even sought to put the campaign staff of fallen presidential candidate Robert Kennedy on the Hughes payroll after Kennedys assassination in 1968.
Billionaire in Decay
From the outside it appeared that Hughes was the sole sovereign of a sprawling new empire as vast as his wealth, as expansive as his imagination, and as boundless as the future. The truth was that the empire was only as healthy as its ruler, and its ruler was rapidly deteriorating.
Hughes was decaying physically and mentally. He bore no resemblance to the dashing aviator who had flown the Spruce Goose. In person he was a frightened specter of a man. His frame was skeletal, his teeth were rotting, his body was covered with bed sores and needle marks that grew in number as he fed his codeine addiction. His hair and beard had not been trimmed in years, neither had the twisting yellow nails that grew wildly from his fingers and toes.
Hughes moved into a fifteen by seventeen foot bedroom in the penthouse, had the windows blacked out, and rarely left the room. When his mind was clear Hughes spent his days scribbling memos with instructions about how to manage his empire. When it was not he would endlessly sort and stack his papers, watch television, and take elaborate precautions against the germs that haunted him.
By 1970 the kingdom was collapsing from turmoil within and pressures without. His staff members, who acted as a buffer to protect Hughes from the world and perform his bizarre requests, fractured into rival camps, both sides accusing the other of exploiting Hughes for financial gain.
The federal governments nuclear testing program continued in the Nevada desert, and Hughes saw it as endangering the future growth of Las Vegas. The billionaire fought a long battle to keep nuclear testing out of Nevada, going as high as the president of the United States, only to be rejected. His kingdom lost its enchantment.
Leaving Las Vegas
On Thanksgiving 1970 Hughes left town. In the middle of the night his aides carried him down nine flights of stairs and took him to the airport, where a jet awaited to fly him away. Hughes left Nevada and everything he had spent the last four years accumulating, never to return.
Hughess impact on the city of Las Vegas is still visible today. He changed the trend in casino ownership away from ownership by shadowy organized crime partnerships to ownership by corporations. Hughess vast land holdings near Las Vegas have been converted into a 22,500 acre master-planned community of over 100,000 residents named Summerlin, after Hughess grandmother.
After fleeing Las Vegas, Hughes spent his remaining years living the life of a billion dollar transient. He shuffled through a series of luxury hotels, moving frequently to escape from the threats he saw all around him and to find better TV reception. He still had his fortune and the legendary name that had outgrown him, but his business life was over. The empire that he built in Las Vegas was the last time Hughes would display the vision and ambition that set a world records, founded new industries, and made him the richest man in America.