Robert A. Maheu: Aide to Howard Hughes

Robert A. Maheu knew what power was. It was when you called the White House, and asked to see Lyndon Johnson. In fact, the President was trying to snatch a few days off at his Texas ranch, but still had a helicopter sent to ferry his unexpected guest from the nearest airport. He would give another example. "If you can pick up the telephone the night before the Academy Awards and say, 'By the way, I'm going to need another table for eight people tomorrow,' and they don't even burp – that's power."

At the summit of his career, this sort of thing was routine for Bob Maheu. Part of his success reflected his own gifts as a deal-maker and fixer. But the biggest reason was his role as "alter ego" to Howard Hughes: aviator, inventor, movie producer, tycoon and, for the last third of his life, paranoid recluse, who was long one of America's richest men.

For a decade or more – and above all for the four years he was Hughes' director of Las Vegas operations until his boss abruptly fired him in 1970 – Maheu was Hughes: his eyes, his ears, his voice to the world. Maheu represented the invisible billionaire in the boardroom, at dinners with the mighty of the day, in appearances before Congressional committees, in meetings with Presidents. That was precisely how Hughes wanted it. The two men talked on the phone, or communicated by handwritten memo, up to 20 times a day. But they never met.

Still physically imposing and compellingly fluent, Maheu described the extraordinary relationship in a filmed interview a few months before his death, "One day in 1958," he recalled, "I could have made three separate $150m decisions on behalf of a man with whom I'd never been in the same room. Yes, I saw him at a distance on two occasions, but I never eye-balled him, we never shook hands, we never talked face to face."

These moneyed, immensely powerful circles were far removed from Maheu's origins in a French-speaking family. A grocer's son who grew up in a poor town in Maine, 100 miles south of the Canadian border, after graduating from Holy Cross College in Massachusetts Maheu joined the war-time FBI, where he helped run a French double agent against the Nazis. By 1954 he had set up his own private investigation company, where he did undercover work for the CIA – "cut-out" jobs, he wrote in his 1992 autobiography Next to Hughes, "in which the agency could not officially be involved".

The most spectacular of them came in 1960 when the CIA enlisted Maheu and the Mafia kingpins Sam Giancana, Johnny Roselli and Santo Trafficante in a plot to poison Fidel Castro. The scheme was abandoned after the failure of the Bay of Pigs invasion in April 1961, but long afterwards Maheu still trembled at the memory: "If anything went wrong I was the fall guy, caught between protecting the government and protecting the mob, two armed camps that could crush me like a bug."

Years before, that, however he was doing work for Hughes. A first assignment went off perfectly, the second was a near-disaster. Hughes asked Maheu to arrange surveillance of the actress Ava Gardner, whom he was pursuing, to check on her meetings with Frank Sinatra. But the private eye Maheu hired botched the job utterly, and a posse of reporters was waiting when Sinatra and Gardner returned from a boat trip on Lake Tahoe.

Maheu assumed that the fiasco would be the end of their association. Not so. By 1966 he was working full-time for the tycoon, who had rented the top floor of the Desert Inn in Las Vegas for what was booked as a 10-day stay. But 10 days turned into 15, right in the Vegas high season, and because Hughes did not gamble, the hotel asked him and his entourage to leave.

Hughes asked Maheu for advice. "If you want a place to sleep, buy a hotel," came the reply. Thus did Hughes acquire the Desert Inn, for $13m. Six other casino hotels subsequently joined the Hughes empire in Nevada – the Sands, the Castaways, the Frontier, the Silver Slipper and the Landmark in Vegas, and Harold's Club in Reno.

In the process, Hughes – or rather Maheu acting on his behalf – played a key role in prising Las Vegas out of the hands of the mob. Those were especially rip-roaring years. In 1968 Maheu made a $50,000 donation to the Democratic presidential nominee Hubert Humphrey, in cash from the gambling proceeds at the Silver Slipper. In 1970, there followed a $100,000 cash delivery to President Richard Nixon's close friend Bebe Rebozo. In politics, Hughes believed in backing every runner, and Maheu did as he was told.

In December 1970, however, the pair parted in acrimony. A rival group of aides persuaded the sick and shrivelled Hughes to fire Maheu and move to the Bahamas. Two years later, in a telephone news conference called to disown the fake Hughes autobiography by Clifford Irving, the billionaire denounced his one-time alter ego as "a no-good son-of-a-bitch who robbed me blind".

Maheu sued for defamation, and initially won a $2.8m judgement that was overturned on appeal. In 1976, Hughes died, a disfigured wreck of a man – his hair and nails grown monstrously long, it was reported, his arms riddled with broken hypodermic needles, his weight reduced to 90lb (little more than six stone).

Maheu himself had stayed on in Las Vegas, reactivating his former company, and providing consultancy services to mostly corporate customers. He also indulged his epicurean instincts, setting up a Las Vegas branch of a French gourmet cooking society. But to the end he wondered about his relations with his old boss.

Once Maheu did have it out with Hughes, in a rambling, wrenching phone conversation, in which the latter finally explained why they had never met. "After four or five hours of talking, Hughes started sobbing," Maheu recounted. "'Bob, you've exhausted me,' he said, 'there's nowhere left for me to go but the truth. If I let you come up here and see me looking like this, you'd never again be able to represent me with the same accomplishment.' I felt, good God, I'm talking to the poorest man in the world, and I started crying too."

Rupert Cornwell

Robert Aimé Maheu, businessman: born Waterville, Maine 30 October 1917; married 1941 Yvette Dohou (died 2003; three sons, and one daughter deceased); died Las Vegas, Nevada 4 August 2008.

footballLIVE City face Stoke, while Warnock returns to Palace dugout
Arts and Entertainment
Life and Style
3D printed bump keys can access almost any lock
gadgets + techSoftware needs photo of lock and not much more
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebooksAn evocation of the conflict through the eyes of those who lived through it
Arts and Entertainment
Inside the gallery at Frederick Bremer School in Walthamstow
tvSimon Usborne goes behind the scenes to watch the latest series
Life and Style
Silvia says of her famous creation: 'I never stopped wearing it. Because I like to wear things when they are off the radar'
fashionThe fashion house celebrated fifteen years of the punchy pouch with a weighty tome
Arts and Entertainment
Gregg Wallace in Summer's Supermarket Secrets
tv All of this year's 15 contestants have now been named
i100Steve Carell selling chicken, Tina Fey selling saving accounts and Steve Colbert selling, um...
Life and Style
A picture taken on January 12, 2011 shows sex shops at the Paris district of Pigalle.
newsThe industry's trade body issued the moratorium on Friday
Arts and Entertainment
Could we see Iain back in the Bake Off tent next week?
tv Contestant teased Newsnight viewers on potential reappearance
The slice of Prince Charles and Princess Diana's wedding cake and the original box from 29 July 1981
newsPiece of Charles and Diana's wedding cake sold at auction in US
The Ukip leader has consistently refused to be drawn on where he would mount an attempt to secure a parliamentary seat
voicesNigel Farage: Those who predicted we would lose momentum heading into the 2015 election are going to have to think again
Arts and Entertainment
Cara Delevingne made her acting debut in Anna Karenina in 2012
film Cara Delevingne 'in talks' to star in Zoolander sequel
Mario Balotelli pictured in his Liverpool shirt for the first time
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

C# .NET Web Developer (ASP.NET, JavaScript, jQuery, XML, XLST)

£40000 - £50000 per annum + Benefits + Bonus: Harrington Starr: C# .NET Web De...

Clinical Negligence Solicitor

Highly Competitive Salary: Austen Lloyd: HAMPSHIRE MARKET TOWN - A highly attr...

Network Engineer (CCNP, CCNA, Linux, OSPF, BGP, Multicast, WAN)

£35000 per annum: Harrington Starr: Network Engineer (CCNP, CCNA, Linux, OSPF,...

Commercial Property Solicitor - Bristol

Highly Attractive Package: Austen Lloyd: A VERY HIGH QUALITY FIRM A high qual...

Day In a Page

Ukraine crisis: The phoney war is over as Russian troops and armour pour across the border

The phoney war is over

Russian troops and armour pour into Ukraine
Potatoes could be off the menu as crop pests threaten UK

Potatoes could be off the menu as crop pests threaten UK

The world’s entire food system is under attack - and Britain is most at risk, according to a new study
Gangnam smile: why the Chinese are flocking to South Korea to buy a new face

Gangnam smile: why the Chinese are flocking to South Korea to buy a new face

Seoul's plastic surgery industry is booming thanks to the popularity of the K-Pop look
From Mozart to Orson Welles: Creative geniuses who peaked too soon

Creative geniuses who peaked too soon

After the death of Sandy Wilson, 90, who wrote his only hit musical in his twenties, John Walsh wonders what it's like to peak too soon and go on to live a life more ordinary
Caught in the crossfire of a cyber Cold War

Caught in the crossfire of a cyber Cold War

Fears are mounting that Vladimir Putin has instructed hackers to target banks like JP Morgan
Salomé's feminine wiles have inspired writers, painters and musicians for 2,000 years

Salomé: A head for seduction

Salomé's feminine wiles have inspired writers, painters and musicians for 2,000 years. Now audiences can meet the Biblical femme fatale in two new stage and screen projects
From Bram Stoker to Stanley Kubrick, the British Library's latest exhibition celebrates all things Gothic

British Library celebrates all things Gothic

Forthcoming exhibition Terror and Wonder: The Gothic Imagination will be the UK's largest ever celebration of Gothic literature
The Hard Rock Café's owners are embroiled in a bitter legal dispute - but is the restaurant chain worth fighting for?

Is the Hard Rock Café worth fighting for?

The restaurant chain's owners are currently embroiled in a bitter legal dispute
Caribbean cuisine is becoming increasingly popular in the UK ... and there's more to it than jerk chicken at carnival

In search of Caribbean soul food

Caribbean cuisine is becoming increasingly popular in the UK ... and there's more to it than jerk chicken at carnival
11 best face powders

11 best face powders

Sweep away shiny skin with our pick of the best pressed and loose powder bases
England vs Norway: Roy Hodgson's hands tied by exploding top flight

Roy Hodgson's hands tied by exploding top flight

Lack of Englishmen at leading Premier League clubs leaves manager hamstrung
Angel Di Maria and Cristiano Ronaldo: A tale of two Manchester United No 7s

Di Maria and Ronaldo: A tale of two Manchester United No 7s

They both inherited the iconic shirt at Old Trafford, but the £59.7m new boy is joining a club in a very different state
Israel-Gaza conflict: No victory for Israel despite weeks of death and devastation

Robert Fisk: No victory for Israel despite weeks of devastation

Palestinians have won: they are still in Gaza, and Hamas is still there
Mary Beard writes character reference for Twitter troll who called her a 'slut'

Unlikely friends: Mary Beard and the troll who called her a ‘filthy old slut’

The Cambridge University classicist even wrote the student a character reference
America’s new apartheid: Prosperous white districts are choosing to break away from black cities and go it alone

America’s new apartheid

Prosperous white districts are choosing to break away from black cities and go it alone