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.

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
Life and Style
A monstrous idea? Body transplants might no longer be science fiction
Science An Italian neurosurgeon believes so - and it's not quite as implausible as it sounds, says Steve Connor
Demba Ba (right) celebrates after Besiktas win on penalties
footballThere was no happy return to the Ataturk Stadium, where the Reds famously won Champions League
Arts and Entertainment
Natural beauty: Aidan Turner stars in the new series of Poldark
arts + ents
Mia Freedman, editorial director of the Mamamia website, reads out a tweet she was sent.
arts + ents
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebooksA special investigation by Andy McSmith
Arts and Entertainment
The write stuff: masters of story-telling James Joyce, left, and Thomas Hardy
arts + ents...begging to differ, John Walsh can't even begin to number the ways
Image from a flyer at the CPAC event where Nigel Farage will be speaking
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

Recruitment Genius: Bookkeeper

£23000 - £26000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This small, friendly, proactive...

Recruitment Genius: Photographic Event Crew

£14500 - £22800 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This is a fantastic opportunity...

Recruitment Genius: Software Developers - .NET / ASP.NET / WebAPI / JavaScript

Negotiable: Recruitment Genius: A Software Developer is required to join a lea...

Austen Lloyd: Corporate Tax Solicitor - City

Excellent Salary: Austen Lloyd: A first rate opportunity to join a top ranking...

Day In a Page

HIV pill: Scientists hail discovery of 'game-changer' that cuts the risk of infection among gay men by 86%

Scientists hail daily pill that protects against HIV infection

Breakthrough in battle against global scourge – but will the NHS pay for it?
How we must adjust our lifestyles to nature: Welcome to the 'Anthropocene', the human epoch

Time to play God

Welcome to the 'Anthropocene', the human epoch where we may need to redefine nature itself
MacGyver returns, but with a difference: Handyman hero of classic 1980s TV series to be recast as a woman

MacGyver returns, but with a difference

Handyman hero of classic 1980s TV series to be recast as a woman
Tunnel renaissance: Why cities are hiding roads down in the ground

Tunnel renaissance

Why cities are hiding roads underground
'Backstreet Boys - Show 'Em What You're Made Of': An affectionate look at five middle-aged men

Boys to men

The Backstreet Boys might be middle-aged, married and have dodgy knees, but a heartfelt documentary reveals they’re not going gently into pop’s good night
Crufts 2015: Should foreign dogs be allowed to compete?

Crufts 2015

Should foreign dogs be allowed to compete?
10 best projectors

How to make your home cinema more cinematic: 10 best projectors

Want to recreate the big-screen experience in your sitting room? IndyBest sizes up gadgets to form your film-watching
Manchester City 1 Barcelona 2 player ratings: Luis Suarez? Lionel Messi? Joe Hart? Who was the star man?

Manchester City vs Barcelona player ratings

Luis Suarez? Lionel Messi? Joe Hart? Who was the star man at the Etihad?
Arsenal vs Monaco: Monaco - the making of Gunners' manager Arsene Wenger

Monaco: the making of Wenger

Jack Pitt-Brooke speaks to former players and learns the Frenchman’s man-management has always been one of his best skills
Cricket World Cup 2015: Chris Gayle - the West Indies' enigma lives up to his reputation

Chris Gayle: The West Indies' enigma

Some said the game's eternal rebel was washed up. As ever, he proved he writes the scripts by producing a blistering World Cup innings
In Ukraine a dark world of hybrid warfare and murky loyalties prevails

In Ukraine a dark world of hybrid warfare

This war in the shadows has been going on since the fall of Mr Yanukovych
'Birdman' and 'Bullets Over Broadway': Homage or plagiarism?

Homage or plagiarism?

'Birdman' shares much DNA with Woody Allen's 'Bullets Over Broadway'
Broadchurch ends as damp squib not even David Tennant can revive

A damp squib not even David Tennant can revive

Broadchurch, Series 2 finale, review
A Koi carp breeding pond, wall-mounted iPads and a bathroom with a 'wellness' shower: inside the mansion of Germany's 'Bishop of Bling'

Inside the mansion of Germany's 'Bishop of Bling'

A Koi carp breeding pond, wall-mounted iPads and a bathroom with a 'wellness' shower