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James Phelan; Investigative Reporter, Author

September 10, 1997|DAVID HALDANE | TIMES STAFF WRITER

James Phelan, a crusty investigative reporter who played significant roles in uncovering some of the biggest stories of the last four decades and wrote the first major biography of Howard Hughes, has died at the age of 85.

"He was a dying breed," writer Patricia Lambert, a close friend, said of a man the New York Times once called one of the country's best investigative reporters. "The world is a sadder, barren place" without him.

Born in 1912 in Alton, Ill., Phelan grew up reading the St. Louis Post-Dispatch and dreaming of becoming a reporter. He got a job on his hometown paper, the Alton Evening Telegraph and, in 1947, moved to the West Coast to work for newspapers in Long Beach.

By 1954, chafing against the restrictions of newspaper writing, Phelan quit and became a freelancer. It was a portentous decision.

Over the years, he contributed articles to more than 60 magazines throughout the world including True, Fortune, Time, Cosmopolitan, the New York Times Magazine and the old Saturday Evening Post.

It was one of his pieces in the Post that first drew critical attention to what Phelan considered the fabricated conspiracy charge by New Orleans' Dist. Atty. Jim Garrison against Clay Shaw in the John F. Kennedy assassination. Phelan later testified for the defense, playing what attorneys described as a pivotal role in Shaw's acquittal.

Further investigation by Phelan helped uncover that Clifford Irving's biography of Howard Hughes was not based on interviews with Hughes as Irving had claimed. Phelan said the book was based on an unpublished manuscript of his own.

His 1976 bestseller, "Howard Hughes: The Hidden Years," made the cover of Time magazine and provided Americans with their first inside look at the lifestyle of the deceased billionaire.

In 1982, Phelan chronicled his adventures as a reporter in a book called "Scandals, Scamps and Scoundrels: The Casebook of an Investigative Reporter."

A new book, "The Money," written with Lewis Chester, tracing the Hughes fortune, is due out next month.

Phelan, who died of lung cancer in Temecula, is survived by his wife of 52 years, Amalie, and two daughters, Judith and Janet.

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