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OBITUARIES : Robert Maheu, 1917 - 2008

Confidant and aide to Howard Hughes

August 06, 2008|Elaine Woo | Times Staff Writer

Robert Maheu, who worked for the FBI and the CIA before he became billionaire Howard Hughes' confidant and right-hand man, shielding the eccentric industrialist from the public he feared and crafting the deals that made him a Las Vegas power player during a critical period in the city's development, has died. He was 90.

The cause was congestive heart failure, according to his son, Peter, who said his father died Monday at Desert Springs Hospital in Las Vegas.

Formidably tall with a commanding voice and a network of contacts that ranged from presidents to underworld bosses, Maheu played an unusual role in the Hughes saga, serving as the reclusive mogul's public face from 1955 to 1970.

"Whenever I spoke, it was Howard Hughes speaking. We had an incredible relationship," Maheu, speaking to Vanity Fair magazine a few years ago, said of the man who made a fortune in oil industry tools and aerospace before deciding to seal himself off from the public. Hughes' descent into mental illness is one of the strangest true-life stories of the 20th century.

Maheu's association with Hughes began soon after he opened a private investigations firm in 1954. An intermediary brought Maheu an assignment that he later learned was contracted by the former aviator, Hollywood studio owner and founder of Hughes Aircraft. Maheu apparently performed satisfactorily because Hughes requested his services again.

He spied on Hughes' love interests, including actress Ava Gardner. He blackmailed Hughes' blackmailers into keeping their mouths shut. On one occasion, he received a 3 a.m. phone call from Hughes asking Maheu to persuade a Santa Monica doctor whom Hughes admired to move to Las Vegas and work as his personal physician. When Maheu said the doctor had nine children and could not easily uproot them, Hughes responded: "I'm not asking you why they didn't exercise birth control; I want his brilliant talent by my bedside the rest of my life." Hughes prevailed but refused to see the doctor after learning that he also practiced psychiatry.

Maheu said he caught glimpses of his enigmatic boss twice but never met face to face with him, communicating instead by phone and memo. It was an extraordinarily peculiar relationship, but Maheu was in many ways perfect for the job.

"A lot of people wished they were Howard Hughes," said Hughes biographer Pat H. Broeske, "but Howard Hughes wanted to be Bob Maheu. He was very envious of Bob in many ways. He liked manly men. In Hollywood, Hughes was a great admirer of Robert Mitchum and everything he embodied. In the world of politics and intrigue Robert Maheu was that figure that Hughes just couldn't be. He was a great presence . . . a real wheeler-dealer," Broeske added.

The son of a grocer, Maheu was born Oct. 30, 1917, and grew up in Waterville, Maine. He majored in economics at Holy Cross College in Massachusetts before entering Georgetown University law school. In 1940 he joined the FBI and during World War II worked in counter-espionage, posing as a German sympathizer. He left the FBI in 1947.

After opening his own investigations firm in 1954, the CIA became his first steady client. He was given "cut-out" assignments, jobs involving illegal actions that could not be traced back to the agency.

His most infamous assignment was to arrange the assassination of Cuban leader Fidel Castro. Maheu recruited two top Mafia bosses, Johnny Roselli and Sam Giancana, who suggested a scheme to poison Castro, but the plot was ditched after the disastrous Bay of Pigs invasion in 1961. "The plan was always subject to a 'go' signal, which never came," Maheu told a Senate intelligence panel in 1975.

He was working full time for Hughes in 1966 when the industrialist rented the top floor of the Desert Inn in Las Vegas for a 10-day stay. Hughes did not gamble, and when his visit stretched into 15 days, the hotel owners, anxious to rent their best rooms to high rollers, demanded that Hughes and his entourage leave.

Hughes asked Maheu what to do. "If you want a place to sleep, buy a hotel," Maheu told him. So Hughes bought the Desert Inn, for $13 million.

Once he understood the profit-making potential of the casinos, Hughes grabbed up several more, including the Castaways, Silver Slipper, Sands and Frontier. Maheu was his front man -- "quite literally, alter ego," Maheu wrote in his 1992 autobiography with Richard Hack, called "Next to Hughes." He became the chief executive of the businesses he helped Hughes acquire. "If he wanted someone fired, I did the firing. If he wanted something negotiated, I did the bargaining. If he had to be somewhere, I appeared in his place. I was his eyes, his ears, and his mouthpiece," Maheu wrote.

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