He was the world's ultimate enigma—a man so secretive, so hidden from view that no outsider could say with certainty even whether he was alive, much less how he looked or behaved. He was one of the world's richest, most imperious, capricious, outrageous, eccentric and powerful men. From his hideaways atop a series of luxury hotels on three continents he spun a web that ensnared an entire state, reached into the highest levels of the U.S. Government and became entwined with the tentacles of the Central Intelligence Agency. Yet for all his power, he lived a sunless, joyless, half-lunatic life in those same hideaways, a virtual prisoner walled in by his own crippling fears and weaknesses. Once a dashing, vibrant figure, he neglected his appearance and health during his last 15 years until he became a pathetic wraith.
Now, eight months after his death aboard an air ambulance en route to a Houston hospital, the layers of secrecy are being peeled away. The real Howard Hughes is finally coming to life.
The peeling-away process has already started as two former key Hughes aides have been questioned in pretrial investigations into the secret life and death of the hermit billionaire. Their evidence will be used in the first major trial, scheduled to begin Jan. 10 in a Nevada state court. The trial concerns the so-called Mormon will, a handwritten document that some claim is Hughes' last testament. More layers will fall away as Texas officials press an investigation into the legal domicile of the wandering billionaire in hopes of collecting as much as $300 million in inheritance taxes.
Another major layer is being peeled away in this issue of TIME, in the excerpts from a forthcoming book that contains many startling, fresh glimpses into Hughes' life. Titled Howard Hughes: The Hidden Years, it will be published next month by Random House, and was written by James Phelan, 67, a crusty investigative reporter who has been covering the elusive billionaire for more than 20 years. Phelan managed to interview the only close associates from Hughes' latter years who so far have been willing to talk. Excerpts from their often chilling testimony follow.
A number of Hughes associates, notably Noah Dietrich and onetime Aide Ron Kistler, have written about their experiences. But they date from long before Hughes went into total isolation. Only Phelan's two sources shared Hughes' hidden years —and broke the silence still maintained by the rest of the penthouse staffers. One is Melvin Stewart, 49, an open-faced Mormon and former barber who was the nurse who tended Hughes' bedsores and took care of him. Beneath the easygoing manner of a small-town Utah boy, Stewart is keen and tough-minded. The other is Gordon Margulis, 45, a muscular, street-smart cockney who spent his early years in London's tough East End. In 1965 Margulis set out to visit his sister in New York City, then rambled throughout much of the country, ending up in Las Vegas. In need of work, he took a job as busboy at the Desert Inn, thinking that a busboy drove the golf carts around the links. Instead, he soon found himself delivering food to the Hughes penthouse, where the aides presumably were impressed by his discretion and savvy.