The Nation: Scenes from the Hidden Years

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brought in and stationed at Hatchfield airport. [He] had lined up a young English jet pilot, Tony Blackburn, to fly with Hughes. No one seriously thought that Hughes actually proposed to handle the plane in the takeoff and landing; he could hold down the copilot's seat and take over the controls for a while. When this was diplomatically spelled out, he objected strenuously. "What do you mean, I fly copilot?" he complained. "I've never flown copilot in my life."

Blackburn, a young man with his whole life ahead of him, was adamant. Hughes grumbled but gave in.

Finally one morning, Margulis got the order for the chicken sandwiches that Hughes [always asked for when he] was going off on a plane. [Margulis] made up a packet, along with the mandatory bottle of Poland water, and helped Hughes descend from his hideout down the service elevator to the hotel garage. With his snap-brim hat and his leather jacket, the man who had broken the round-the-world flight record almost forty years earlier boarded an old Daimler limousine and went off to relive the joys of long-gone days.

A few weeks later, disaster struck. As he was being helped by an aide to the bathroom, Hughes slipped and fell, fracturing his right femur. Hughes wanted to be operated on in his hotel room, but British Surgeon Walter Robinson insisted that he would perform the operation only in a hospital. Hughes relented—but he demanded to leave the clinic before the fracture had properly mended. Result: he refused even to try to walk again. From then on, his life, which had seemed on the upturn, took a tragic downward plunge. He was taken to the Xanadu Princess Hotel in Freeport, where the Bahamians this time were happy to welcome him. Then, after two years, he was moved again—this time to the pyramidal Princess Hotel in Acapulco.

When they wheeled him into the elevator at Acapulco, the door malfunctioned. The door would close, but the elevator wouldn't move, and then the door would open again.

"We just stayed there, while the door opened and closed, until finally Hughes became aware something was wrong," said Margulis. "He asked me what the hell was going on. I made a little joke. I told him, 'This is your new room. We'll bring your bed in soon, and this is where you're going to live.'

"He caught on in a little while, made his O.K. signal with his thumb and his first finger in a circle and managed a little smile. It was the last time I ever saw him smile.

"Then the elevator worked and we took him up to his new bedroom. When I carried him in, it was like carrying a frail, long-legged child."

In Acapulco, Hughes' condition worsened, but his retinue seemed confused and powerless. The chief physician, Dr. Wilbur Thain, a general practitioner from Utah who is the brother-in-law of Bill Gay, was not even there. He had gone off a few days earlier to Florida. In his absence, the other physicians seemed unable to take any decisive action. On Saturday, April 3, 1976, Margulis stepped into the small, blacked-out room where Hughes lay dying.

It was dark, silent, timeless, a room that could have been anywhere or nowhere, a setting out of Kafka.

Facing Hughes at the foot of his bed, as always, was his movie screen. Behind his bed, as always, was his movie projector.

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