The Nation: Scenes from the Hidden Years

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to—or explanation of—his long periods of self-neglect. Neither did his aides. It was a subject that was not discussed, the way a close family might ignore a behavioral peculiarity of a distinctly eccentric but very rich uncle.

When they trimmed his nails, Hughes insisted that they leave his left thumbnail about a half-inch long and squared off.

"That's my screwdriver," he said. "Don't trim my screwdriver too short." He used his thumbnail to flick pages in his documents, and to tighten loose screws or make adjustments in his movie sound equipment or other appliances.

"The only reason I could figure out why he used his thumbnail," said Margulis, "was that it did away with handling a screwdriver, which might have germs on it. Handling inanimate objects had developed into a complicated ritual. When you were going to bring him a spoon, for example, the spoon handle had to be wrapped in Kleenex and Scotch-taped. Then you would take another piece of Kleenex to hold the Kleenex wrapping, so the wrapping wouldn't get contaminated. He would lift the wrapped spoon off the piece of Kleenex you were holding it with."

"He looked like a different man when we got him shaved and barbered and groomed," said Stewart.

The audience with Somoza and Shelton took place aboard the Hughes executive jet at the airport. Hughes was removed from the hotel in a wheelchair, taken to the airport, and put aboard the plane before his visitors arrived.

He greeted the president of Nicaragua and the U.S. ambassador wearing his pajama bottoms, his bathrobe and his old sandals. The tall, emaciated billionaire and the stocky, bespectacled dictator hit it off well. They had much in common; in many ways their coming together was comparable to a state visit between two sovereigns.

The meeting lasted some forty-five minutes. As the conversation went on, the senior aides began to get restless, and Somoza said that he did not want to hold up their departure.

"Don't worry about it," said Hughes. "This plane isn't going to go anywhere until I'm ready." [Later Ambassador Shelton told the press:] "His hair was cut short like he used to wear it. He shook hands with both of us, and had a firm handshake. It is absolutely nonsense what has been printed about his nails being as long as Fu Manchu's. His fingernails were as well manicured as yours or mine."

From Managua, Hughes was whisked in an executive jet to Vancouver on March 12, 1972. His anxiety about the progress of the flight is reflected in his handwritten notes to Aide Holmes (see illustration). The top floor of the Bayshore Inn, overlooking Vancouver Bay, had been reserved for Hughes and his entourage.

When they took Hughes up the elevator to the suite they had picked out for him, Hughes went over to the window and looked out, instead of scuttling into his bedroom.

"The aides had picked the big middle room for The Office," Margulis said. "The boss gazed out the window a little while and watched a seaplane landing in the harbor. He said he liked the view.

"The aides didn't like that one bit," said Margulis. They told me to get him away from the window and into his bedroom.

"Then something happened that really frosted me. The boss

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