On his last night in Las Vegas, a physically frail and mentally fractured Howard Hughes was carried down the back stairs from the ninth floor of the Desert Inn before slipping away like a ghost on a jet ambulance.
It was 1970. Hughes' hidden Las Vegas years were over.
The man the addled Hughes trusted to do the heavy lifting was perhaps his closest and most unlikely confidant, Gordon Margulis. Known as Gordie to his many friends, Margulis died Wednesday in a local hospice after fighting cancer of the esophagus. He was 77.
Margulis will surely be remembered most in the media as Hughes' aide and bodyguard while the reclusive billionaire was shut away on the top floor of the Desert Inn. Gordie and Melvin Stewart cared for Hughes every day. At a time Hughes allowed few people to see him, Gordie prepared his meals, and Stewart attempted to render aid to a body ravaged by drug abuse and personal neglect.
Born outside London on Oct. 12, 1931, Gordie was raised in a tiny apartment above a drugstore.
Always a fitness fanatic, in 1964 the handsome and charming ex-Londoner chased his fortune to New York and then out to Las Vegas in 1965, where he took a job as a "busboy" at the Desert Inn believing the duty had something to do with driving. He soon became a room-service waiter and was befriended by Desert Inn owner Moe Dalitz. When Hughes arrived by train at Thanksgiving in 1966 and holed-up at the Desert Inn, Gordie was entrusted with delivering his meals.
As Hughes' mental condition worsened, Margulis began to cook for him and went on to become one the deeply troubled man's few real friends.
Still working out daily at age 77, Gordie thought he had pulled a muscle in his chest in February. He continued to exercise and lift weights through the worsening pain, but his family finally persuaded him to see a doctor. By that time, his cancer had reached stage III and was spreading. Although Gordie fought off pneumonia, he wasn't strong enough for cancer therapy.
(Margulis is survived by his wife, Helen, daughter Danielle, and sons Sean and Gordon. Services are scheduled for 11 a.m. Monday at St. Francis of Assisi Catholic Church at 2300 Sunridge Heights Parkway in Henderson.)
True to the power of his character, he died without complaint or self-pity, son Sean says.
"My father was a deep soul," Sean says. "He had done so many things, been so many places, but he lived a simple life. He knew what was important and lived like that. He was comfortable. Nothing ever bothered him."
Although his father didn't often give details about his time with Hughes, Sean says that on the billionaire's lucid days, "He and my dad would hang out like buddies. They'd visit and talk about music."
Gordie also believed Hughes was capable of coming "out of the recluse thing," Sean says, but was never given the chance by members of his inner circle who preyed on the billionaire's emotional maladies and drug addiction.
"My dad was his friend," the son says. "He didn't want anything from Hughes."
Perhaps Hughes was drawn toward Gordie's strength. Margulis had seen so much and done so much in his life, and he was no stranger to the street. Even in his later years Gordie possessed the kind of quiet strength, and powerful contacts, that could silence the mouthy son of a Mafia don with a few whispered words.
Although he participated with Stewart and James Phelan for the best-selling book "Howard Hughes: The Hidden Years," Gordie was far more than the man who knew the man. In fact, says Peter Maheu, he shared less than he knew and was protective of Hughes' oft-forgotten humanity.
"I think Gordie maintained the secrets he was asked to maintain," says Maheu, son of the late Hughes insider Robert Maheu. "He maintained the secrets because he was an honorable person. He was more than a bodyguard to Hughes. He was a person who took care of Hughes. You couldn't ask for a better friend."
Asked to describe his family friend of many years, Maheu observes, "Probably his biggest attribute is his morality and his honesty. Throughout the entire Hughes debacle, Gordie remained one of the good guys who was honest and truthful. He was a man's man. He was honorable."
Attorney Joe Brown met Margulis more recently and was immediately charmed by the vitality of character of Hughes' unlikely confidant.
"Gordie was the one who knew who the white hats and the black hats were," Brown says. "What a wonderful guy he was. Gordie really did care about Hughes as a person and as a human being when so many other people saw him as a wallet, as a source of money."
He also remained a valuable resource for authors seeking to understand the Hughes legend. The Review-Journal's Geoff Schumacher, author of "Howard Hughes: Power, Paranoia & Palace Intrigue," calls Margulis, "an important and trusted source in my research for my book about Hughes. After the book was published, we continued to stay in touch."
Gordie was the star of the show when he was part of a panel discussion about Hughes at my book launch party at the Nevada State Museum. In general, he was always willing to offer his informed perspective on various Hughes myths and realities."
Unlike Hughes, who died shattered and nearly alone in 1976, Gordie's final days were quite different. Sean Margulis says he was awed by the numbers of friends of all ages and walks of life who learned about his father's illness and came to his bedside.
"I can't complain," was Gordie's steady refrain.
Now that Howard Hughes' real friend is gone, I do not doubt who was the richer man.
Have an item for the Bard of the Boulevard? E-mail comments and contributions to Smith@reviewjournal.com or call (702) 383-0295. He also blogs at lvrj.com/blogs/smith/.