Bob Maheu was best-known as the man “next to Hughes,” but you could have filled a football stadium with the influential people he charmed during his incredible lifetime.
He had contacts throughout every strata of American life, which made him the ideal alter ego for the enigmatic Howard Hughes. From FBI headquarters to the count room of mobbed-up casinos, Maheu found himself next to the celebrated and the infamous. His life was riddled with so much shadowy drama it should have come equipped with a fedora, trench coat and fog-shrouded street.
Maheu, who died Monday at Desert Springs Hospital at age 90 following a lengthy illness, filled his days with political intrigue and business opportunity. Although he never met with Hughes while employed by him, Maheu was his full-time confidant and cleanup man after the billionaire arrived in Las Vegas by train on Thanksgiving 1966. Prior to that, Maheu kept busy doing contract work for the CIA and cleanup work for Hughes during the billionaire’s years as a skirt-chasing movie mogul.
Within days, the Hughes legend took root in our desert sand thanks to the efforts of Maheu and his friend, Las Vegas Sun Publisher Hank Greenspun. Hughes holed up on the top floor of the Desert Inn and, to hear the tale-spinners tell it, only started buying casinos because he was being evicted from the house Moe Dalitz built.
It was a story as over-inflated as Dolly Parton’s silhouette, but the press bought it. Most of the media understand that, thanks to Maheu, negotiations were under way to buy up the mob-influenced casinos that had blipped on federal law enforcement’s radar screen. Hughes, whether willingly or as a drug-addled dupe, was fast becoming the pass-through player in a deal that changed Las Vegas forever.
“Howard Hughes did not make Las Vegas,” Maheu told me over coffee at his expansive home. “We got it ready. When I say we got it ready, that’s what we did. We got it ready for the next phase. He was absolutely incapable of making a decision to sell. If Hughes had lived, there would be no Mirage where it is, and no Treasure Island. I refer to Hughes as a buyer, not a builder.”
Getting it ready was no mean feat. It took legitimate contacts in illegitimate society. Maheu was the ideal man for the job. He knew well the Chicago mob’s Las Vegas man Johnny Rosselli and maintained contacts with his former employers in the FBI and CIA.
Maheu loved telling of Hughes’ reaction to the plan: “Bob, how many more of these toys are available?” he asked following the Desert Inn purchase.
There was the Frontier, Sands, Landmark, Castaways and Silver Slipper in Las Vegas alone. Hughes also picked up the Riverside in Reno. And there were thousands of acres of desert real estate to secure, a portion of which would eventually blossom into Summerlin.
More than three decades after Hughes’ death, Maheu still grew fighting mad when he was reminded that the Justice Department denied Hughes’ attempt to purchase the Stardust because of monopoly concerns. Instead, Las Vegas received the Teamsters Central States Pension Fund, Alan Glick’s Argent Corp., Chicago Outfit soldier Anthony Spilotro, fixer Frank Rosenthal, and a generation of bad press.
“If we had been able to do it, you wouldn’t have had the Glick episode, Spilotro, Rosenthal and the ‘Casino’ movie,” Maheu said, leading with the law enforcement side of his complex credentials.
There was another side, of course. Maheu’s role in the unsuccessful plot to kill Fidel Castro is well-known. His ties to the boys from Chicago have been widely chronicled.
One rainy afternoon at the Swiss Café, I listened as Maheu and former Tropicana owner Mitzi Stauffer Briggs traded stories. The delightful Briggs had survived a fleecing at the Tropicana, and Maheu admired her tenacity and religious devotion.
In the middle of lunch, Maheu made eye contact across the room with Vince Spilotro, son of the late Tony. Maheu rose and warmly greeted the scion of infamy. He explained to me later that he was a good kid who would spend his life living down his father’s reputation. Bob, of course, knew his father and his father’s friends.
That was Maheu: a man who danced through life in shadow and light and occasionally told the tale.
John L. Smith’s column appears Sunday, Tuesday, Wednesday and Friday. E-mail him at Smith@reviewjournal.com or call (702) 383-0295.