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Margulis witnessed billionaire’s final years

My Review-Journal colleague, John L. Smith, wrote a great column today about Gordon Margulis, a personal aide to Howard Hughes who died Wednesday at age 77. You can find John’s column here.

I thought I would add a few additional comments about Gordie, who was a primary source for my book about Hughes published last year. (More info on the book here.)

There were several factions within the Hughes empire of the 1960s and ’70s. Gordie managed to become one of Hughes’ closest friends and allies without being a member of any of the warring factions.

Gordie was a member of the handful of men who took care of Hughes’ personal needs in the final decade of his life. This, theoretically, would have made him one of the infamous “Mormon Mafia” surrounding Hughes. But Gordie was not Mormon and didn’t fit the mold of the Mormon men who did serve Hughes during this period.

For the most part, Gordie was in charge of Hughes’ food. Hughes was an extremely picky eater, and Gordie told many strange and funny tales about his experiences. The most famous centers on ice cream. Here’s a snippet from my book:

“Every day, Hughes would eat Baskin-Robbins banana nut ice cream. The aides would buy large amounts and keep it at the hotel. When the supply ran low, Margulis went to a Baskin-Robbins outlet and learned that they had discontinued the flavor. Panicked, the aides came up with the idea of calling Baskin-Robbins’ main office and asking if they would take a special order for the discontinued flavor. They agreed, on the condition that at least 350 gallons were ordered. Margulis agreed, the banana nut ice cream was made in Los Angeles and two Hughes aides transported it to Las Vegas in a refrigerated truck. It was stored in the Desert Inn’s restaurant freezer. Problem solved. But that night, Hughes announced that it was time for a change and he wanted French vanilla. It took the hotel a year to rid itself of the 350 gallons of banana nut ice cream.”

Besides his food duties, Gordie had another talent that cemented his relationship with Hughes. Gordie, a strong and athletic young man, was the person Hughes insisted must pick him up and carry him when he needed picking up and carrying, which was often. When Hughes was extremely ill or injured and couldn’t walk, Gordie was in charge of moving him from one place to another.

In fact, Gordie’s most famous moment came when a sketch of him carrying Hughes appeared on the cover of Time magazine in 1976. When Hughes secretly left Las Vegas in 1970, he first had to get out of the Desert Inn without being seen. With Margulis in charge of the delicate operation, Hughes was carried down a fire escape on a stretcher.

“They descended carefully, a step at a time, for nine floors, like a solemn religious procession bearing aloft a sacred relic or icon,” wrote James Phelan in Howard Hughes: The Hidden Years, which is based largely on interviews with Margulis and another aide, Mell Stewart. So that nobody in the hotel would know that Hughes was gone, Gordie continued to retrieve the billionaire’s meals from the hotel kitchen until the jig was up.

Margulis was among the aides who insisted Hughes could not have been the same person Melvin Dummar claims to this day to have picked up in the Nevada desert in 1967. Besides other practical and logistical challenges, Margulis said Hughes was too ill and frail at that time to have left the hotel.

With the death late last year of Bob Maheu and the loss of Gordon Margulis this week, two primary sources about the life and times of Howard Hughes are no longer with us. Maheu and Margulis, who both lived here, were tremendously helpful to me as I prepared my book, and they were helpful to many other writers as well. For those who remain interested in Hughes and his many legacies, these are major losses.

If you didn’t catch it in John L. Smith’s column, services are set for 11 a.m. Monday at St. Francis of Assisi Catholic Church at 2300 Sunridge Heights Parkway in Henderson, Nevada.

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