How Howard Hughes bought Vegas from beneath the Mafia’s feet

18th April 2017 by RightCasino facebook 4 mins read Category: Features

With Warren Beatty’s Howard Hughes movie Rules Don’t Apply on general release, recalls how the billionaire recluse stole Sin City from under the snout of the Cosa Nostra…

He arrived by train under the cover of darkness in November 1966. As for when he left, no one’s entirely sure, such was the ghostly manner in which he was spirited about the place. Whatever the exact date, in between arriving in and leaving Las Vegas, Howard Roberd Hughes Jr transformed the jewel in the Nevada desert from ‘Sin City’ into ‘America’s Playground’.

Of course, he had the financial resources to pull off so substantial a coup. But in reclaiming the town from the clutches of the Mob and in utterly reshaping its image as a destination for holidaymakers, Hughes pulled off a feat that’s all the more remarkable given the physically and mentally chaotic state he was in at the time.

Like his eccentricities, Hughes’s early life as a business, aviation and cinematic maven is perfectly encapsulated in Martin Scorsese’s The Aviator. To limit ourselves to the Howard of the Las Vegas years is to turn down the opportunity to retell any number of great anecdotes about his high living and womanising. By the early 1970s, the handsome playboy of the ’30s and ’40s had been replaced by an increasingly batty pensioner.

Depending on which story you believe – and there are a million stories about Howard Hughes – our man moved into the Desert Inn (below) on arriving in Las Vegas then, having refused to vacate his room at the end of his stay, bought the hotel outright and turned the top floor into his personal headquarters. Howard Hughes had bought his first Vegas property. More would quickly follow.

It’s estimated that Hughes spent in excess of $300 million buying up the Vegas Strip. The precise order of his purchases is hard to pinpoint since some of the properties were bought by dummy corporations. To run down the list is to name check some of the most storeyed venues in the history of Sin City.

The Desert Inn, the Sands, the Landmark, Castaways, the Silver Slipper, the Frontier – Hughes’s was quite the shopping list. What made the acquisitions all the more remarkable was that many of the aforementioned properties were owned by the Mob. A city founded by one gangster – Benjamin ‘Bugsy’ Siegel – Vegas continued to enjoy the dubious attentions of organised crime until someone came along to make the Mafiosi aware that i) the town was under new management, and ii) there was easier money to be made elsewhere.

To say that that ‘someone’ was Howard Hughes is a bit misleading since there’s little evidence to suggest the billionaire ever met with the people whose properties he purchased. The people who made the impossible-to-refuse offers were almost certainly on his pay role, mind you. And it’s with similar certainty that you can believe that those people were Mormons, Hughes having long admired the religion and, in particular, its followers’ commitment to secrecy.

Although most of the properties he bought no longer stand, they weren’t torn down during Hughes’s lifetime. Rather than destructive, the business behemoth’s chief contribution to Vegas was a constructive one, based around the fact that, 30 years of hard living had left the city in bad need of a makeover. Furthermore with the Mafia bought off, the seediness that had long dogged the city gave way to something far more wholesome. Of course there would still be gambling, but there would also be family-oriented tourist attractions and hotels that welcomed visitors of all ages and not just men old enough to know better.

For a man with a reputation as a phantom, it’s rather fitting that the full force of the Howard Hughes effect in Vegas wasn’t felt until after his death in 1976. The reason for this substantial posthumous impact was that, besides buying up the city’s hottest venues, Hughes had bought thousands of acres of scrubland both on the edge of town and at either end of the Strip. The idea was simple but inspired – with Vegas having been revived, Hughes’s Summa Corporation could cash in by building on the vacant land. The decision to purchase the North Las Vegas Air Terminal proved another money-spinner with the refitted facility proving very popular with the world’s gambling elite.

And to think all of the above was but an afterthought. For if the biographers are to be believed, the main reason Howard Hughes headed to Las Vegas was to escape the microbe-infested air of Los Angeles. His fear of germs having reached the extent that he wouldn’t pick up any object without using a tissue, Hughes had been led to believe that the ‘clean’ air of Nevada offered him a healthier way of life. We can but assume that whoever sold him on such an idea kept quiet about the nuclear tests that had been a regular feature of Vegas life throughout the 1950s.

Still, the buying-up and rebirth of Las Vegas deserves to be listed among Howard Hughes’ most remarkable achievements. A host of aviation world records including the construction of the largest wooden plane ever to take to the air, the acquisition of business behemoths such as TWA and RKO, a credit as producer and director on Hell’s Angels, one of Hollywood’s first bona fide blockbusters – Hughes’ CV would run to pages. But while his brain for business never failed him, his triumphs remain that much more remarkable for having been accomplished by a man who, when he plucked the American Desert’s most priceless jewel, allegedly looked like this

Rules Don’t Apply, starring Warren Beatty, Alden Ehrenreich, Lily Collins, Martin Sheen, Annette Bening and Paul Sorvino, is in UK cinemas from 19th April.

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