Hey, kiddies! Did you know this weekend is the 50th anniversary of the Bay of Pigs? It reminds me of the good ol’ days when the mob teamed up with the CIA to whack Castro. Good times! I especially miss my pal Bob Maheu. Since he’s no longer with us, I guess it’s OK to tell you about a little prank we pulled on a very bad person. So pull up a seat and read on. There will be a moral at the end of my story…
Once upon a time there lived an insane old billionaire on the top floor of a casino hotel in Las Vegas. This desiccated shell of a man carried 120 pounds on his 6’4” frame. The wicked ailing bastard did not know this fact, of course, since his nurses kept no scale in the bathroom. In fact, he only left his bed for marathon sit-ins on the toilet due to constipation. One epic bout allegedly lasted over 26 hours.
Howard Hughes had been my idol since kindergarten. The man had it all: money, power, broads, and even his own movie studio. We don’t have a modern-day equivalent. Before his name became synonymous with nutjob, the public regarded the tycoon as both a dashing playboy and a great American hero, a flying ace second only to Charles Lindbergh. From the first day I got a job in the mailroom at RKO, I fantasized of my first meeting with the big boss. If someway, someday I could tell him of my celluloid dreams, he surely would grasp my unique brilliance and make me his protégé. Adolescents in Hollywood can be somewhat naïve.
Predictably, I never got anywhere near the recluse. Hell, even Howard’s sex symbol wife, Jean Peters, had to schedule meetings with his secretary for an audience. However, our paths did intersect for one brief moment. I never amounted to more than a faint blip on the aviator’s radar screen but his whimsical potshot sent my budding film career careening to the ground in a flaming wreck.
Hughes’ purchase of RKO Studios in the late 1940s coincided with HUAC and the Communist witch-hunt in Hollywood. Sure, I was a card-carrying member but who wasn’t? You see, being a Commie in Tinseltown carried no more stigma a being a Scientologist today. The cult had a few true believers but most of us regarded it as a networking opportunity to break bread with important people between lectures on diabetical materialism or whatever.
Unlucky for J.X., another creep in the party (who will remain nameless) ratted me out to the G. Hughes’ private dicks also nailed yours truly in a parallel investigation. So when it came time for the Congressional hearings on Soviet infiltration of Hollywood, each studio had to cough up two patsies for a royal spanking by HUAC. Being a businessman, Hughes had no intention of sacrificing a top actor or screenwriter from RKO. Instead, he gave up me. Or so he thought until the G found out I was still a minor. As the probe was little more than a political stunt, the congressmen decided putting a teenager on the stand might not look so good for the newsreels. But media spotlight or no, I ended up on the blacklist. You can read more about my post-RKO career in a previous posting.
There is a famous short story by the Russian author Pushkin titled “The Shot.” The tale recounts a duel between two officers in the military: Silvio and a new recruit who has joined his regiment. The latter reminds one of a young Howard Hughes:
I was calmly enjoying my reputation, when a young man belonging to a wealthy and distinguished family–I will not mention his name–joined our regiment. Never in my life have I met with such a fortunate fellow! Imagine to yourself youth, wit, beauty, unbounded gayety, the most reckless bravery, a famous name, untold wealth–imagine all these, and you can form some idea of the effect that he would be sure to produce among us.
The young playboy insults Silvio and a duel results. Lots are drawn. The youth may fire the first shot. He misses. Silvio declines to shoot back:
‘What is the use,’ thought I, ‘of depriving him of life, when he attaches no value whatever to it?’ A malicious thought flashed through my mind. I lowered my pistol. “‘You don’t seem to be ready for death just at present,’ I said to him: ‘you wish to have your breakfast; I do not wish to hinder you.’
Five years pass. Silvio waits. The young soldier marries and life does become a thing of value. That’s the moment when Silvio returns to fire the return shot.
Silvio replaced Hughes as my idol. I waited. Unlike most people, I didn’t let my emotional wounds heal. Wounds heal into scars and those scars disappear in time. But I kept my wounds flowing with blood. I let them boil and fester. The blood ages like a fine vintage of Bourdeaux. And I wait for the moment when vengeance falls into my lap.
Twenty years pass. Howard Hughes transforms from fearless pilot to bedridden paranoiac. His life now means everything to him. A battalion of Mormon nursemaids tends to the hypochondriac’s every whim. His fear of germs becomes so severe that he barricades himself inside a darkened hotel room and dictates a phonebook-size manual of elaborate hygienic rituals for his care and feeding. Anyone who came within ten yards of his bedroom had to wash their hands at least four separate times with four different unopened bars of soap.
Now here was a man ripe for the plucking…
Anyway, by 1970, Maheu knew he was on the outs with Howard but he wanted to give the old fart a going-away present. That’s when he called me. Bob knew of my beef with Hughes and nothing bonds two friends like hatred of a common enemy. Most of the usual ways to get Hughes had been sealed off. Armed guards blocked every stairwell and elevator that led to his suite at the Desert Inn. Even if you got past security, the Mormons stayed on high alert for any attempts to infiltrate the Queen Bee’s inner-sanctum.
You would have needed some heavy artillery to blast your way to Hughes but he still had one vulnerability that we could exploit. Howard was a TV addict. I don’t mean like a couch potato vegging out after work. The crackpot had two televisions side-by-side at the foot of his bed that blared full-blast 24 hours a day. Being the a*****e control freak that he was, the billionaire even bought a local CBS affiliate, KLAS Channel 8 because the station went off the air at 1am. The night owl wanted to watch some of his old RKO films while the rest of the world slept. VCR’s did not come on the market for a few more years.
Since the recluse never left his hotel room, the television remained his only window to the world. This was the way to get Hughes. We’d have to aim for his beady little eyes. Unfortunately, hijacking Channel 8 proved unfeasible. Even if we bribed or neutralized everyone who worked the night shift, there were just too many witnesses, not the least being the entire Las Vegas media market. At least a few other late-night cranks might report our mischief to the FCC.
However, I quickly developed a workaround. You see, the hotel originally belonged to Moe Dalitz. Hughes dreaded the idea of leaving his suite at the Desert Inn so much that he simply bought the entire joint from the former gangster. Hughes also snapped up many other casinos on The Strip but the boys back East still ran them so they could skim the f**k out of their count rooms. After the Desert Inn changed owners, the management and staff remained in Moe’s pocket. After torturing him with months of negotiations over the purchase of his hotel, Dalitz had grown to know and hate Hughes. I barely got him on the phone before the boss eagerly volunteered to aid and abet our operation.
The setup was pretty easy. Like many large hotels, the hotel TV’s did not use their own antennae to pick up signals. A large master antenna on the roof of the hotel picked up broadcasters and fed the signals through a large coaxial cable that branched out into smaller wires that led to each television unit in the hotel. With a little assistance provided by one of Maheu’s electronics experts, we found the exact wire that led to the TV’s in Howard’s bedroom.
We installed a switch on that node so that the regular signal could be replaced with a direct video feed from another location. The alternate feed led to a makeshift TV studio we built in the basement of the hotel. We set up a 16mm film-to-video projection system as well as a phony newsdesk for any “emergency bulletins” that might occur. We even duplicated inserts of the KLAS station ID’s and CBS logos to maximize the authenticity of our faux-channel.
The “Late Late Show” began at 12:30am. We knew Howard would be getting ready for another codeine-blurred night of classic movies. Our operative on the rooftop radioed the countdown for the switchover to our studio feed. 10…9…8…7…
“Ladies and gentlemen, the KLAS “Late, Late Show” now presents the RKO classic “Soul Fuckadelica.” I thought we should kick off our broadcast with some interracial porn. The prehistorically racist Texan once wrote a rambling memo to Bill Paley because he saw a black-white couple on “The Dating Game.” I thought he might dig a little Oreo action.
We immediately heard the speakers crackle with an anguished groan. I forgot to mention we were holding a little going away party for Maheu in the hotel room directly below Howard’s suite. One of Bob’s CIA bugmen had installed contact mikes on the ceiling so we could hear everything that happened upstairs. Dalitz was there, of course, as were many alums from the Bay of Pigs invasion like Rosselli and Sam G. It was sort of like a college reunion for crooks and spooks
Hughes reached for his bedside phone to call up the station manager at KLAS but he did not get a dial tone. Maheu had the foresight to snip the phone lines just before midnight. By now, the commotion had spread through the entire suite. You could hear the pitter-patter of scrambling nursemaids attempting to get the situation under control. Hughes lurched for the remote but quickly discovered our program appeared on every channel on both TV’s.
I also forgot to mention that we spiked Howard’s blood transfusion that night. I’m still not clear on the details but Maheu obtained some leftover LSD from the CIA’s MK-ULTRA project and slipped him a hell of a mickey. So just about 15 minutes into our program, the drugs probably kicked in.
Since Maheu had been privy to all of Hughes’ innumerable phobias, I had an excellent advisor for curating the film program. Among other nightmares, Howard had a terrible fear of nuclear bombs. All of those underground tests at Area 51 freaked him out. So I ran an “emergency bulletin” segment at the fake newsdesk about the Soviet Union launching a missile headed straight for Las Vegas. We hired one of the hotel janitors to play the anchorman. The missile never arrived, of course, but we cut away from the porn every few minutes for an update on its continuing progress toward Sin City.
We also ran footage of race riots in Watts and Detroit, TWA commercials, Malcolm X speeches, napalm victims, and other fun stuff. By this juncture, some of Howard’s functionaries had left the ninth-floor compound for outside assistance. When they called Channel 8 from a pay phone, the night manager told them to go f**k themselves. He had been planning to turn in his resignation all week long. Mr. Hughes constantly badgered the poor fellow about everything from inconsistent sound levels to fuzzy reception. His technicians reported the station had been operating smoothly all night. And, with the exception of Howard Hughes’ television set, they were correct.
By this point, one of the nursemaids had come down to the front desk to complain about the dead telephone. Dalitz had instructed the manager to explain that the repairman would need to enter the suite to check out the line. Given Howard’s agitated condition, that was not an option.
About three hours into our telethon, we finally broke the bastard. “Turn it off!” he croaked. “TURN IT OFF!” Someone pulled the plug and the room went eerily silent. No matter how much black folks on TV scared him, Hughes had never once shut off the tube over the past four years at the Desert Inn. The obsessive-compulsive masochist could not help himself. He’d rather watch and suffer.
Hughes fled to the Bahamas (sans Maheu) a few days later. I don’t know if Howard ever figured out what happened but I heard he never watched another TV show for the rest of his life.
So here’s the moral of the story: If you’re an a*****e billionaire, don’t f**k with an underling in your movie studio or else he may grow up, team up with CIA operatives, dose you with LSD, and leave you with permanent psychological scars.