Howard Hughes: A Godfather of Las Vegas

It is fair to argue that Las Vegas wouldn’t be the city it is today without Howard Hughes. From the development of the Strip to the expansive Summerlin community, Hughes left behind a legacy in a city that he adopted as his own, one that he kicked the mob out of and took over.

For as many advantages he was blessed with, Hughes had just as many setbacks. Despite being born into wealth, he began life as a sickly child, the only son of millionaire Howard Hughes Sr. and Allene Gano. He showed an aptitude for science and technology from a young age and took his first flying lesson at the tender age of fourteen. By eighteen, he made his first million and set his sights on Hollywood.

As an adult, Hughes was known as something of a Renaissance man. A film producer, an aviator, a manufacturer, a philanthropist, and a real estate developer, Hughes got his hands into multiple industries, excelling in many and creating an empire in the process. In the early years of his Hollywood career, Hughes produced films such as Hell’s Angels, Scarface, and The Outlaw. His work attracted quite a bit of controversy for the day — Scarface for its violence, The Outlaw for the revealing clothing of its lead Jane Russell — but his films were a success nonetheless. Through the Hughes Tool Company, Hughes initially acquired partial ownership of RKO Pictures. Hughes put the company through a cleansing of sorts, firing hundreds upon his initial purchase and scrutinizing the political leanings of all those that remained. After a protracted legal battle in the United States v. Paramount antitrust matter, Hughes responded to the concerns of his fellow shareholders by buying them out.

This was how Hughes handled many of the roadblocks that came his way. Hughes’ infamous long-term stay at the top of the Desert Inn initially began as a two-week vacation but once his time was up, he refused to leave. In response to the many protests of their owners, he ended the fight by buying the hotel. He was denied purchase of the Stardust by the Nevada Gaming Commission, but his buy-outs paved the way for the corporations to take the Strip over and diminished the mob’s control over Las Vegas. It also didn’t stop him from buying other properties, however; by the end of his time in Vegas, he had purchased six hotels in Las Vegas and one in Reno.

But Hughes discovered Vegas long before his infamous takeover of the Desert Inn. When he realized he could avoid California’s burdensome income tax by moving his company to Las Vegas, he brought Hughes Aircraft to the Vegas valley in 1950. One of his many plane crashes took place out at Lake Mead when he was test-flying the Sikorsky S-43 for the Army Corps of Engineers. In the 1950s, he started buying large portions of unused land that would eventually be known as Summerlin.

During his stay in Vegas, he learned the limits of what his money could buy. While living at the Desert Inn, he tried to use his political influence to stop nuclear testing at the Nevada Test Site. That was one of the few battles he lost. When it came to uprooting the mob, he was successful. Hotel by hotel, Hughes became the first corporate owner to have power and the first to have influence over the city’s politics. At first, people were happy with the changes that he brought about. But like most rich men, his altruism only extended so far, and by the time he left, the city was ready to see him go.

He had big dreams for the city that he envisioned himself taking over. Besides moving the mob out of town, it was revealed (after his death) that he wanted to ban all rock concerts within the city limits, and controlling the size and expansion of McCarran Airport. It’s hard to say how much of his plans were informed by his mental illness, and how much was fueled by his ambition, for it was during this time that his seclusion became more severe and his drug habit worsened.

His reasons for leaving were unclear, but he did finally vacate the Desert Inn and the city of Las Vegas itself under the cover of night in 1970. He never returned to the city before finally succumbing to kidney failure. The effects of his malnourishment and drug use had done such damage to his body remains, identification was only possible via fingerprints.

Like with most infamous and well-to-do figures, figuring out what to do with his estate was easier said than done. The deaths of his parents so early in his life prompted an interest in medical research, and after he died most of the philanthropic arm of his estate focused on just that. The rest was split between his family after the numerous wills that surfaced were found to be invalid.

Howard Hughes came to Vegas when it benefitted him and left the moment it didn’t. But the legacy he left behind benefitted an entire city during his lifetime and well into the future.