ROBERT MAHEU: 1917-2008: Former spy brokered big deals that led to mob’s exit
By Ed Koch
Aug 6, 2008
Robert Maheu was a former government spy when he became acquainted by telephone with Howard Hughes in 1955. Though the two would never meet in person, they would be the driving force behind evicting the mob from Las Vegas.
On his deathbed, Robert Maheu reminisced with his longtime friend Gordie Margulis about several moments in his life, but perhaps none as poignant as what happened on April 16, 1961, the night before the doomed invasion of Cuba.
“I don’t know of anybody who has contributed more to Nevada than Bob Maheu. He was one of the most gracious men I’ve known. He reminded me of Ron Reagan.”
Former Gov. and Sen. Richard Bryan:
“There was a kind of commanding presence about Bob Maheu. He was very charming, elegant and very sophisticated. There was never any doubt that when you were talking to Bob Maheu, you were talking to a man with a commanding presence, substance and style. He carried himself with a sense of authority, but not arrogance.”
Former Gov. Bob List:
“He was a big part of our history in this state in the last 50 years. He was a central figure in the development of Las Vegas (and) charming, a great raconteur who had a great amount of history in his head. In some ways he was as mysterious as Mr. Hughes himself. He loved his role and played it well.”
“He didn’t mention it by name — the Bay of Pigs — but he said he went home that night and told his wife, Eve, to go to bed and then he put on some classical music,” Margulis said. “Bob sat in his chair all that night and through the next day and did not move or say a word. He was despondent because he knew the United States was not going to back the invasion he helped put together. He knew those men were going to die and he couldn’t do anything about it.”
Margulis said his friend of 40-plus years was an honorable man who put love of family and friends and patriotism above all else.
“He was a giant, this guy — a giant with a heart,” Margulis said.
Margulis was at Maheu’s bedside when Maheu, best-known as the alter-ego of billionaire businessman Howard Hughes, died of congestive heart failure Monday night at Kindred Hospital on Flamingo Road at age 90. “Everything he did he did with enthusiasm and loyalty.”
Services for Robert Amie Maheu, a Las Vegas resident and businessman for 42 years, will be at noon Saturday at St. Viator Catholic Church, 4150 S. Eastern Ave.
In the late 1960s, Maheu helped the reclusive Hughes acquire Las Vegas Strip hotel-casinos, which began to rid the town of its mob influence and usher in the corporate age of gaming in Southern Nevada.
Maheu also was every bit the quintessential American spy — our version of the mythical British superspy James Bond.
Maheu infiltrated the German lines during World War II, providing misleading information to Adolf Hitler; spied on Hughes’ starlet girlfriends, and worked with the CIA and the Mafia to try to kill Cuban leader Fidel Castro.
The mark Maheu left on Las Vegas is indelible.
“Bob Maheu had as much to do with the transformation of Las Vegas as practically any other person who called Las Vegas home,” said Brian Greenspun, president and editor of the Las Vegas Sun.
“When he came here in 1966, Bob spearheaded Howard Hughes’ efforts to buy up a number of mobbed-up hotels on the Strip. Only men with Mr. Hughes’ money and vision and Bob Maheu’s tenacity could have succeeded in ridding Las Vegas of mob influence.” That, Greenspun said, led to corporate expansion of the Las Vegas Strip, fueled by Wall Street and legitimate banks around the world.
“Without Bob Maheu, Las Vegas would be a very different and a far less successful place today,” Greenspun said.
Margulis, 76, Hughes’ longtime bodyguard, recalled that Maheu and Hughes, who never met face to face, would talk for hours on the phone.
“The others in the room got so jealous because Bob was Howard’s eyes and ears,” Margulis recalled. “They tried to gain Howard’s favor and pitched their ideas to him, like banning smoking and the consumption of alcoholic beverages in Howard’s casinos. Howard got on the phone with Bob and said, ‘You’re not going to believe what they asked me to do now.’ ”Maheu then had to spend hours on Hughes’ behalf arguing with the caregivers as to why outlawing smoking and drinking in Las Vegas casinos was not a good business move, Margulis said.
Maheu, also on Hughes’ behalf, delivered large sums of cash to high-ranking politicians to secure favors. Hughes’ memos to Maheu about one cash gift from Hughes to President Richard M. Nixon and the subsequent break-in of Sun Publisher Hank Greenspun’s office to try to steal those documents became part of the Watergate scandal that led to Nixon’s political demise.
Peter Maheu, the eldest of Maheu’s four children and a private investigator in Las Vegas, said Tuesday, “My father was a pioneer in so much history, not just in Las Vegas but around the world — and he was proud of that.”
Peter Maheu recalled his father’s work in sabotaging the deal that had given billionaire shipping magnate Aristotle Onassis a monopoly on shipping Saudi Arabian oil.
“If you think paying $3 or $4 a gallon for gasoline today is bad, you can imagine what we would be paying if my father did not play a major role in scuttling that deal,” Peter Maheu said.
By one report, Robert Maheu was even given a license to — if necessary — assassinate Onassis. After one meeting with Maheu, then-Vice President Nixon shook Maheu’s hand and, according to the 1986 Onassis biography Nemesis by Peter Evans, said: “And just remember, if it turns out we have to kill the bastard don’t do it on American soil.”
Bill Maheu, Robert’s youngest son, said his father was a man of “strong values and ethics who always acted in a manner he felt was in the best interest of his country.” Still, he believes Robert Maheu would want to be remembered for something much more basic than that.
“My father’s legacy is his children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren,” said Bill Maheu, a retired police officer who lives in San Diego. “The historians will write the rest.”
Maheu was born in Waterville, Maine, on Oct. 30, 1917, and graduated from Holy Cross in 1940. While studying law at Georgetown in 1941, he was hired by the FBI as a counterintelligence officer. He posed as a Canadian businessman and Nazi sympathizer to gather valuable information on the Germans. One of his missions was to feed false information to two German spies who reported directly to Hitler. Maheu later was involved in the arrest of the two men whose confidence he had gained.
After the war, Maheu established his own investigative agency whose clients included the Central Intelligence Agency. Maheu’s work for the CIA primarily was covert operations in which the agency could not be officially involved. They included the proposed assassination of Cuban dictator Castro and the Bay of Pigs invasion.
In 1960, the CIA directed Maheu to conspire with the Mafia to kill Castro, who had angered the mob by shutting down its casinos after coming to power.
Maheu contacted longtime Las Vegas Mafia henchman Johnny Rosselli to set up a meeting with mob bosses Santo Trafficante and Sam “Momo” Giancana to discuss how to pull off a gangland-style killing. Maheu told the gangsters the CIA was willing to pay $150,000 to have Castro killed.
But the CIA eventually shelved its assassination plan and Rosselli was killed to cover the conspirators’ tracks. In testimony before the U.S. Senate Select Committee on Intelligence in 1975, Maheu defended his role in the assassination scheme as an act of patriotism, saying he felt the United States “was involved in a just war.” In his 1993 book, Next to Hughes, Maheu wrote of that part of his life:
“Though I’m no saint, I am a religious man, and I knew that the CIA was talking about murder. They (CIA bosses) used the analogy of World War II: If we had known the exact bunker that Hitler was in during the war, we wouldn’t have hesitated to kill the bastard ...
“But in my mind, justified or not, I would still have blood on my hands ... If anything went wrong, I was the fall guy, caught between protecting the government and protecting the mob, two armed camps that could crush me like a bug.”
Maheu’s spy work brought him in phone contact with Hughes in 1955. Hughes was fascinated by undercover operations and hired Maheu to do counterintelligence work.
Hughes, a renowned playboy and filmmaker who discovered movie goddesses Jane Russell and Jean Harlow and married actresses Jean Peters and Terry Moore, also paid Maheu to spy on Hollywood beauties Hughes had designs on as well as on business rivals.
Hughes wasn’t Maheu’s only jealous client. Mobster Giancana hired Maheu to wiretap the room of Giancana’s girlfriend Phyllis McGuire, lead singer of the McGuire Sisters and a longtime Las Vegan.
In the 1995 film Sugartime, about the McGuire-Giancana relationship, Maheu was portrayed by actor Bill Cross.
Hughes stayed at the Desert Inn when he came to Las Vegas in 1966 and had Maheu buy it for him when the owners threatened to evict him after he turned a 10-day stay in their best suites into three months. The purchase helped reduce Hughes’ tax burden from interest income generated by selling his stock in Trans World Airlines for $546.5 million.
Hughes then ordered Maheu to find him more hotel-casinos to buy to further shelter his windfall. Soon after, Maheu bought for Hughes the Sands, the Castaways, the Frontier, the Silver Slipper and the Landmark.
When Hughes and Maheu were finished buying, Hughes’ Nevada empire was valued at $300 million and included nearly every vacant lot along the Las Vegas Strip and 25,000 acres of prime real estate where the Hughes-built Summerlin master-planned community is now.
In 1969 and 1970, years when Hughes was seeking federal approval for airline acquisitions, Maheu delivered two bundles of $50,000 each in cash to Charles G. “Bebe” Rebozo, a Nixon confidante, as a supposed campaign contribution. Nixon was paranoid about being linked to any gift from Hughes because in 1956, Hughes made a controversial $205,000 loan to Nixon’s brother Donald. Details of the loan were leaked during the 1960 presidential campaign and Nixon believed it cost him the election to John F. Kennedy.
Watergate burglars attempted to break into Greenspun’s safe at the Sun offices to get the Maheu-Hughes memos about that gift. They damaged the safe’s door but never broke it open. Nixon also was concerned that Maheu had told one of his former employees, then-Democratic National Committee Chairman Larry O’Brien, about the cash donations from Hughes. O’Brien’s Watergate office was broken into, but the burglars were caught.
Maheu’s other business dealings included lobbying on behalf of Hughes to conserve Southern Nevada’s precious water resources and stop nuclear weapons testing at the Nevada Test Site.
Twice Hughes sent Maheu to Washington with briefcases containing $1 million in cash to secure promises from President Lyndon B. Johnson and Nixon to end nuclear testing in Southern Nevada. But as Hughes became a bedraggled hermit, a rift developed between Maheu and Hughes’ caregivers, who answered to Hughes Corp. executive Bill Gay, with whom Maheu did not always see eye to eye.
(Hughes’ caregivers and aides were nicknamed the “Mormon Mafia” because the majority were members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.)
Maheu was fired by Hughes Corp. in 1970 and started his own consulting business, Robert A. Maheu and Associates.
In November 1970, Hughes was taken in a van by his caregivers from the Desert Inn to Nellis Air Force Base, where they boarded a jet for the Bahamas. Hughes never returned to Las Vegas. After Hughes left town, many of Hughes’ memos to Maheu wound up on the front page of the Sun, accompanied by definitive stories about the reclusive billionaire and his mysterious ways.
“In Bob’s darkest days following the Hughes shake-up he had one true friend — that was my father, Hank Greenspun,” Brian Greenspun said. “And Bob returned that friendship to my family for the rest of his life.”
Hughes died April 5, 1976, aboard a plane from Mexico to his hometown of Houston at age 70. Though the official cause was kidney failure, Maheu maintained till the end that Hughes died of neglect.
“My heart still bleeds for what happened to Howard Hughes,” Maheu said in 2004. “I often said after I got off the phone with him that I just finished talking to the poorest man in the world. He was so unhappy.”
Maheu’s remains will be cremated and his ashes will be interred alongside those of his wife, Eve, at the family plot in Waterville. Other Maheu survivors include his son Robert Maheu of Newport Beach, Calif.; daughters-in-law Rosemary Maheu of Las Vegas and Jane Maheu of San Diego; 10 grandchildren and six great-grandchildren. He was preceded in death by his daughter Christine.
Sun reporter Mary Manning contributed to this report.