LAS VEGAS (KLAS) — There’s a slice of Las Vegas in “Today in History: April 5.” On this date in 1614 Pocahontas married John Rolfe. In 1955 Winston Churchill retired as prime minister of the United Kingdom. And in 1976 Howard Hughes died in Houston.
Hughes, the business magnate, aviator, moviemaker, philanthropist, ladies’ man and more, was a billionaire recluse when he came to North Las Vegas by train on Thanksgiving Day in 1966. He left on the same holiday in 1970. In those four short years, he transformed the city and the state; he became known for employing the most people and owning the most casinos, the most property and the most mining claims in Nevada.
When he arrived in 1966, he was supposed to stay for 10 days at the Desert Inn. He rented two floors, including the top one of high-roller suites, for his entourage. He stayed longer. Too long for some. When Desert Inn owners Moe Dalitz and Ruby Kolod wanted him to leave, Hughes bought the Desert Inn. He ended up owning the Frontier, the Sands, the Castaways, the Landmark, the Silver Slipper, North Las Vegas Airport, Alamo Airways and acres of undeveloped land. His land purchases included 25,000 acres now known as Summerlin, which is named for Hughes’ paternal grandmother, Jean Amelia Summerlin.
He also bought KLAS, Channel 8, from the television station’s founder, Hank Greenspun. The story goes that Hughes, a night owl, wanted KLAS to show movies all night, into the morning. Greenspun, long a friend of Hughes, told him he couldn’t afford to do that. He added that Hughes could, so why not buy the station. Hughes did just that, for $3.6 million.
Hughes was a frequent visitor to Las Vegas in the 1940s and 1950s and lived for a short stretch (from the spring of 1953 to early 1954) in a small ranch-style home that is in the television station’s parking lot.
Hughes left a wild, somewhat magical mark on Las Vegas. In his four years in the city, he never once stepped out of his room at the Desert Inn. Yet many historians credit Hughes with altering the image of a sin-drenched city run by the mob. His purchases of mob-run casinos brought a sense of legitimacy and respectability to the city. Other legit businessmen took notice, paving the way for corporate interests to buy into the Strip and what goes with it.
One story often lost in the many that define Hughes’ life is his philanthropy and his generosity. He was a ladies’ man, often linked romantically to Hollywood starlets. He’s credited with discovering Jean Harlow and Jane Russell, and he dated Bette Davis, Ava Gardner, Olivia de Havilland, Hedy Lamarr, Ginger Rogers and several more.
Legend has it that he tried several times but failed to seduce Gene Tierney, the beauty known for the 1944 film noir “Laura” and 1947’s hauntingly romantic “The Ghost and Mrs. Muir.” The two remained friends, and when Tierney’s daughter was born with severe learning disabilities because of the actress’ exposure to rubella during her pregnancy, Hughes got the child expert medical care and paid all expenses.
Hughes left Las Vegas in 1970 for the Bahamas and then relocated to a penthouse in Acapulco. In 1976, his body emaciated by not enough food and too many drugs, his staff decided he needed medical treatment. He died on his plane, en route to a hospital in Houston. He was 70.