The World

The fight for the spoils of Hughes

CHARLES FOLEY May 3 1976
The World

The fight for the spoils of Hughes

CHARLES FOLEY May 3 1976

The fight for the spoils of Hughes

The World

They searched in Vancouver, London, the Bahamas. They hunted through old suitcases, flight bags, and the dusty files of a 1930s building in Hollywood. They combed highrise offices in Houston, Texas, and the safes of Las Vegas casinos. They wondered if it could be among the mass of shredded paper, stuffed into three big plastic bags, found in a luxury hotel above Acapulco Bay. And finally they advertised in newspapers in 40 cities. But nary a trace was found of Howard Hughes’ last will and testament. The phantom billionaire often said he meant the bulk of his estate—an estimated $2.3 billion—to go to medical research. By that he meant the Howard Hughes Medical Institute, which legal wizardry had created for him in 1953 as a tax shelter. The medical institute, which already owns Hughes Aircraft Co., would become master of the huge Summa Corp., an umbrella company that takes in mines, movies, aerospace, TV, an airline, a Nevada gambling fief and vast tracts of real estate. The empire would live!

Now, it seems, it may not. A three-way fight for the billions is shaping up. First, there’s the triumvirate still running Summa and determined to go on doing so: Frank Gay, 55, the company’s top executive, who thought up the title for Hughes— “Summa, it’s the greatest.” Then Chester Davis, 65, general counsel in 100 bitter legal actions to preserve the fortune. And finally Nadine Henley, 69, Hughes’ personal secretary for more than four decades. Mrs. Henley is now said by Noah Dietrich, who worked for Hughes for 35 years, to have witnessed a will in 1955—an act that would legally bar her from benefiting. “I saw Hughes sign it,” he says. “And I know he meant to leave everything to the Medical Institute.” Dietrich has given his detailed account to the Internal Revenue authorities. “I don’t trust some of the people at the Hughes organization,” he says.

Next, there’s the family itself: two branches of it. One is headed by Hughes’ aunt, Mrs. Frederick Lummis, 85, and four Lummis offspring, all prominent in Texas society. There’s also a patrician tribe of cousins, who have vowed to challenge any will that ignores them. Most of the family have not seen or heard from Hughes in nearly 40 years.

Lastly, there’s Uncle Sam. If no will is found, the U.S. government will demand a 77% share in death taxes—a potential windfall of $1.75 billion! If one is discovered and the loot goes to the Medical Institute, then the 1RS will cast a beady eye over the institute’s tax-exempt status.

Gay and Co. apparently will remain in charge of the institute, which may end up owning both Summa and Hughes Aircraft. Possibly they will decide to “go public” with the two companies in two gigantic stock offerings. Hughes Aircraft alone

grosses more than one billion dollars a year, and the U.S. business world is agog at the idea of the veil of secrecy being lifted at last on the vast, interlocked financial empire. Gay and Davis are Mormons, not beloved of the Houston aristocrats who are Hughes’ blood relations. They and their handpicked bunch of five elderly nursesecretaries—known as the “Mormon Mafia”—shielded Hughes from the world on his travels. At his last hiding place, the Princess Hotel in Acapulco, where Mexican police found the three bags of shredded paper, one Mormon told investigators that Hughes was to have signed important papers two days before his death— but lapsed into a coma first.

Were the papers a will, or a codicil to one? No one knows. The Mormons may also face questions from Hughes’ family about the wretched state in which he was found by a Mexican doctor summoned at the last moment. The recluse was emaciated (90 pounds), his skin marked with bedsores, blood was seeping from a sore on his head, where a swelling had burst open in a fall months earlier. He was dehydrated, and apparently addicted to codeine, which he took for constant pain from a hip broken in 1973 and never properly treated. All this would offer the family grounds for challenging Gay and Co. if they should continue to control the empire.

Any will could be opposed on grounds of Hughes’ state of mind. In his later years, at least, bright spells seem to have alternated with long periods of mental debility or semicoma.

One former high-ranking Hughes aide believes there is no will, “because he hated to talk or think about his death, and he hated to put his signature to anything until the very last second.” But Summa presses on, advertising for help in the search anywhere Hughes stayed in recent years. “It’s quite possible Mr. Hughes deposited a will outside the United States,” says a Summa spokesman. Legal fees in handling the estate could amount to $ 10 million, and California, Texas and Nevada will all claim Hughes as a resident, for tax purposes. Already the City of Los Angeles has filed suit to make a public official administrator of the estate, claiming “thousands of Californian jobs and billions of dollars are at stake.” CHARLES FOLEY

McCall says he first became involved with the Hughes organization after Jack Shallit, a celebrated Hollywood photographer who worked for major studios and for Hughes, took a shine to him. “I had access, you see. As a news photographer I could get to people that studio photographers couldn’t.” Over the years, McCall says, he traveled to Latin America, Europe, through the Caribbean and across America on jobs for the billionaire. Ironically, McCall only ever took one picture of his secretive boss—during the All-American Air Races in Miami in the early 1930s. “I was just a boy in short pants and barefoot. My father told me to take Hughes’ picture, and I did. I sold it for seven bucks.” McCall, after years of working out of New York, moved to Porter’s Lake, NS (his wife, whom he met in New York after the Second World War, is a Nova Scotian) near Halifax in 1973. “From a photographic standpoint, I’ve had a damned exciting life. There’s nobody that’s ever had a better one.” McCall says he has no qualms about the role he played in helping Hughes assemble what must have been the world’s most expensive pinup collection. “I have my principles and morals. I’m a legitimate guy. I always paid my taxes.” As for Hughes, McCall says he had little use for

him except as a paymaster. “But I have great respect for Jack Shallit. He is the most legitimate guy I ever met.” The mystery of Howard Hughes’ vast appetite for women’s pictures remains obscure. But McCall doubts Hughes wanted personal relationships with the girls he photographed. “He was interested in screen tests, not bed tests,” McCall says. “It just doesn’t make any sense the other way . . . You know?”