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Robert Maheu, 90; Tycoon's Aide, CIA Spy

Robert Maheu was the most influential member of billionaire tycoon Howard Hughes's inner circle, but they never met face to face in their time together.
Robert Maheu was the most influential member of billionaire tycoon Howard Hughes's inner circle, but they never met face to face in their time together. (File Photo)
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By Matt Schudel
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, August 6, 2008

Robert A. Maheu, who was a powerful aide to reclusive tycoon Howard Hughes and whose cloak-and-dagger exploits included involvement in a CIA and Mafia plot to assassinate Fidel Castro, died Aug. 4 at Desert Springs Hospital in Las Vegas. He was 90 and had cancer and heart ailments.

Mr. Maheu (pronounced MAY-hew) was a onetime FBI agent who ran a Washington company that he said carried out secret missions for the Central Intelligence Agency.

Mr. Maheu's first jobs for Hughes in the 1950s included private-eye snooping on Hughes's past and prospective girlfriends in Hollywood. Later, as Hughes's chief adviser, he helped make his boss Nevada's third-largest landowner, after the federal government and the state power company.

After becoming Hughes's director of Las Vegas operations in 1966, Mr. Maheu was the most influential member of the billionaire's inner circle and acted as his liaison to leading political figures and the world at large.

"If he wanted someone fired, I did the firing," Mr. Maheu wrote in his 1992 autobiography, "Next to Hughes." "If he wanted something negotiated, I did the bargaining. If he had to be somewhere, I appeared in his place. I was his eyes, his ears, and his mouthpiece."

Before he was abruptly fired in 1970, Mr. Maheu spoke with Hughes as many as 20 times a day on the telephone. But in all their years together, he never met the eccentric mogul face to face. Hughes lived in seclusion on the top floor of the Desert Inn Hotel, with only a few private aides admitted to his presence.

"He finally told me that he did not want me to see him because of the way in which he had allowed himself to deteriorate, the way in which he was living, the way he looked," Mr. Maheu said on "Larry King Live" in 1992. "He felt that if I ever in fact saw him, I would never be able to represent him."

Mr. Maheu earned $520,000 a year and was living in one of the largest houses in Las Vegas when Hughes had two other aides fire him in December 1970. In 1972, Hughes broke a long silence by speaking in a telephone news conference, seeking to prove he had nothing to do with a purported autobiography by Clifford Irving, which was later confirmed a hoax.

During that news conference, Hughes called Mr. Maheu "a no-good son of a bitch who robbed me blind." Mr. Maheu sued him in federal court for defamation. He initially won a $2.8 million settlement from Hughes, but the decision was overturned.

The four-month trial revealed many engrossing details about Hughes's business dealings, his political contributions and his increasingly bizarre private life.

Mr. Maheu disclosed that in 1970 he delivered $100,000 to Charles G. "Bebe" Rebozo, a close friend of President Richard M. Nixon's, in return for possible future favors for Hughes. Mr. Maheu entertained Nixon's vice president, Spiro Agnew, on his yacht and regularly played tennis with then-Nevada Gov. Paul Laxalt (R), who became a U.S. senator.

But Hughes spread his political largess to both parties, contributing $100,000 to 1968 Democratic presidential candidate Hubert H. Humphrey. Mr. Maheu said he personally placed a briefcase containing $50,000 cash -- from receipts at the Hughes-owned Silver Slipper casino -- in Humphrey's limousine. The contributions were legal at the time because they were considered private donations from an individual, not corporate contributions.

Mr. Maheu said he twice turned down requests from Hughes to arrange $1 million payments to Presidents Lyndon B. Johnson and Nixon -- payable after they left office -- if they would agree to stop underground nuclear testing in Nevada, where Hughes lived until moving to the Bahamas in 1970. (He died at age 70 in 1976.)

"In '57, when I agreed to be his alter ego," Mr. Maheu told the San Diego Union-Tribune in 1992, "I thought it would be very challenging: representing him at presidential inaugurals, handling multimillion-dollar deals in his behalf. . . . In reality, you're living a lie."

Robert Aime Maheu was born Oct. 30, 1917, into a French-speaking family in Waterville, Maine. After he graduated from the College of the Holy Cross in Worcester, Mass., he analyzed aerial photographs for the Department of Agriculture before joining the FBI.

During World War II, the FBI assigned him to monitor a French spy who became a double agent and helped deceive the Nazi high command with false radio transmissions. By the mid-1950s, Mr. Maheu said he did undercover work for the CIA -- "those jobs in which the agency could not officially be involved," he wrote in his autobiography.

Recently declassified CIA files confirm that Mr. Maheu was present at a 1960 meeting in Miami Beach, Fla., between organized crime bosses Sam Giancana and Santo Trafficante Jr., as part of an abortive CIA effort to assassinate Cuban leader Fidel Castro. The plan was dropped after the failed Bay of Pigs invasion in 1961.

"If anything went wrong," Mr. Maheu wrote in his memoir, "I was the fall guy, caught between protecting the government and protecting the mob, two armed camps that could crush me like a bug."

After leaving Hughes, Mr. Maheu became a successful real estate investor but was admittedly careless in his bookkeeping.

"Most people, I have observed, spend 90 percent of their time scribbling notes and keeping records to justify their existence," he said in 1974. "I prefer to use that time getting things done."

Mr. Maheu had expensive tastes and helped found a Las Vegas chapter of a French gourmet society, and as time went on, he reveled in chances to tell of his colorful life.

His wife of 62 years, Yvette Doyon Maheu, died in 2003. A daughter also preceded him in death.

Survivors include three sons; 10 grandchildren; and 10 great-grandchildren.


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