At eighty-one years of age Daniel K. Ludwig is one of capitalism's living legends. He's the richest man in America, our only remaining billionaire, in fact, with a reputed net worth of about $3 billion. His sprawling multi-billion dollar empire - which runs the gamut from a fleet of some fifty tanker ships to extensive interest in huge resort hotels, oil and gas exploration, office buildings, and savings-and-loan associations - stretches across twenty-one countries and six continents. And to think it all started with a mere $25 investment.

That's the amount Ludwig managed to scrape together as a youth to buy a sunken treasure boat, which he raised, spent the winter repairing, and then rented out for considerably more than he had paid for it. Financially, at least, considering his bulging basket of goodies, Ludwig wouldn't seem to have a care in the world. Or does he? Would you believe that this billionaire recluse - a native of South Haven, Michigan, whose dad was a real estate investor - may be strapped for cash?

As incomprehensible as that may seem, considering Ludwig's vast holdings, that's the story making the rounds in financial circles. And it's being heard with growing frequency.

Much of it stems from his massive and growing commitment - estimated to be at least $1 billion - to the development of a giant-size paper-mill operation in the jungles of Brazil. Included in this project, which has been described as Ludwig's monument of himself, is a $250 million processing plant that was built in Kure, Japan.

At great expense, this plant was then placed aboard a barge and pulled by a tug over a 93-day, 15,000-mile trip to a docking area constructed by 2,500 workers on the Jari River, an Amazon tributary 250 miles inland. And there in the Brazilian wilderness - in a jungle area nearly the size of Connecticut, an area that holds some 500,000 acres of timberland personally owned by Ludwig - the paper-mill plant, by 1981, is projected to produce 759 metric tons a day of bleached kraft pulp. A mind-boggling venture.

Amid talk in financial circles that Ludwig may have over reached himself on this massive undertaking. I've picked up strong reports within Ludwig's flagship company (National Bulk Carriers) that he recently put up his seven Princess hotels as part of the collateral for the loans on his Brazilian venture. The hotels and their lands are estimated to be worth between $125 million and $140 million.

I also hear that these hotels, which include the posh Southampton Princess in Bermuda and Mexico's Acapulco Princess, have been put on the selling block. And these "for sale" reports have heightened speculation that the heavy financial demands placed on Ludwig by the Brazilian project are running far greater than he expected.

Interested in buying the hotels? The asking price - I hear Ludwig wants an all-cash deal - is roughly $150 million. National Bulk Carriers has reportedly asked Bankers Trust to find a buyer for the chain, which also includes the Sir Francis Drake in San Francisco. And the bank, in turn, has enlisted the aid of New York acquisition specialist American International Corporate Planners.

Sumner A. Baye, head of American International, confirmed he's working with Bankers Trust in behalf of Ludwig and, in fact, told me there are several interested foreign buyers. "If anyone comes along with one hundered twenty-five to one hundred fifty million, I think Ludwig would seriously consider selling the hotels," Baye says.

Interestingly, National Bulk had recently been negotiating a deal for Hilton International to take over management of the Princess hotels. But the deal fell through when Ludwig called it off - possibly because he decided to sell the chain instead because he needed the cash.

Clearly, there's no disputing that Ludwig has been an outstanding success story in a variety of businesses, notably shipping. But, alas, he's been a dismal flop in the hotel field. Dispite tourism, growing travel worldwide, a reasonably good economic environment, and the ownership of some of the world's choicest resort properties, the Princess hotels (as a group) have been running in the red in recent years. The chief resons: big losses in two Bahamas hotels (the Princess and the Princess Tower), largely due to political and racial problems; and high corporate overhead.

Financial sources tell me that in its most recent fiscal year, ending September 30, 1977, the Princess hotel group - which numbers about 3,750 rooms - lost around $2 million on revenues of some $75 million.

I hear Ludwig was so fed up with the dismal showing of the hotels that he recently fired about a dozen of the group's management staff. Included in the headchopping were Princess president Kenneth Scholl and senior financial officer Frank Reid. In both cases, the men resigned - but they were forced resignations. Ludwig, I'm told, was especially angered over the travel arrangements for Reid, a resident of Seattle, Washington. Reid used to travel two to three times a month to New York - first-class. Ludwig himself travels economy and has a policy that no National Bulk employee may travel firs-class.

Scholl, who's continuing to do some consulting work for the Princess hotels, told me he counldn't speak with any certainty about Ludwig's reasons for wanting to unload the hotels. He did note that Ludwig had built his fortune on "rolling ships over," This refers to Ludwig's brainy tactic - at the outset of his career - of securing a charter before he even began to build a ship. And then he would use the agreement as collateral for a loan to do the building. "Ludwig built his fortune on that kind of leverage," reiterates Scholl, "and he may be doing the same thing again (in Brazil)."

Obviously, it would make all the sense in the world to raise the question about Ludwig's finances directly with Ludwig himself. After all, who's to say his decision to sell the hotels - despite all the remors - doesn't reflect the desire of an aging man to scale down his management work load, thus allowing him more time to devote himself to Brazil? And it may be, too, that he's putting up his hotels as collateral simply because he doesn't want to take the money out of the bank. I'm sorry to say Ludwig wouldn't talk to me. The press traditionally has been as welcome to him as the grim reaper.

Ands so, with the rumors left unanswered, financial circles will continue to buzz with speculation that the richest man in America could use a friend at Household Finance.