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 Monday at Desert Springs Hospital in Las Vegas. He was 90 and had cancer and heart ailments.
Maheu was a one-time FBI agent who ran a Washington company that he said carried out secret missions for the Central Intelligence Agency.
Maheu’s first jobs for Hughes in the 1950s included private-eye snooping on Hughes’ past and prospective girlfriends in Hollywood. Later, as Hughes’ chief adviser, he helped make his boss Nevada’s third-largest landowner, after the federal government and the state power company.
After becoming Hughes’ director of Las Vegas operations in 1966, 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,” 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, 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,” 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.”
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, 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 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,” 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.”