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Howard Hughes and His Mysterious Fake Death

By Patrick Lawrence

April 2017 - “I’m not a paranoid, deranged millionaire. I’m a billionaire.” — Howard Hughes

If you love attending educational seminars, and who doesn’t, the 43rd annual SUN ’n FUN International Fly-In & Expo in Lakeland, Florida, is the place to be.

I was perusing the Saturday schedule and trying to choose from more than 120 events on that day alone. It was like trying to decide what book to read next.

Should I go for last year’s Pulitzer Prize winner because it will make me a better, more well-rounded person, or Jack Reacher because sometimes you just want someone who can kick some butt?

My choices came down to a) oxyacetylene welding techniques, b) troubleshooting electrical noises, or c) Howard Hughes and his fake death.

Hello, Jack Reacher.

First, what we can mostly agree on.

Howard Hughes was born on December 24, 1905. He was a highly successful businessman and entrepreneur. He started out as a film producer in the 1920s. Quite the ladies man, he dated Bette Davis, Ava Gardner, Olivia de Havilland, Katharine Hepburn, and Ginger Rogers.

He formed Hughes Aircraft in 1932. He bought, then expanded Trans World Airlines (TWA) and Air West. Flying magazine listed Hughes among its Heroes of Aviation.

He developed the H-1 Racer, which went on to set numerous airspeed records, and the giant Hercules, aka the Spruce Goose. Hughes went on to receive many aviation awards, including the Congressional Gold Medal for aviation achievements (which he never picked up), and he survived four plane accidents.

In the supposed last years of his life, Howard Hughes suffered from severe obsessive-compulsive disorder. He eventually took up residence in the Desert Inn in Las Vegas, which he purchased soon after checking in. There were many famous photos of his later years as a frail, ill-kept invalid.

Hughes died on April 5, 1976. Oops, not so fast.

According to retired Maj. Gen. Mark Musick, assistant secretary to the Air Force, Hughes faked his death in 1976 and went on to live another 25 years in a trailer outside of Troy, Alabama. Musick apparently befriended an Eva McClelland, who claims to have lived with Hughes for most of those 25 years. She described him as healthy, robust, and, of course, reclusive. Hughes lived under an assumed identity and used his connections with the CIA and Las Vegas mafia to protect his privacy. He died, according to  McClelland, on November 15, 2001.

What about those photos of the frail, 35-kilo, long-nailed invalid? An imposter? A paid double? Fake news, according to Gen. Musick.

I don’t have a problem with the fake-your-own-death scenario. I’ve done it myself, most recently when, after reminding me for three days to take out the garbage, my wife approached me with the look.

I’m not, however, a big conspiracy guy. Too many people, often with big bucks and potential publicity involved, have to keep their big traps shut. I can’t even get my daughter, herself a corporate executive, to keep her mother’s surprise birthday party a secret.

So, I didn’t buy it. Too much compelling evidence to the contrary. Nice story, but no reasonable person would fall for something so preposterous.

Wait. Was that Elvis I just saw walking by? And what was he doing with Pierre Trudeau? No, couldn’t be. Could it?

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