It’s a story shrouded in mystery and intrigue.
Fifty years ago, worldwide celebrity and billionaire Howard Hughes arrived in Vancouver.
Hughes, who was 66 at the time, was known for his work as a big-time film producer and revolutionizing the aviation and aerospace industry.
But when he arrived in Vancouver, he was battling drug addiction and obsessive-compulsive disorder.
Hughes stayed for almost six months at the Bayshore Inn, now known as the Westin Bayshore Hotel.
But he never left his room and no one ever saw him.
Stan Yip worked at the Westin Bayshore for 46 years and was working as a night bellman on March 14, 1972, when Hughes and his entourage showed up.
“The night Howard Hughes arrived, they were in the back and they said ‘we’re going to come through the back door’,” Yip recalled. “And I said, ‘you’re going to have to come through from the tower, there’s a driveway in the tower’. But they had their own maids, their own chefs, they had all the people that were taking care of him.”
Hughes’ staff told the hotel that if they couldn’t have the top two floors of the hotel they would just buy the hotel.
He had reportedly done that exact thing in Las Vegas in 1966 when he purchased the Desert Inn after not being able to get a room there.
But the Bayshore’s management relented and allowed Hughes to move in.
“You really have to go back in time and imagine what Howard Hughes was known as back then,” Vancouver historical Aaron Chapman told Global News.
“Today we know him as sort of this hermit figure with long hair and the beard and fingernails but back in the early 70s he was well-known as an industrialist and one of the richest people in the world.”
Chapman said billionaires were not common in 1972; Hughes was one of a kind.
“For someone like Hughes to arrive in Vancouver and what Vancouver was like at the time, (he) was a huge figure and made international news.”
In 1972, Vancouver was a busy port city, just starting to carve its identity, and still more than a decade away from hosting Expo ’86.
Vancouver when Howard Hughes arrived was not the metropolis of today
Chapman said although no one saw Hughes while he was here, there are reports he spoke with a cleaning woman while waiting for an elevator who may have been the first person he had spoken to outside of his inner circle in about 15 years.
Yip said newspaper photographers at the time were desperate to get a photo of Hughes. A publication even hired famous water skier George Athans Jr to ski behind a boat with a parachute on in the hopes that he could reach the top floor of the hotel. However, Athans’ efforts were in vain.
“Nobody could do it,” Yip added.
He said news cameras were stationed at the hotel the entire time but no one ever captured a glimpse of the billionaire.
There were rumours he attended a Vancouver Canucks game while in town but still no one saw him. Chapman said Hughes never left the top two floors.
He departed just as mysteriously as he arrived, leaving just shy of six months later before he would have had to declare his assets to the Canadian government.
“If there’s one thing Howard Hughes hated more than germs, it was taxes,” Chapman said.
But Hughes’ eccentricity and humongous wealth followed him wherever he went.
“They hired these bellmen to take him out after six months and they said they saw this Volkswagen van inside a plane,” Yip said. “They couldn’t believe it.”
The Westin Bayshore still has the Howard Hughes Suite but Yip said when Hughes left there were Kleenex boxes everywhere, very little furniture, sheets of plywood blocking off parts of the rooms and the windows were blacked out.
Hughes had personal guards with him and anything he wanted was delivered and returned by his staff, never the hotel staff.
Yip said his bodyguard always tasted Hughes’ food before he did and each item had to be cut specifically into certain cubes.
“I never saw him but he was there,” Yip said. “You know why? They did so much to make sure that he was there.”
Yip said in all his years at the Bayshore, Hughes was the most exciting guest, even more than famous actor John Wayne.
“It’s a memorable thing and you have to think that, of all the people (that stayed there), Howard Hughes was one of them.
“Everybody tried everything to try and get a picture of him but couldn’t do it. I don’t think anybody ever saw him.”
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Hughes died just over four years later en route to Houston, Texas, and Chapman said the last few years of his life were spent in many different hotels, avoiding legal issues in the United States. He actually arrived in Vancouver from Nicaragua and after Vancouver he spent time in the Bahamas, London and Mexico, to name a few.
“He was known as a man of mystery at that time,” Chapman added.
“It’s fascinating how that visit not only fits into the history of Hughes himself but the history of Vancouver at that time.”
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