When Howard Hughes Called my Boss

Posted 01/08/04

By Ben Nicks

This story was printed originally in the "Remember When" column of the January 4, 2004 edition of The Kansas City Star, and is reprinted in " Contrails" with the Star’s permission.

On June 30, 1956, TWA Flight 2 and United Airlines Flight 178 both left Los Angeles, eastbound. Together the Lockheed Constellation and the Douglas DC-7 carried 128 souls. Later that morning, both planes disappeared, setting off a chain of events that found me breathlessly taking down every word of one-half of a phone conversation with eccentric recluse billionaire Howard Hughes.

There was no news for days. Then word flashed to TWA in Kansas City; Wreckage of two collided aircraft was found splattered along the bottom of the Grand Canyon. A TWA DC-3 took off from Kansas City immediately. On board were TWA brass, experts, technicians, administrators and the local public relations representative: me.

We found the shattered planes on the banks of the Colorado River. As we dipped into the canyon, we confirmed what we already knew: There were no survivors on the Connie or the DC-7.

After landing at Flagstaff, Ariz., I rented a car and sped north to the canyon. A temporary investigation and information center was set up. I got the last accommodation, a two-bedroom suite at the El Tovar, a plush tourist hotel a few steps from the spectacular South Rim.

My boss Gordon Gilmore arrived the next day and moved in with me, as did Justin "Sox" Bowersock, the colorful Aviation Editor of The Kansas City Star.

At the daily news conferences, hundreds of reporters from around the world screamed, seeking scraps of limited information. Access to the crash was only by mule train or flimsy helicopter.

Bodies and wreckage were slowly lifted up. In the midst of the uproar Gilmore grabbed me.

"Ben, come up to the room; Howard Hughes wants to talk. You take down every word I say."

Hughes owned TWA and ruled from afar, often on whim. Sometimes he showed up unexpectedly, often at night, giving impossibly arcane orders, harassing and praising managers and staff. Then he disappeared into the dark, leaving behind confusion and fear.

Gilmore got on the phone and told me:

"Ben, get every word."

"I will, Gordon. I will," I said, poised over a yellow pad.

I got every word:

"Yes, Mr. Hughes.

"Yes, Mr. Hughes.

"Yes, Mr. Hughes

"But Mr. Hughes, I can’t tell the Associated Press what to say!"

I heard the angry click of a phone slammed into a cradle a million miles away. Gilmore almost cried as he wiped an anguished brow.

I had the good sense not to say, "Gordon, I got every word."

Ben Nicks (1945-1981) worked in Kansas City and New York serving in a wide range of positions including ticketing, editing, public relations, and facilities management.

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