Fancy a bit of history, old sport? The Great Gatsby was first published on April 10, 1925. Spoiler alert! The book’s title character, a mysterious young millionaire named Jay Gatsby, does not survive the novel, dying unexpectedly at the age of 32. Gatsby — a bachelor who spent his money on lavish parties at his mansion — presumably died without a will. This week, On Remand looks back at The Great Gatsby and the story of another mysterious magnate who died without a will. Or did he?
Unlike many of the attendees at his parties, Gatsby did not come from money. Rather, his wealth was the result of hard, albeit illegal, work and a chance meeting that changed Gatsby’s perspective on his fictional life. Born on a farm in North Dakota, Gatsby left home and briefly attended college while working as a janitor. Despising the work, he dropped out and went to Lake Superior, where he eked out a living as a clam-digger and salmon-fisher. One day, Gatsby rowed out to a yacht to warn its owner of an impending storm. Impressed by Gatsby’s wit and ambition, the yacht’s owner, a wealthy man named Dan Cody, hired Gatsby as his personal assistant. Traveling the continent with Cody, Gatsby set his sights on becoming wealthy himself. When Cody died a few years later, leaving Gatsby $25,000 ($600,000 in today’s dollars), Gatsby nearly had a nest egg to grow, but he was never able to collect the money. Instead, he built his wealth as a bootlegger. But when he died under suspicious circumstances, despite having spent lavishly on others, hardly anyone could be persuaded to attend his funeral.
When real-life millionaire Howard Hughes died on April 5, 1976, many more took notice. Hughes, a tycoon, aviator, film maker, philanthropist, and — in later life — eccentric and recluse, died with an estate worth between $168 million and $2 billion, but no children, wife, or will. A nationwide search for a will commenced, but it turned up only an unsigned copy of a will leaving the estate to the Howard Hughes Medical Institute. And although a number of supposed “Hughes wills” surfaced shortly after his death, only one resulted in a prolonged legal battle.
That battle had its origin when Melvin Dummar, the owner of a Utah gas station and aspiring country-western singer, had his own chance encounter with extreme wealth. According to Dummar, late on a December night in 1967, he picked up an injured, disheveled man from a rural Nevada roadside, and at the man’s request, drove him to the Sands Hotel in Las Vegas. Before disembarking, the bloodied, unshaven man identified himself as Howard Hughes. Dummar continued on his way, and heard nothing further from Hughes.
Nine years later, twenty-two days after Hughes death, a handwritten will (the fancy legal word is “holographic”) penned on three pages of water-stained, yellow legal paper was discovered at the headquarters of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints in Salt Lake City. Christened the “Mormon Will,” it was dated March 19, 1968, and read in part:
I, Howard R. Hughes, being of sound mind and disposing mind and memory, not acting under duress, fraud or the undue influence of any person whomever, and being a resident of Las Vegas, Nevada, declare that this is to be my last will and revolt [sic] all other wills previously made by me –
After my death, my estate is to be devided [sic] as follows –
Eighth: one-sixteenth to go to Melvin DuMar [sic] of Gabbs, Nevada –
The Mormon Will was perplexing. It was replete with misspellings, including the name of Hughes’s own cousin, William Lummis (identified as “Loomis” in the Mormon Will). Bequests to two ex-wives, and the Mormon church, which Hughes did not belong to, were also questionable. Suspiciously, the will named as executor a man that had been estranged from Hughes for years by the will’s alleged date of 1968. And it uncharacteristically referred to the prototype of Hughes Aircraft Company’s H-4 Hercules (a monstrous plane constructed from birch) as the “spruce goose” – a derogatory name that Hughes hated.
After discovering the will in a vacant office, the Mormon Church sent it to the Clark County District Court in Las Vegas for probate. As the case moved towards trial, potential Hughes beneficiaries and skeptics questioned the will and Dummar’s story. When investigators found Dummar’s fingerprint on the will’s outer envelope, he changed his story: he admitted for the first time that a stranger delivered the will to him. Curious, he steamed the will open, then resealed it and brought it to the Mormon Church headquarters. Dummar’s credibility was further tarnished by tales that he had researched Hughes at an Ogden, Utah college library. Hughes’s employees who had monitored their boss in eight-hour shifts also discredited Dummar’s rescue story, explaining that Hughes had not left the Desert Inn between 1966 and 1970. Before the trial began, even the judge remarked aloud in court that he believed Dummar was lying.
The Mormon Will’s trial began in November 1977. Hughes’s relatives and Summa Corporation, the entity managing Hughes’s estate at the time, joined forces to discredit the will. Its defenders numbered three: attorney Harold Rhoden, the will’s substitute executor; Dummar; and another attorney, Seymour Lazar, who allegedly fronted $250,000 in exchange for a share of the lawyers’ fees if the jury validated the Mormon Will. After listening to approximately seven months of testimony, the jury deliberated eleven hours and declared the Mormon Will a fake. Dummar and his wife Bonnie (suspected by Hughes relatives of playing a part in forging the will) were pilloried – subjected to tabloid coverage and endless jokes from late-night talk show hosts. The years after the trial continued to be bleak for the couple, who were broke and struggled to find work due to their notoriety.
Roughly thirty years later, in the mid-2000s, a retired FBI agent, Gary Magnesen, started his own investigation into the case. According to Magnesen, the 1978 trial was tainted by perjury, coercion of witnesses, and destruction of evidence. Magnesen also located an additional witness: a pilot named Robert Deiro, who contradicted the trial testimony that Hughes never left his hotel between 1966 and 1970. Rather, Deiro said, he remembered taking Hughes on a secret flight to the Cottontail Ranch in Lida Junction, Nevada (a few miles from where Dummar claims to have picked up Hughes) on December 29, 1967, to visit a prostitute named Sunny. According to Deiro, he passed out waiting for Hughes at a bar, awoke to find Hughes gone, and returned to Las Vegas without his charge.
Since 1978, two of the Mormon Will defenders have met sensational ends. In 2007, Seymour Lazar ended his colorful career with a guilty plea in connection with the case against class-action law firm Milberg Weiss, which had illegally paid its lead plaintiffs (including $2.6 million to Lazar). Harold Rhoden, whose headline-grabbing legal career included representing Bianca Jagger in her divorce from Mick and suing the estate of Rock Hudson, was killed in a plane crash in 1989. Bizarrely, Dummar and his attorney may have had the best outcomes. Dummar’s attorney became a judge and retired in 2009. Although Dummar struggled through financial hardship and poor health in the years after the trial, he scored a cameo in the Academy award-winning film Melvin and Howard, which depicted Dummar’s life’s story and his encounter with Hughes. As for the Hughes fortune, the bulk of it has long since been divided among roughly twenty relatives (mainly aunts, uncles and cousins), and Uncle Sam, who reportedly received more than 70% of the value of the estate.
Melvin Dummar continues to “beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past.” In 2006, shortly after the publication of Magnesen’s book, which described his investigation into the Mormon Will affair, Dummar filed a lawsuit in Utah against two men connected to the Hughes estate, accusing them of misconduct in connection with the 1978 trial. On appeal, the Tenth Circuit affirmed the dismissal of all Dummar’s claims as untimely, failing to state a claim, or precluded by the 1978 jury decision. As suggested by The Great Gatsby‘s famous last line, Dummar has felt the inescapability of the past. In his song “Thank You Howard” he sings, “All you left me was frustration, and I’ll never live it down/Oh, Howard, I wish you were around.”
Hughes Cousins Say Utah Man Forged Mormon Will. . . [New York Times] [sub. req.]
First Of 2 Trials Is Opening Over Estate Left By Hughes [New York Times] [sub. req.]
Jury Finds So-Called Mormon Will Of Hughes A Fake [New York Times] [sub. req.]
Melvin And Howard: A True Story After All? [Salt Lake Tribune]
Samantha Beckett (not her real name) is an attorney with more than ten years of experience working in Biglaw. When not traveling back in time, she is most likely billing it. Her writing has been featured in state and federal courts across the nation and in the inboxes of countless clients, colleagues, and NSA analysts. She can be reached at OnRemand@gmail.com.