The late General George Patton liked to tell a story about the ancient Roman conquerors victoriously returning home from battle. Parades were held, the conquerors rode in triumphant chariots, the world at their feet. At one such event, a slave, about to place a golden crown on the head of the hero, whispered in his ear: all glory is fleeting.
The origin of this story is unknown, but the money quote at the end has been attributed to both Napoleon Bonaparte and Thomas Moore — the complete passage is, glory is fleeting, but obscurity is forever.
Whether it was uttered by Patton, Bonaparte or Moore, the wisdom is indisputable.
What may be so greatly honored today will almost certainly diminish, frequently in no time at all.
Surveying lists of notable deaths in 2018 evokes our transitory nature: some of those who passed achieved fame in years gone by and have since left the national consciousness. Others experienced only niche recognition, never acclaim that will leave a significant print. And still others, like George Herbert Walker Bush, will be long remembered, that is until like all ex-Presidents, the recollection will be reduced to a few attributes.
One of those who died in 2018, Melvin Dummar, is classic example of evanescent fame. Even the man Dummar is inexorably linked to, Howard Hughes, once the center of international attention, is fading from general public view.
When cancer claimed Dummar’s life on December 9, 2018 in Pahrump, Nevada, he was — except for one improbable, spectacular episode — the most ordinary of men. His life, which was described as “makeshift and shoddy,” consisted of a series of scratched-out, failed attempts to make ends meet: he worked as a milkman, meat salesmen, and gas station attendant. His life was not characterized by consistency or direction.
Dummar was not well educated, nor did he possess much savvy or sophistication. He once told his wife that “Rome wasn’t burned down in a day,” one of a series of statements which later were quoted with much amusement in the press.
Things changed one night in December of 1967. Driving his Chevy truck through the Nevada desert, en route to make amends with his estranged wife, Dummar came upon a man, whom he later described as a “bum” and an “old coot,” lying on the ground, injured. Dummar helped the man into his truck and, eventually, loaned him some money before dropping him off in the parking lot of a Las Vegas casino.
During the course of the trip, the disheveled passenger told a disbelieving Dummar that he was Howard Hughes, the reclusive, eccentric billionaire.
Fast forward eight plus years to 1976. Emaciated and deranged — his six foot plus frame carried only 93 pounds — Hughes died on April 5, 1976. No will was found immediately upon his death.
Three weeks later, a handwritten will, signed by Hughes, was located on a desk in the headquarters of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints: among the beneficiaries was Melvin Dummar, whose share of the estate amounted to approximately 156 million dollars.
Dummar, after originally denying knowledge of the document, claimed that it was dropped off at the Willard, Utah gas station where he was employed — with instructions to take it to the Mormon Church.
In 1978, a court ruled the document a forgery. For years, Dummar’s name was everywhere: news accounts portrayed him as a con man, Johnny Carson needled him on “The Tonight Show.” Dummar said he was “scorned, sick (three time cancer victim) and nearly broke.”
Still, some doubted whether justice was actually done. Even the judge who presided over the case said that in the next world he wanted to ask Howard Hughes at least one question.
Dummar’s wife, Bonnie, provided a perspective that many could agree with — that is, Melvin Dummar simply did not have the wherewithal to create this scheme out of whole cloth, it was beyond his abilities.
In 1980, the film, “Melvin and Howard,” began to turn the tide. It was a highly regarded account of the incident, told from Dummar’s view, that won two Oscars, one for Bo Goldman’s screenplay — Goldman had done extensive research that seemed to support the Melvin/Howard encounter. Dummar even had a small role in the picture.
In 2005, a retired FBI investigator, Gary Magnesen, took up the cudgel: in his book, “The Investigation: A Former FBI Agent Uncovers the Truth Behind Howard Hughes, Melvin Dummar and the Most Contested Will in American History,” he largely stood with the Dummar story and felt the legal process, driven by the funding of the Hughes estate, was flawed.
Two new key witnesses came forward, fresh evidence was discovered — all of which led to more court hearings, none of which produced favorable results for Dummar.
In the last years of his life, Dummar lost his significance; at best, he will be remembered as a footnote in the life of a celebrated industrialist, who also will be mostly forgotten.
As to the truth about Dummar and Hughes, Mark Twain’s words are applicable: “It’s no wonder truth is stranger than fiction. Fiction has to make sense.”
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