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Before he became an agoraphobic dope fiend, grew his fingernails to repulsive lengths, developed a pathological fear of germs, and at last went completely nuts, Howard Hughes was in the habit of flying around in a Boeing 307 Stratoliner on which he'd spent $250,000, turning it into a plush, high-altitude love nest.
Hughes' airplane -- minus wings and tail -- has been tied up to various docks in Fort Lauderdale since the summer of 1974, when businessman Ken London mounted the fuselage on a fiberglass hull and declared it a motor yacht. In recent weeks the Stratoliner sailed under its own power for the first time since 1981. Broward's weirdest houseboat is entering its next era.
Current owner Dave Drimmer has spent several years and more than $100,000 refurbishing the craft. The boat, parked on the Middle River on the south side of the Sunrise Boulevard bridge, is spick-and-span to a degree that the germ-conscious Hughes would have liked. Guests have to take off their shoes to avoid scuffing the teak. There's a resident cat named Midnight, but no cat hair in sight. In short, the legendary bachelor pad has gone fussy, hygenic.
Commercial, too. Drimmer has sunk so much money into his hybrid vessel he says he decided the only way to get it back out was to go corporate.
"It's a natural for the Air & Sea Show!" he says, meaning that he and his partner, Jeff Gibbs, could wreathe the boat with banners and sail up and down the Intracoastal Waterway promoting the annual event.
"It could be anything like that!" says Gibbs, an entrepreneurial New Zealander.
Gibbs and Drimmer acknowledge they've so far struck out in their fledgling attempts to commercialize their conversation piece. Developers of the new Las Olas Riverfront entertainment and shopping complex in downtown Fort Lauderdale have been cool toward Gibbs and Drimmer's generous offer to keep the craft tied up to a dock, where it would have offered itself up for tours and been rented for business schmoozes.
"We're being rebuffed a lot," Drimmer says with a sigh.
That the boat is rich with history can't be disputed. In 1948 Hughes sold the Stratoliner to Texas oil man Glenn McCarthy, the real-life model for the James Dean character in the film Giant. McCarthy, known as the King of the Wildcatters, was also something of a tomcat, and he used the plane to shuttle young starlets back and forth from Hollywood to Houston.
Beginning in 1963 the plane passed through the hands of several South Florida owners. One was Joseph MacCaughtry, who borrowed $40,000 from a bank in Chicago with a view toward starting a Florida-Bahamas charter service for fat cats. By the time bank officials showed up to enforce a lien, the plane had become a boat, complete with air conditioning, stereo, and orange shag carpet on both the floor and walls. Both MacCaughtry and the ex-plane's four engines had long since disappeared; the county sold the derelict and storm-damaged craft at auction in 1969 for $61.99.
As a boat, Hughes' airplane stayed true to its randy heritage. Ken London was at a loss to explain why he didn't use the Londonaire much after spending years and thousands of dollars transforming it into yachty splendor. The explanation seemed pretty obvious, though: London was converted from singlehood by his secretary just as he completed the project. Herb Warner, who had just gotten divorced, bought the boat in 1977. "Curious companionship... arrived at odd hours while Warner berthed the craft near a beachfront hotel," a reporter noted at the time, adding: "Warner loved his romantic toy, but the affair turned sour when he had a heart attack."
And yet Dave Drimmer's most fervent commercial dreams aren't built on the connection to Hughes or McCarthy or any of the other owners but on regional hero Jimmy Buffett. One day in late 1991 or early 1992, the songster was sailing along the Middle River and saw Drimmer's floating conversation piece. Soon the boat showed up in fictional form in Buffett's novel, Where Is Joe Merchant?
In the book, a psychic named Desdemona is hiding out in the British Virgin Islands, planning a trip to outer space and supporting herself by selling pot brownies. She lives aboard an airplane-turned-houseboat. "The fuselage," Buffett writes on page 77, "was from an old Boeing 307 that had been built before World War II as Howard Hughes' private plane." Later Buffett describes Desdemona's departure from Fort Lauderdale: "As she passed under the Seventeenth Street Bridge, an old fisherman looked at the strange craft below and turned to his buddy, who was baiting a hook. 'Fred,' he yelled, 'check out that boat. Looks like a goddamn giant dildo.'"
The fictional houseboat is called the Cosmic Muffin. In an instance of life imitating art, Drimmer dropped the name he'd been considering -- Which Craft? -- and went with Buffett's. He says he has no idea what the name means, and Buffett's handlers say they thought their boss got the name from Drimmer.
Drimmer's Cosmic Muffin has the highly varnished feel of a boardroom and is stocked with merchandise: videos; scrapbooks; copies of Buffett's novel, stamped with the phrase "Purchased Aboard the Cosmic Muffin." And, of course, $15 T-shirts. "This is a first time introductory offer of unique shirts that are a must for every Parrothead," a promotional pamphlet explains. Parrotheads are Jimmy Buffett fanatics.