James R. Phelan, an author and reporter who made a crusade out of investigating and writing about reclusive billionaire Howard Hughes, died of lung cancer Monday at his home in Temecula, Calif. He was 85.
Mr. Phelan died just before the publication of "Money: The Battle for Howard Hughes' Billions," which he wrote with Lewis Chester. The book will be published by Random House next month.
Mr. Phelan, who was a staff member at the Saturday Evening Post and a free-lance writer for several other publications, including the New York Times and Paris Match, was fascinated by Mr. Hughes' financial dealings and political machinations.
His best-selling "Howard Hughes: The Hidden Years," published in 1976 and based largely on the experiences of two Hughes aides, offered the first inside look at the life of Mr. Hughes, who died in 1976.
Former California Gov. Edmund G. Brown Sr. credited his 1962 re-election victory over Richard M. Nixon to an article by Mr. Phelan about a loan that Mr. Hughes had made to Mr. Nixon.
Another investigation by Mr. Phelan helped reveal that Clifford Irving's purported biography of Mr. Hughes was based on Mr. Phelan's unpublished manuscript, not on interviews with Mr. Hughes, as Mr. Irving had claimed.
The hoax cost Mr. Irving 17 months in a federal prison.
Pub Date: 9/12/97