Friday, April 06, 2007

So, Who is Clifford Irving?

There's a new film opening next Friday that I'm looking forward to seeing. The Hoax is a fictionalized re-telling of a real event, an event I know about because I once met the man who pulled the actual hoax off.

In 1970, Clifford Irving was an accomplished forty-year-old writer who'd published three novels and a biography about an art forger. While his books had garnered some critical acclaim, he was dead broke. The fact that he was on his fourth marriage (and seeing a mistress, too) might have had something to do with the state of his finances.

Perhaps inspired by Elmyr de Hory, the art forger whose story he'd told, Irving hit upon an audacious scheme: he decided to write the story of Howard Hughes, the wealthy and by-that-time legendary recluse. However, instead of simply writing an unauthorized biography, Irving decided to write Hughes' autobiography--by forging letters and faking interview transcripts in which Hughes told his own life story.

There was only one small catch: Hughes was still alive at the time.

I know. It sounds crazy. But Irving reasoned that Hughes, who was by then considered a total nut job and who had not been seen in public for over a decade, would never come out of hiding to denounce the book. And, even if he did, who would believe him?

Irving approached his publisher, McGraw-Hill (M-H), and told them that Hughes had liked his earlier biography of the forger and wanted Irving's assistance in writing an autobiography. The writer showed the M-H editors three letters he had forged in which Hughes proposed the project. Hughes supposedly agreed to multiple interviews with Irving.

McGraw-Hill eventually paid a $765,000 advance, giving $100,000 to Irving and the rest in a check payable to Howard Hughes. Irving's wife Edith deposited the Hughes' check into a Swiss bank using the name H.R. Hughes for Helga R. Hughes.

Irving stressed to his publishers that Hughes wanted the project to remain top secret. [grin]

Irving had enlisted the help of an author friend, Richard Suskind, in his planned hoax. Their research was meticulous. They actually got hold of the unpublished memoirs of Hughes' ex-business manager, which they used to add verisimilitude to their book.

Meanwhile, M-H was doing its due diligence on the "autobiography." They had a handwriting analyst confirm the authenticity of the letters Irving had forged (he must have learned a thing or two doing that earlier biography on the art forger). They announced the release of the book for March, 1972.

By now, people who knew Hughes were beginning to question the autobiography. Irving used Hughes' well-known penchant for secrecy to his advantage, claiming that the recluse hadn't told anyone about the project. Mike Wallace interviewed Irving. Later, according to Wikipedia, Wallace said his camera crew pegged Irving as a total phony, but he, Wallace, was taken in.

On 1/7/72, Hughes held a telephone conference in which he publicly denounced the forthcoming book. Amazingly, Irving held his ground, claiming the voice on the phone wasn't Hughes. But things were beginning to unravel.

Hughes filed suit against McGraw-Hill and Irving. The authorities followed up on the advance deposited in that Swiss account. Finally, on 1/28/72, Edith and Clifford Irving confessed their fraud. Irving and Suskind were sentenced to prison. Irving served seventeen months while Suskind served six and Irving's wife spent a year in a Swiss jail for fraud.

The story doesn't stop there. After his release from prison, Irving got divorced again, but continued to write. He penned several best sellers, including a 1988 book called Daddy's Girl, a true crime about a wealthy Houston couple murdered in their bed. Their daughter and her boyfriend were convicted for the crime.

In the mid-eighties, I had my first brush with someone I recognized as a true sociopath--an amoral person without any sense of conscience at all. The experience made an enormous impression on me; I felt I had stumbled upon evil, and it frightened me deeply. For a number of years, I read everything I could find on psychopathology, including true crime books. Eventually that interest led to my becoming a psychiatric social worker. In the short term, however, I came across Irving's Daddy's Girl, which I found to be very well written.

On April 26, 1988, I attended a luncheon offered by the Friends of the Dallas Public Library, at which Clifford Irving--flacking the newly released Daddy's Girl--spoke. His subject was "Today's Journalism--Tomorrow's History: Fact or Fiction."

Not surprisingly, Irving was glib and charming and spoke openly of the Hughes hoax. He had, by that time, written his own story, aptly titled The Hoax. IMDB lists it as the source material for the current film. I was amused to see that they listed it as a "novel" as opposed to "memoir." That's probably a fitting epitaph for Irving who is today seventy-seven and living in Aspen.

I checked my bookshelves tonight. I still have my autographed copy of Daddy's Girl. And I'm looking forward to The Hoax's opening next Friday.

Postscript: Turns out the film is opening today. Since my birthday is tomorrow, we're starting the celebration early by going to see the film this afternoon at 2:45.

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