If He Did It

Hoax, The BY Clifford Irving. Miramax. Paperback, 400 pages. $14.

The cover of Hoax, The

Clifford Irving was once a household name. On December 7, 1971, McGraw-Hill Book Company announced the imminent publication of The Autobiography of Howard Hughes, a book Irving had assembled from more than a hundred hours of interviews he’d conducted with the billionaire everyone had heard of but hardly anyone knew. An American expatriate living on the Spanish island of Ibiza, Irving had several thrillers to his name and had recently published a biography of the prolific art forger Elmyr de Hory. Irving, it seemed, sent a copy of that book to Hughes and received in reply a letter scrawled on yellow legal paper. The tycoon was impressed. No fool, Irving sensed an opening and wrote back, promising he could muster as much writerly sensitivity for a book about Hughes’s life. To the author’s surprise, Hughes accepted the offer.

No one interviewed Hughes. Few people even saw him. In fact, Hughes was so skittish about publicity that he had avoided all contact with the media since 1958, when he wrote Fortune to dissuade the magazine from investigating his empire and to complain that a recent issue had named J. Paul Getty the world’s richest man when everyone knew Hughes was. Another story goes that he once elected to lose between twenty and a hundred million dollars in order to avoid a perfunctory trip to court to sign a document.

Publishers, of course, were hungry to bring out Hughes’s story. He was catnip to them. Even rumors of the man would do. In 1969, Esquire printed grainy enlargements of a piece of 16mm film showing nothing more exciting than a man, said to be Hughes, wearing a bathrobe and talking on the telephone. Later, they revealed the film was a fake. But a Hughes autobiography—the billionaire’s story told by the man himself, in his own inimitable voice—that was publishing’s holy grail, and McGraw-Hill had paid dearly for the treasure, offering the huge advance of $750,000.

A day after the announcement, the Hughes Tool Company denied that the book was authentic and sought to stop its release. In for many pennies, McGraw-Hill and Life magazine, which had purchased first serial rights to the soon-to-be epic, endured a pounding in the press over the next several weeks. Still, they stood by Irving.

On January 7, 1972, however, Hughes held a rare press conference and denounced the book. Seven reporters gathered in a Los Angeles hotel room. Hughes phoned in his appearance from the Britannia Beach Hotel in the Bahamas, where he lived, and for two and a half hours held forth on everything from airplane construction to fingernail clippers to his affinity for shoes made of imitation leather. Although he flubbed four of the six test questions reporters posed in order to determine his authenticity, all nevertheless agreed that he was no impostor. His voice, when asked about Irving and the autobiography, was unmistakable.

Irving and company tried to hold what ground remained. On 60 Minutes, Mike Wallace grilled him, asking whether anyone had witnessed his many meetings with Hughes. Irving parried with an entertaining anecdote about the night that he and his trusted researcher, Richard Suskind, met Hughes, and the billionaire offered Suskind an organic prune. Now Irving recalled that Hughes reached into his pocket and pulled out a cellophane bag of the snacks, though Suskind insisted it was a paper bag––just the sort of niggling, ultimately meaningless detail that nonetheless gave the impression that Irving was a man who cared deeply about even the finer points of the truth. Wallace admitted later that he believed Irving. “The technicians,” Wallace said, “the camera people? They said, no, he’s lying.” Irving, it seemed, could only ever fool some of the people some of the time.

Within a few weeks, federal and state investigators, as well as bank officers in Geneva, where the book advance was deposited, unraveled the story. Irving; his wife, Edith, who signed the checks and posed, with wig and forged passport, as Helga Hughes; and Suskind had very nearly pulled off a stunning fraud. Their escapades and the resulting indictments, whose charges ranged from conspiracy and larceny to mail fraud, created an even greater sensation than the original announcement of the autobiography. British journalists Stephen Fay, Lewis Chester, and Magnus Linklater, the authors of Hoax: The Inside Story of the Howard Hughes–Clifford Irving Affair (1972), an impartial if at times exhausting account of the events, wrote that Irving got more ink “in American newspapers than the Vietnam war or the impending presidential election.” Time named him “Con Man of the Year” and put him on its cover with a portrait commissioned from de Hory. 60 Minutes, in what could only have been a latebreaking attempt at saving face, nominated Irving “best actor of the year in a starring role.” A porn movie called Helga and Howard played to packed houses on Forty-second Street, and Henry Kissinger joked to the Washington Press Club, “If any blonde shows up in my bank claiming to be Helga Kissinger, she’s welcome.” In New York, T-shirts emblazoned with Hughes’s face and forged signature went on sale, as did buttons that read, IS THIS A GENUINE HOWARD HUGHES BUTTON? All three fakers pleaded guilty, and Irving went to prison for seventeen months.

Irving, of course, wrote his own account of the affair, a book similarly called The Hoax (1972), which is now being republished (Hyperion, $15) to coincide with the release of a film of the same name starring Richard Gere. Irving’s book remains an entertaining though ultimately frustrating account. Although as tireless as the book produced by the three British journalists, it reads, at times, like a romanticized adventure starring Irving and friends. Even people close to him are typecast, as when he refers to his former spouse as “the hurt wife who feared the other woman.” Irving often describes himself as, literally, a character in the movies. At a meeting before two hundred McGraw-Hill employees, when Irving was sure his number was up, he writes, “I . . . felt as though I were walking onto a movie set.” His wife later imagines she’s being followed by figures “like spies from an Eric Ambler novel.” Anyone’s imagination can turn a little pulpy under duress, but after the stress fades, doesn’t thoughtfulness reassert itself?

Not so The Hoax. The book was originally called Clifford Irving: What Really Happened—His Untold Story of the Hughes Affair, a title that now bears an uncomfortable resemblance to that of O. J. Simpson’s aborted exploration into hypothetical murder. The title also makes clear the book’s actual focus: how they did it, but not why. When Irving first begins to plan the caper with Suskind, he worries, almost in passing, about tricking his editor. Suskind points out that as junior as she is, she won’t personally make any decision about the Hughes book. The planning continues without pause. Here and throughout, the logistical nitty-gritty—everything from the particulars of airline travel to a slapstick scene with a hotel maid, some credulity-stretching derring-do in the Library of Congress, and the two men’s disposal of the typewriter used to create the manuscript—washes away every ethical qualm. The legal consequences of his actions come as a shock to Irving. It genuinely surprises him to learn anyone views his hoax as criminal.

I decided to e-mail Irving to ask why he undertook the Hughes hoax. He recently completed a new thriller and, in advance of the movie’s release, created a website where he’s made available information about his other books, as well as the complete text of The Autobiography of Howard Hughes. “Adventure is the key word,” he wrote. “Not every part of an adventure is fun, but on the whole it’s a lot more life-affirming than sitting on your ass at a desk stringing words together.” But still, the ambiguity of his motives hangs over The Hoax, from its epigraph, which quotes Jean Le Malchanceux—“You may look for motive in an act, but only after the act has been committed”—to its end, on the day the principles plead guilty.

Irving e-mailed me back, “I keep saying that no one really knows why they do what they do, they just concoct convenient and self-justifying psychological explanations. You don’t accept that, which is understandable, but that’s what I believe, and you’re stuck with it. Any further answer concerning motive would be faked by me.”

But what of Malchanceux’s words? They were, in reality, Irving’s own, the invented work of “a fictitious crusader monk that a group of Ibiza-based writers used . . . when they couldn’t come up with an appropriate epigraph or source.”

Paul Maliszewski, a writer based in Washington, DC, is at work on a book on hoaxes.