Clifford Irving, Author of a Notorious Literary Hoax, Dies at 87
Posted December 20, 2017 9:13 p.m. EST
Clifford Irving, who perpetrated one of the biggest literary hoaxes of the 20th century in the early 1970s when he concocted a supposedly authorized autobiography of the billionaire Howard Hughes based on meetings and interviews that never took place, died on Tuesday at a hospice facility near his home in Sarasota, Florida. He was 87.
His wife, Julie Irving, confirmed the death. She said he was admitted to the hospice over the weekend after receiving a diagnosis of pancreatic cancer about a week ago.
Irving hit on the idea for “The Autobiography of Howard Hughes” after reading “The Case of the Invisible Billionaire,” an article about him published in the December 1970 issue of Newsweek.
Hughes, a notorious eccentric and recluse who had not spoken to the press since 1958, had just quit Las Vegas to take up residence on Paradise Island in the Bahamas. Irving, a modestly successful novelist and nonfiction writer, was intrigued.
He had recently published an as-told-to memoir, “Fake!: The Story of Elmyr de Hory, the Greatest Art Forger of Our Time.” Perhaps inspired by his subject, he came up with a wild scheme.
He convinced editors at McGraw-Hill, his publisher, that Hughes had contacted him to express admiration for “Fake!” and propose collaborating on a similar project.
After studying a Hughes letter reproduced in the Newsweek article, Irving forged letters from Hughes to back up the story. He began calling his publisher from exotic locations where, he claimed, he was meeting with Hughes and developing a close relationship. He was betting that Hughes hated the limelight so much that he would never step forward to debunk anything written about him.
Irving succeeded beyond his wildest dreams. McGraw-Hill paid an advance of $750,000 for the book. Life magazine bought the serial rights for $250,000, and Dell obtained the paperback rights for $400,000.
Over the ensuing months, as publication neared, Irving bluffed his way past editors, lawyers, handwriting experts and even skeptical journalists who had interviewed Hughes in the past. The CBS News correspondent Mike Wallace grilled Irving on “60 Minutes” and came away convinced.
At the end of 1971, with McGraw-Hill and Life ready to go to press, the scheme began to unravel. Hughes went public and denied knowing Irving, first through a representative and later in a conference call with seven journalists based in Los Angeles.
Swiss banking investigators soon discovered that a Zurich bank account belonging to “H.R. Hughes” had been opened by Irving’s wife, Edith Irving, a German-born Swiss citizen, using a forged passport with the name Helga R. Hughes.
As the evidence piled up, the house of cards collapsed. In March 1972, the Irvings pleaded guilty to conspiracy in federal court. In state court, along with Irving’s research assistant, Richard Suskind, they pleaded guilty to conspiracy and grand larceny. Irving was given a prison sentence of 2 1/2 years and served 17 months. Suskind received a sentence of six months, of which he served five.
Edith Irving served only two months of a two-year sentence, the remainder having been suspended. But immediately after being released from Nassau County Jail, she returned to Switzerland, where she served 16 months of a two-year sentence for larceny and forgery.
With Suskind, Clifford Irving recounted the debacle in “Clifford Irving: What Really Happened,” published by Grove Press in 1972. (It was reissued in 1981 as “The Hoax.”) “I had never realized I was committing a crime — I had thought of it as a hoax,” Irving wrote in the book.
Money, he insisted, was not the motive.
“The whole Hughes affair had been a venture into the unknown, a testing of myself, a constant gauntlet of challenge and response,” he wrote.
Clifford Michael Irving was born in Manhattan on Nov. 5, 1930, to Jay and Dorothy Irving. His father, who had changed his name from Irving Joel Raefsky, was a cartoonist and illustrator who did covers for Collier’s magazine and drew a syndicated strip, Pottsy, about an amiable New York policeman.
He graduated from the High School of Music and Art in Manhattan in 1947 and from Cornell University, which he had entered at 16, in 1951 with a degree in English. Smitten with Ernest Hemingway as a writer and role model, he traveled widely and worked at an odd assortment of jobs. At various times he was a copy boy at The New York Times, a Fuller Brush salesman in Syracuse and a machinist’s assistant in Detroit.
Irving went to the Spanish island of Ibiza in 1953 and became, in time, a permanent resident. There he finished his first novel, “On a Darkling Plain,” a coming-of-age story with a questing, alienated protagonist much like the author.
He went on to try his hand at a psychological thriller, “The Losers” (1958), and a period drama, “The Valley” (1960), set in 19th-century New Mexico. He hatched the Hughes hoax after taking up residence on Ibiza.
After serving his prison sentence, Irving wrote several novels with a legal setting, as well as true-crime books, including “Daddy’s Girl: The Campbell Murder Case” (1988), “Trial” (1990) and “Final Argument” (1993).
Orson Welles drew on “Fake!” and on the Hughes hoax when making his 1974 film, “F for Fake,” in which Irving plays a prominent role. The Danish director Lasse Hallstrom dramatized the affair in “The Hoax” (2006), with Richard Gere as Irving.
In 2012, the fake Hughes autobiography was published under the title “Clifford Irving’s Autobiography of Howard Hughes” as an e-book. (The cover proclaimed, “Until now, the most famous unpublished book of the 20th century.”) He also published “Jailing: The Prison Memoirs of 0040, aka Clifford Irving” as an e-book.
Irving was married six times. He married Julie Schall in 1998. Besides her, he is survived by three sons, Josh, Ned and Barnaby; and one grandson.
Irving offered different explanations for the Hughes affair at different times. In his later years, he dismissed it as nothing more than a joke.
But in certain moods, he looked on the episode with something like awe. It had to be admitted, he wrote in “What Really Happened,” that “a certain grandeur had rooted itself into the scheme, and I could still spy a reckless and artistic splendor to the way we had carried it out.”