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My chance meeting with Clifford Irving, the fake “autobiographer” of Howard Hughes

Irving entering courthouse during his trial: The most “fabulous hoax

of the 20th Century”

Allenwood was a “country-club prison, where all the Mafia go."

Clifford Irving

The job was boring, a bureaucratic endeavor that I secured for a short time while finalizing my teaching credentials, but the people I met were infinitely interesting. My assistants at one time included a millionaire businessman who was the former chief of staff to the U.S. Senator from Hawaii, an ex-lawyer caught up in a counterfeiting scheme, and a lawyer chief of staff for a congressman who was convicted of some nefarious dealings in Republican politics.

At least four of the convicted people in the Watergate scandal during the Nixon years served time in this prison, which was about as minimum security as you could get in the U.S.A.

However, one of the most fascinating people in my short tenure at Allenwood Federal Prison Camp was man called Clifford Irving, who was a novelist by trade who concocted a scheme to defraud his public by producing an autobiography of Howard Hughes, the notoriously reclusive billionaire.

The meeting

In my short meeting of about ten to 15 minutes with him, it was obvious that he was a shyster, a smooth-talking Gatsby-like character who complained that he was forced to confess to this fraud because of the corruption of the federal prosecutors — which was a commonly-uttered line by these white-collar criminals who were always innocent.

Irving wanted some information on his sentence, which was how we met. He wanted to know how long of the 30 months he would actually serve, how much time he could earn for good behavior, and when he would be eligible for parole. In an ordinary situation, that would have taken about five minutes to discuss with an inmate.

However, after explaining these details to him, I could not resist asking him whether or not the man who eventually wrote 20 novels in his life was going to make this experience into another one. He smiled and said that he was definitely going to write about prison life, but that it was likely to be non-fiction, an expose of how prisons demeaned human beings.

I let him ramble on, thinking that I might learn a little bit about why intelligent people would resort to fraud.

He was a fascinating guy, and we might have talked again except for one problem: He was “busted” for drinking vodka in the dormitory where he slept and lived, so he was at Allenwood for just a short time.

However, I did read his pre-sentence report from the U.S. Probation Officer, which was very interesting. Here are some of the details of his crime which in his obituary was referred to as “the most famous unpublished book of the 20th Century.”

The crime

Howard Hughes was a fascinating figure himself, but after becoming wealthy and building a billion-dollar nest egg, he became more and more reclusive, which made him a fascinating figure for a scheme like this.

In the early 1970s, Irving and a friend, Richard Suskind, who wrote children’s literature at the time, concocted this scheme of writing an “autobiography” about Hughes. Irving claimed that he had met Hughes, although the billionaire later claimed that he had never met the fraudster.

The scheme was elaborate. Hughes had allegedly written a letter to Irving praising his book about another fraudster, a Hungarian artist named Elmyr de Hory.

Here is how Time magazine outlined the actions of Irving and Suskind in producing what many important people believed to be an authentic story written by Hughes with Irving’s help,

When Irving first approached McGraw-Hill, which had published three of his books, he said that he had received three letters from Howard Hughes expressing tentative interest in having Irving write his authorized biography, Irving’s editors were intrigued and told him to proceed with the project.

Then began Irving's intricately orchestrated moves, drawn out over the next ten months, to make the project seem authentic. McGraw-Hill editors received calls from various points —Mexico, Puerto Rico, Miami and other cities—where Irving reported his progress with Hughes. Irving said that he first met Hughes at 7 a.m. on Feb. 13 on a mountaintop in Oaxaca, Mexico.

He reported that he had signed a letter of agreement with Hughes in San Juan on March 4. He brought the forged document to New York, and on March 23 signed with McGraw-Hill a contract providing for an immediate $100,000 advance. Eventually McGraw-Hill paid Irving $700,000 in advances, of which $650,000 was intended for Hughes and ended up in the "Helga Hughes" account in Zurich. Irving smoothly explained to the publishers that Hughes, in a stubbornly entrepreneurial spirit, wanted to be paid an honest price for his labors. Throughout the negotiations, Irving maintained a convincing air of plausibility.

On Sept. 13, Irving appeared in New York with what he said were the complete tape transcripts of his sessions with Hughes. McGraw-Hill brought the transcripts to LIFE, which had earlier signed a $250,000 contract for worldwide syndication rights. Throughout the project, LIFE was protected by a prudent escape clause that would permit it to withdraw with no loss of its investment if the material proved not to be authentic.*


Irving had built a Catch-22 into his arrangements with the publishers: they could not meet Hughes, he said, because Hughes might bolt if there were the slightest publicity. Meantime, Irving produced nine documents purportedly from Hughes, including a nine-page letter in longhand to McGraw-Hill. Eventually McGraw-Hill hired a respected New York firm of handwriting analysts, Osborn Associates, to check the Hughes handwriting against samples of his writing dating back to 1936. Said Osborn: "The evidence that all of the writing submitted was done by the one individual is, in our opinion, irresistible, unanswerable and overwhelming."

Last week, said McGraw-Hill, Osborn "issued a revised report which casts doubt on the authenticity of the documents."

“The Fabulous Hoax of Clifford Irving,” Time, February 21, 1972

Irving had to live with the hoax for more than 40 years

While Irving was a respected writer prior to this, he did not really have a great deal of fame. He apparently felt that this scheme would make his name forever — and because of Hughes’ reclusiveness, would guarantee that the fraud would be accepted by the public.

He was wrong. In his obituary in a British newspaper, the scheme was outlined when he passed away in 2017 at the age of 87,

The author Clifford Irving, who has died aged 87, was best known for writing what became the most famous unpublished book of the 20th century, The Autobiography of Howard Hughes. While it was still in manuscript it turned out to be a forgery, and Irving served 17 months in prison for taking $765,000 – worth about £3.3m today – of his $1m advance from the publishers McGraw Hill for what looked like the literary scoop of the era.

Forever afterwards, critics would mention this event in the first paragraph of their review of his latest book, and, although Irving complained about the unfairness, the Hughes opus was probably his greatest literary achievement. Some people who knew Hughes, the reclusive billionaire, aviator and Hollywood producer, swore it was authentic (though others suspected a fraud), and the three-page, handwritten extract that Irving put up to prove the book was genuine fooled experts and graphologists.

Irving, approaching 40 and nursing an unfulfilled desire for fame and wealth, had read in Newsweek that Hughes had become a hermit, surrounded by a nursing staff of secretive Mormons, and so obsessed with his health that he never left his apartment.

With a friend, the children’s author Richard Suskind, Irving began researching Hughes’s life: his inheritance of the family tool company in Texas; his quick rise to fabulous wealth; his three movies, Hell’s Angels, Scarface and The Outlaw; his ownership of the fabled Hollywood studio RKO; his affairs with actresses; his aviator career, including three speed records and his giant flying boat, the Spruce Goose; and his deterioration into eccentricity and, it was rumoured, madness.

Christopher Reed, “Clifford Irving Obituary,” The Guardian, December 21, 2017

Irving fooled many people

Why did he continue with the fraud?

“I was on a train of lies,” he recalled. “I couldn’t jump off. I was filled with the success of my fairytale.”

He caught the swashbuckling style of Hughes’s earlier years, and editors at McGraw Hill thought the book was a masterpiece. But as Irving’s story began to unravel under the scrutiny of investigative journalists who had devoted years to studying Hughes, the publishers insisted that Irving authenticate his claims, and he went on national television in January 1972 to testify to his honesty.

He fooled the veteran interviewer Mike Wallace: Irving recalled telling a clever anecdote that “nobody could make up” about how at his first meeting with Hughes, the old man had produced a bag of organic prunes and offered one. It was, of course, false; the two had never met.

But he lost the gamble at the heart of the scam: that Hughes was too ill and too reclusive to unmask the “authorised” biography. The old man rose from his bed in the Bahamas and spoke by telephone to a gathering of the few people left who had known Hughes and his voice. He denounced the work as a fake and listeners declared that the voice was his. Irving’s hoax collapsed.

Christopher Reed, “Clifford Irving Obituary,” The Guardian, December 21, 2017

Allenwood was definitely filled with many Mafia chieftains and infamous politicians, but Irving was a little too sleazy for minimum security. After being nailed with the vodka, he was moved to the high-security Lewisburg Federal Penitentiary, and then to Danbury Connecticut, a medium-security place.

He eventually served 17 months of those 30 to which he was sentenced, and then came out and did well with his celebrity and writing.

However, it is a shame that a talented writer had to resort to the use of fraud in order to rise to the level of well-known scribes.

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