Clifford Michael Irving (born November 5, 1930) is an American novelist and investigative reporter. Although he has published 20 novels, he is best known for a fictional autobiography of millionaire recluse Howard Hughes, which was to be published in 1972. After Hughes denounced him and sued the publisher, McGraw-Hill, Irving and his collaborators confessed to the hoax. He was sentenced to 2 1⁄2 years in prison, of which he served 17 months.
Irving wrote The Hoax (1981), his account of events surrounding the development and sale of the fake autobiography. The book was adapted as a 2006 biopic of the same name, starring Richard Gere as Clifford Irving. He has continued to write, and publishes his books as e-books available via Kindle and Nook.
Early life and writing career
Irving grew up in New York City, the son of Jay Irving, a Collier's cover artist and the creator of the syndicated comic strip Pottsy, and his wife Dorothy. After graduating in 1947 from Manhattan's selective High School of Music and Art, Irving attended Cornell University. He graduated with honors in English.
Working as a copy boy at The New York Times, Irving wrote his first novel, On a Darkling Plain (1956), published by Putnam.
Marriage and family
His first wife was Nina Wilcox. Their marriage was annulled in 1952.
Later, on the Spanish island of Ibiza, he met an Englishwoman, Claire Lydon; they married in 1958 and moved to California. She died the next year at Big Sur in an automobile accident on May 8, 1959.
In 1962, after a year spent traveling around the world and living in a houseboat in Kashmir, Irving moved back to Ibiza with his third wife, Fay Brooke, an English photographic model, and their newborn son, Josh. This marriage ended in divorce.
In 1967, Irving married Swiss/German artist Edith Sommer. They had two sons, John Edmond (aka "Nedsky") and Barnaby.
Irving later married English author Maureen "Moish" Earl. From 1984 to 1998 they lived mainly in the mountain town of San Miguel de Allende, Guanajuato, Mexico.
He completed his second novel, The Losers (1958), while traveling in Europe.
Irving's third novel, The Valley (1960), is a mythic Western saga, published by McGraw-Hill.
After returning to Ibiza, Irving became friendly with Hungarian art forger Elmyr de Hory. The painter asked him to write a biography, which was published as Fake! (1969). Irving and de Hory are both featured in Orson Welles' documentary F for Fake (1974), which was aired on TV.
Fake autobiography of Howard Hughes
By 1958, millionaire Howard Hughes had become a recluse.
In 1970, in Palma de Mallorca, Spain, Irving met with Richard Suskind, a longtime friend who was an author of children's books. They conceived a scheme to write Hughes' purported "autobiography." Irving and Suskind believed that, because Hughes had completely withdrawn from public life, he would never draw attention by denouncing such a book or filing a lawsuit for libel. Suskind took on the work of research in news archives. Irving started by enlisting the aid of artist and writer friends on Ibiza in order to create letters in Hughes' own hand, imitating authentic letters they had seen displayed in Newsweek magazine.
Irving contacted his publisher, McGraw-Hill, and said that Hughes had corresponded with him, saying he admired Irving's book about de Hory. Further, Hughes had expressed interest in Irving's ghost writing the millionaire's autobiography. The McGraw-Hill editors invited Irving to New York, where the publishers drafted contracts among Hughes, Irving, and the company. Irving and his friends forged Hughes' signatures. McGraw-Hill paid an advance of US$100,000, with an additional US$400,000 to be paid to Hughes. Irving later bargained the sum up to US$765,000. McGraw-Hill paid by checks made out to "H. R. Hughes", which Irving's Swiss wife Edith deposited to a Swiss bank account which she had opened under the name of "Helga R. Hughes".
Irving and Suskind researched all the available information about Hughes. To reinforce the public perception of Hughes as an eccentric recluse, Irving referred to interviews which he claimed were conducted with Hughes in remote locations all over the world, including one on a Mexican pyramid, Monte Alban, near Oaxaca.
Irving and Suskind were given access to the voluminous files of Time-Life. They also were allowed to see a manuscript by James Phelan, who was ghostwriting memoirs of Noah Dietrich, Hughes' former business manager. Hollywood producer Stanley Meyer showed Irving a copy of the manuscript—without Phelan's consent—in the hope that Irving would be willing to rewrite it in a more publishable format. Irving hurriedly made a copy of it for his own purposes.
In late 1971, Irving delivered the manuscript to McGraw-Hill. He included notes in Hughes' forged handwriting that an expert forensic document analyst declared genuine. Hughes "experts" at Time-Life were completely convinced and McGraw-Hill announced its intention to publish the book in March 1972.
Learning of the planned book, representatives of Hughes' companies expressed doubts about its authenticity. Frank McCulloch, known for years as the last journalist to interview Hughes, received an angry call from someone claiming to be Hughes. But when McCulloch read the Irving manuscript, he became convinced that it was genuine.
McGraw-Hill and Life magazine, which had paid to publish excerpts of the book, continued to support Irving. Osborn Associates, a firm of handwriting experts, declared the writing samples were authentic. Irving had to submit to a lie-detector test, which indicated inconsistencies but no lies.
On January 7, 1972, Hughes arranged a telephone conference with seven journalists, whose end of the conversation was televised. Hughes claimed that he had never even met Irving. Irving claimed the voice on the phone was an imposter, but it subsequently became clear that Irving was the fraudster.
Hughes' lawyer, Chester Davis, filed suit against McGraw-Hill, Life, Clifford Irving, and Dell Publications. Swiss authorities investigated the "Helga R. Hughes" bank account. The Irvings by this time had returned to their home on the Balearic island of Ibiza. The Swiss bank finally identified Edith Irving as the depositor of the funds, and the hoax was revealed.
Confession and trial
The Irvings confessed on January 28, 1972. They and Suskind were indicted for "conspiracy to defraud through use of the mails" and pleaded guilty on June 16. Irving spent 17 months in prison, where he stopped smoking and took up weightlifting. He voluntarily returned the US$765,000 advance to his publishers. Edith, a.k.a. "Helga", served prison sentences in the United States and in Switzerland.
In July 2005, filming began in Puerto Rico and New York on The Hoax, starring Richard Gere as Irving, Alfred Molina as Suskind, and Marcia Gay Harden as Edith. On March 6, 2007, Hyperion reissued Clifford Irving's The Hoax in a movie tie-in edition. The film, directed by Swedish filmmaker Lasse Hallström, opened on April 6, 2007, with a DVD release following on October 16. The majority of reviews were favorable.
Irving characterized the film as a cliched distortion of the story and "a hoax about a hoax." He described the film's portrayals of Suskind, Edith Irving and himself as "absurd even more than inaccurate." He noted that the film was not true to his account, adding events that had not taken place. As the author of the source book, Irving is credited as a writer for the film, but he had himself removed from credit as technical adviser.
In spring 2012, the movie rights to Irving's nonfiction book, Fake!, were optioned by Steve Golin and Anonymous Content LLP. Irving was commissioned to write a screenplay for the movie. In 2015, Anonymous Content's option for the book's dramatic rights expired.
In 2012 Irving formatted and placed 12 of his books, including one unpublished novel, for sale on Kindle and Nook. In 2014 he added six books to the total, including his prison journal. Sales have been brisk. The books have received highly favorable reviews from readers, most of whom are too young to remember that Irving was the author of the Hughes Hoax. Irving has been open about it, and offers the text of the hoax autobiography for sale in book form. In May 2014 Irving launched his official website, cliffordirving.com.
In November 2014 the Briscoe Center for American History at the University of Texas announced that they had acquired all of Irving's literary and personal papers. The archive includes material from more than 50 years, from 1954 to 2012. Among the trove is Irving's correspondence with lawyers, publishers, colleagues and friends such as Graham Greene, Robert Graves and Irwin Shaw, his personal diaries and prison journals, many manuscript drafts, legal documents from lawsuits and from his 1972 bankruptcy, portions of his Howard Hughes manuscript and extensive handwritten notes and musings. It fills 20 boxes in the research center archive.
“Clifford Irving is an important writer who has lived a colorful and controversial life, which has been a major source of inspiration for much of his literary work,” said Don Carleton, executive director at the Briscoe Center. “I’m delighted that his papers are now available to enrich scholarship here at the university.”
Works about the Hughes affair
- Fay, Stephen; Chester, Lewis; Linklater, Magnus (1972). Hoax: The Inside Story of the Howard Hughes-Clifford Irving Affair. Irving says this book is "mostly fiction".
- Irving, Clifford; Suskind, Richard Suskind (1972). Project Octavio: The Story of the Howard Hughes Hoax. New York: Grove Press.
- Welles, Orson (1974). F for Fake. Documentary film; includes a segment on Irving filmed around the time the Hughes autobiography scandal broke.
- Henry, Kolarz (1974). Der Scheck heiligt die Mittel. Documentary film on German TV. Richard Suskind portrayed himself.