Saturday, November 5, 2016

Birthday: "I was on a train of lies. I couldn't jump off."

Clifford Michael Irving (1930-  )
Author, scam artist

A Cornell grad, Irving published his first novel at 26, while working as a New York Times copyboy. He became a wanderer, living in various exotic locales where the cost of living was low, and published a number of novels through the 1950s and 1960s. He published a book on the Arab-Israeli Six day War while a correspondent for NBC, and a book on espionage.

Casting up on the Spanish island of Ibiza, Irving fell in with a children’s book author Richard Susskind, and a famous former forger of paintings, Elmyr de Hory. The latter persuaded Irving to write his biography, which did well; the former persuaded him a bigger score was hiding- not in plain sight, just hiding: the billionaire recluse Howard Hughes.

Susskind and Hughes hatched a plan to sell Hughes’ “biography” to McGraw-Hill, Irving’s publisher. He was in the news, having abandoned his longtime lair in Las Vegas for a hotel in the Bahamas. And he was the perfect subject: like the Queen of England, universally known, yet unknown as a person.

There was a copious public record for Susskind to mine, and obliging friends of the pair whose skills included mastering forgery of Hughes’ handwriting based on samples published in Newsweek. Those documents included Hughes’ designation of Irving as his biographer and agent- and, cheekily,  Hughes’ praise for the de Hory book (for his part, de Hory disliked being called “a charming crook” in it, and ended his friendship with Irving).

The key to the plan was that Hughes- who had not been seen in public in years, and shunned almost all human contact, would never venture out of his Vegas hotel to pursue litigation.

McGraw-Hill took the bait; Irving got a $100,000 advance and negotiated what ended up being $665,000 for Hughes. The check, payable to one “H.R. Hughes”, was deposited by Irving’s Swiss fourth wife, Edith, in a Swiss account. Over coming months, in a dark wig and sunglasses, she made periodic trips to Geneva to draw down cash and hide it around their house on Ibiza. Hughes’ share was untouched; Irving had come to thinking this was all a grand joke- “'We thought it was just a hoax. They can't put you in jail for a hoax! Especially if you still have the money to give back, as we did. It just seemed like such an elegant act. And also an act from which I thought I could withdraw at any time I wanted.'

That, he told a reporter in 2007, with a rueful smile, was 'the great fallacy'.

But that was in the future. Irving embarked on a series of trips to Mexico, the Bahamas, wherever Hughes was rumored to be. He dutifully filed extravagantly made-up reports of his interviews with Hughes and conducted an affair with a Eurotrash Danish folksinger-baroness, Nina Van Pallandt, under the noses of his publisher and her husband.

He actually did some real research, stumbling across a just-donated cache of documents at the Academy of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences, and an unpublished memoir by a longtime Hughes aide. Fact-checking each other in role-playing interviews, Irving and Susskind decided the book would be more fun as an autobiography and promptly dummied up Hughes's consent.

The book went famously, as Mick Brown wrote a decade ago:

The Autobiography of Howard Hughes is a terrifically entertaining read - which loses nothing in the knowledge that large parts are complete hokum. Irving's introduction to the book alone is a tour de force of sinuous con artistry. In utterly plausible language he describes his astonishment on first receiving a letter from 'Hughes' expressing his admiration for Irving's book on Elmyr de Hory. 'I speculated for a while if this could be a practical joke…' Irving writes (and you can almost hear him chuckling to himself as he writes it). He goes on to describe his various meetings with the reclusive billionaire, their sparring conversations, and the growing bond between them. 'You're an outsider, of a sort,' 'Hughes' tells Irving, 'a kind of cultivated maverick… a selfish son of a bitch. I have to like any man who goes his own way, as long as he doesn't step on my toes.'
Piling irony on duplicity, 'Hughes' counsels Irving not to trust his publishers, insisting he should be in the room as they read stages of the finished manuscript. 'Don't go to their offices. You'll go out to take a leak and they'll have 200 pages Xeroxed before you zip up your fly.'

'People are so tangled up in lies,' he has 'Hughes' say at one point, 'spouting lies day in and day out to themselves and their friends and their dear children, their dear children who are going to grow up and be the same fountains of crap - that it breaks my heart to think about it.'

Sensationally, the book revealed a Howard Hughes that had never been seen before (largely, of course, because he didn't exist). It revealed that he had flown secret combat missions with the RAF in the Second World War; visited Albert Schweitzer in Africa, and befriended Hemingway in Cuba (none of it was true). He had also enjoyed affairs with even more Hollywood starlets than had been hitherto suspected (sadly, all of whom had passed away and were therefore unable to deny anything); but his greatest, secret, love, it transpired, was the wife of a diplomat, whom Hughes named only as 'Helga' (a cheeky nod by Irving to the signatory of the Swiss bank account). In a moving denouement, Hughes described how, in a quest to free himself from 'the bondage of money and power', he had journeyed to India, and squatted beside the Ganges in the guise of a penniless beggar.

'We were writing a novel!' Irving laughs. 'Had I stuck to the facts it would have been no more than a glorified biography. But we wanted our Howard to be far more than that. So he wanted Hemingway as his guru, and he goes to India to search for enlightenment. Why not? It was a fantasy.'

The curious thing was that the more outlandish the stories that Irving spun about Hughes, the more his publishers seemed to believe them - the bigger the lie, the more eager they were to swallow it.

'They felt they were getting something unique - a wholly new story. They loved that. And I did too. If they bought the big lie, say that Hughes went to Africa as a pilot, changed his name and flew to meet Albert Schweitzer - as long as we had our research right, could establish that Schweitzer was there at the time, and described the surroundings right - we could say anything we wanted and no one was going to argue. Whereas with the things that had actually happened, the court battles and business deals, there were people who had been privy to those things and could disprove it. So it was safer to invent these fantasy scenes.'

Perhaps the most extraordinary invention concerned Hughes's alleged loan of $400,000 to Richard Nixon, before he became President. Irving and Suskind had stumbled on a story that Hughes had lent $200,000 to Nixon's brother, Donald, to start a chain of hamburger restaurants in southern California. 'I remember saying to Dick, that's not enough - let's double it…'

Oddly, it was later revealed in a biography of Hughes by Michael Drosnin that the $400,000 figure that Irving conjured out of thin air was actually very close to the truth. According to Drosnin, the White House was receiving reports of Irving's supposed dealings with Hughes from the FBI and managed to acquire a copy of the still-secret galleys of Irving's book from a source at McGraw-Hill. Believing that Irving was a long-standing Democrat - 'I wasn't,' he says, 'I didn't vote' - and worried about what else he might be telling the party about Hughes's loan to Nixon, the White House conspired to burgle Democratic National Headquarters in the Watergate building.

So Irving was responsible for the impeachment of Richard Nixon?

He laughs. 'That's what Drosnin implies. I'd rather be responsible for that than many other things. If I felt I had been a mover in the capsizing of Nixon's administration, I would be very happy.'

The book was scheduled for publication in early 1972. Hughes’s managers questioned whether the announced book was real, given Hughes’ antipathy to meeting people. The publisher, and Life magazine, which bought the serial rights, put Irving through a lie detector test and called it good. Documents experts called the forged documents good, too.

Hughes called the last journalist to interview Hughes, in 1958, on the phone. Hughes called the book a fake. The journo called the caller a fake.

Hughes then convened a conference call with seven journalists on January 7, 1972. They didn't believe it was Hughes, either. Irving went on 60 Minutes to brand the call a hoax.

But another stroke of luck fell. Noah Dietrich, Hughes’ right-hand man, vouched for the book’s authenticity, apparently falling for how much of it Irving had lifted from Dietrich’s long-misplaced manuscript.

But then things started to unravel. Swiss banking authorities ID’s Irving’s wife. Then Hughes sued everybody, and the Irvings fessed up on January 28. Pleas to conspiracy to commit fraud followed in June. Irving served seventeen months; Edith served two months, though she also had to do time in a Swiss jail on related charges. Susskind was out in six. De Hory got his own back, writing a Time cover story slamming Irving, and painted Irving's portrait for it.

Like any good con man, Irving made the most of the hand he was dealt. He took up weightlifting and quit smoking in prison, and when he got out, cheerfully took part in Orson Welles’ famed documentary, F is For Fake. He wrote an account of his scam to settle his IRS debts; when they challenged his bankruptcy, he represented himself in court and won. He wrote another, later book about being in prison ("I became chairman of the inmates committee. Got into a lot of trouble. Was accused of fomenting a riot. Was accused of plotting to kill the warden.")

Publishers shunned him for years. Eventually, he found one and resumed writing. The manuscript of the Hughes book vanished, but Irving sold a photocopy at acute in 1989 for $5000. You can download it, free, on his website.

In 1992 Irving settled in Aspen, Colorado, where he met his sixth wife on a ski lift, and so charmed the local sheriff he got named deputy county coroner despite having no medical training whatever. About ten years ago he digitized all his books and has made a good living selling them online.

De Hory died in 1976, as did Hughes, leaving no will and hundreds of claimants to his $1.5 billion fortune. The estate was finally closed thirty-four years later when the last of the real estate was sold off. Susskind died in 1999. Richard Gere played Irving in a 2006 moview about the scam. Irving thought himself ill-used and remved his name as screenplay writer.

Mick Brown, the journalist, asked Irving why he did it:

He refers me to the epigraph of The Hoax, by Jean le Malchanceux. 'You may look for motive in an act, but only after the act has been committed. An effect creates not only the search for a cause, but the reality of the cause itself. I must warn you, however, that the attempt to establish relationships between acts and motives, effects and causes, is one of the most time-wasting games ever invented by man. Do you know why you kicked the cat this morning? Or gave a sou to that beggar? Or set forth for Jerusalem rather than Gomorrah?'

'That expresses my feelings as well as anything,' Irving says. Who, I ask, is Jean le Malchanceux?

'John the Unlucky. Twelfth-century French philosopher.'

Irving smiles. 'Actually, I made him up.'

Clifford Irving has 384 Likes on his Facebook page.

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