Clifford Irving Admits Faking Howard Hughes Memoirs Summary

  • Last updated on November 11, 2022

Author Clifford Irving sold the manuscript of a fabricated memoir of Howard Hughes to McGraw-Hill and Life magazine. Media frenzy followed announcement of the book’s publication, and Hughes reportedly came out of seclusion to refute the work. Irving, his wife, Edith, and author Richard Suskind were imprisoned for their roles in the fraud. Edith Irving served additional time in Switzerland for embezzlement and forgery.

Summary of Event

Howard Hughes, the infamous film producer, aviator, and billionaire industrialist, was an eccentric recluse by 1971. Clifford Irving, an American novelist, was eking out a living in Spain with his fourth wife, Edith. Irving had enjoyed some success writing Fake (1969), a book about Hungarian art forger Elmyr de Hory, when he got the idea to write a book about Hughes. [kw]Irving Admits Faking Howard Hughes Memoirs, Clifford (Jan. 28, 1972) [kw]Faking Howard Hughes Memoirs, Clifford Irving Admits (Jan. 28, 1972) [kw]Hughes Memoirs, Clifford Irving Admits Faking Howard (Jan. 28, 1972) Irving, Clifford Hughes, Howard Suskind, Richard Irving, Edith Irving, Clifford Hughes, Howard Suskind, Richard Irving, Edith [g]United States;Jan. 28, 1972: Clifford Irving Admits Faking Howard Hughes Memoirs[01390] [c]Forgery;Jan. 28, 1972: Clifford Irving Admits Faking Howard Hughes Memoirs[01390] [c]Hoaxes, frauds, and charlatanism;Jan. 28, 1972: Clifford Irving Admits Faking Howard Hughes Memoirs[01390] [c]Publishing and journalism;Jan. 28, 1972: Clifford Irving Admits Faking Howard Hughes Memoirs[01390] [c]Literature;Jan. 28, 1972: Clifford Irving Admits Faking Howard Hughes Memoirs[01390] [c]Plagiarism;Jan. 28, 1972: Clifford Irving Admits Faking Howard Hughes Memoirs[01390]

Edith and Clifford Irving at their home in Ibiza, Spain, days before Clifford admitted his fraud.

(Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

Calling upon his publisher McGraw-Hill, Irving claimed he had been in contact with Hughes and wanted permission to tell Hughes that McGraw-Hill was his publisher and that he would be interested in working with Hughes as his biographer. In his book about the experience, Hoax (1981), Irving noted that because Hughes was such a recluse, possibly even dead, he believed he would not come out of seclusion after the book’s publication. Furthermore, Irving thought that Hughes’s eccentricities would help him cover any of the more implausible aspects of his story. He further believed that if he were caught, he could simply give the money back.

Irving told Beverly Loo, his editor, and other executives at McGraw-Hill and Life magazine—who had bought the serial rights to the book—that Hughes required total secrecy for the project. Irving provided McGraw-Hill and Life with letters he reportedly received from Hughes; however, Irving had forged the letters from copies of letters he had seen in a magazine article about Hughes. Knowing of Hughes’s eccentricities, including that he had not been seen in public for more than a decade, McGraw-Hill and Life believed Irving and agreed to absolute secrecy. On March 23, 1971, Irving signed a contract with McGraw-Hill to write the autobiography. The publisher paid Irving a monetary advance, the bulk of which was to go to Hughes. Using an altered passport, Edith Irving would deposit the advances, in the form of checks, in the name of Helga R. Hughes (checks that were signed “H. R. Hughes”) in a Swiss bank account.

Irving claimed to have interviewed Hughes in Mexico, Puerto Rico, Florida, Los Angeles, and the Bahamas during meetings that were always arranged by Hughes. In his book, Irving notes that he wanted to have his first meeting with Hughes in the Bahamas, but all flights for the weekend in question were booked, so he and his lover, singer Nina van Pallandt, instead went to Oaxaca, Mexico, for the meeting. When the hoax unraveled, van Pallandt came out with her story about being with Irving in Mexico, which also led to a career boost for the singer.

Irving and Richard Suskind, who had been hired as Irving’s researcher, were given access to the Hughes files of Time-Life (publisher of Life magazine). In addition, Irving and Suskind interviewed several people who knew Hughes, and in a stroke of luck, they were secretly given a manuscript of the ghostwritten memoirs of Noah Dietrich, a former business manager for Hughes. Irving and Suskind made a copy of this manuscript and used some of the details for their own fabricated autobiography.

On September 12, 1971, Irving brought a manuscript of close to one thousand pages to the Elysee Hotel in New York City for executives from Life and McGraw-Hill to read. They were impressed with the material and convinced it was in Hughes’s own words. McGraw-Hill went on to sell paperback rights to Dell and Book-of-the-Month Club, Inc., for a large profit. Irving added that Hughes had demanded one million dollars before he would authorize its publication. At this time, rumors had begun to circulate that another authorized Hughes biography was slated for publishing. Quickly, McGraw-Hill agreed to pay Hughes the extra money for permission to publish the work. On December 7, the company announced the book’s March, 1972, release date; also, the story would be serialized in Life magazine. Representatives of Hughes Tool Company announced, in turn, that the soon-to-be-published book was a fraud.

On December 14, Hughes company attorney Chester Davis called a meeting at Time-Life with Irving, several executives, and reporter Frank McCulloch and then called Hughes on the phone. He put McCulloch on the line to speak with him. (McCulloch reportedly was the last journalist to have spoken to Hughes before he went into seclusion.) McCulloch, who confirmed that Hughes was indeed on the phone, said that Hughes insisted the manuscript was a fake.

To refute the claims against him, Irving appeared on the CBS news show 60 Minutes[sixty minutes] 60 Minutes with Mike Wallace, Mike Wallace to say that the manuscript was authentic. McGraw-Hill representatives countered claims that the planned book was a fake by saying they had handwritten notes from Hughes, as well as a cashed check. Experts later indicated that the handwriting, including the signature on the check, was indeed that of Hughes. Hughes himself held a rare teleconference on January 9 with several reporters he knew. He said that he had never met Irving and reiterated that the book was a forgery. Davis filed suit against McGraw-Hill, Life, Dell, and Irving.

On January 19, 1972, investigators revealed that the H. R. Hughes who had been depositing the checks in Switzerland was not Howard Hughes but Edith Irving. On January 28, the Irvings admitted that the memoir was a hoax. The following day, McGraw-Hill announced that it was postponing the memoir’s publication.

On March 13, Irving pleaded guilty to fraud and was sentenced to seventeen months in prison. Edith Irving received a light sentence in the United States, but in Switzerland, where she deposited the forged Hughes checks in a Swiss bank account, she was found guilty of forgery and embezzlement and was sentenced to two years in prison. Suskind, for his role in the scam, served five months of a six-month sentence. The Irvings later divorced, and The Autobiography of Howard Hughes was published in a private edition in 1999. In 2008, the work was released as Howard Hughes: My Story by British publisher John Blake.

Impact

The Irvings succeeded in creating one of the greatest hoaxes in American history. Although the Hughes autobiography was never formally published as authentic, the scandal surrounding its near publication, as well as the extent to which the Irvings duped publishing executives, editors, and others, made it one of the first fake memoirs to be exposed in the press. Indeed, the International Herald Tribune called the book “the most famous unpublished book of the 20th century.”

In the immediate aftermath of the hoax, journalists began looking for similar fakes, and unluckily for McGraw-Hill, they found them: One plagiarized work was Red Fox Memoirs of Chief Red Fox, The (Red Fox) The Memoirs of Chief Red Fox (1971). McGraw-Hill announced that it would be more careful in its fact-checking. Modern publishing is now more cautious, but while it is likely that no one could produce an autobiography of another living person in today’s more skeptical publishing climate, people still write their own fabricated memoirs, which continue to appear in print. The popular memoirs of Frey, James James Frey and LeRoy, J. T. J. T. LeRoy Albert, Laura (Laura Albert), to take just two examples, were revealed to be fabrications after they were published. Some credit the Irving hoax for inspiring those fakes. Irving, Clifford Hughes, Howard Suskind, Richard Irving, Edith

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Fay, Stephen, Lewis Chester, and Magnus Linklater. Hoax: The Inside Story of the Howard Hughes-Clifford Irving Affair. New York: Viking Press, 1972. Details the hoax, including the Swiss bank account, and provides an epilogue discussing how the hoax affected McGraw-Hill.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Graves, Ralph. “The Hughes Affair, Starring Clifford Irving.” Life, February 2, 1972. Article from the managing editor of Life magazine, explaining the magazine’s role in the affair and the events leading up to the discovery that Edith Irving had been the one depositing checks in a Swiss bank.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Irving, Clifford. Hoax. New York: Permanent Press, 1981. Irving’s recollection of his planning and execution of the hoax, as well as its aftermath. Includes sections by Edith Irving.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Turner, Wallace. “Hughes Book: Plight of the Publishers.” The New York Times, January 29, 1972. Article presents a detailed time line of events, from Irving’s first contacts with McGraw-Hill to the revelation of Edith Irving’s check scam. Also speculates that the publishers’ lack of adequate fact-checking helped the Irvings in the hoax.

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