Clifford Irving in Aspen: Faulty memory and prison memoirs
Ryan Summerlin December 12, 2012
ASPEN – Writer Clifford Irving, who not long ago moved from his longtime rented home in Aspen’s Mountain Valley to Basalt, has no idea what he will speak about at Wednesday’s Aspen Business Luncheon at the Sky Hotel. Scanning his life for material, Irving says details are elusive, and he has a few possible reasons for the cloudiness.
One is that Irving is 82, and his memory is faulty. Irving, who has had some 20 books published, has been working on his memoirs, and as he looks through the journals, diaries and letters he has meticulously collected (“I saved everything. And what I didn’t save from my youth, my mother saved,” he said), things have only gotten more confused.
“Everything is a surprise. Nothing happened the way I thought it happened,” said Irving, who seems absent of mental infirmities in conversation. “Or maybe I wasn’t telling the truth in my journals.”
Another possibility he proffered for his trouble in remembering the past is that Irving is so busy in the present. With the help of his oldest son, Josh, he recently made 12 of his books available on e-readers; the project was far more involved and time-consuming than he had imagined. He is organizing his archive of papers, which the Center for American History at the University of Texas has requested for its collection. He is working on a screenplay, and since it is a new story, he won’t reveal more than the title: “The Devil at Yale.” (All he would divulge is that “It’s not about George Bush.”) There are also screenplay adaptations of two of his books: “Fake!” a nonfiction work about a Hungarian art forger, and “Tom Mix and Pancho Villa,” an adventure set amid the Mexican Revolution.
“I sold the rights to it 20 years ago. Some big filmmakers, Oliver Stone and Steve Zaillian, wrote screenplays. And they’re all lousy,” Irving said. “So they’re coming to me to see if I can come up with something.”
Another reason Irving might have forgotten the past is because he wants to. The most notorious episode of his life was in the early ’70s, when he pulled a hoax on his publisher, claiming he had gotten the reclusive millionaire Howard Hughes to cooperate on his autobiography. That story was made into the 2007 movie “The Hoax,” which starred Richard Gere as Irving. The real-life Irving has denounced the film, saying the story would have been more plausible and even more intriguing if it had stuck to the facts.
Irving hopes to pass quickly over the Hughes affair in today’s talk. “I don’t think the audience will even know what that is,” he said. “They’re too young to remember it. And I’m too old to remember it. It’s too long ago.”
But Irving doesn’t seem at all reluctant to talk about the 16-month prison sentence he served for fraud. He has reasonably clear recall of the three facilities to which he was confined and the reasons he got booted from one to the next.
“I kept getting kicked out of jails,” said Irving, who had an excerpt, “Jailbird: The Prison Memoirs of 0040,” published in Playboy in the mid-’70s. His first stop was Allenwood, in Pennsylvania, a “country-club prison, where all the Mafia go. I met a lot of interesting guys. I was kicked out of there for a pint of vodka.”
He was transferred to Lewisburg Penitentiary, also in Pennsylvania, where, he says cryptically, “I got kicked out because I didn’t fit in.”
Irving strikes a note of pride in talking about his next facility, in Danbury, Conn. He was elected co-chairman of the inmate committee, which brought grievances to the administration. During a riot, he was accused of instigation; there was even the beginning of a process to indict him.
“Because I brought the gripes to the warden,” Irving explained, “I was placed in the hole, solitary confinement, accused of threatening to kill the warden. I really did not fit in. Instead, they sent me to a halfway house in New York.”
On why he never fit in as a prisoner, Irving could point out that he was probably the only inmate with several novels to his credit and the lone Cornell graduate. Instead, he points out a quirk in his character.
“I’m illogical, I guess,” he said. “Nothing makes sense to me.”
As for Wednesday’s talk, his biggest hope is that it will pass quickly, and that nobody will press too much for details about the Hughes affair.
“Maybe, mercifully, it will be short. And I’ll spend most of my time eating,” Irving said.