Hollywood’s ‘Hoax’ | AspenTimes.com

Hollywood’s ‘Hoax’

Kimberly Nicoletti

More than three decades ago, Clifford Irving made up details about Howard Hughes’ life to write a bogus biography. Now, Hollywood is using a similar artistic license to paint Irving in an unflattering light – and he’s not happy about it. When Irving fabricated stories about Hughes, he transformed the eccentric billionaire into a more intelligent, thinking and feeling man than media purported. When film producers created scenes about Irving’s hoax, they portrayed Irving as a stupid, desperate, manipulative man – not the complex, driven, risk-taker Irving says he is.In the early 1970s, Irving, who now spends half of the year in Aspen and half in Mexico, conned McGraw-Hill into paying the then-largest advance for his “authorized” biography of Hughes. At the time, he thought of it simply as a hoax, rather than a series of criminal acts. His oversight ultimately landed him a two-and-a-half year prison sentence, of which he served 16 months before getting paroled.McGraw-Hill didn’t release Irving’s book on Hughes, but a smaller house, Grove Press, published Irving’s story about the whole affair in 1972, titled “Clifford Irving: What Really Happened; His Untold Story of the Hughes Affair.” Later editions of the book came out simply as “The Hoax.” Irving wrote the book hoping to earn the more than $1 million he owed to McGraw-Hill, the Internal Revenue Service and attorneys.Decades later, Irving sold the rights to turn “The Hoax” into a movie by the same name. Miramax Films plans to distribute it this fall or early winter, but Irving doesn’t want anything to do with the film. Even casting Richard Gere as Irving doesn’t soften the damage Irving thinks the movie does. He asked producers to pull his name off of the credits as a technical consultant, saying the movie insults him and every other character.”Producers didn’t feel any responsibility to keep to the truth or to the spirit of the truth,” Irving said in a phone interview from Mexico. “They changed everything for their purposes – for what I presume to be dramatic or comedic.”

In a 15-page letter to the film producers, he said, “The screenwriter and director worked hard to be clever, but they had no love for the people they were depicting, and the heart and soul of what really happened back in 1971-72 was never on the producers’ agenda.”The real story begins with Irving and his friend Dick Suskind coming up with a plan to trick Irving’s publisher of nine years, McGraw-Hill, into believing Hughes had authorized Irving to write his biography. The idea grabbed hold of the two men – Suskind primarily for financial reasons and Irving primarily for the adventure – and one tentative step led to another tentative step, which led them into a complex web of conspiracy.Irving’s book depicts an adventure that starts on Ibiza, a “fairy tale” island populated by expatriates, where anything seemed possible. The movie takes place in a suburb of New York. Rather than delving into Irving’s psychology and portraying his restlessness, creativity and need for adventure, Irving says producers reduce his motivation to solving financial problems. Rather than showing him as he really was – a father and an author with a three-book contract, a paid-off 15-room house, a sailboat and a Mercedes – he says they depict him as a poor, desperate writer whose publisher just axed him. Producers declined to comment on details about the movie.”Clifford Irving’s book, ‘The Hoax,’ contributed greatly to Bill Wheeler’s screenplay,” said Emily Bear, spokesperson for Miramax Films. “Throughout development and production, Mr. Irving’s notes were reviewed, and we incorporated many of them in the script. We deeply regret he feels this way in advance of seeing the finished movie.”In one scene in the original screenplay, which Irving found particularly offensive, the characterized Irving blackmails Suskind into staying with the scheme by getting him drunk and hiring prostitutes so Suskind cheats on his wife. In reality, Irving says the two men never had any conflict; both were committed to the hoax, and Suskind always was faithful to his wife.”Dick, who was brilliant, is portrayed as half a moron – sort of a blubbery, fat slob, which he wasn’t,” Irving said.

Producers did not comment on whether or not they changed the scene after reviewing Irving’s notes.He also doesn’t like how the movie depicts his former wife, Edith, as a doormat. However, he didn’t show the real Edith in his book either. At the time he wrote it, she faced charges in Switzerland for opening illegitimate accounts, so he couldn’t describe her enthusiasm for the ploy. Instead, he downplayed her role and took the bulk of the responsibility. “This seemed like a wonderful adventure,” he said. “Edith and I never understood it was a crime. It never occurred to me. I thought if it went belly up, I would give the money back. I conned myself. No question of it.”If Irving hadn’t pursued his infamous hoax, he said he might have done something worse. At the time, he was in love with both his wife and a Danish singer named Nina van Pallandt.”I was frustrated,” he said in the letter to film producers that challenged inaccurate scenes and accused them of missing opportunities to show Irving’s deeper motivations. “I needed my life to be challenging, not complacent, and I needed the illusion that I wasn’t going to grow old soon. I had just turned 40 … in some sense [the hoax] was a substitute for running away with Nina. I had to go out on a limb – that was my nature. But if I ran away with Nina, that would hurt people I love. However, if I committed the hoax, that wouldn’t hurt anybody at all – I really believed that, at the beginning.”Even when he lifted raw data from another man’s manuscript about Hughes, he convinced himself that it wasn’t a bad thing to do, rationalizing it was another serendipitous event that affirmed he was on the right path.

“I didn’t allow anybody to get in my way because that’s the only way you can be successful with such an adventure, and I’m sorry about that,” he said.Now, he has an intriguing sense of remorse and self-acceptance.”I didn’t regret it starting out, but now that I’m a little mellower, I regret doing it. But something inside of me needed to do it. There are a bunch of reasons [to do something risky]. They all work on you to do something that appears to be out of character, but it isn’t. It’s just one aspect of character [showing itself].”Though he hasn’t lost his sense of adventure at age 75, he thinks carefully about new “harebrained ideas” that pop into his head, he said.His marriage to Edith ended while he was in prison. After deciding enough was enough, she wrote him a “Dear John” letter, he said. He didn’t see van Pallandt for 12 years after the incident, until they accidentally met at an expatriate bar and laughed about the whole thing. Irving has written plenty since then – including three New York Times best-sellers – but for a while, publishing houses wouldn’t touch him. Two movies have been made from his novels, and he is releasing a new edition of “The Hoax” in light of the film. He’s also currently showing his new novel, “I Remember Amnesia,” to publishers.He is now married to an Australian woman, whom, he says he “adores and who sells beautiful silk scarves at the Aspen Farmers’ Market.” Kimberly Nicoletti’s e-mail address is knicoletti@aspentimes.com.