The hoax, the whole hoax, and nothing but the hoax
ASPEN Clifford Irving is in the spotlight once again, and he’s not especially enjoying it. For one thing, Irving, though a charming, even warm man and, in the words of The New York Times, “a born storyteller,” is a self-described recluse. His sons, says Irving, see him as a loner.Moreover, Irving, who has lived most of the last 15 years in Aspen, feels he is being portrayed unfairly in this latest bout with notoriety. For instance, a recent item in The New Yorker – titled “Pot vs. Kettle Dept.” – painted him as cranky; worse, in his eyes, the article gave the impression that Irving had a favorable opinion of Donald Rumsfeld.”I’ve been f–ked around so much, especially by The New Yorker,” said the 76-year-old Irving, adding that this particular disappointment is doubled by his usual affection for the magazine. “I couldn’t believe what they did. How unscrupulous.”
“I was naive about The New Yorker,” conceded Irving, from the modest, old house he has rented in the Knollwood subdivision since 2003. “I thought, ‘It’s the tops.'”The New Yorker piece is “only the most recent of the inaccurate articles written about me,” said Irving, who has also been profiled recently on the TV news show “48 Hours,” and in The Village Voice, among others. “I just don’t believe in the accuracy of journalism. I don’t believe what I read in the newspapers. Except the sports scores.”It is an interesting thing to hear Irving speak – at length, philosophically, and with good humor – about the nature of truthfulness and accuracy. For the reason he is the subject of such press attention is a current film titled “The Hoax,” a retelling of how Irving, in the early ’70s, nearly pulled off one of history’s great scams: selling a bogus autobiography of reclusive billionaire Howard Hughes to the prominent publishing house, McGraw-Hill. The film, starring Richard Gere as Irving, is adapted from Irving’s 1972 memoir of the same name, which revealed the plot in thrilling, absurdist detail. Irving, working with fellow writer Richard Suskind, convinced McGraw-Hill that he had conducted a series of interviews with Hughes, an undertaking that required trips to Mexico, the Bahamas and Las Vegas, maneuvering through Hughes’ eccentricities and CIA-like security, all of it cloaked in utter secrecy. Through tenacity, a mind-boggling run of luck, and the publisher’s desire to believe in a Hughes autobiography, Irving nearly pulls it off. The plot collapsed due not to the forged letters (they were authenticated by handwriting experts), or the lie-detector test (which Irving passed), or to the story lines that Irving fabricated (even a fictitious friendship between Hughes and Ernest Hemingway was deemed plausible by McGraw-Hill), but when Irving’s wife, Edith, was caught depositing a check made out to Hughes in a Swiss bank account. Irving spent 17 months in jail; Suskind, five months; Edith, a year, in Switzerland.
Irving’s biggest regret from the affair was Edith’s jail time. But he shows no remorse for the actual act of faking a man’s autobiography. Irving, who had several previous books published, researched Hughes meticulously, to the point of lifting documents from the Library of Congress. Irving believes that, if someone was looking to get the most accurate picture possible of the aviator and filmmaker billionaire, the best place to go would be a work of imagination.”The autobiography I wrote was the most accurate ever written about Howard Hughes,” said Irving. “A novelist can always write more truthful and accurate biography than someone who is restricted by the previous first-person account and first-person testimony, which is notoriously unreliable. A novelist can dig in and extrapolate from the facts and use his imagination to figure out what really went on.” Irving believes he did Hughes, who by the early ’70s had slid into debilitating obsessive-compulsive habits, a favor, calling the book “a more vivid and compelling portrait of this son-of-a-bitch billionaire than had ever been written before.”I’m a novelist, primarily,” continued Irving. “And novelists are always doing two things at the same time – lying, and telling the truth. They’re making up a story to get at true things. It’s all perception, attitude, mood.”
Screenwriters and film directors, too, are often aiming at truth through fiction. Irving doesn’t deny this opportunity to William Wheeler and Lasse Hallström, the writer and director, respectively, of “The Hoax.” Irving doesn’t quibble with even some fundamental changes made in the transition from page to screen. For instance, much of the plotting and writing of “The Autobiography of Howard Hughes” was done while Irving was living on the Spanish island of Ibiza; Irving understands that setting the cinematic version of the story in New York City and its environs was a financial necessity.But Irving takes exception to the film as a whole. In his eyes, the departures from the actual events take viewers further away from an accurate picture. And hitting particularly close to home, those changes taken together make Irving seem desperate, and a bit of a buffoon. In the film, a big part of Irving’s motivation to attempt the scam was McGraw-Hill’s decision not to publish the novel he had recently submitted. In reality, Irving’s submitted book was not rejected. He was, he claims, on solid ground with the publisher, and if anyone was looking to terminate the relationship, it was Irving. Also, the fictitious title of the novel in the film is “Rudnick’s Problem” – an effort on the part of the filmmakers, says Irving, to make him seem a Philip Roth knockoff.Irving was hired, and paid a small amount as a technical consultant on filming “The Hoax.” But after seeing the film last October, he requested to have any involvement on his part removed. Irving has been quoted as saying, “I had nothing to do with this movie, and it had nothing to do with me.” A few weeks ago, Irving handed me a 13-page package of his notes on the film, most of it devoted to pointing out historical inaccuracies.For me, wearing my film critic hat, the deviations from the facts are unforgivable not because they part from the truth, but because they weaken the story. In the film, Irving, after hearing of his book being rejected, bursts into a meeting of McGraw-Hill executives and blurts out that he is working on “the most significant book of the 20th century.” If they want to find out the details, they should meet him … at a bowling alley in Queens. The scene makes Irving look foolish, yes. Worse, it makes the story more difficult to swallow. Who would believe such a person?”No one in that position could come up with this; it would be an act of desperation,” said Irving. “The way the hoax worked is, I was the fair-haired boy at McGraw-Hill. When I concocted this idea, it was in the middle of this very cozy relationship with my publisher. Several editors came to visit us; they loved coming over to Ibiza to see the hippies at play. If I had not had that cozy relationship, it wouldn’t have worked.”Irving didn’t have qualms, per se, with the casting of Richard Gere. But the overall effect – Gere in a black wig, harried and rundown; this is not the Gere of “Pretty Woman” – doesn’t square with the way Irving remembers things.”He was a little too old,” said Irving. “We were young. I was 40, Dick [Suskind] was 46. We had a certain naiveté and energy. I’m too aware of the black wig and the lines on his face. I didn’t have lines. I was a young 40, in good shape.”Critics without such a personal stake have a differing view; “The Hoax” has earned near-unanimous positive reviews. A.O. Scott of The New York Times praises “the brilliance of Mr. Gere’s performance,” while David Ansen of Newsweek calls it “the freshest, most surprising American movie so far in 2007.” “The Hoax” shows at the Wheeler Opera House through Tuesday, May 8.
Irving cringes when I ask him the question: Why? But he quickly opens up. Irving may be tired of the question about events that landed him in jail. But he is at peace with his own story, satisfied that, in the big picture, no one got hurt more than he and his cohorts, and that 35 years is a long time ago.”The ‘Why?’ revolves around the ‘Can you? Will it work?'” he said. “Money was a factor that made it possible. But I wouldn’t have done it for the money alone.”The Irving of the early ’70s was swallowing life in big bites, traveling, settling in Ibiza, having sexual affairs, enjoying the success of his most recent book, “Fake! The Story of Elmyr de Hory, the Greatest Art Forger of Our Time.” (To me, this is the most astounding piece of the story. Just before selling McGraw-Hill on the suspicious autobiography of Howard Hughes, Irving had written a biography of an art forger. Somehow, this tidbit didn’t seem to raise any flags.)”You have to factor in the times, the era, the late ’60s, early ’70s, a time of happenings, when people were a little bit wild. We were,” said Irving, who has been with his wife, Julie, who works at the consignment shop Susie’s, for 14 years, and married for nine. “It was an atmosphere of anything goes. Sex, drugs and rock ‘n’ roll. So why not add a hoax to it?”It was like a big, three-dimensional chess game. A lot of fun, an enormous challenge.”Irving, like the country, has settled down since the ’70s. After serving his time, Irving slowly re-entered the literary world by writing for Playboy, ghost-writing autobiographies, and, to play down his own name, co-authoring books. Over time, the scam was largely forgiven. It helped that Irving occasionally hit the best-seller list. Among his most commercially successful books, and one of his own favorites, is 1987’s “Trial,” a fast-paced murder mystery with a subtext about how elusive getting to the truth can be. In 1992, lured by the ski mountains, Irving moved to Aspen, then after a few years of a nomadic existence and five years in Santa Fe. He and Julie returned here in 2003. A passionate painter, Irving is currently writing “Young Monet,” a novel about artist Claude Monet. He is also planning a memoir about his life in Europe, and around the globe, in the ’50s.The film version of “The Hoax” ends with a pile of copies of “The Autobiography of Howard Hughes” being burned. It’s another bit of fiction; McGraw-Hill never printed copies of the book. But in 1999, Terrificbooks.com released a small edition, a few thousand copies, of the book. Two years later, with no place to store the thousand copies he possessed, Irving deposited his stash in a dump in Santa Fe. This past week, he found a few stray copies in a storage shed in New Mexico, which might provide some extra cash. “The Autobiography of Howard Hughes” is currently available online for $350 a copy.
The real motivation behind the attempted hoax remains cloudy, even to Irving. He says he didn’t know then exactly why he did it: Thrills? The intellectual challenge? And going back to the book over the decades hasn’t resolved it fully. “You can’t go to the past for motive,” he explained.But the question of how he nearly pulled it off makes for a compelling story, either in print – Irving’s “The Hoax” is mesmerizing – or onscreen. And it reveals, perhaps, just as much about human nature to examine how it was possible to persuade McGraw-Hill into believing the impossible.”If the publishers hadn’t been so incredibly gullible,” said Irving. “But they were like co-conspirators. Whatever we said, it was, ‘Oh yeah, right, that’s just like [Hughes].'”People wanted it to be true.”
Stewart Oksenhorn’s e-mail address is email@example.com
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