Best-selling author, former Aspen resident Clifford Irving dead at 87
Special to The Aspen Times
American novelist, screenwriter and journalist Clifford Irving — also a former Aspen resident — died Tuesday, December 19, in Sarasota, Florida, of complications from cancer. He was 87.
Irving published 20 novels over the course of his lifetime, some which were among of the most acclaimed works of fiction and nonfiction of the late 20th century, including “Fake!,” “Tom Mix and Pancho Villa,” and “Trial.” His legal thrillers published in the 1990s topped the best-seller lists. Irving wrote right up to the end of his life, recently completing a novel that is being shopped around by his agent.
By any standards, Irving lived a life of adventure, notoriety and intrigue. In his own words Irving writes, “I traveled twice around the world before most people living in it today were born, stood guard in an Israeli kibbutz, crewed on a 56’ three-masted schooner that sailed the Atlantic from Mexico to France, smuggled whisky from Tangier to Spain, and one spring I lived on a houseboat on Dal Lake in Kashmir from where I rode horseback into Tibet.”
His most daring adventure, and most costly, was his attempt in the early 1970s to publish an “authorized” autobiography of reclusive billionaire Howard Hughes. Irving’s question-and-answer manuscript underwent deep vetting by Hughes experts and was determined to be legitimate. Irving and fellow writer and co-conspirator Richard Suskind had traveled the world gathering all the information they could about Hughes and crafted the brilliant piece of fiction and sold it as fact.
Its pending publication in 1972 brought Hughes out of nearly a decade of seclusion to disavow it in a bizarre, nationally televised telephone news conference. The billionaire never appeared on camera, but nevertheless said over the phone to a cadre of national journalists that he had never heard of Clifford Irving, much less authorized him to write an autobiography.
The affair resulted in Irving being featured on 60 Minutes and on the cover of Time Magazine before ultimately being sent to prison for 16 months. Upon release he was required to repay more than $750,000 advanced to Irving by publisher McGraw Hill. The bulk of that payment was supposed to be given to Hughes, but Irving, Edith, his wife at the time, and Suskind salted the money away in Swiss bank accounts. They voluntarily returned it once the hoax was revealed.
After prison Irving wrote what was ultimately his most famous book, “The Hoax,” an account of the writing of the Hughes “autobiography” that in 2007 was made into a movie starring Richard Gere as Irving.
Clifford Michael Irving was born on Nov. 5, 1930, the son of Jay Irving, a Collier’s magazine cover artist and creator of the syndicated comic strip Pottsy, and his wife, Dorothy. He graduated from the High School of Music and Art in Manhattan in 1947 and went on to Cornell University at the young age of 16 where he graduated with honors in English.
“At Cornell University,” Irving recalls in his brief Amazon.com bio, “I chased beautiful but unconquerable Ivy League coeds, rowed on the crew, and dreamed of becoming a great writer. I sailed to Europe, settled on the Mediterranean island of Ibiza, and wrote my first novel. I sent it to a literary agent in New York. G. P. Putnam’s Sons published it.”
Irving’s bibliography wanders through topics in manner that matches his peripatetic life and endless curiosity. His fiction includes Westerns, legal thrillers, historic novels and tales of love and deception. His first novel, “On A Darkling Plain,” was published in 1956. It was his 1982 novel, “Tom Mix and Pancho Villa,” a historic fiction that placed the movie star and dime-story cowboy side-by-side with Mexican revolutionary Pancho Villa that was Irving’s personal favorite and one of his most critically acclaimed novels. “Trial” and “Final Argument,” his best selling novels of the 1990s, also received top reviews, with The New York Times’ William Saffire calling Trial “the novel of the year.”
Irving’s nonfiction work is best known for its focus on deceptions of the highest order. “Fake!,” about Hungarian art forger Elmyr de Hory, who was living on Ibiza at the same time as Irving, shined a light on the duplicity of the art world. “Fake!” and his memoir on the Hughes affair, “The Hoax,” were the inspiration behind Orson Welle’s 1974 film documentary “F for Fake.”
As a young writer, Irving traveled to Europe and wound up in relationships of one sort or another with models, actresses and other starlets. He once jumped ship from a sailboat he was crewing on to get away from one of them.
Irving married six women throughout his life and bore three sons — Josh, Nedsky and Barnaby — along the way. He found the love of his life, Julie, while skiing in Aspen in the early 1990s. They married and have been together ever since, living in Santa Fe and Aspen together for nearly two decades before moving to their current home in Sarasota.
Irving never stopped traveling. Since the early 1980s he was one of many regular annual visitors to Zihuatanejo on Mexico’s Pacific Coast, where he has developed deep friendships with writers, musicians, yoga instructors, restaurateurs and a federal judge or two. He was also something of an expat pioneer, living on the island of Ibiza off the coast of Spain and later in San Miguel de Allende, Mexico, long before they became the havens for foreigners that they are today.
He is survived by all three sons and his wife, Julie.
Sofía Rocha, a composition student at the Aspen Music Festival and School, earned the 2022 Hermitage Prize in Composition this past weekend at the Hermitage Artist Retreat in Florida.
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