Sunday, November 05, 2006

The Howard Hughes Hoax


On December 7, 1971, McGraw-Hill Book Co. announced that "The Autobiography of Howard Hughes," compiled by Clifford Irving based on over 100 hours of secret interviews with billionaire Hughes (which Irving claimed took place in park cars and hotel rooms in Mexico, Puerto Rico, the Bahamas and other exotic locales), would soon be published; Life magazine simultaneously announced that it had purchased the rights to excerpt the book beginning in early 1972.

Irving (born on this day in 1930 in New York City), a former Middle East correspondent for NBC-TV and a freelance writer and novelist, was previously best known for his non-fiction book, Fake!, about the famous art forger Elmyr de Hory, and had no particular credentials to have been selected as Hughes' ghost-writer. Nevertheless, when he came to McGraw-Hill with what purported to be an unfinished manuscript with Hughes' margin notes, McGraw-Hill was ecstatic -- finally, the elusive, eccentric tycoon Hughes would be breaking his silence in print.

However, shortly after McGraw-Hill's announcement, the Hughes organization disavowed the announcement and Irving's manuscript, vowing to halt the book's publication. The publishers stood by Irving; spokesmen for Life's corporate owner, Time, Inc., said "We've checked this thing out. We have proof," and that Irving "would have to be a near genius of a writer" for the manuscript to have been a hoax.

Hughes' publicist, William R. Hanna, arranged an unusual press conference to disavow the manuscript: seven reporters, all chosen for their personal connections with Hughes prior to his self-imposed isolation, were invited to interview Hughes over a speaker phone as TV news cameras recorded the event. A disembodied voice fielded "test" questions from the journalists over the phone in order the confirm his identity as Hughes, and then proceeded to deny any involvement with Irving. "This must go down in history," said the voice, "I don't remember any script as wild or as stretching the imagination as this yarn turned out to be . . . I don't know Irving. I never saw him. I never even heard of him until a matter of days ago when this thing first came to my attention." The journalists concluded that the voice did indeed belong to Hughes.

Meanwhile, Irving began to crumble as government investigators closed in: Irving confessed that the manuscript was of his own authorship, and that he and his wife Edith had taken checks from McGraw-Hill for $650,000 made out to "H.R. Hughes" and deposited them in Swiss bank accounts under the name "Helga R. Hughes." A Danish pop singer, Nina Van Pallandt, testified that she was with Irving constantly during his trips to Mexico, and that it would have been impossible for Irving to have met Hughes at the times he claimed.

The manuscript itself, written in a voice which fooled McGraw-Hill as authentically Hughes', was an amalgamation of old press clippings, well-known anecdotes and appropriations from an unpublished manuscript by Hughes' former aide, Noah Dietrich, which Irving had obtained surreptitiously through a mutual friend. Irving, his wife and his researcher Richard Suskind pleaded guilty to grand larceny; Irving served 16 months of a 2-1/2 year sentence, and returned to writing mystery novels thereafter.

For his own part, Irving claims he never really intended any criminal behavior, just a great gag-- he banked on Hughes never emerging to repudiate the work (due to illness or otherwise), and that McGraw-Hill would have made good money on a well-written book which would have given greater stature to Hughes as a wise and heroic man.

Lasse Halstrom has directed a film based on Irving's account of the matter, called The Hoax, which is scheduled for release in the U.S. in April next year, starring Richard Gere as Irving.

"When Hughes finally repudiated the book the way he did, at that press conference, with all those reporters, I thought, 'How could you do that to me, Howard?'" -- C. Irving.

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