The Writer and the Bashful Billionaire

In 1972, writer Clififord Irving approached his editors at McGraw- Hill with a fascinating proposition:   he had been hired by billionaire Howard Hughes to co-write his autobiography!   The public was fascinated by Howard Hughes;  as a young man, he had used the fortune from his father’s tool company(father Hughes had patented oil-drilling equipment in the early 1900s) to invest in movies (one of which, “The Outlaw”, was banned for years!) and aviation technology.  Hughes, himself a pilot, earned millions of dollars from war contracts during World War II, and then invested in real estate around the world.  His various girlfriends included Katherine Hepburn, Ava Gardner, and Marlene Dietrich. Good looking, rich, and charming, Hughes seemed to have it all!

Howard Hughes

However, since the 1930s, there were whispers that Hughes was unstable.   He disappeared for long periods of time, and often acted strangely.   He had more or less become a recluse since 1958, living in one or the other of the many hotels he owned around the world, but his corporation continued to prosper.

In 1972, Clifford Irving was a moderately successful writer of non-fiction, but seemed to have hit a bad patch.  He was under contract to McGraw-Hill publishers, but hadn’t been able to get them interested in any of his story ideas for a couple of years.  He also had a new wife, was paying alimony to an ex-wife, and had a taste for good living.   So when his editors greeted his Hughes book with enthusiasm, Irving was more than relieved.  But not everyone at McGraw-Hill was convinced  this was the real deal;  the company’s lawyers demanded proof that Hughes really was ready to work with Irving on this autobiography.  Irving supplied them with handwritten letters from Hughes, as well as with various anecdotes of his telephone conversations with the recluse.  Irving was convincing enough that editors over at Time-Life agreed to serialize parts of the autobiography, and released tidbits of information to the media.

The ensuing media frenzy was a writer’s dream – but also Irving’s nightmare.   The truth was that Irving had never been contacted by Hughes;  he and his best buddy concocted the written documents and anecdotal evidence.   Eventually, the media’s attention turned on Irving;  reporters followed him, discovered that he had a mistress (a wanna-be actress named Nina Van Pallandt) and that the whole book deal was a scam.  Sucked into this fiasco was not only Irving and his buddy, but his own wife, who had flown to Switzerland and, in disguise, deposited the publisher’s hefty check into a Swiss bank account.

Clifford Irving

Ironically, the scandal did briefly pull Hughes back into the limelight – by telephone, he revealed to investigators that he had never contacted Irving.

Irving eventually was convicted of fraud, receiving a 2 1/2 year prison sentence (he served 17 months).  His wife divorced him, his mistress abandoned him, and his career was over – or was it? In 1981, Irving published a book about the caper, called The Hoax, which was made into a movie starring Richard Gere in 2006 – a very entertaining movie that introduces an alternate theory about Howard Hughes’ role in this- although that was not in Irving’s book.   Irving now lives in Aspen, Colorado, without regrets about his role in the Hughes hoax.  Hughes died in 1976.









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