Clifford Irving, who died yesterday at the age of 87, was only a moderately successful journeyman author of fiction and non-fiction books. Few outside of the world of book publishing would have ever heard of him, except for one book that, for better or worse, made him a household name: The Autobiography of Howard Hughes.
Hughes, one of the most famous (and richest) of eccentrics, had vanished from public view in 1958. A vast fortune can buy you a lot of privacy. By the early 1970s, he had attained nearly mythic stature as a recluse. Irving, having stumbled upon the unpublished memoirs of an intimate former Hughes associate, gambled that Hughes would value his privacy enough that he would tolerate a fake autobiography rather than refute it publicly.
Irving, obviously a born con man, convinced his publisher, McGraw-Hill, to give him an advance of $750,000, a colossal sum by the standards of the day. Dell paid $400,000 for the paperback rights. Life magazine paid $250,000 for the first serial rights. The Book of the Month Club guaranteed $325,000.
The first printing was enormous. But it had to be pulped, as Irving lost his bet. Hughes called a reporter for the New York Times, whom he had last spoken to in 1958, and declared it a fake. The reporter was sure it was really Hughes. Then he set up a conference call with seven other reporters, carried live by television and radio, denouncing the book.
Once the doubts had been sowed, McGraw-Hill investigated and found that the check for Hughes’s share of the advance had been endorsed by “H. R. Hughes” and deposited into a Swiss account that had been opened by Irving’s wife. Irving went to jail for 17 months, and the manuscript vanished into the vaults of McGraw-Hill.
That was a pity since everyone who ever read it said that the book was a page-turner; the best thing that Irving ever wrote. After forty years, as thoroughly hidden away as Hughes himself, Irving’s literary, if fraudulent, masterpiece was finally published as an ebook in 2012.
As far as I know, Irving never won any awards for his writing, but if there were one for literary chutzpah, he would have retired the trophy.