Obituary for Clifford Irving
The author Clifford Irving, who has died aged 87, was best known for writing what became the most famous unpublished book of the 20th century, The Autobiography of Howard Hughes. While it was still in manuscript it turned out to be a forgery, and Irving served 17 months in prison for taking $765,000 – worth about £3.3m today – of his $1m advance from the publishers McGraw Hill for what looked like the literary scoop of the era.
Forever afterwards, critics would mention this event in the first paragraph of their review of his latest book, and, although Irving complained about the unfairness, the Hughes opus was probably his greatest literary achievement. Some people who knew Hughes, the reclusive billionaire, aviator and Hollywood producer, swore it was authentic (though others suspected a fraud), and the three-page, handwritten extract that Irving put up to prove the book was genuine fooled experts and graphologists.
Irving, approaching 40 and nursing an unfulfilled desire for fame and wealth, had read in Newsweek that Hughes had become a hermit, surrounded by a nursing staff of secretive Mormons, and so obsessed with his health that he never left his apartment.
With a friend, the children’s author Richard Suskind, Irving began researching Hughes’s life: his inheritance of the family tool company in Texas; his quick rise to fabulous wealth; his three movies, Hell’s Angels, Scarface and The Outlaw; his ownership of the fabled Hollywood studio RKO; his affairs with actresses; his aviator career, including three speed records and his giant flying boat, the Spruce Goose; and his deterioration into eccentricity and, it was rumored, madness.
Irving had some luck – he obtained a partial biography that had not been published – but he knew he needed to authenticate his claim that, somehow, Hughes had decided to confide in him. As the son of a cartoonist, Irving possessed some draughtsman ship skills and he composed the alleged letter from some authentic writing in Hughes’s own hand.
“I was on a train of lies,” he recalled. “I couldn’t jump off. I was filled with the success of my fairytale.”
He caught the swashbuckling style of Hughes’s earlier years, and editors at McGraw Hill thought the book was a masterpiece. But as Irving’s story began to unravel under the scrutiny of investigative journalists who had devoted years to studying Hughes, the publishers insisted that Irving authenticate his claims, and he went on national television in January 1972 to testify to his honesty.
He fooled the veteran interviewer Mike Wallace: Irving recalled telling a clever anecdote that “nobody could make up” about how at his first meeting with Hughes, the old man had produced a bag of organic prunes and offered one. It was, of course, false; the two had never met.
But he lost the gamble at the heart of the scam: that Hughes was too ill and too reclusive to unmask the “authorized” biography. The old man rose from his bed in the Bahamas and spoke by telephone to a gathering of the few people left who had known Hughes and his voice. He denounced the work as a fake and listeners declared that the voice was his. Irving’s hoax collapsed.
Born in Manhattan, New York, Clifford was the son of Jay Irving, born Irving Joel Raefsky, a cartoonist and illustrator, and his wife, Dorothy. He attended the High School of Music and Art and then, at the age of 16, Cornell University, from where he graduated in English in 1951.
Inspired by Ernest Hemingway’s early years, he travelled and worked at various jobs, including copy boy at the New York Times and brush salesman. In 1953 he moved to Ibiza and wrote a coming-of-age novel, On a Darkling Plain. More novels followed, while Irving gradually hatched his Hughes plot, possibly inspired by his 1969 non-fiction book Fake!, about the art forger Elmyr de Hory, a Hungarian who specialized in old masters.
Irving was tall and handsome and had many female admirers. But his hoax wrecked his marriage to Edith Sommer, a Swiss artist whose visits in disguise to banks in her home country with the McGraw Hill booty brought her jail sentences in the US and Switzerland. Suskind served five months in jail.
On his own release from prison, Irving continued to write fiction, developing the courtroom genre, as well as non-fiction. His 1981 book about his fraud, The Hoax, was a bestseller. Orson Welles’s film F for Fake (released in various countries in 1974 and 1975) drew on the scandal, and in 1999 Irving put his Hughes “autobiography” on the internet. In 2007 Lasse Hallström directed The Hoax, in which Irving was played by Richard Gere.
Always a wanderer, Irving lived in many places, including Ibiza, Greece, Mexico, Colorado and New Mexico. In the early 70s he had a long affair with Nina van Pallandt, the Danish baroness who was half of the Nina and Frederik singing duo.
Irving was married six times. His first wife was Nina Wilcox; they parted in 1952. In Ibiza he met an Englishwoman, Claire Lydon; they married in 1958 and moved to California; she died in a car crash the following year. In 1962, after a year spent travelling and living on a houseboat in Kashmir, Irving moved back to Ibiza with his third wife, Fay Brooke, an English model, and their son, Josh. They divorced, and in 1967 Irving married Edith. They had two sons, John Edmond, known as Ned, or “Nedsky”, and Barnaby. Irving’s fifth wife was another Englishwoman, the author Maureen Earl. They divorced and in 1998 he married an Australian, Julie Schall. She survives him along with his three sons.
Obituary Credit: https://www.theguardian.com/books/2017/dec/21/clifford-irving-obituary
A note from Martin Oaks Cemetery & Crematory:
One of those who passed last month may not be a familiar figure to today’s public, but in his time, the less than honorable Clifford Irving was very well known. He wrote perhaps the most noted unpublished books ever.