Clifford Irving, Howard Hughes, and the Greatest Literary Hoax of the 20th Century


Fiction writer Clifford Irving talks to reporters after serving 16 months in prison for writing a fake autobiography of Howard Hughes. (Photo by Paul Demaria/NY Daily News Archive via Getty Images)

Eccentric billionaire Howard Hughes was an odd character, indeed. In the later years of his life, Hughes became so reclusive that he lived as a hermit in a hotel in the Bahamas and had virtually no contact with the outside world. His unorthodox lifestyle and his reclusively only added to his mystique and the public yearned to learn about his bizarre life. A middle-of-the-road novelist named Clifford Irving hatched an elaborate scheme to write Hughes’ ‘autobiography’ using faked interviews and forged letters that was so cleverly crafted that he fooled almost everyone. Let’s see why and how Clifford Irving pulled off this hoax … and how his scheme was unraveled.

Who Was Clifford Irving?

Clifford Irving graduated with honors from Cornell University. Beginning in the mid-1950s, he worked as a copy editor for The New York Times. His first novel, On a Darkling Plain, was published in 1956. He traveled through Europe, living at various places for short periods of time, and wrote two more books, The Losers in 1958 and The Valley in 1960. While living on the Spanish island of Ibiza in the Mediterranean Sea, Irving befriended Elmyr de Hory, a noted Hungarian art forger. De Hory was such a skilled forger that he amassed a fortune by selling hundreds of fake paintings to both art museums and private collectors. Irving was fascinated by his notorious friend. His next book, Fake!, which was published in 1969, was a biography of de Hory. Fake! was well-received and commercially successful. That gave Irving a crazy idea.

Howard Hughes (Getty Images)

A Crazy Idea

After spending time with the notorious art forger Elmyr de Hory, and bolstered by the success of his latest book, Fake!, Clifford Irving got a crazy idea – one of those ideas that was so crazy it just might work. He met up with his longtime friend, children’s book author, Richard Suskind, in Palma de Mallorca, Spain, in 1970 and the two writers hashed out a plan for Irving to write a purported authorized ‘autobiography’ of the world’s most famous shut-in, Howard Hughes. The public was clamoring for information on Hughes, so they knew readers would be interested in their ’autobiography.’ Since Hughes has completely withdrawn from the world and hadn’t; talked to the press since 1958, chances were good that he would never even learn about the unauthorized ‘autobiography’ and if he did, he likely would never bother to file a libel lawsuit against them. Lastly, there was enough information about Hughes in news archives that Irving, with Suskind’s help, could fabricate a plausible ‘autobiography.’

Getting Down to Work

Richard Suskind took the role of researcher for the fake ‘autobiography’ project. He combed through news articles about the billionaire recluse Howard Hughes and watched old interviews that Hughes had granted in the past. Clifford Irving called on some of his contacts in the forgery world in Ibiza to write fake letters that made it look like Howard Hughes had written to Irving. Some of Hughes’ handwritten letters had been published years earlier in Newsweek magazine, so the forgers had examples from which they could forge Hughes’ handwriting. 

The Ruse

Clifford Irving met with his publisher, McGraw-Hill, to inform them that he had received a letter from Howard Hughes. In the fake letter, Hughes explained that he had read Fake! and admired Irving’s writing style. He added that he would like Irving to serve as the ghost writer for his autobiography. Irving showed the letter to the editors at McGraw-Hill who were over-the-moon about this incredible opportunity. Yes, they did have their lawyers look at the letter, which looked like a perfect match to Hughes’ handwriting, so they gave the project their thumbs up.

Clifford Irving and the top people at McGraw-Hill met to draw up a contract between the publishing company, Irving, and Hughes. Of course, Hughes was not present at the meeting, so Irving agreed to send him the contract for his approval. Instead, he sent it to his forging pals who faked Hughes’ signature. 

Portrait of American journalist Clifford Irving (right) and author Richard Suskind (1925 - 1999), 1972. The pair collaborated on a hoax 'autobiography' of reclusive American businessman Howard Hughes. (Photo by Susan Wood/Getty Images)

A Bogus Swiss Bank Account

For the rights to publish the ‘autobiography,’ McGraw-Hill agreed to pay Clifford Irving an advance of $100,000 and to pay Howard Hughes $400,000. Through a series of forged letters, Irving, pretending to be Hughes, negotiated this portion to be increased to $765,000, which, as per Irving’s scheme, would be payable in a check made out to “H.R. Hughes” and deposited in a Swiss bank account that, the fake letters claimed, belonged to Howard Hughes.

In reality, the Swiss bank account was opened by Irving’s Swiss wife, Edith, under the name “Helga R. Hughes.” Edith had acquired a fake passport in this name and was able to open the account using that. Wearing a wig to disguise her appearance, Edith Irving withdrew funds from the account.

Promoting the Book

Landing a Howard Hughes ‘autobiography’ deal was a major coup for McGraw-Hill publishers, and they wanted to stir up some hype for the book, which was set to be released in 1972. When word got out that Hughes had authorized Clifford Irving to ghost write his ‘autobiography’, all eyes were on Irving. And he loved every minute of it. He gave interviews and appeared on television to stump for the upcoming book. Mike Wallace interviewed Irving on 60 Minutes and found his story about his interactions with Howard Hughes to be believable. When Wallace asked him to recount details of his many one-on-one meetings with Hughes, Irving told a story about how Hughes offered his researcher, Richard Suskind, an organic prune as a snack. He also noted, to the delight of the viewers, that one meeting with Hughes took place at a pyramid in Mexico. Irving fooled Mike Wallace into believing his story, but later, some of the cameramen and crew of 60 Minutes claimed they doubted Irving’s story. 

Clifford Irving, Edith Irving and researcher Richard Suskind (c.) are booked at Elizabeth St. police station. (Photo by John Pedin/NY Daily News Archive via Getty Images)

Howard Hughes Says What?

Holed up in his hotel room in the Caribbean, Howard Hughes was watching the news and was outraged to learn that he had allegedly authorized an ‘autobiography’. He first contacted reporter Frank McCulloch, the last journalist to have interviewed him before he shut his door on the world. McCulloch reported that he had received an irate phone call from someone claiming to be Howard Hughes, but he didn’t believe it. He had read parts of Clifford Irving’s manuscript and it seemed authentic to him.

The Plan Unraveled

Howard Hughes persisted in declaring that he was not working with Irving and had, in fact, never met the man. He broke his self-imposed media blackout by arranging for a telephone press conference with a panel of seven journalists on January 7, 1972. The press conference was televised. Hughes insisted that he did not know Irving and that Irving was a fraud, but Irving insisted that the voice on the other end of the call wasn’t Hughes at all. People were starting to raise their eyebrows, but Irving and his publisher used Hughes’ fragile mental health against him, claiming that Howard Hughes was just being Howard Hughes … difficult and unstable.

Still, Irving agreed to take a lie-detector test and passed it. A team of handwriting experts were brought in. and they authenticated the letters. It looked as though Clifford Irving’s scheme was working. Then the Swiss banking authorities contacted McGraw-Hill to inform them that the check they had deposited to a ‘Mr. H.R. Hughes’, was actually collected by a ‘Mrs. H.R. Hughes’, a woman. Further investigation led them to discover that ‘Helga R Hughes’ was, in fact, Edith Irving, the wife of Clifford Irving.

Arrested and Jailed

Clifford Irving, Edith Irving, and Richard Suskind were all arrested and charged with various crimes including bank fraud, mail fraud, and conspiracy to commit fraud. Clifford Irving returned much of the money and was sentenced to two and a half years in jail. You would think that nearly pulling off the biggest literary hoax of the 20th century would kill Irving’s writing career. Think again. He published nearly a dozen more novels and non-fiction books after he was released from jail. In 1981, he wrote a book, The Hoax, about the incident. The book was made into a biopic starring Richard Gere in 2006.