Crime Library: Criminal Minds and Methods

Clifford Irving's Hoax

A Wild Idea

Clifford Irving
Clifford Irving

Billionaire tycoon, aviator, playboy, eccentric and Hollywood legend-turned-hermit Howard R. Hughes was the subject of great intrigue in America and the world throughout most of his life. In his later years, during the late 1960s to mid 1970s the mystery surrounding him intensified when he became a recluse and hid himself from the outside world for more than a decade. Many believed him to be dead, whereas others thought he had simply gone completely crazy.

No one really knew what had become of the powerful, yet eccentric man. In fact, few knew about Howard at all, except for those closest to him. The ambiguity surrounding him fed the public's fascination, which in turn spawned a media obsession. Interestingly, although there was a great demand for information concerning Howard, there were surprisingly few books written about the man's fascinating life, which was rumored to be on the brink of ruin. Realizing that there was a significant opportunity in the marketplace, which could be quite profitable, author Clifford Irving set out to do what no one else had done.

Howard Hughes
Howard Hughes

In December 1970, Clifford ran into an old friend and fellow author named Richard "Dick" Suskind in Mallorca while awaiting passage to the island of Ibiza, where he and his family resided. The two men struck up a conversation, which eventually led to a discussion about the legendary Howard Hughes. Howard's recent move from his hotel residence in Las Vegas to another hotel in the Bahamas had caused a minor sensation in newspapers around the world. According to a book later written by Clifford Irving titled, The Hoax, it was during that conversation that he claimed to have "a wild idea."

Richard Dick Suskind
Richard "Dick" Suskind

Clifford devised a scheme in which, he would convince his publisher, McGraw-Hill, that Howard Hughes commissioned him to write his biography. Clifford would tell his publisher that the book would be based on interviews conducted with Howard. However, there would be a couple of particulars that he would keep secret from his publisher.

Clifford later stated in his book that in actuality, they would "never meet Hughes and the interviews would be faked". He later claimed in a January 2000 CBS interview with Mike Wallace that he believed, "Howard Hughes was too ill to come forward and repudiate the book." After all, Howard had not been seen publicly since 1958 and as far as they knew he could have even been dead.

Moreover, according to Stephen Fay, Lewis Chester and Magnus Linklater's book, Hoax: The Inside Story of the Howard Hughes-Clifford Irving Affair, Clifford believed that his ingenious plan would be even more successful if he were to use Howard's own "imprimatur," which would make the book unique in itself. There was not yet any book on Howard's life to which he contributed. Thus, the book would be a first of its kind and highly saleable if they were able to pass it off as authentic.

Furthermore, he decided he would forge letters and legal documents allegedly written by Howard in order to make the deal appear even more genuine. He would use a paragraph from a 1970 Newsweek article titled, The Case of the Invisible Billionaire, which had an actual handwriting sample from Howard, to be used as a model for his own letter. It would be a risky undertaking but could also have promising results.

Clifford suggested that Dick collaborate with him on the literary hoax, by conducting the necessary research for the project. He sincerely believed that if they were able to pull it off, they would profit tremendously both financially and career-wise. The idea was very unconventional but the two men agreed to give it a try. Unbeknownst to them at the time, the idea would one day lead to a scandal so big that it would shake the foundations of the literary world. Moreover, it would rouse the dormant hermit from his sanctuary and catapult him back again into the media spotlight after fifteen years in a self-imposed exile.


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