After receiving a prison sentence of 17 months for a hoax, Clifford Irving went on to write a book in 1981 entitled “The Hoax” in which he related his experiences in pretending to help Howard Hughes write his autobiography. The book has now been adapted to the screen under the same name, “The Hoax,” starring Richard Gere as Clifford Irving. Irving’s caper is almost as hard to believe as the fact that he never doubted for a minute that he would get away with the ruse. It is an interesting fact that Richard Gere had to be fitted with an exaggerated nose in this film since Clifford Irving had a hawk-like protuberance which could not be denied.
Howard Hughes - Wikimedia
It all started when McGraw-Hill indicated an interest in a novel written by Clifford Irving, and then proceeded to turn it down when an editor at Life magazine called the work unsatisfactory. Irving had already spent the advance on an expensive vacation with his friend Richard Suskind (Alfred Molina).
Compounding his problem was the fact that Irving was having an affair with an actress named Nina (Julie Delpy) which was not well-received by his wife Edith (Marcia Gay Harden).
At their vacation destination, Irving and Richard Suskind were told that they would be given rooms at a nearby hotel since the reclusive billionaire had a reservation which demanded that the top four floors were to be vacated. Shortly thereafter, Hughes was on the cover of a popular magazine. These were the seeds that were planted in the mind of Clifford Irving when he searched around desperately for a topic for a new book.
Richard Gere - Wikimedia
Clifford Irving’s Claim to McGraw-Hill
When Clifford Irving next met with Mc-Graw-Hill, he announced to them that his newest project would be the “book of the century.” He claimed that he was in regular contact with Howard Hughes who had asked him to write his autobiography. Irving showed the publishers forged, handwritten notes that he had supposedly received from Hughes. Irving’s friend Richard Suskind had successfully practiced copying the idiosyncrasies of the reclusive’s handwriting. It was well-known that all of Hughes’ correspondence was done in his own handwriting. Irving was banking on the fact that his subject was antisocial and unlikely to take any legal action against anyone. Also, if Hughes did deny the book’s authenticity, his reputation as an eccentric would override his denial. The handwriting samples were deemed to be genuine. McGraw-Hill agreed to a payment of $500,000 to publish Irving’s book.
Alfred Molina - Wikimedia
Irving’s plan was to use his friend Richard Suskind as his researcher and co-writer. Suskind was in the process of writing a children’s book on King Richard the Lion-hearted.
Noah Dietrich’s Manuscript
Irving was contacted by Noah Dietrich, an executive in Hughes' enterprises. He had been a friend of Howard for thirty years, and had written a biography of the man. He asked Clifford Irving to read his book and correct the grammar, for which Dietrich would pay him $500. Working in a separate room, Irving had Richard Suskind slip out and duplicate the entire manuscript. When he returned the original to Noah Dietrich, he claimed that the work was atrocious and not publishable. They walked away with the meat for their own book on Howard Hughes.
With Richard Suskind’s help, the project went forward. Irving taped fake interviews with Howard Hughes, using a Texas drawl and even put on a mustache to get a genuine feel for his subject. The details gleaned from Noah Dietrich’s manuscript added greatly to the authenticity of the work.
Mysterious Package in the Mail
At this point, Irving received a box in the mail which contained proof of some nefarious dealings between Howard Hughes and Richard Nixon. Irving believed that the box was mailed to him by Howard Hughes himself, who obviously wanted the destructive nature of the material included in the autobiography. Irving regarded the gift as a sign that Hughes supported his efforts.
Meanwhile, Irving and his wife Edith had reconciled, based on his promise not to see his friend Nina anymore. He had to meet with Nina to tell her that it was over.
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McGraw-Hill Makes an Offer
Clifford Irving reported to McGraw-Hill that Howard Hughes required a larger sum for the rights to his autobiography. McGraw-Hill proposed one million dollars. They were eager to sign the contract immediately, claiming that it would sell more copies than the bible. The company referred to Howard Hughes as Octavio and the book as Project Octavio. In the process, Life Magazine offered $250,000 for exclusive rights to the story.
Marcia Gay Harden - Wikimedia
Edith Goes to Switzerland
When Irving received the million dollar check, he realized that he could not cash it since it was made out to Howard Hughes. With the help of his wife Edith, Irving devised a scheme. He told McGraw-Hill that Howard Hughes, for security purposes, would only accept a check made out to H. R. Hughes. McGraw-Hill complied. Edith took a plane to Switzerland using a forged passport, listing her name as Helga R. Hughes. She was successful in depositing the check into a Swiss bank account.
Howard Hughes Speaks on Television
To everyone’s surprise, Howard Hughes talked to the press for the first time in fifteen years. He went public on television and denied that he knew Clifford Irving and never gave the man the authority to write his autobiography. Irving confessed that the book and the entire story was false, and that he had lied to the entire world. He was relieved that it was over. He was arrested and agreed to cooperate if his wife Edith would be granted immunity. Irving was given 17 years for his part in the scam, and Richard Suskind was imprisoned for six months. Edith was forced to serve six months in a Swiss prison.
Richard Suskind Publishes His Book
Clifford Irving served only 2 ½ years of his sentence. In the final scenes, he is shown coming upon a book signing by Richard Suskind, who had been successful in having his children’s book “The Crusader King, Richard the Lionhearted” published in 1973.
It is fitting that the con-men were caught and that justice was served. However, Clifford Irving succeeded in having his faked autobiography published eventually in 1999.