Clifford Irving achieved fame by declaring to be writing an autobiography he was working on with Howard Hughes, referred to as “The Hoax.”
Clifford Irving schemed to deceive many people with his plan for a unauthorized autobiography of Howard Hughes. Irving did have two books published early in his career, but he did not gain national fame. While in Spain in 1970, Irving and his friend, Richard Suskind, conspired together to write a phony autobiography on Howard Hughes.
Hughes was a very recognizably famous man, known to be an extremely wealthy eccentric who had withdrawn from public life in 1958. Irving and Suskind researched and began writing their book. With forged letters Irving convinced the publisher, McGraw-Hill, that he was, indeed, working with Hughes.
Newsweek magazine had published several letters that Hughes himself had written. Irving studied these letters and from them learned to forge Hughes’ handwriting and signature.
The letters that Hughes/Irving wrote to the publishers stated that Hughes wanted to write his autobiography, but in complete secrecy, and that Irving would be writing the book. McGraw-Hill jumped at the chance to publish the book. They wrote checks out to Irving totaling more than $700,000. Irving was supposed to get about $100,000 and Hughes would get the rest. In reality all of the money went to Irving, which he deposited into a Swiss bank.
During their research Irving and Suskind interviewed James Phelam who had been writing a book about Noah Dietrich, a former employee of Hughes. Unbeknown to Phelam, Irving stole the book, read it and made a copy for himself. Authenticity of the Hughes letters were questioned and several handwriting experts were called in to examine the letters. After an extensive examination, the letters were deemed to be real.
Irving submitted his manuscript in late 1971. McGraw-Hill approved the novel and made plans to publish it the following year. In January, 1972, Hughes set up conferences calls with several people. During these calls Hughes said that he had never agreed to let Irving write his autobiography, and in fact stated that he had never even met Irving. Hughes determined to sue everyone involved.
Investigations were launched into the matter. The money was discovered in the Swiss bank account in the name of Irving’s wife. On January 28, 1972, Irving admitted to the ruse. Arrests were made of both Irving and his accomplice, Suskind. Irving spent a total of 17 months in prison, while Suskind was incarcerated for 5 months. Irving returned the money. Surprisingly, Irving did go on to have a successful career as a writer.