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CRIME : The Fabulous Hoax of Clifford Irving

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THE tale came wrapped extravagantly—boxes within boxes, each festooned with its own diminished fantasies, each gaudily papered in ever thinner tissues of lies. The serial revelations in the Howard Hughes-Clifford Irving affair became an extraordinary popular entertainment, a top of the TV news, a front-page divertissement that evoked the distractions of an earlier, less desperate age. Like the Americans who once crowded the docks waiting for the latest chapter of Dickens to arrive by boat, devotees anticipated the next surprises.

As Irving’s outrageous story collapsed in on itself, one principal element in the puzzle loomed ever larger and more baffling: Where had the material he spun into his summa of non-books come from. All the supposed Hughes letters, now clearly revealed as forgeries, and all the affidavits of supposed meetings with Hughes had helped Irving create an atmosphere of verisimilitude. But the essence of its apparent validity—and the key to the big con job—had been the words in the manuscript itself. Several experienced editors and publishers at McGraw-Hill and LIFE magazine had read Irving’s work and found it convincing in its tone and above all its remarkable wealth of detail about Hughes’ complex life. It seemed beyond mere inventive compilation, even given all that has been printed over the years about Hughes. It had an undeniable smack of authenticity.

That authenticity now seems explained. Irving’s hoax worked because the base on which he built was largely genuine. In subject matter, Irving’s book is identical at many points with the manuscript of a Long Beach, Calif., writer named James Phelan, who had been hired to ghostwrite the story of the man who knows more than anyone else in the world about the life and times of Howard Hughes. He is Noah Dietrich, 83, who for 32 years was Hughes’ chief of staff, hatchet man, fixer and right arm. The conclusion emerging from a study of both manuscripts is that much of Irving’s book was lifted from Phelan’s writings. Irving could have come into possession of the Phelan version, along with 150 pages of the transcript of tape-recorded interviews with Dietrich, some time in the last year. Then, with the help of a researcher, his own imagination, and information supplied by current or former Hughes associates, Irving concocted The Autobiography of Howard Hughes.

No Prune. Through his lawyer, Irving late last week admitted in the U.S. Attorney’s office in New York City that his baroquely detailed scenario was a fraud. Irving’s lawyer, Maurice R. Nessen, had hurried to the Federal Courthouse for the conference after Richard Suskind, a writer and researcher who had worked with Irving on the manuscript, refused to back Irving’s story. In exchange for immunity from prosecution, Suskind said he was willing to testify that contrary to his earlier affidavit, he had never seen Hughes; Hughes had never offered him that organic prune he had once mentioned to lend a touch of credence to the tale.

Irving and Nessen tried to hammer out their own deal with the U.S. Attorney. They promised to cooperate provided the prosecutors could per suade the Swiss government to soften passport-forgery and bank-fraud charges against Irving’s wife Edith. No one was quite certain whether Irving was acting out of chivalry or more self-serving motives. It was possible, some investigators said, that Irving hoped to ease Edith’s legal burdens before she broke down and told her own side of the story, partly in anger over her husband’s now famous affair with Danish Singer Nina van Pallandt.

Two members of the U.S. Attorney’s office, Robert Morvillo and John Tigue Jr., consented to talk to Swiss authorities about leniency. But first Morvillo wanted to know one thing: did Irving intend to persist in his story that he had met with Hughes? Nessen stepped out into the hall to talk to Irving. When he returned, he said: “You won’t have to call Hughes. There were no meetings with Hughes.” “All right,” said Morvillo, “but Irving should know that we’ll break his balls before the grand jury if he says he met with Hughes.”

Swiss Sanctum. Irving was willing to accept a prison term for fraud and perjury, and give his account of the entire scheme. The prosecutors were amenable to that, since if Irving took the Fifth Amendment, it might be difficult to track down the other conspirators. Morvillo and Tigue immediately flew to Zurich, where they tried to induce the Swiss to reduce their charges against Edith. They received a cool reception. For weeks Zurich Prosecutor Peter Veleff had been horrified by the publicity surrounding the case and by the lack of cooperation from U.S. legal authorities. The spectacle of Clifford and Edith blithely appearing on television was especially galling when she, a Swiss citizen, had been charged with—and had even admitted—that she violated the Swiss sanctum sanctorum, its banking system.

The Swiss would consider only one concession: if the Irvings would replace the $650,000 that Edith/Helga has cached in Zurich banks, then the Swiss government might consider accepting a guilty plea, upon which she could—possibly—receive a suspended sentence. For the Irvings, that amounted to no deal at all; they are believed to have spent about $100,000 of the money, and authorities have been unable to account for another $100,000.

Better Writing. In the midst of the Swiss negotiations, Irving’s attention was diverted. Late on the night of his meeting at the U.S. Attorney’s office, Irving received a telephone call at Nessen’s office from TIME Correspondent Frank McCulloch. “I want to level with you,” McCulloch said. “We’ve got the Phelan manuscript on the way to New York. Phelan’s flying here with it, and we’re going to lay it down alongside your manuscript in the morning and read them together.”

There was a silence at the other end of the wire; then Irving said with a long, soft exhalation: “Woooowwww!”

At that moment, the last of the boxes was being opened. When Phelan’s version of the Dietrich book is read in tandem with the Irving manuscript, one essential source of Irving’s material becomes obvious (see story, page 17). The instances of duplicated material are numerous. In some cases, the books are virtually identical in detail. In others, they are substantively the same, although the Irving manuscript has been reworded and otherwise disguised. One curiosity: the writing in the Irving manuscript is much better than that in the hastily drafted Phelan version. It is ironic that Irving may be more convincing as a forger than as an author in his own right —just as Elmyr de Hory, Irving’s Ibiza friend and the main character in his book Fake!, is much better at doing Picassos and Modiglianis than he is at doing De Horys.

TIME’S discovery of the link between the Phelan and Irving manuscripts left Irving duly impressed, but he warned there might be surprises yet to come. “It’s more complex than you ever think,” he told a TIME reporter. “You haven’t seen the bottom line yet. There is going to be some big news breaking. So be careful.”

One question still to be fully answered is exactly how Irving got the Phelan manuscript. Noah Dietrich began working on a book about Hughes in Los Angeles during 1969. Jim Phelan, his collaborator, is a widely experienced newspaperman and investigative reporter who has written five magazine articles on Hughes. Says Dietrich: “Phelan would come up to my house in Benedict Canyon and I would dictate to his tape recorder. One hundred hours of tapes. Then he digested this and wrote down a lot of questions, and I dictated a whole batch of memos to my secretary for him.”

Phelan Phase. The project dragged on into 1970. Eventually Dietrich became dissatisfied with Phelan’s work (“It was his first book and I guess he was going for the Pulitzer”). Dietrich and Phelan signed a $40,000 settlement. Dietrich hired another writer, Associated Press Hollywood Correspondent Bob Thomas, who finished the book off in six weeks. Dietrich had been having trouble finding a publisher, and was about to accept a mere $5,000 advance for his book when the Irving story broke last December. Dietrich negotiated a $65,000 advance from Fawcett, which will bring out the Thomas version next month.

During the Phelan phase of the work, the manuscript had been sent to several intermediaries in the search for a publisher. At some point, it evidently stopped at a Xerox machine.

Rather Average. Stanley Meyer, an old friend of Dietrich’s and a sometime Hollywood producer, learned that Dietrich was preparing a Hughes book and said he could help find an agent. On the advice of Novelist Irving Wallace (The Prize), Meyer suggested Wallace’s agent in New York, Paul Gitlin, who handles other authors such as Harold Robbins. Meyer took the manuscript from Dietrich and channeled it, chapter by chapter, to Gitlin in New York.

That process began in November 1970. Gitlin read the chapters as they came in, and sent word to Dietrich that the book seemed “indifferent and rather average.” In January 1971, Gitlin sent the manuscript to Simon & Schuster, which kept it for two weeks. Then in February, says Gitlin, Phelan on his own submitted parts of the book to Look magazine for possible serialization. Phelan denies that he ever approached Look.

In any case, a copy of the manuscript was out of Dietrich’s hands for about three months early last year. Phelan completed the manuscript in April at just about the time Irving allegedly began having his first serious interviews with Howard Hughes. It is possible that Irving had already conceived a Hughes project when the Phelan manuscript fell into his hands. He had begun discussing the project with McGraw-Hill in January 1971, when Phelan was midway in his work.

Last June, Irving appeared at a house in Cathedral City, Calif., that belonged to Stanley Meyer’s mother-in-law. There, Meyer says, he approached Irving, whom he had known in Los Angeles ten years before, and asked if he would be interested in rewriting the Phelan manuscript for Noah Dietrich. “No, I can’t,” Irving replied. “I’m already doing a book on the four richest men in the world [including Howard Hughes].” That was not unusual; all through the project, Irving disguised the fact that he was interested only in Hughes by saying he was doing a book on four of the world’s wealthiest men. He did, however, brag to his cousin Mike Ham-ilburg that he was deeply involved in a book exclusively about Hughes. Meyer claims that he never showed the Phelan manuscript to Irving. Late last week Meyer was subpoenaed to appear before a federal grand jury in Los Angeles that will, like the federal grand jury already assembled in New York, look into the case.

When Irving first approached McGraw-Hill, which had published three of his books, he said that he had received three letters from Howard Hughes expressing tentative interest in having Irving write his authorized biography, living’s editors were intrigued and told him to proceed with the project.

Then began Irving’s intricately orchestrated moves, drawn out over the next ten months, to make the project seem authentic. McGraw-Hill editors received calls from various points —Mexico, Puerto Rico, Miami and other cities—where Irving reported his progress with Hughes. Irving said that he first met Hughes at 7 a.m. on Feb. 13 on a mountaintop in Oaxaca, Mexico. He reported that he had signed a letter of agreement with Hughes in San Juan on March 4. He brought the forged document to New York, and on March 23 signed with McGraw-Hill a contract providing for an immediate $100,000 advance. Eventually McGraw-Hill paid Irving $700,000 in advances, of which $650,000 was intended for Hughes and ended up in the “Helga Hughes” account in Zurich. Irving smoothly explained to the publishers that Hughes, in a stubbornly entrepreneurial spirit, wanted to be paid an honest price for his labors. Throughout the negotiations, Irving maintained a convincing air of plausibility.

On Sept. 13, Irving appeared in New York with what he said were the complete tape transcripts of his sessions with Hughes. McGraw-Hill brought the transcripts to LIFE, which had earlier signed a $250,000 contract for worldwide syndication rights. Throughout the project, LIFE was protected by a prudent escape clause that would permit it to withdraw with no loss of its investment if the material proved not to be authentic.*

Catch-22. Irving had built a Catch-22 into his arrangements with the publishers: they could not meet Hughes, he said, because Hughes might bolt if there were the slightest publicity. Meantime, Irving produced nine documents purportedly from Hughes, including a nine-page letter in longhand to McGraw-Hill. Eventually McGraw-Hill hired a respected New York firm of handwriting analysts, Osborn Associates, to check the Hughes handwriting against samples of his writing dating back to 1936. Said Osborn: “The evidence that all of the writing submitted was done by the one individual is, in our opinion, irresistible, unanswerable and overwhelming.” Last week, said McGraw-Hill, Osborn “issued a revised report which casts doubt on the authenticity of the documents.”

Oddly enough, it was the earlier Osborn certification of Hughes’ handwriting that had kept Phelan from suspecting that his manuscript might be the source of Irving’s fraud. “Up until about ten days ago,” he recalled last week, “I still thought the Irving manuscript was authentic.” What triggered Phelan’s realization and brought him to TIME’S McCulloch was the leaked story about a Hughes aide who talked with Howard from Hedda Hopper’s closet. It was Irving’s story —straight from Phelan’s work.

In an effort to solve the remaining puzzles—including the identity of the person who forged the documents—the federal grand jury in New York last week issued a flurry of invitations to appear. Among those invited were Robert A. Maheu, whom Hughes abruptly fired 16 months ago as head of the organization’s Nevada operations, and Maheu’s son Peter. John Meier, another former Hughes associate, who is now running for the Democratic nomination to the U.S. Senate in New Mexico, has already appeared before the grand jury. Stanley Meyer has been called. Among the many questioned by federal agents are Mike Hamilburg and his wife Hannah, Los Angeles Times Book Critic Robert Kirsch and Las Vegas Newspaper Publisher Hank Greenspun. A subpoena also went out to Robert Edwin Holdorf, a sometime Las Vegas resident who has been thrice convicted for forgery.

Beyond the material that Irving may have taken from the Phelan book and whatever he may have received from people who knew Hughes, Irving apparently drew on his imagination for some of the Hughes book.

Now the most intriguing figure in the case becomes not Hughes but Clifford Michael Irving. Why did he do it? Why did he think he could get away with it? What hubris made Irving imagine that he could bluff his way to more than a half million dollars by stealing a manuscript, challenging the entire Hughes empire, and dealing in recklessly prolific forgeries? Some of the answers may lie in Irving’s career as a nomadic, minor league novelist of a post-Hemingway generation.

Irving grew up in an apartment on Manhattan’s Upper West Side. His father, who changed the family name from Rafsky in the mid-’30s, was Jay Irving, a modestly successful cartoonist who drew covers for Collier’s magazine and a comic strip called Pottsy—about a fat, amiable policeman—for the New York Daily News. The elder Irving was fascinated by cops and filled the apartment on West End Avenue with police memorabilia.

Those who knew Jay Irving, who died two years ago, are struck by the similarities between him and Howard Hughes’ father. Each was self-centered, demanding of his only son but never close to him, a dominant, feared figure. About his father, Cliff Irving has told friends: “He was always pushing me to go to Hollywood. He had this image of me, I think, sitting beside a swimming pool under the palm trees, directing or producing movies.” The elder Irving evidently wanted his son to achieve what he had never gained —influence, money and fame. But Cliff Irving’s priorities, one friend says, are first money, then fame. Although father and son never really got along, Clifford said that before he died, Jay Irving “finally came round. He realized he couldn’t change me, and what’s more, that I was doing what he had always wanted to do.”

Irving’s mother, who died within six months of her husband, was apparently a remote figure in her son’s life —”not a very Jewish mother,” according to one friend. In Clifford’s first and largely autobiographical novel, On a Darkling Plain, a main character, Mike Donnenfeld, muses: “He carried the burden of being an only child and had no idea of how to lighten the load except by creating this illusion of success.”

Irving attended public schools in Manhattan and played curb ball with friends that included William Safire, now a speechwriter for President Nixon. Between games, they sat on the stoops and talked about girls. “Cliff was way ahead of us,” says Safire. Even as a very young man, Irving was developing what some who knew him regarded as an extraordinary animal magnetism. Another old friend admits with a touch of awe: “The grip he has on women is incredible.”

First Nina. In his later life, women and romantic fantasy have been a consistent theme. At the start, says an associate, “he sees them all like women in a Hollywood movie—beautiful, unharried, desirable. So he wants them. He gets them—boy, how he gets them. But once he has them, he gets bored very quickly. All the dreary little details of living together, raising kids, that drives Cliff right up the wall. So he creates a new fantasy, looks for a new woman and starts all over again.”

Entering Cornell University in 1947, Irving plunged into books, freshman crew and Pi Lambda Phi fraternity, of which he was elected president in his senior year. Initially he wanted to be an artist. Then he read Ernest Hemingway, whose style in life and prose had a profound effect upon him. “Erom that point on,” says a classmate, “he wanted to be a writer.” He took creative-writing courses at Cornell, stayed on for a year after graduation on a creative-writing fellowship.

In March of his senior year, Irving married a beautiful coed named Nina Wilcox. Cliff was, Nina recalls, “an impassioned guy, discovering art and books.” Together, says a classmate, they were “the golden couple.” Nina introduced him to politics, and through her influence, he joined Students for Peace, an anti-Korean War group. The marriage broke up—he wanted to travel, she wanted to finish college—and was annulled in 1953. Even today Nina, who is married to TV Producer Marc Merson, weeps when she sees her beleaguered first husband on television. But, she says with some disillusionment, “In the beginning I was Mrs. Defender. But now all these lies —more and more lies.”

Like Hemingway’s Nick Adams, Irving began wandering in quest of experience—”to taste life,” he said, “to search for the basic truths.” First he went to Detroit to work in a machine shop and absorb the life of the working class. For a time he was a Fuller Brush man in Syracuse. Then he went to Europe, where he finished On a Darkling Plain, a novel in which three college buddies encounter the disillusionments of the postwar world. On the dust jacket, the publisher offered an “unqualified guarantee of reader satisfaction” or the book could be exchanged.

Through the ’50s, Irving continued to travel and write. In 1957 he published his second novel, The Losers, a New York chronicle of a businessman-idealist and an artist-opportunist. It is narrated by a cartoonist. With great pride, Irving quotes Poet Robert Graves as calling it “the best short novel I have read in 20 years.” That is by far the most extravagant praise his works have ever drawn. His next book, The Valley, was an adult western published in 1961. In 1966 came The Thirty-Eighth Floor, about an American black who becomes acting U.N. Secretary-General. The reviews were tepid or nonexistent.

Fistfight. His wanderings took him as far as Kashmir. If he lacked Hemingway’s stature, he had gathered a certain amount of tragic experience to draw on. His second wife Claire, whom he had met on Ibiza, died in a car crash in Monterey, Calif., in the late ’50s, when she was eight months pregnant. The wife of Novelist Dennis Murphy was also killed in the crash, and Irving, who had often been unfaithful to Claire, had a drunken fistfight with Murphy over who was to blame for the accident.

In 1961 Irving turned up in the Beat writers’ enclave of Venice, Calif. With him was a beautiful aspiring poet and former fashion model named Fay Brooke. For a time, they borrowed an apartment from Novelist Lawrence Lipton (The Holy Barbarians), one of the old men of the Kerouac generation. “He tried to make the scene here,” says Lipton, “but he failed. There was agony, soul-searching, fights with Fay. He may have been the closest thing Cornell had to a hippie, but you know what that means —sometimes he didn’t tie his tie.” Lipton adds disdainfully: “He never bought a beret.”

Lipton and the other Beats suspected that Irving was merely slumming. Almost from the start of his year in Venice, he lived a kind of double life, cultivating wealthy Hollywood producers and directors. One of his friends was Screenwriter Ernest Lehman, who is now the director of Portnoy’s Complaint. Lehman introduced Irving and Fay to Irving Wallace and Stanley Meyer. Tn his private journal, Wallace remembers Fay as “a fantastic girl, incredible beauty—beautiful figure, beautiful neuroses, beautiful mind.” His portrait of Irving is less flattering: “Fay told me Cliff is incapable of love. He is too selfabsorbed. As a writer and as a male, he’s lazy. He will write only out of himself. He has no curiosity. I once suggested to Cliff that he make a doctor or a lawyer character, but he said I know nothing about a doctor or lawyer. I said, You should do research to get into their skins, but he wouldn’t.”

Ambivalence. Fay and Cliff were married in 1961 and soon had a son Josh. Their life together was never idyllic. “He drank heavily,” Lipton recalls. “His favorite pastime was to get high and spin fantasies of fame and fortune.” Sometimes he beat Fay. Apparently he also gambled and womanized, and then lied about his activities to Fay and his friends. For all that, Irving Wallace recalls, “Cliff was a winning person, a little egocentric but very charming, loose and easy.”

During the 1961-’62 school year, Irving taught creative writing at the U.C.L.A. Extension school, a job he obtained on the recommendation of Robert Kirsch. Later he picked up expense money by selling a script to TV’s Bonanza and doing other television work. By the spring of 1962, he had abandoned the down-and-out lifestyle.

It was in late 1962 that Irving and Fay took off for the Balearic island of Ibiza, which Lipton calls “the Foreign Legion of the pseudointellectual literary jet set.” Irving had lived there off and on during the ’50s. Now he made his home there in an exotically primitive colony of artists and writers and international posers. Fay soon drifted away; they were divorced in 1965. In 1967 he married Edith, a German-born abstract painter who had fled to Ibiza after her divorce from a businessman in Wuppertal, Germany. Edith and Clifford had two sons, Ned and Barnaby.

He and Edith settled into what he describes as “a simple life that gives you a sense of your own awareness.” Yet, in his late 30s, he had failed to produce the Big Novel. One inspiration that Ibiza did give him, of course, was Elmyr de Hory, the elegantly elfin and occasionally bitchy art forger who was the subject of Irving’s best-known book, Fake! Even though its reviews were good, Fake! sold fewer than 30,000 copies.

Actually, Cliff Irving, with seven published books, had gone farther than thousands of other young men of his generation who grew up trying to be writers in imitation of Hemingway. Still, Irving was in the literary backwaters. Then, by transferring all of his fictional dreams to nonfiction form —in a grand hoax—he finally performed an act of daring imagination. Through his Howard Hughes, through all of the minutely conjured secret rendezvous, through the forgeries, Irving, in some perhaps sleazily refractory way, entered a world of tabulation in which he was simultaneously living and creating high adventure. “Cliff lives in a world of fantasy,” says a friend, “a world that he creates to suit himself. When he creates a fantasy, it quickly becomes reality to him. He believes what he has created.”

Perhaps that accounts for the man ic good spirits in which Irving was breezing through an ominous round of court hearings in Manhattan. “He’s onstage,” says an acquaintance. “The biggest stage he’s ever been on, a stage far beyond his wildest dreams of a couple of years ago.” Last week he was even turning up at Manhattan cocktail parties. When someone asked how he felt as one disastrous revelation followed another, he grinned: “It reminds me of the story of the guy who jumped off the top of the Empire State Building. About halfway down, another guy stuck his head out the window and yelled, ‘How do you feel?’ And the guy in the air yelled back, ‘I’m okay so far!’ ”

Then, too, Irving may be hoping that out of the Hughes affair he will get an even better story than the billionaire’s “confessions” he tried to peddle. Speaking of that book on the whole affair, says his friend, Jim Sherwood, “he told me, ‘Jim, it’s going to be a marvelous book!’ And he ticks off the chapters as they happen each day.” On another occasion, Irving told his former lawyer, Martin Ackerman, that “someone up there”—pointing skyward—was following him and filming his life.

A film or a book is surely there now in Cliff Irving’s life as it never was before. In some secret proscenium of his fancy, Irving seemed to be reveling in his part. He had become a modern anti-hero of sorts—a bilker of corporations and master of that old American art form, the tall tale. He could never have done it, of course, without Howard Hughes, that odd fixture of Americana with his inexplicable privacies. Probably no other famous figure in the world would have invited such a scheme, because none is so inaccessible and eccentric. With Howard Hughes, anything is always possible, which made Irving’s story always plausible until the end came. It is tempting to think that when Irving pointed to “someone up there,” he was actually imagining some Jovian Hughes taking it all in with a wide, astonished eye. Perhaps Jay Irving was right: Cliff should be in Hollywood.

* After TIME obtained the Phelan manuscript, LIFE announced last week that it was canceling its plans to publish excerpts of the Irving book. McGraw-Hill, keeping its own counsel, still held out some apparent hope for the Irving version. It announced simply that Phelan had supplied “additional information7′ on the book’s possible origins.

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