Crime Library: Criminal Minds and Methods

Clifford Irving's Hoax

The Big Con

On January 1971 Clifford wrote a series of letters to McGraw-Hill stating that he had corresponded with the famous Howard R. Hughes, who was allegedly an admirer of his recent book Fake!   According to the letters, Howard expressed interest in having Clifford assist in the writing of his memoirs. The letters promptly caught the interest of the publishing company's top executives who immediately flew Clifford to their offices in New York for a conference.

During the meeting, Clifford explained in detail Howard's interest in having him write his autobiography. To support his claim, he showed the men three letters, purportedly written by "the man himself." The first two letters were largely insignificant. However the third letter was of great interest to the McGraw-Hill executives and allegedly stated that Howard did not want to die "without having certain misconceptions cleared up and without having stated the truth about my life." The letter went on to ask for clarification of when and how the writing was to commence, with an emphasis that there be no publicity surrounding the project. In other words, secrecy was of utmost importance or the deal was to be called off.

McGraw-Hill executives were impressed with the letters and gave Clifford the go-ahead to write the book. There was no question as to Clifford's credibility. After all, he was a successful writer and had worked for McGraw-Hill for approximately twelve years. As far as they were concerned, they were just beginning to embark on a highly profitable deal that could propel the company to great success. The idea was viewed as a windfall in their favor and they were anxious for Clifford to get started so they could reap the benefits.

A series of legal documents were drawn up between Hughes, Clifford and McGraw-Hill in an effort to protect the collaborating parties' interests. The signing of the documents by Hughes was to be of particular stress to Clifford, mainly because he would have to forge Hughes' signature. It was already known that Hughes would never show up to sign the documents himself as he was a recluse and had only left his residence once in more than a decade.

An agreement was signed, using a forged signature made by Clifford. The contract stated that an advance of $500,000 would be paid, of which $100,000 would be paid in advance. Clifford was to receive a total of $100,000, whereas the remaining $400,000 was allotted to Howard. It was one of the largest sums to be advanced by the company in decades.

On top of that, Time-Life Magazine offered $250,000 for serial rights to the manuscript and Dell Publishing Company offered a further $400,000 for paperback rights. Fay, Chester and Linklater stated in their book that at the time, Clifford was one of "the best paid writers in America" but it wasn't enough. 

Clifford stated to McGraw-Hill that Howard wanted another $500,000, when in actuality it was he who wanted more money. McGraw-Hill was initially angered at such an astronomical sum for a manuscript that wasn't yet written. Nevertheless, a deal was struck that would result in an advance of $750,000, of which $100,000 would be paid to Clifford. The remaining monies were made out in checks to Howard. The checks were eventually cashed, however McGraw-Hill hadn't a clue that someone else other than Howard was receiving the money.

With the help of his friend Dick Suskind, who was later approved by McGraw-Hill to be a primary researcher of the story, the two set out to gather as much information as possible. Executives of McGraw-Hill were led to believe that Clifford was well into his interviews with Howard. According to Clifford, by the time the alleged interviews were completed, he had approximately one hundred hours of taped interviews taken from locations throughout the world. Clifford stated that Howard was so fanatic about maintaining his personal privacy and secrecy about the project that he went to extreme lengths to meet Clifford in places where they would not be discovered. McGraw-Hill had no idea that the interviews were merely a part of a grand hoax orchestrated by Clifford and his research companion.

Over the consecutive months, Dick and Clifford scrambled to find any and all information available about Howard Hughes that would make up for the fact that they had never met or spoken with the man. They struck the jackpot when Clifford ran into an old friend of his at his mother's house named Stanley Meyer. It would prove to be a turning point in Clifford and Suskind's charade.

Stanley Meyer
Stanley Meyer

Clifford's old friend Stanley just happened to be looking for someone to rewrite his colleague's biography of Howard Hughes, so that it could be published. The book was a collaboration between journalist/writer James Phelan, also known as "Old Compulsive" and Howard Hughes' ex-accountant and right-hand-man Noah Dietrich. The manuscript had been a long time in the making and following its completion there was difficulty getting it published because it had not been written to the satisfaction of potential publishers.

Noah Dietrich
Noah Dietrich

As Dietrich's friend and referral agent, Stanley suggested that he find someone else to rewrite the book so that it was more publishable. Without Phelan's knowledge, Stanley made a copy of the manuscript, which he showed that summer to Clifford in the hopes that he would take an interest in rewriting it. Clifford had no interest in rewriting Phelan and Dietrich's book. Instead, he had another use for the Phelan/Dietrich manuscript.

Without Stanley's consent or knowledge, Clifford and Suskind made copies of the book to use as a foundation for their own autobiography on Howard Hughes. It was just what they were looking for and if they were able to beat Dietrich to the publishing house, they would get the recognition for the first autobiography on Howard Hughes. They knew that they had to write the story as soon as possible and get it to McGraw-Hill before Dietrich published his manuscript.

In the fall of 1971, the nearly completed book of several thousand pages was handed over to Clifford's publishers for editing. After several days of reading by the McGraw-Hill people, a final assessment was made. The book in its entirety was deemed a wonderful success and ready for the marketplace.

In December 1971, McGraw-Hill made a public announcement that the autobiography of Howard Hughes was about to be published. That same month Clifford received the full sum of his advance. It appeared that he and Suskind had overcome insurmountable odds of convincing the publishing company and more recently the public that the book was indeed authentic. However, Clifford and Suskind were not yet "out of the woods."