Crime Library: Criminal Minds and Methods

Clifford Irving's Hoax


Shortly following the publicity release that the autobiography was due to be published, eyebrows immediately began to rise. Several of Howard Hughes' leading companies, as well as his closest confidents condemned the book and denied Howard's participation. They knew that Howard was a very private man who would never sell his story. However, according to Barlett & Steele, Clifford ignored the charges against him that the book was a phony, stating that Hughes' men "didn't know a damn thing about it."

To make matters worse, Frank McCulloch, a journalist for Time-Life and a Howard Hughes expert, who was the last to interview the great man in 1958, received an unexpected phone call at work. A man professing to be Howard Hughes called McCulloch in a fit of anger. He stated that Clifford and the book he wrote were phonies and that he in no way contributed to the writing of the manuscript. McCulloch told his superiors and informed McGraw-Hill of the conversation. He then approached Clifford about Howard Hughes' denial of knowledge about the book.

Acting wounded because his credibility was being questioned, Clifford angrily suggested that the phone call was most likely a fake. McCulloch decided to read the manuscript himself and form his own opinion. During his reading of the book, McCulloch found the material to be surprisingly accurate in its depiction of Hughes and events in his life.

According to Fay, Chester and Linklater, McCulloch was even more astonished when he went to Clifford's office shortly thereafter and, while waiting for his arrival, accidentally viewed a page that was omitted from the version of the book he read. Within the new section of manuscript, there was a detailed account of a conversation he himself had with Howard years earlier that was off the record and, he believed, was known only to the two men. At that moment, McCulloch no longer questioned the book's authenticity and dismissed the phone call purportedly by Howard as a hoax. Little did he know that his initial intuition was right on the mark because the phone call had indeed come from Howard Hughes.

McGraw-Hill and Life continued to support Irving and his book throughout the ordeal. Barlett and Steele wrote that the primary reason for their continued support was because a nationally recognized firm of handwriting experts, Osborn Associates, declared that the writing samples and legal documents allegedly written by Hughes were authentic. Another reason was that both companies had a lot to lose financially and reputation-wise if the book was in fact a hoax.

Clifford knew the truth and realized that the problems were just beginning. Tensions concerning the book began to increase amongst those involved. In order to further authenticate the book, McGraw-Hill asked Irving to take a lie detector test, which he was unable to finish because he had to go home to Ibiza. The results, although incomplete, showed inconsistencies but no concrete lies.

Finally Howard had had enough of the nonsense and decided that he had to take matters into his own hands. On January 7, 1972 Howard Hughes arranged for a meeting to take place via the telephone, in which he would state the facts of the case to seven journalists. The meeting was televised and later aired across the country. It was the first time Howard spoke publicly in fourteen years.

During the phone conversation, via a telephone loud speaker Howard was asked about his knowledge of Clifford's book. He claimed that he never knew about the book and until recently had never heard of Clifford Irving. In fact, he was surprised that such a thing could ever happen. According to Fay, Chester and Linklater, Howard "never left the Bahamas and had certainly not traveled to the places Irving claimed to have visited in his company".

Following the unprecedented meeting, Clifford gave a press conference in which he stated that the voice on television was not that of Howard. He also showed a copy of one of the letters purportedly written by Howard. Clifford refused to give up his position. He continued to declare that the book was genuine when he was later asked to appear in a televised CBS interview with Mike Wallace on Sixty Minutes.