Clifford Irving (1930-2017)
Author of TOM MIX & PANCHO VILLA
By Hans Sherrer (Justice Denied’s Publisher and Editor)
December 27, 2017
Clifford Michael Irving died on December 19, 2017 in Sarasota, Florida. He was 87.
Clifford Irving had a connection to Justice Denied. A review of his book Final Argument, was published in Justice Denied’s Issue 33 (October 2006). I wrote that review. The review can be read online at, www.justicedenied.org/finalargument_jd33.pdf. In short, Final Argument is about a man on Florida’s death row whose prosecutor begins to doubt his guilt…12 years after his trial and a month before his scheduled execution.
Not many people under 50 know about Mr. Irving. But for a period of time in the early 1970s he was one of the most well-known people in the English speaking world.
That is why every major news publication in the United States, England, Australia, and other countries published an obituary of Mr. Irving.
I read many of those obituaries. They all focus on a singular event in Mr. Irving’s life. In 1971 he was able to convince the McGraw-Hill book publishing company that he was Howard Hughes’ authorized agent, and he sold them the rights to publish the Autobiography of Howard Hughes.
At that time Howard Hughes was a near mythical figure. He was also the most well-known wealthy recluse in the world. Hughes ownership included a number of Las Vegas hotels, Hughes Airwest airline, and Hughes Tool Company. His passion for privacy was legendary: He had not spoken publicly since 1958, or been seen in public since the mid-1960s.
As a published author, Mr. Irving had a relationship with McGraw-Hill. That provided him the “in” to peddle Hughes’ autobiography. Except it wasn’t. Hughes knew nothing about the book. Mr. Irving had actually written it with research assistance by his friend and fellow author Richard Suskind. They thought that Hughes’ mania for privacy would enable them to get away with their scheme. Mr. Irving told McGraw-Hill that he had compiled the autobiography from more than 100 secret meetings with Hughes.
McGraw-Hill hired world-renowned handwriting experts who authenticated documents Mr. Irving provided that were purportedly written by Hughes. They were actually written by Mr. Irving. He even fooled a lie detector test that didn’t indicate he lied about any questions. He fooled all the experts.
The book was expected to be a runaway bestseller. As an advance on hard-cover book sales, McGraw-Hill provided Mr. Irving with checks made out to H. R. Hughes that totaled $765,000. Unbeknownst to McGraw-Hill the checks were deposited by Clifford’s wife, Edith Irving, in a Swiss bank account she had opened in the name of Helga R. Hughes.
Although some cracks in the scheme had started to develop, it was fully exposed when Hughes did the unthinkable: he agreed to a telephone conference with seven journalists. Their end of the call on January 7, 1972 was televised. Hughes claimed he had never met, talked with, or even knew who Irving was until he learned from news reports about the purported autobiography that he disavowed as fake.
Hughes filed a lawsuit against McGraw-Hill, Irving, Life Magazine (which had bought the rights to serialize the book), and Dell Publications (which had bought the paperback rights). An investigation by Swiss authorities identified that Edith Irving was the depositor of McGraw-Hill’s checks.
The Irvings confessed to their scheme on January 28, 1972.
The Irvings were indicted by a federal grand jury for conspiracy to defraud through use of the mails. They took plea deals on June 16, 1972. Clifford Irving was sentenced to 2-1/2 years in federal prison, and he was released after 17 months. Edith Irving was sentenced to two years in federal prison, with all but two months suspended. They were each fined $10,000. Suskind was not federally indicted.
The Irvings and Suskind pled guilty to separate state charges of grand larceny and conspiracy. The Irvings were given probationary sentences and ordered to repay the money stolen from McGraw-Hill. Suskind sentenced to 6 months in jail.
Edith was extradited to Switzerland where she was convicted of charges related to the false bank account and sentenced to prison. She served 14 months in a Swiss prison before her release on May 3, 1974. After her release she filed for divorce.
The Irvings eventually returned all $765,000 to McGraw-Hill. In an odd twist, the IRS went after Mr. Irving for his non-payment of income tax on that money, and after his release from prison he declared bankruptcy.
At the time the Autobiography of Howard Hughes was described as “the most famous unpublished book of the 20th century.” The irony is it was the most well-researched written account of his life up to that point. Hughes died in 1976.
The idea for the Hughes autobiography came from Mr. Irvings research for the authorized biography of master forger Elmyr de Hory that he wrote, and which was published in 1969: Fake! The story of Elmyr de Hory: the greatest art forger of our time. In 2004 I wrote an article based on Fake! titled, Elmyr de Hory and the loss of privacy and liberty since the mid-20th Century. That article can be read online at, www.forejustice.org/write/fake.html.
Mr. Irvings’ first-person account of the Hughes “autobiography” was published in 1972 under the title: Clifford Irving: What Really Happened (His Untold Story of the Hughes Affair). It was reissued in 1981 under the title The Hoax.
A movie version of The Hoax was produced that starred Richard Gere as Clifford Irving. Although the 2007 movie was well-liked by critics — 85% positive reviews on Rottentomatoes.com — it was a financially unsuccessful, only selling about $7 million in tickets. Irving was hired as a consultant, but he was so disappointed with the final script that he requested his name be removed from the credits.
During a 2007 interview Mr. Irving described the writing and selling of the Hughes autobiography as an “adventure,” and at the time he didn’t think of it as a crime. “We thought it was just a hoax. They can’t put you in jail for a hoax! Especially if you still have the money to give back, as we did. It just seemed like such an elegant act. And also an act from which I thought I could withdraw at any time I wanted.” He admitted the idea he could backtrack was “the great fallacy” of the adventure, and he paid for his naïveté with prison and bankruptcy.
Mr. Irving’s 12th book was published in 1982: Tom Mix and Pancho Villa: A Romance of the Mexican Revolution.
This Memoriam is solely due to my special affection for Tom Mix and Pancho Villa. The following is my review of Tom Mix and Pancho Villa on Amazon.com:
“One of the great novels of the 20th century. Romance. Action. Drama. Clifford Irving’s magnum opus.”
Clifford Irving wrote more commercially successful books, but none had the heart, soul, and grandeur of Tom Mix and Pancho Villa. Mr. Irving also thought it was his greatest writing achievement. The Biography section for his books on Amazon.com states:
“My epic novel, “Tom Mix and Pancho Villa,” received 5-star media reviews that any writer would envy. But it sells few copies and aficionados are an exclusive club. Nevertheless, I’d be proud if on my gravestone these words were carved: “Author of TOM MIX & PANCHO VILLA.””
I did not read a single obituary for Mr. Irving that mentioned his beloved Tom Mix and Pancho Villa, that he wanted to be recognized on his gravestone for writing. Mr. Irving’s requested gravestone inscription is the subtitle for this Memoriam.
Beginning about 2012 Mr. Clifford formatted many of his books for the Kindle (Amazon) and Nook (Barnes & Noble). He also set-up a website, cliffordirving.com.
Mr. Irving, was born in New York City in 1930. He lived in many places, but later in life he settled in Florida. He was active up to early December 2017, when he was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer. His prognosis was grave, and about a week later he died on the 19th in a hospice near his home in Sarasota, Florida.
He is survived by his two sons Ned Irving and Barnaby Irving, and his wife, Julie Irving.
To honor Clifford Irving’s imaginative writing genius that has brought joy to so many people, and will continue to do so although he is no longer with us, I created and sponsored his Memorial on Findagrave.com.
Twenty-four of Mr. Irving’s books are for sale on Amazon.com, with most available in a Kindle Edition.