Clifford Irving almost got away with it. It was exactly 35 years ago that his sham autobiography of Howard Hughes nearly made it into bookstores, before the reclusive billionaire granted a rare press conference (via telephone) in which he claimed never to have met Irving, let alone participated in the marathon interview sessions upon which the book was said to be based. The game was up. Irving pleaded guilty and went to jail, egg-faced publisher McGraw-Hill stopped the presses, and The Autobiography of Howard Hughes retreated into myth. The author recounted those events in his 1981 memoir The Hoax, which has now been adapted into a feature film directed by Lasse Hallström and starring Richard Gere as Irving. Scott Foundas recently spoke to Irving from his Aspen home.
Foundas: How do I know this is the real Clifford Irving? Irving: You don’t, but I’m going to answer questions on behalf of me whether you know it’s me or not.
What’s your take on the movie? I have several takes on it. First of all, it’s very hard for me to see if it’s a great movie or a good movie or a bad movie or an indifferent movie, because I’m too close to it. I enjoyed a lot of it. I think it’s fast moving. And I think Richard Gere is terrific in it, even though the character that he plays is not me. If I was that guy, I’d shoot myself, because that guy is desperate.
So, why is it that we so often seem to prefer a compelling fabrication to the cold, hard truth? I guess that telling my story as it really happened would be a little bit more complex than a lot of directors and Hollywood production companies would want to deal with, because contrary to the way this movie portrays things, it wasn’t the story of a guy who was broke, desperate, and washed-up. It was the story of a guy who was quite successful—I wasn’t burning the world down, but I had a four-book contract at the time, I owned a big house in Spain, I owned a boat and a Mercedes, and my wife had a private income. We were very well off, and it’s harder to grasp why someone like that goes off on an absurd, zany experience than why the character in the movie does.
Was there a certain thrill to the idea of potentially getting away with it all? Sure. It was the challenge and it was that feeling that we could get out of it anytime that we wanted to, that it wasn’t a crime, that we had the [advance] money in what we considered escrow. There was the sense that, “We’re only pulling a hoax. If worst comes to worst, we can always say, ‘Hey guys, why don’t you just publish it as a novel?’ ”
Was there a point at which you realized there was no turning back? I did make an effort to tell the truth, because I felt it was time to do that. But did I achieve that? I don’t know. I tried. I’m always asked why I did what I did and I never have a good answer, because it’s hard to dig deep as to motivation in your own life. I was talking to Richard Gere the other day and we kind of honed in on something that not many people have talked about thus far, which is that the climate of the late 1960s and early ’70s was a climate of happening and events. And where I lived, on the island of Ibiza, that was a community of anything goes. It was sex, drugs and rock ‘n’ roll. It wasn’t the real world. And that was a very important part of what happened that, unfortunately, is not included at all in the movie.
What are you working on now? I’m writing a novel about the early life of Claude Monet and his struggles against poverty and the art establishment. When I come up against obstacles in that, I get back to writing a memoir about the first 20 years I lived in Europe, in the 1950s and ’60s. That’s called Rejoice, Young Man and it’s kind of a wild story. Looking back over my life, I’ve done a lot of things that were even riskier than the Hughes hoax.