Cliff's False Notes
Who was to blame for Clifford Irving's fake Howard Hughes autobiography? Irving, for sure, but don't forget the publishing industry.
Edith and Clifford Irving have been sentenced in a deal quite as shoddy as their own transactions, and it would be bathetic to romanticize them. This mistitled book--for the "affair" never directly involved Howard Hughes at all--by a star troika of The Sunday Times of London errs neither in this direction nor in that of abusing them, though it cannot conceal the distaste that any cultivated person must feel toward these hoaxers manques and their greedy real victims. Where Hoax does err, 'however, is in its view of Hughes as such a victim, and in its conclusion that "Howard Hughes and Clifford Irving deserved each other." (The publishers go beyond the authors: "the basic question," the Viking Press assures us on the jacket, is "whether or not Howard Hughes deserved to be hoaxed." We are not told how one earns hoaxing.)
It would be quite accurate, on the strength of this book, to say that it was Irving and his publishers--hardcover, softcover and magazine--who deserved each other: had he not been exposed, they would have been not his victims but his accomplices in victimizing the customers who bought the fake in the belief that it was genuine. Let us not forget that, when this particular cesspool spilled over last winter and The New York Times polled some of the eminences of book publishing, all of them, with the uniquely honorable exception of Roger W. Straus, Jr., president of Farrar, Straus & Giroux--"The avarice and stupidity of McGraw-Hill is not to be believed," he said--formed a human-all-too-human wall round McGraw-Hill like US Senators protecting a colleague trapped en deshabille in a raid on a den of vice.
Apart from their own egregious appraisal of the hoax, to which they ascribe "historic dimensions," Messrs. Fay, Chester and Linklater have done an extremely workmanlike job of tracing and correlating all the facts that could be found concerning the attempt to defraud not Howard Hughes but McGraw-Hill, Time-Life and anyone else who might be greedy enough to be suckered by a scheme to exploit the prurient curiosity of the American public and the rapacity of those whose business it is to scratch that itch with word and picture. The authors of Hoax, though they make no effort to hide their distaste for all the principals in this shabby affair, are always scrupulous with fact. What interested the merchants of letters--McGraw-Hill, Time-Life, the Book-of-the-Month Club, Dell Publishing--was not literature or history: it was dollars. There was apparently a durable if puzzling superstition among leaders of the magazine and book industries to the effect that an "inside story" about Howard Hughes would be a dollar factory--that hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of readers would gladly pay out money for the same. Such was the folk belief among the men of "the media," and Clifford Irving decided that he was going to build that dollar factory.
The authors of Hoax show how amazingly often he merely improvised, and how frequently Hughes's own efforts to avoid publicity redounded to Irving's benefit. It was Irving's special good luck, too, to be able to profit by the labors of disgruntled retainers and former retainers of Hughes. Their intense involvement in their own ends, which were not always noble, tended to favor Irving's. Indeed, if one of these disaffected vassals had not been so harassed by his profligacies and his creditors that he did not always watch where he was going, Irving's fraud might never have been discovered until its actual publication. Apparently, however, Irving relied so heavily on Hughes's almost pathological aversion to publicity that he expected him to do nothing even when the fabrication should appear; or else the writer's confidence in his own forgeries--of Hughes's handwriting as well as of his life and times--was blinding in its dazzle. Or, perhaps, he simply did not look so far ahead.
It is true that none of the buyers of the book, had it been published, would have suffered substantial financial loss. But there is another kind of fraud that has nothing to do with money. Witness those friends of the Irvings in the Hotel Chelsea and on the island of Ibiza who acclaimed them, in interviews with the authors of Hoax, as modern folk heroes, superbly imaginative revolutionaries, Robin Hoods of the disinterested ripoff for the principle of the thing.
To get back to Hughes, who was, one might say, Irving's raw material, or semi-finished goods: had Irving succeeded, he would have invaded Hughes's privacy, and very possibly circulated lies about him. But there would have been, of course, no question of defrauding him, since Irving was scrupulous about one thing--avoiding any contact with Hughes. This brings us to an issue that the publishers of Hoax purport to raise whether the powerful rich man has the right "to impose his unique concept of privacy in an open society." One questions the good faith of this oversimplification. The authors of Hoax dilate on Hughes's efforts to prevent both the unwarranted exposure of his personal life--in which there is indeed no conceivable legitimate public interest--and the proper
disclosure of his acts and utterances as a man who can and does control large sectors of public life, dominate local or regional politics, impose his own notions of what constitutes "enough" employment for people of the wrong color--to take only a few examples of the public powers of a Howard Hughes. Irving, however, proposed to specify, and McGraw-Hill and the rest to publish in detail, the history of Hughes's erotic life, in search of which Irving wined and dined any likely informant. And anyone who has ever contemplated a book about a public figure knows how insistent publishers are on the inclusion of such juicy bits, and how irritably pessimistic they turn when an author rejects the role of scandalmonger.
"In what way," the Viking Press asks, "should publishers and readers evaluate Clifford Irving?" The answer is not unrelated to the identity of the victims. Irving and his would-be accomplices are as much victims of the society in which they flourish as that society would have been theirs. The hoaxer, his collaborators, his addled admirers and apologists are the artifacts of a culture that has long passed its noon.