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.