MIAMI BEACH, Fla. — Clifford Irving, whose scheme to publish a phony autobiography of billionaire Howard Hughes created a sensation in the 1970s and stands as one of the all-time literary hoaxes, died after being admitted to hospice care in Florida. He was 87.
Irving’s wife, Julie Irving, told The Associated Press he died Tuesday at a hospice near his Sarasota home. She said he had been diagnosed with pancreatic cancer about a week earlier.
Julie Irving and Irving’s sons Ned and Barnaby remembered the writer as a fearless charmer even in his last days.
The day before he died, they said Thursday, Irving asked his doctor to help hasten the process. The doctor demurred, saying he did not want to go to jail.
“Cliff said, ‘Don’t worry, I won’t tell anybody,”’ Julie Irving said. “That was so classic Cliff. He was just conspiratorial to the end.”
A novelist of little note in 1971, Irving conned McGraw-Hill publishers into paying him a $765,000 advance for a book about the reclusive Hughes. His elaborate ruse became the subject of the 2006 movie “The Hoax,” starring Richard Gere.
Irving served 17 months in federal prison for fraud after Hughes emerged to condemn the work as a fabrication. The bogus autobiography wasn’t published until 1999, when it was printed as a private edition.
The scam “was exciting. It was a challenge. It became an adventure,” Irving told the Los Angeles Times in 2007.
The International Herald Tribune called the fake autobiography “the most famous unpublished book of the 20th century.” Time magazine dubbed Irving “Con Man of the Year” in a 1972 cover story.
Irving said the idea of fabricating an autobiography of Hughes came to him after reading a magazine article about the billionaire’s eccentric lifestyle. Hughes’ hermit-like obsession with his privacy all but guaranteed that the “gorgeous literary caper” would succeed, Irving wrote in “The Hoax,” his 2006 account of the scheme.
“Hughes would never be able to surface to deny it, or else he wouldn’t bother,” he wrote.
At the time of the hoax, Hughes had long withdrawn from his life as a powerful industrialist, aviator and filmmaker. He reportedly lived the final 10 years of his life, from 1966 to 1976, in near-total seclusion, even neglecting personal hygiene to avoid contact with the outside world.
Hughes’ intense aversion to publicity gave rise to skepticism about Irving’s claims to have interviewed the billionaire.
Irving insisted that he had several clandestine meetings with Hughes. He submitted to a lie-detector test and produced documents purportedly from the billionaire, including a handwritten letter written to McGraw-Hill.
The letter, forged by Irving, was deemed authentic by handwriting analysts hired by McGraw-Hill. At that point, the publisher decided to move forward with the book.
Irving put the cash advance into a Swiss bank account, opened in the name Helga R. Hughes.
The deception unraveled when investigative reporter James Phelan, writing a book about Hughes, recognized passages of his work in an excerpt from Irving’s manuscript of the autobiography.
Hughes himself then surfaced to conduct a telephone conference with reporters during which he repudiated Irving’s story and said that he never met him. His lawyer sued Irving and his publisher.
At the urging of McGraw-Hill, Swiss authorities investigated the Helga R. Hughes bank account and learned that the deposits had been made by Irving’s wife, Edith.
Irving and his collaborator, Richard Suskind, were indicted on fraud charges and were found guilty in June 1972. In addition to his prison term, Irving returned the $765,000 advance to McGraw-Hill. Suskind was sentenced to six months and served five.
Edith Irving served a total of 16 months in U.S. and Swiss jails for fraud. She left jail announcing her intent to file for divorce.
Irving was unhappy with the movie version of his escapades and asked to have his name removed from the credits as a technical adviser.
“Movie Clifford has the energy of a not-too-bright psychopath. If I were that man, I’d shoot myself,” he wrote on his website. “The movie is best thought of as a hoax.”
The Hughes hoax followed Irving’s book “Fake!,” the story of art forger Elmyr de Hory. The reviews of the book were favorable, but it sold fewer than 30,000 copies.
Ned Irving said his father’s friendship with the forger helped inspire the Hughes scheme. Though traumatized by the imprisonment of both their parents, he and his brother eventually made peace with their father.
“They made an example out of him,” he said. “I think he got a kick out of it. In retrospect, I wish he would have gotten away with it.”
Born in 1930, Irving grew up on Manhattan’s Upper West Side. He attended public schools and his boyhood friends included William Safire, the late columnist and speechwriter for President Richard Nixon.
He attended Cornell University and stayed on for a year after graduation in 1951 on a creative writing fellowship. He worked odd jobs after leaving academia and traveled to Europe, where he finished his first novel, “On a Darkling Plain.”
In all, Irving wrote more than a dozen books. In recent years, he and sixth wife Julie lived in Mexico, Colorado and Florida.
“I never heard my father complain in any of his divorces. They split up the money, the house, the cars, and he’d start right over again,” Barnaby Irving said. “And when I lived with him, there was never a day I didn’t hear the clicking of the typewriter.”