Great Literary Bleemersnarks: Howard and Clifford

Signature of Howard Hughes

The recipe is simple but the preparation may take some time. Start with your favorite slices of fraud, hoax, scam or forgery. Mix well with several cups of greed. Garnish it with the essence of a failed self-lobotomy. Simmer until done. Serve while hot. That’s a literary bleemersnark.

Today’s favorite recipe: The Autobiography of Howard Hughes (Not!)

When and Where: The plot was hatched in 1970, in Spain. It collapsed in early 1972, in the United States. Not a long shelf-life for such a grand undertaking.

The Bleemersnarkee: Several luminaries here, including McGraw-Hill (Clifford Irving’s publisher), Dell Publications, Life magazine (who planned to publish excerpts of the proposed book) and Howard Hughes. The latter bleemersnarkee could hardly be considered a “victim” but we include him here for the sake of propriety. Luckily, readers were spared, at the time.

The Bleemersnarker: Clifford Irving, his wife, Edith, and his friend Richard Suskind, an author of kids’ books. Yes, it was a conspiracy.

The Plot: Suskind and Irving first spun their fantasy web in 1970. Because Howard Hughes had been the world’s most famous recluse for more than a decade, the duo concluded that he would be indifferent to any scheme they could create. They were banking, literally, on the assumption that Hughes would never again make a public statement or appearance. Suskind was appointed as primary Hughes’ researcher, Irving the writer. Irving helpfully conjured up several forged letters to validate the proposed deal for onlookers. One of these letters purported to be Hughes’ request that Irving write his biography.

Armed with the forged letters, a load of “facts” about the mysterious Hughes, and some major chutzpah, Irving approached McGraw-Hill. Over a short period of time, Irving convinced the publisher to advance nearly $800,000 on the project. The majority of the money was earmarked for Hughes. Checks were dutifully written to “H. R. Hughes,” which were deposited into Edith Irving’s Swiss bank account under the phony name.

By the end of 1971, Irving’s manuscript was in the publisher’s hands. Along with the work product, Irving thoughtfully included more scribbled notes in “Hughes’ handwriting.” Several forensic and handwriting experts, including those provided by Time-Life, declared that everything was on the up-and-up. The deal was done and McGraw-Hill proudly announced a publication date for March 1972.

But Irving’s ship was a leaky one. It sunk in record time and with great gusto.

On January 7, 1972, Hughes unexpectedly surfaced, arranging for a telephone conference call with 7 columnists he had known for years. The event was televised live two days later. Hughes made it clear that the whole episode was a fraud. He knew nothing about it, and didn’t even know Irving, despite the writer’s repeated tall tales about meeting with the recluse often and in some very strange venues. Woops.

Irving tried to hold out for a while but it all came to nothing. Swiss authorities soon discovered the bank account belonging to Edith Irving. Woops, for real.

The Fallout: Irving took the fall but it wasn’t all that painful. Clifford and Edith confessed on January 28, 1972. They were indicted for fraud, along with co-conspirator Suskind. By June, all were found guilty and sentenced. Irving spent a year and a half in jail. Suskind was released in less than six months. The advances were returned to the publishers. Close call, eh? Of course, McGraw-Hill and Time-Life were muddied for a generation or two.

The Reveal: Irving continued to write. His journey into literary fraud was memorialized in two film productions. In the end, the writer survived his flight of fancy with Howard Hughes and life went on. However, it’s this hoax that made him a dubious and enduring celebrity.

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