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Howard Hughes prankster Clifford Irving dies at 87

December 22, 2017 GMT

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, said he died Tuesday at a hospice near his Sarasota home. She said he had been diagnosed with pancreatic cancer.

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.

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.

Irving put a $765,000 cash advance from McGraw-Hill into a Swiss bank account, opened in the name Helga R. Hughes.

The deception unraveled when reporter James Phelan, writing a book about Hughes, recognized passages of his work in an excerpt from Irving’s manuscript of the autobiography.

Hughes then held a telephone conference with reporters during which he repudiated Irving’s story. 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 advance to McGraw-Hill.

Edith Irving served a total of 16 months in U.S. and Swiss jails for fraud.

Born in 1930, Irving grew up on Manhattan’s Upper West Side. In all, Irving wrote more than a dozen books. In recent years, he and sixth wife, Julie, lived in Mexico, Colorado and Florida.