Ringside Seat: Election lies bring back memories of largest literary hoax

November 7, 2016

Richard Gere played him in a movie. Mike Wallace interrogated him on 60 Minutes. Howard Hughes called him a fraud.

Author and one-time Santa Fe resident Clifford Irving was the object of all their attention.

I’ve thought a lot about Irving this fall because he set the standard for brazen dishonesty. And brazen dishonesty has been as much a part of this election season as the stump speech.

The worst offenders in New Mexico were Jay McCleskey, who is Gov. Susana Martinez’s hired mudslinger, and his cohorts at the political committee Advance New Mexico Now. They lied about state Sen. Michael Sanchez traveling to Hawaii at taxpayer expense. Once exposed, the attackers still refused to admit they had lied. They want to win at any cost.

McCleskey and the others were inept amateurs compared to Irving. They distributed their smears on postcards, and their lies were caught immediately. Irving faked an entire book about one of the more famous people in the world, and he nearly got away with it.

Publishing house McGraw-Hill in 1971 offered Irving $675,000 after he convinced its executives that he had written the authorized biography of reclusive billionaire Hughes.

Irving forged letters bearing Hughes’ signature to support his claim that they had collaborated on the book. McGraw-Hill’s handwriting experts concluded that Irving’s counterfeit letters were authentic. Then the publisher proudly announced that Hughes, an aviator, moviemaker and adventurer who had gone into hiding in 1958, had chosen Irving to write his life story.

Irving remembers those nerve-jangling times with a certain fondness.

“Even though it was horrifying, it was exciting,” he said by phone one recent day.

Within weeks, many people denounced Irving’s book as a hoax. Hughes was one of them. The recluse surfaced for a conference call with seven reporters, saying he’d never heard of Irving, much less partnered with him on a book.

Shaken but still committed to his lies, Irving went on 60 Minutes and repeated his sensational story to Mike Wallace and millions of viewers. “It was like I was riding on a speeding train, and I was too afraid to jump off,” Irving told me.

He finally told the truth. It didn’t set him free.

Irving admitted his Autobiography of Howard Hughes was a fake. He went to federal prison for fraud, serving about half of a 30-month sentence.

After his release, he eventually moved to Santa Fe, where he lived from 1996 to 2001. He became the city’s most notorious writer, succeeding the late Watergate conspirator John Ehrlichman, author of Witness to Power: The Nixon Years.

Irving now lives in Florida with his third wife. At 86, he’s still writing. He says he’s working on a novel and a memoir about the first 40 years of his life, before his conviction.

Twenty of his books have been published, and he sells them on his website. Many are works of fiction, ranging from Tom Mix and Pancho Villa to a courtroom drama called Final Argument. He also sells his phony biography of Hughes.

He maintains that parts of the Hughes book were thoroughly researched and accurate. “Sections of it were pure fiction — all my contact with him,” Irving said. Irving also made up the astonishing stories about Hughes becoming pals with Ernest Hemingway in Cuba and visiting Albert Schweitzer in Africa.

Asked about this year’s presidential campaign, Irving went straight to the issue of credibility. “I don’t trust either of the candidates,” he said.

But he had no trouble deciding who was less palatable between Republican Donald Trump and Democrat Hillary Clinton. “I voted early, and I voted for Hillary,” Irving said.

He said he never lost the right to vote because of his criminal conviction. But, like many who have gone to prison, he is a jaded observer of those who make the laws.

“I expect politicians to lie. … They don’t even know they’re doing it,” Irving said.

In his head and his heart, Irving always knew he was guilty of perpetrating the biggest literary hoax in history. He didn’t exactly feel relief when he told the truth. He said some of the pressure lessened because he no longer had to spend every day spinning his wild tale of being Hughes’ biographer. But, he said, he also feared the consequences that came with getting caught.

Hollywood turned Irving’s audacity into a 2006 movie, The Hoax. Based on an untrue story, the movie annoyed Irving by embellishing details. Neither Gere nor the screenplay attempted to make Irving look sympathetic.

At least Irving admitted his fraud. The election will end Tuesday without blatant liars confessing or apologizing. Worse, all of them are free to do it again when the next election rolls around. They have it easier than Clifford Irving. For them, lies bring no consequences.

Ringside Seat is a column about New Mexico’s people, politics and news. Contact Milan Simonich at 505-986-3080 or msimonich@sfnewmexican.com.