Clifford Irving

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Before it became apparent that Geraldo Rivera really just wanted to give the whole world a free mustache ride, he was a respected, muckraking journalist who filmed a sensational and righteous report about abuses at Willowbrook. He instantly became a national name and soon had other opportunities, including a really good if sporadic 1973-75 late-night talk show, Good Night America.

In a summer 1974 episode, he spoke to someone I’m fascinated with in Clifford Irving, who’d written a 1969 book about art forger Elmyr De Hory before bringing out another volume in 1972, one in which he pretended that the reclusive Howard Hughes had collaborated with him on an autobiography. McGraw-Hill took the bait and gave him a boatload of cash for the “exclusive,” but the Hughes ruse was soon exposed. Irving was operating in an era when people still distinguished between fact and fiction, so his career went into a Dumpster for awhile.

Orson Welles, an infamous hoaxer himself, made a brilliant, serendipitous cine-essay, F Is for Fake, about the scandal as it unfolded, and Irving was grilled at the time by everyone from Mike Wallace to Abbie Hoffman. In a marriage-themed show, Geraldo speaks to Irving and his wife Edith about the toll on their relationship caused by the fraud’s fallout, which included prison sentences for them both. (They had just been released on parole when this program was filmed.)

The host also speaks to Sly and Kathy Stone about their wedding ceremony in front of more than 20,000 people at Madison Square Garden and shows footage of the event. The final segment is with comedian Robert Klein and his then-spouse, the opera singer Brenda Boozer. Loathsome Henny Youngman is the guest announcer, serving up Zsa Zsa Gabor jokes. Holy Mother of God! Watch it here.•

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If you read this blog regularly, you know I’m a little obsessed with Clifford Irving, the writer who in 1970 accepted a million-dollar check for his authorized biography of the reclusive millionaire Howard Hughes. One problem: Hughes knew nothing about the book. The author was trying to pass off a fake and pocket a huge payday, and just as fascinating as the ruse was Irving doggedly sticking to his story even after the whole thing fell apart spectacularly. It was a literary scandal of Madoff-ian proportions, and a case study in extreme psychological behavior.

In 1972, as Irving was about to serve a stretch in prison for fraud, Ramparts magazine assigned Abbie Hoffman to do a Q&A with the trickster. An excerpt from the resulting article, “How Clifford Irving Stole That Book“:

Abbie Hoffman:

Did you ever get the idea, once the authenticity was questioned, of publishing it as a work of fiction? Would that have been really possible?

Clifford Irving:

You mean since recent events?

Abbie Hoffman:

Yeah.

Clifford Irving:

Oh, yeah, I still would like to have the book published. I think it’s the best novel I’ve ever written and it could easily be turned into a novel. It could also be published as is, provided libelous passages were taken out of it and provided that it stated very clearly that it’s a bogus autobiography of Howard Hughes. There is a court ruUng on it. As we understand it the court has given us permission to publish part or all of the book, provided that it’s made perfectly clear that it doesn’t purport to be genuine.

Abbie Hoffman:

I thought a funny incident occurred at Germaine Greer’s press party when you were introduced to Chief Red Fox. Could you talk about that a little?

Clifford Irving:

I went to this cocktail party. I was dragged along by Beverly Loo and Robert Stewart. I hate those damn cocktail parties but I had nothing to do and I wanted to meet Germaine Greer ’cause I heard she was six feet tall. But she was far more interested in talking to women’s liberation people and I stood around like a dope for awhile until I saw this beautiful old man in a corner. I asked about him and was told that’s Chief Red Fox, a 101-year-old Sioux Indian chief, and I said, ‘Beautiful, I’ve got to meet him.’ And I sat at his feet for an hour or two, talked to him, and he was a marvelous old man. But the way he came on to me with the broad American accent and told me how he danced at supermarket openings and was on the Johnny Carson Show where he did a war dance to liven things up, also the way he talked about Indian history, made me a little leery and I thought, well, he’s great but he’s not a 101-year-old Sioux Indian chief. Despite the fact that he was decked out like a technicolor western with a war bonnet and greasepaint make-up. And I went up to Beverly Loo and said,’He’s a great man, Beverly, but he’s no more a 101-year-old Sioux Indian than you’re the Empress Loo of the Ming Dynasty. She got very uptight about that and said, ‘What do you mean? How dare you!’ and I decided not to upset her any further so I backed off. Then of course it turned out later that there were great doubts thrown on the veracity of his books and his identity as well. I don’t know if I really smelled it out but something was funny there. I think maybe I was thinking in terms of a hoax since I was involved with one, and Chief Red Fox seemed to fit right into the category.

Abbie Hoffman:

When incidents like that happened did you start to feel you were watching a movie being made about your life or that you were acting out some kind of movie role?

Clifford Irving:

Well, going through that year I often felt that it was a happening because we sometimes had control over events but so many things happened that were absurd. And after awhile—not that I saw myself as a movie star—I saw this whole thing developing as a script, a movie script which no one would ever buy because it was ridiculous, it couldn’t possibly happen. The real and the unreal in a sense became totally confused—not that I really thought I was writing the autobiography of Howard Hughes, although of course in the act of creation you have to believe to a certain extent, but when you stop work you don’t believe any more. I mean you know what you’re doing but all the events had such a quality of ludicrousness and fantasy and coincidence that reality did at times blend with unreality. I think for the publishers as well.•

“I thought, well, he’s great but he’s not a 101-year-old Sioux Indian chief.”

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In 1972, Clifford Irving wrote an “authorized” biography of Howard Hughes, claiming he had the cooperation of the ultra-reclusive  figure. The book turned out to be an elaborate hoax.

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Orson Welles’ 1974 cine-essay about the art of the hoax is sensational in both senses of the word, zestfully beginning as an examination of one fraud and stumbling ass-backwards into an even bigger scam. As if the engaging, globe-trotting Hungarian art forger Elmyr de Hory wasn’t a great enough linchpin for this uncommon documentary, his biographer, Clifford Irving, who was interviewed extensively by Welles for the film, proved to be a better one.

Failed fiction writer Irving seemed to hit his stride in 1969 when he published Fake!, a true-crime account about de Hory, a perpetually struggling artist who decided to exploit his incredible facility for mimicking the painting styles of masters. He’d whip up a Matisse or Picasso and feign being a former Hungarian aristocrat who was selling family treasures because he was cash poor. Plenty of art dealers knew it was a ruse, but since de Hory’s work was so convincing, they tacitly went along with the con to get rich. De Hory’s forgeries purportedly hang in museums all over the world, and his remarkable tale made the book a best-seller and gave Welles his initial subject. But then a better subject emerged.

While the film was being made, Irving’s own more spectacular fraud began to be exposed. His new book, an “authorized” biography about reclusive tycoon Howard Hughes, whom he had never met or spoken to, was proven to be a phony. The fallout gave Welles an even richer palette to work with, and his story gleefully bounces from faker to faker, examining how they did what they did and how they came undone. The resulting work is a playful, freewheeling meditation, a Godardian Welles film, that examines a pair of hoaxers from every angle with eagerness and a respect that’s far more than grudging.

The third hoaxer in the film is, of course, Welles himself, a self-professed “charlatan,” whose 1938 War of the Worlds radio broadcast about Martians invading Earth caused widespread panic in a country that was still very naive about media manipulation. Welles admired scammers because he knew that legitimate artists con their audiences into believing an illusion and that hoaxers are just their purer brethren and their creations valuable. As de Hory says of his uncanny canvases, “If you hang them in a museum long enough, they become real.”

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Welles made a nine-minute trailer that used material not in the final film:

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