In an era where the media can and has manufactured stories, it’s hard to believe one con artist could turn the tables. Before the Internet and social media, McGraw Hill and Time Magazine were scammed for an amount equivalent to six million dollars by one solitary writer: Clifford Irving.

One of the biggest hoaxes in history was memorialized by Hollywood in The Hoax with Richard Gere in the lead role. Gere’s portrayal of Clifford Irving was filled with subtleties gleaned from real-life details. The audacious and long-standing sham was the product of one man’s desperate attempt to keep his writing career alive and profitable.

Sean Penn’s El Chapo coup had nothing over Irving’s declaration. With his career hanging perilously in the balance, Clifford Irving made a bold claim: He was asked to co-write the autobiography of the world’s most famous billionaire recluse, Howard Hughes. At the time, Hughes had been in seclusion for 20 years – holed up in a Las Vegas hotel he owned – where he existed on a dangerous and eventually deadly combination of Valium, codeine, and large doses of aspirin.

The very idea of gaining exclusive access to the world’s most famous recluse was too much for McGraw Hill to pass up. Negotiations were a muddled mix of miscues, all perfectly orchestrated by the co-writer Irving. Trips to meet Hughes were staged – boondoggles enjoyed by Irving and guests.

Clues to the ruse were ever-present, but ignored. One glaring portent was the subject of Irving’s then recent publication Fake!, which described the life of infamous art forger Elmyr de Hory. One can only surmise Irving’s assimilation of such information served him well since he later forged Hughes’ name on the book contract. However, Irving wasn’t alone in this endeavor. He enlisted the help of Richard Suskind, an old friend and children’s book author, as well as his wife Edith. 

Cleverly, Irving arranged for payment in the name of H.R. Hughes. Checks were cashed and deposited into a Swiss bank by a woman whose identity generated its own media frenzy. Even Henry Kissinger wanted to meet the mystery woman! With a fake passport, Irving’s wife Edith was able to manage the money end of the scam.

To make matters worse, the manuscript Clifford Irving finally submitted was the work of another writer. An unpublished Hughes biography made its way to Irving who prompted passed it off as his own.  

It wasn’t long before McGraw Hill’s reputation was called into question. High-level executives willingly offered public statements in support of Irving’s claims, detailed in a news release issued on Dec. 7, 1971. Even a phone call from Howard Hughes himself failed to derail the project since Hughes was, by then, known for his bizarre behavior.

As if managing the publishers wasn’t enough, Irving upped the ante by accepting an invitation to appear on 60 Minutes where he was interviewed by Mike Wallace.

After his TV appearance, the facade of the protracted con game began to crack. Three weeks after McGraw Hill’s press release, Hughes’ attorney Chester Davis filed suit while Swiss authorities tracked down H.R. Hughes, a.k.a. Helga Hughes, a.k.a. Edith Irving. For their part in the deception, Suskind served five months in prison while Edith served sentences in the U.S. and Switzerland. Clifford Irving spent less than two years in prison and leveraged the entire experience into another book, aptly titled, The Hoax. He also inspired the documentary F for Fake by Orson Welles. Poetically, Clifford Irving landed on the cover of Time magazine in 1972 with the well-deserved moniker, “Con Man of the Year.”

Feature image via Buena Vista Pictures.