Businessmen’s Autobiographies

PrintPrintEmailEmail

Drew, at least, was thirty years in his grave when Bouck White pulled off his scam. But the subject of Clifford Irving’s work was very much alive in 1971, when McGraw-Hill announced the publication of The Autobiography of Howard Hughes . The result was the greatest scandal in American publishing history and one of the biggest news stories of the 1970s.

How big was it? Consider this. On February 18, 1972, the lead headline in the tabloid New York Daily News was HUGHES MOVES TO NICARAGUA . The second headline, in smaller type, was NIXON IN HAWAII ON CHINA TRIP , then, in still smaller type, HIS “JOURNEY FOR PEACE” BEGINS .

Irving was, at best, a journeyman novelist whose most successful book had been Fake! , a nonfiction work about Elmyr de Hory, who had made a handsome living, until he was caught, running up Modiglianis and Picassos and selling them to the unwary.

Early in 1971 Irving conceived his scheme. Hughes, born in 1905, had led an astonishing life and then vanished from public sight in the 1950s. His father, a Texas wildcatter, had gotten rich by inventing a drill bit that revolutionized oil exploration.

Hughes took his money, went to Hollywood, produced movies, designed airplanes, broke speed records, survived crashes, dated beautiful women, and grew richer and richer and richer, thanks to a Midas touch that more than overcame an executive style that bordered on the lunatic.

Then he vanished. He gave his last on-the-record interview in 1954, his last off-the-record one in 1958. The unavailability of the newsworthy, of course, is the catnip of journalism, and an ever-growing number of reporters became Hughes watchers, tracking down every rumor. But several billion dollars, as measured in today’s money, can buy a lot of privacy.

Clifford Irving’s book about Howard Hughes triggered the greatest scandal in American publishing history.

Irving had the great good fortune to come upon an unpublished manuscript of the memoirs of Noah Dietrich, who had been Hughes’s closest confidant until they bitterly parted company in the mid-1950s. This allowed Irving to develop a persona for Hughes that was strikingly accurate.

Using forged letters, Irving convinced McGraw-Hill that he had actual contact with Hughes and made a deal that gave him and his “coauthor” an advance, ultimately, of $750,000, a titanic sum by the standards of the early seventies. But McGraw-Hill knew it had the publishing coup of the century. Life magazine paid $250,000 for the first serial rights, Dell paid $400,000 for the paperback rights, and Book-of-the-Month Club guaranteed $325,000.

But Howard Hughes, it turned out, valued his life story even more than he valued his privacy. The Hughes Tool Company immediately issued a press release calling the book a fraud. But Irving convincingly argued, in effect, “What do you expect? They don’t know anything about it.”

It was the simple power of the manuscript, however, that was Irving’s best argument. Shortly after the book’s forthcoming publication was announced, Frank McCulloch, Time ’s New York bureau chief, a dedicated Hughes watcher, and, in fact, the last newsman ever to speak to Hughes, received a phone call from Hughes himself denouncing the book. McCulloch felt immediately that the call was on the up-and-up; nevertheless, when he read portions of the manuscript, he, too, thought it must be genuine.

Even when Hughes arranged a telephone hookup with seven reporters, who questioned him at length while the world listened, McGraw-Hill and Life magazine were determined to go ahead. Only at the last minute, when the checks that had been made out, at Irving’s insistence, to H. R. Hughes were found to have been deposited into a Swiss bank account that had been opened by one Hilda R. Hughes—who turned out to be Irving’s wife—did the whole thing begin to collapse.

Life magazine, which had counted on the Hughes autobiography to help reverse its declining fortunes, was forced to stop its press run, break the plates, and remake the magazine—a hideously expensive thing to do. McGraw-Hill, of course, also took a bath.

Irving went to jail for six months. Howard Hughes retreated to the ever more bizarre world he had created for himself. The Autobiography of Howard Hughes , of course, vanished into McGraw-Hill’s vaults, never to be seen by a public that very nearly bought it by the million. That’s a pity, really. It seems to have been the only really good book Clifford Irving has ever written. Everyone who read it said they couldn’t put it down.