May/June 1995 | Volume 46, Issue 3
Not only are the good ones surpassingly rare, two of the best are outright fakes
Great autobiographies are few and far between. Not many of us, after all, possess the requisite talent, self-awareness, and willingness to bare our souls to the world. Perhaps, then, it is not surprising that the best of them have so often come out of left field. I know I would have hated its terminally anal-retentive author, had I known him, but The Education of Henry Adams is inescapable in any worthwhile survey of American literature. And U. S. Grant, his mind wonderfully concentrated by the tragic circumstances of sudden poverty and impending death, produced a military memoir that is second to none, not even Caesar’s.
But no group of people, I think, has produced fewer first-rate autobiographies than businessmen. Alfred P. Sloan’s My Years With General Motors comes immediately to mind as an exception, but there are not too many others. This is curious, as businessmen’s lives have often made great fiction ( The Titan by Theodore Dreiser, for instance) and provided the source for perhaps the greatest of all American movies, Citizen Kane .
But even more curious, the lives of real businessmen have, at least three times in this century, been turned into first-rate pseudo autobiographies.
The one in the news recently is Reminiscences of a Stock Operator , by Edwin Lefévre, recently republished after years out of print. Although a pseudoautobiography, it is, let me hasten to add, an honest piece of work—more than can be said for the other two.
Lefévre was a journalist who spent several weeks interviewing the great turn-of-the-century speculator Jesse Livermore. Having done so, he wrote a first-person account of the stock-trading exploits of a Larry Livingstone, first serialized in The Saturday Evening Post and then published in book form in 1923, dedicated to its source.
Although not a stock speculator at all himself, Lefévre did such a good job of evoking the mind of one of the great ones that much of Wall Street immediately assumed that “Lefévre” was nothing more than a pseudonym for “Livermore.” Even The New York Times reviewed the book as nonfiction.
Many Wall Streeters still regard it as nonfiction, at least in the larger sense. For the book is packed with advice speculators should hold dear to their hearts: "[Prices] are never too high to begin buying or too low to begin selling.” “Always sell what shows you a loss and keep what shows you a profit.”
This is why, ever since its first appearance, Reminiscences of a Stock Operator has been regarded as the best possible textbook for those enrolled in Speculation 101, a course that at Wall Street University can be a very expensive one indeed.
Even older is The Book of Daniel Drew . In February 1905 a short filler in the New York Tribune stated that a trunk in an attic, unopened for decades, had yielded a memoir by the early speculator. In 1910 The Book of Daniel Drew appeared, “edited” by Bouck White. It has been in print more or less ever since.
Daniel Drew was one of the legendary characters of early Wall Street. He had invented, and practiced with boundless enthusiasm, many of the tricks that speculators used in those unregulated days to separate the public, and one another, from their money. At the same time, however, Drew was a genuinely pious Methodist, endowing churches with the money he had fleeced from his victims.
Drew, who had little formal education, was hardly likely to have taken to the doubtful solace of the pen in his old age. Indeed, White never produced the memoir that The Book of Daniel Drew was supposedly based on, doubtless because it never existed, while the Drew family from the start called it a fake. But what a fake! The crafty, devious, utterly amoral, but genuinely devout Drew comes vividly to life in its pages. So does the New York of Drew’s day, for White had done his homework thoroughly.
White, in fact, was quite as eccentric as Drew. Born in 1874, five years before Drew’s death, he graduated from Harvard and the Union Theological Seminary and was ordained a Congregational minister in 1904. Almost immediately he began drifting to the left, and his anticapitalist bias is quite clear in The Book of Daniel Drew .
The following year White wrote another book, titled Call of the Carpenter , in which Christ is depicted as a socialist agitator. That was too much for the Congregational Church—not exactly theologically adventurous—and he was defrocked. He formed a church of his own, the Church of the Social Revolution, where in 1919, at the height of the Red Scare, he burned an American flag at the altar along with the flags of nine other nations. White said he was trying to make a point about the folly of nationalism. The judge said thirty days.
White ended his days living in a marvelously eccentric “castle” he had built himself in the Helderberg Mountains of upstate New York, making pottery, but much of his income probably still derived from what is, in fact, a first-rate historical novel.
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.
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.