CRIME : The Fabulous Hoax of Clifford Irving

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THE tale came wrapped extravagantly—boxes within boxes, each festooned with its own diminished fantasies, each gaudily papered in ever thinner tissues of lies. The serial revelations in the Howard Hughes-Clifford Irving affair became an extraordinary popular entertainment, a top of the TV news, a front-page divertissement that evoked the distractions of an earlier, less desperate age. Like the Americans who once crowded the docks waiting for the latest chapter of Dickens to arrive by boat, devotees anticipated the next surprises.

As Irving's outrageous story collapsed in on itself, one principal element in the puzzle loomed ever larger and more baffling: Where had the material he spun into his summa of non-books come from. All the supposed Hughes letters, now clearly revealed as forgeries, and all the affidavits of supposed meetings with Hughes had helped Irving create an atmosphere of verisimilitude. But the essence of its apparent validity—and the key to the big con job—had been the words in the manuscript itself. Several experienced editors and publishers at McGraw-Hill and LIFE magazine had read Irving's work and found it convincing in its tone and above all its remarkable wealth of detail about Hughes' complex life. It seemed beyond mere inventive compilation, even given all that has been printed over the years about Hughes. It had an undeniable smack of authenticity.

That authenticity now seems explained. Irving's hoax worked because the base on which he built was largely genuine. In subject matter, Irving's book is identical at many points with the manuscript of a Long Beach, Calif., writer named James Phelan, who had been hired to ghostwrite the story of the man who knows more than anyone else in the world about the life and times of Howard Hughes. He is Noah Dietrich, 83, who for 32 years was Hughes' chief of staff, hatchet man, fixer and right arm. The conclusion emerging from a study of both manuscripts is that much of Irving's book was lifted from Phelan's writings. Irving could have come into possession of the Phelan version, along with 150 pages of the transcript of tape-recorded interviews with Dietrich, some time in the last year. Then, with the help of a researcher, his own imagination, and information supplied by current or former Hughes associates, Irving concocted The Autobiography of Howard Hughes.

No Prune. Through his lawyer, Irving late last week admitted in the U.S. Attorney's office in New York City that his baroquely detailed scenario was a fraud. Irving's lawyer, Maurice R. Nessen, had hurried to the Federal Courthouse for the conference after Richard Suskind, a writer and researcher who had worked with Irving on the manuscript, refused to back Irving's story. In exchange for immunity from prosecution, Suskind said he was willing to testify that contrary to his earlier affidavit, he had never seen Hughes; Hughes had never offered him that organic prune he had once mentioned to lend a touch of credence to the tale.

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