CRIME : The Fabulous Hoax of Clifford Irving

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On Sept. 13, Irving appeared in New York with what he said were the complete tape transcripts of his sessions with Hughes. McGraw-Hill brought the transcripts to LIFE, which had earlier signed a $250,000 contract for worldwide syndication rights. Throughout the project, LIFE was protected by a prudent escape clause that would permit it to withdraw with no loss of its investment if the material proved not to be authentic.*

Catch-22. Irving had built a Catch-22 into his arrangements with the publishers: they could not meet Hughes, he said, because Hughes might bolt if there were the slightest publicity. Meantime, Irving produced nine documents purportedly from Hughes, including a nine-page letter in longhand to McGraw-Hill. Eventually McGraw-Hill hired a respected New York firm of handwriting analysts, Osborn Associates, to check the Hughes handwriting against samples of his writing dating back to 1936. Said Osborn: "The evidence that all of the writing submitted was done by the one individual is, in our opinion, irresistible, unanswerable and overwhelming." Last week, said McGraw-Hill, Osborn "issued a revised report which casts doubt on the authenticity of the documents."

Oddly enough, it was the earlier Osborn certification of Hughes' handwriting that had kept Phelan from suspecting that his manuscript might be the source of Irving's fraud. "Up until about ten days ago," he recalled last week, "I still thought the Irving manuscript was authentic." What triggered Phelan's realization and brought him to TIME'S McCulloch was the leaked story about a Hughes aide who talked with Howard from Hedda Hopper's closet. It was Irving's story —straight from Phelan's work.

In an effort to solve the remaining puzzles—including the identity of the person who forged the documents—the federal grand jury in New York last week issued a flurry of invitations to appear. Among those invited were Robert A. Maheu, whom Hughes abruptly fired 16 months ago as head of the organization's Nevada operations, and Maheu's son Peter. John Meier, another former Hughes associate, who is now running for the Democratic nomination to the U.S. Senate in New Mexico, has already appeared before the grand jury. Stanley Meyer has been called. Among the many questioned by federal agents are Mike Hamilburg and his wife Hannah, Los Angeles Times Book Critic Robert Kirsch and Las Vegas Newspaper Publisher Hank Greenspun. A subpoena also went out to Robert Edwin Holdorf, a sometime Las Vegas resident who has been thrice convicted for forgery.

Beyond the material that Irving may have taken from the Phelan book and whatever he may have received from people who knew Hughes, Irving apparently drew on his imagination for some of the Hughes book.

Now the most intriguing figure in the case becomes not Hughes but Clifford Michael Irving. Why did he do it? Why did he think he could get away with it? What hubris made Irving imagine that he could bluff his way to more than a half million dollars by stealing a manuscript, challenging the entire Hughes empire, and dealing in recklessly prolific forgeries? Some of the answers may lie in Irving's career as a nomadic, minor league novelist of a post-Hemingway generation.

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