CRIME : The Fabulous Hoax of Clifford Irving

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In March of his senior year, Irving married a beautiful coed named Nina Wilcox. Cliff was, Nina recalls, "an impassioned guy, discovering art and books." Together, says a classmate, they were "the golden couple." Nina introduced him to politics, and through her influence, he joined Students for Peace, an anti-Korean War group. The marriage broke up—he wanted to travel, she wanted to finish college—and was annulled in 1953. Even today Nina, who is married to TV Producer Marc Merson, weeps when she sees her beleaguered first husband on television. But, she says with some disillusionment, "In the beginning I was Mrs. Defender. But now all these lies —more and more lies."

Like Hemingway's Nick Adams, Irving began wandering in quest of experience—"to taste life," he said, "to search for the basic truths." First he went to Detroit to work in a machine shop and absorb the life of the working class. For a time he was a Fuller Brush man in Syracuse. Then he went to Europe, where he finished On a Darkling Plain, a novel in which three college buddies encounter the disillusionments of the postwar world. On the dust jacket, the publisher offered an "unqualified guarantee of reader satisfaction" or the book could be exchanged.

Through the '50s, Irving continued to travel and write. In 1957 he published his second novel, The Losers, a New York chronicle of a businessman-idealist and an artist-opportunist. It is narrated by a cartoonist. With great pride, Irving quotes Poet Robert Graves as calling it "the best short novel I have read in 20 years." That is by far the most extravagant praise his works have ever drawn. His next book, The Valley, was an adult western published in 1961. In 1966 came The Thirty-Eighth Floor, about an American black who becomes acting U.N. Secretary-General. The reviews were tepid or nonexistent.

Fistfight. His wanderings took him as far as Kashmir. If he lacked Hemingway's stature, he had gathered a certain amount of tragic experience to draw on. His second wife Claire, whom he had met on Ibiza, died in a car crash in Monterey, Calif., in the late '50s, when she was eight months pregnant. The wife of Novelist Dennis Murphy was also killed in the crash, and Irving, who had often been unfaithful to Claire, had a drunken fistfight with Murphy over who was to blame for the accident.

In 1961 Irving turned up in the Beat writers' enclave of Venice, Calif. With him was a beautiful aspiring poet and former fashion model named Fay Brooke. For a time, they borrowed an apartment from Novelist Lawrence Lipton (The Holy Barbarians), one of the old men of the Kerouac generation. "He tried to make the scene here," says Lipton, "but he failed. There was agony, soul-searching, fights with Fay. He may have been the closest thing Cornell had to a hippie, but you know what that means —sometimes he didn't tie his tie." Lipton adds disdainfully: "He never bought a beret."

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