CRIME : The Fabulous Hoax of Clifford Irving

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Actually, Cliff Irving, with seven published books, had gone farther than thousands of other young men of his generation who grew up trying to be writers in imitation of Hemingway. Still, Irving was in the literary backwaters. Then, by transferring all of his fictional dreams to nonfiction form —in a grand hoax—he finally performed an act of daring imagination. Through his Howard Hughes, through all of the minutely conjured secret rendezvous, through the forgeries, Irving, in some perhaps sleazily refractory way, entered a world of tabulation in which he was simultaneously living and creating high adventure. "Cliff lives in a world of fantasy," says a friend, "a world that he creates to suit himself. When he creates a fantasy, it quickly becomes reality to him. He believes what he has created."

Perhaps that accounts for the man ic good spirits in which Irving was breezing through an ominous round of court hearings in Manhattan. "He's onstage," says an acquaintance. "The biggest stage he's ever been on, a stage far beyond his wildest dreams of a couple of years ago." Last week he was even turning up at Manhattan cocktail parties. When someone asked how he felt as one disastrous revelation followed another, he grinned: "It reminds me of the story of the guy who jumped off the top of the Empire State Building. About halfway down, another guy stuck his head out the window and yelled, 'How do you feel?' And the guy in the air yelled back, 'I'm okay so far!' "

Then, too, Irving may be hoping that out of the Hughes affair he will get an even better story than the billionaire's "confessions" he tried to peddle. Speaking of that book on the whole affair, says his friend, Jim Sherwood, "he told me, 'Jim, it's going to be a marvelous book!' And he ticks off the chapters as they happen each day." On another occasion, Irving told his former lawyer, Martin Ackerman, that "someone up there"—pointing skyward—was following him and filming his life.

A film or a book is surely there now in Cliff Irving's life as it never was before. In some secret proscenium of his fancy, Irving seemed to be reveling in his part. He had become a modern anti-hero of sorts—a bilker of corporations and master of that old American art form, the tall tale. He could never have done it, of course, without Howard Hughes, that odd fixture of Americana with his inexplicable privacies. Probably no other famous figure in the world would have invited such a scheme, because none is so inaccessible and eccentric. With Howard Hughes, anything is always possible, which made Irving's story always plausible until the end came. It is tempting to think that when Irving pointed to "someone up there," he was actually imagining some Jovian Hughes taking it all in with a wide, astonished eye. Perhaps Jay Irving was right: Cliff should be in Hollywood.

* After TIME obtained the Phelan manuscript, LIFE announced last week that it was canceling its plans to publish excerpts of the Irving book. McGraw-Hill, keeping its own counsel, still held out some apparent hope for the Irving version. It announced simply that Phelan had supplied "additional information7' on the book's possible origins.

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