6 Famous Literary Forgeries and How They Were Discovered


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Clifford Irving's Autobiography of Howard Hughes

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Clifford Irving secured a $750,000 advance for the "autobiography," of Howard Hughes, which he penned himself. Time & Life Pictures/Getty Images

After reading a 1970 Newsweek piece on Howard Hughes titled "The Case of the Invisible Billionaire," Clifford Irving had an idea: Why not pen a totally fake autobiography of the fascinating character? At the time, Hughes had gone into hiding on Paradise Island in the Bahamas, and Irving was captivated by his eccentricity. Not to mention, Irving was kind of an expert on forgery, having just written the as-told-to memoir, "Fake!: The Story of Elmyr de Hory, the Greatest Art Forger of Our Time."

Drawing on his expert knowledge, Irving carefully pored over a Hughes letter that had been reprinted in the Newsweek article and started to pen letters from the billionaire. He told his publisher he'd struck up a close friendship with Hughes and was meeting with him in the tropical paradise, banking on the fact that Hughes was so anti-attention, he'd never rebut the claims. The plan worked — Irving scored a $750,000 advance for Hughes' "autobiography," got $250,000 from Life magazine for the serial rights, and another $400,000 from Dell for paperback rights. Irving went on a major media tour, and for all intents and purposes, his story seemed to check out — until Hughes came forward.

In 1971, the reclusive billionaire vehemently denied knowing Irving and soon after, Swiss banking investigators busted Irving and his wife for possessing a bank account in the name of "H.R. Hughes." One year later, the couple pled guilty to conspiracy in federal court and in state court, along with Irving's research assistant, Richard Suskind, who pled guilty to conspiracy and grand larceny. Irving served 17 months of a two-and-a-half-year sentence. Seeing an opportunity for more fame, he and Suskind published the book, "Clifford Irving: What Really Happened" that year (it was later reissued as "The Hoax").

"Had I succeeded, no one would have been hurt," he told reference work Contemporary Authors. "If I had it all to do over again, I would do it all, with one difference. I would succeed."