Read Howard Hughes Online

Authors: Clifford Irving

Howard Hughes


There’s no doubt about it. This is the authentic voice of Howard Hughes. It’s unique, it can’t be duplicated. This is his autobiography.

Frank McCulloch

Bureau Chief,


McGraw-Hill has in its possession a tremendous amount of documentation which indicates beyond the shadow of a doubt that this is the authentic autobiography.

Harold McGraw, Jr.

Chairman, McGraw-Hill Book Company


It’s the most exciting and revelatory first-person story that
will ever have published. It’s fantastic.

Ralph Graves

Managing Editor,


The Autobiography of Howard Hughes, to be published by the McGraw-Hill Book Co., is completely authentic. The raw material in the transcript should go into the archives, not to be opened for 100 years, when the perspective of time will make it a source for researchers as revealing of social history as the diaries of Samuel Pepys.

Robert Kirsch

Los Angeles
Book Critic

This book is dedicated, with love, to my sons
Josh, Nedsky, and Barnaby

THE BOOK YOU are now holding in your hands is one of the greatest untold stories of modern times. It reveals, for the first time, and in his own words, the full and unexpurgated life story of Howard Hughes, one of the most controversial and enigmatic figures of the 20th Century. Billionaire industrialist, daredevil aviator, film-maker and studio mogul, a womaniser who bedded some of the most beautiful women in Hollywood, by the late 1960s he had become known as the world’s richest and most bizarre recluse.

A truly extraordinary story then – all the more extraordinary for the fact that Howard Hughes never wrote his autobiography.

For what you are about to read is actually a hoax – a gloriously audacious, shameless and wildly entertaining scam, as bizarre in its own way as anything in the life of Hughes himself.

It was a hoax that shook the American publishing industry, captured headlines around the world, and led to its architect, Clifford Irving, serving time in prison. Irving was already a best-selling author when, in late 1970, he hit upon the idea of faking the autobiography of Howard Hughes – a man who had not been seen in public, or broken silence, for almost 15 years.

With forged letters Irving convinced his publishers that he had enlisted Hughes’ co-operation in the project. He received cheques made out to Hughes for around £750,000, which Irving’s wife Edith – carefully disguised in wig and dark glasses, with walnuts stuffed in her cheeks – deposited in a Swiss bank account. When suspicions began to
grow, Irving’s forged letters were deemed as genuine by the world’s leading experts. But, at last, he confessed, and went to jail for two years – a seemingly harsh sentence for what had started out as a harmless caper. ‘I never thought I didn’t deserve to be there,’ Irving says now. ‘I remember one guy coming up to me one day in the yard and saying, “You know, Clifford, it’s wonderful to talk to you, because you and I are the only two guys in this place who admit to being guilty.”’

* * *

Clifford Irving now lives in Aspen, Colorado and on the Pacific coast of Mexico, where he spends his days writing and painting. Think Aspen, and you think millionaires and celebrities; but Irving is far from being a millionaire, and one senses that such celebrity as he has enjoyed in his life has been a mixed blessing. For a short while, he says, the notoriety was ‘an ego-kick.’ But the publishing industry took a long time to forgive him. For years he was unable to get his books in print; and while he went on to write a dozen more books, including four
New York Times
best-sellers, what irks Irving most deeply is that it is probably the hoax for which he will always be best known.  

Born in 1930 and raised in Manhattan, the only child of a cartoonist, Irving published his first novel,
On A Darkling Plain
, when he was 26; it was written after hours in the offices of the
New York Times
where he was working as a copy boy. He went on to write many more novels, as well as non-fiction books about the Six Day War and the history of espionage. Restless by nature, he travelled throughout Mexico and Europe. By the early ‘60s he had settled on the island of Ibiza. ‘Cherchez la femme’ had been a prominent theme in his life, and by then he was already onto his third marriage. ‘I was brought up to be in love’, he says. ‘If you met a girl and you wanted her sexually, you had to believe that you loved her, because in my generation that was the only morally acceptable way of going forward.’ And so, in 1965 he married for the fourth time, to a Swiss painter named Edith Sommer, with whom he had two sons.  

Ibiza in the ‘60s was a playground for artists, writers, bohemians and
lotus eaters. ‘A wild place,’ Irving recalls, ‘where the watchword was “anything goes”.’ Among the more colourful members of the expatriate community was Elmyr de Hory, a Hungarian who rejoiced in the dubious reputation of being the most successful art forger in the world. Irving and de Hory became friends, and in 1969 Irving wrote a biography of de Hory’s life. The book,
, ended their friendship, since de Hory objected to the way Irving had described him as ‘a charming crook’ – but it would lead indirectly to Irving’s plan to fake an autobiography of Howard Hughes.

In December 1970, Irving happened upon a
magazine article about Hughes, ‘The Case of the Invisible Billionaire’, describing how Hughes had recently decamped from his 9th floor redoubt in the Desert Inn Hotel, Las Vegas, to a new hotel hideout on Paradise Island in the Bahamas.

Irving was struck by a brainwave. He would fake an ‘authorised’ biography of Hughes. At last! The world’s most enigmatic man unveiled! It would be the story of the century. The reclusive Hughes, Irving reasoned, would never come forward to repudiate the book.

Irving enlisted a writer friend, Dick Suskind, to research the hard detail of Hughes’ life. To convince his publisher, McGraw-Hill, of authenticity, he forged a series of letters ostensibly from Hughes, and modelled on a fragment of handwriting which had appeared in the
article. In it, the billionaire (a neat touch, this) expressed his admiration for Irving’s book on the forger Elmyr de Hory, and suggested that he would be willing to co-operate with Irving on a book about his own life. ‘Hughes’ wrote that he did not want to die ‘without having certain misconceptions cleared up, and without having stated the truth about my life.’ But the project must remain secret, and he would deal only with Irving in any transactions, including financial ones.

It was never really about the money. Life was good. Irving – just turned forty – had a three-book contract; owned a lovely 15-room Ibizan farmhouse, and his own yacht. What he was in search of was adventure.

He negotiated a deal with McGraw-Hill in which ‘Hughes’ was to
receive some $675,000 and Irving himself $100,000. How to bank the cheques? Irving told his publishers that Hughes wanted them made out to ‘H.R. Hughes’. Irving’s wife Edith – a willing co-conspirator – flew to Switzerland and opened an account in the name of Helga R. Hughes into which ‘Howard’s’ share of the money could be paid. Over the next nine months Edith would make several visits to Geneva, withdraw the money in cash and carry it back to Ibiza, where Irving secreted it atop various beams in their farmhouse.

Naively, he claims, he didn’t grasp that they were committing a crime. ‘We thought: They can’t put you in jail for committing a hoax, can they? Especially if you have the money set aside to return, as indeed we did. It just seemed like such an elegant scheme from which I could withdraw at any time I wanted.’ That, he acknowledges with a rueful smile, was ‘the great fallacy’.

Irving told McGraw-Hill that the book would be based on a series of interviews which he was to conduct with Hughes under conditions of the utmost secrecy. To avoid any untoward leaks Irving and his publishers came up with a codename, ‘Project Octavio’, to use in their discussions about Hughes. The author then constructed an elaborate itinerary, travelling to Mexico, Puerto Rico and the Bahamas, reporting back after each trip with ever more fanciful accounts of his clandestine (and completely fictional) meetings with his subject.

These ‘research’ trips had an additional purpose. Irving was in the midst of an affair with Nina Van Pallandt who was famous as one half of a folk-singing duo with her husband Frederick, a Danish Baron. Irving’s meetings with ‘Hughes’ became the cloak to arrange clandestine trysts with Van Pallandt in Mexico and California.

* * *

Becoming more and more involved and fascinated by their subject, Irving and his sidekick Suskind did a huge amount of original research, digging through newspaper files and tracking down people who had known Hughes intimately.
magazine had bought the serialisation rights to the book, and Irving talked his way into the
library. ‘Octavio’, he explained, ‘keeps getting pissed off at me when I don’t have the background information’. In the
library he photographed a treasure trove of files crammed with unpublished interviews, correspondence and personal notes.

And he enjoyed even more extraordinary strokes of luck. On a visit to Palm Springs, he ran into an old friend who happened to be looking for someone to rewrite an unpublished manuscript of the memoirs of Noah Dietrich, who had been Hughes’ right-hand-man for more than 30 years. Irving turned down the offer – but was able to copy the manuscript, and mine it for gems that went into his own book.

Walking into the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences in Los Angeles, he and Suskind were amazed to be told that three boxes of material about Hughes, donated by his former publicity man, had been delivered that same day. No one had yet read them. Among the papers was an extraordinary three-page memo from Hughes to a studio executive in which he applied his engineering expertise to the problem of how best to cantilever the miracle of natural design that were Jane Russell’s breasts. ‘That went straight into the book,’ Irving says.

Back in Ibiza, Irving and Suskind began the painstaking task of assembling the material into the ‘interview transcripts.’ ‘We’d sit there with a tape-recorder and a mountain of notes and research documents. And literally, I would ask, ‘Dick, do you want to be me today or do you want to be Howard? And then we’d start recording.’

So convincing was the voice of ‘Hughes’ emerging from these conversations that it soon became apparent that an autobiography would be a much more readable proposition than a biography – and spare Irving the tedious effort of rewriting the material into the third person. Irving duly created a letter from ‘Hughes’ giving approval to that concept, and in the autumn of 1971, barely nine months after first approaching McGraw-Hill, the author delivered the finished manuscript.

Irving’s introduction to the book alone is a tour de force. In utterly plausible language he describes his astonishment on first receiving a letter from ‘Hughes’ expressing his admiration for Irving’s book on Elmyr de Hory. He describes his various meetings with Hughes, their
sparring conversations, and the growing bond between them. ‘You’re an outsider, of a sort’, ‘Hughes’ tells Irving, ‘a kind of cultivated maverick… a selfish son of a bitch… I have to like any man who goes his own way, as long as he doesn’t step on my toes.’

Piling irony on duplicity, ‘Hughes’ counsels Irving not to trust his publishers, insisting he should be in the room as they read stages of the finished manuscript. ‘Don’t go to their offices. You’ll go out to take a leak and they’ll have two hundred pages Xeroxed before you zip up your fly.’

The book reveals a Howard Hughes that had never been seen before (largely, of course, because he didn’t actually exist). He flew secret combat missions with the RAF in World War II; he visited Albert Schweitzer in Africa; he befriended Ernest Hemingway in Cuba. His womanising had always been an open secret, but here he reveals that he enjoyed affairs with even more Hollywood starlets than anyone had hitherto suspected (sadly, all of them had passed away long before the book’s publication and were therefore unable to confirm or deny Hughes’s boasts). But his greatest, and most secret, love, it reveals, was the wife of a diplomat, whom Hughes names only as ‘Helga’ (by a strange coincidence the same name as the signatory to Irving’s Swiss bank-account). In a moving denouement, Hughes describes how, in a quest to free himself from ‘the bondage of money and power’ he journeyed to India, where he squatted beside the Ganges in the guise of a penniless beggar.

Did Hughes really buy a dozen Monet, Degas and Renoir oils on the international art-market only to keep them locked in a storage facility in Orange County? Was it really Hitler’s carpet on the floor of Hughes’ suite at the Desert Inn Hotel? These were precisely the kind of eccentricities that people expected of the world’s most enigmatic billionaire. The more outlandish the stories that Irving spun about Hughes’ life, the more his publishers believed them.

‘The editors felt they were getting something unique – a wholly new story. They loved that. And I did too.’

Perhaps the most extraordinary invention concerned Hughes’
alleged loan of $400,000 to Richard Nixon before he became President. In the course of their research, Irving and Suskind had stumbled upon a story that Hughes had once loaned $205,000 to Nixon’s brother Donald, to start a chain of hamburger restaurants in Southern California. Irving says, ‘I remember saying to Dick, this is bizarre, but the amount’s not big enough. Let’s double it…’

Extraordinarily, it was later revealed in a scholarly biography of Hughes that the $400,000 figure that Irving conjured out of the air was very close to the truth. According to the biographer, the White House was receiving reports of Irving’s supposed dealings with Hughes from the FBI and managed to acquire a copy of the still-secret galleys of Irving’s book from a Republican source at McGraw-Hill. Believing that Irving was a long-standing Democrat – ‘I wasn’t’, he says, ‘I’m a political nihilist’ – and worried about what else he might be telling the party about Hughes’ loan to Nixon, the White House conspired to burglarize Democratic National Headquarters in the Watergate building.

So Irving was responsible for the impeachment of Richard Nixon?

He laughs. ‘If I felt I had really been a prime mover in the capsizing of the Nixon administration, I would want that carved on my tombstone. If only I could do the same thing for George W. Bush!’

* * *

McGraw-Hill made strenuous efforts to keep the book under wraps. But when news of its impending publication was finally announced, Hughes’ representatives immediately cried ‘Hoax!’ McGraw-Hill accepted Irving’s explanation that so strong was Hughes’ desire for secrecy that he had kept even his closest associates in the dark. And then Frank McCulloch, a
bureau chief, who had been the last person to interview Hughes 14 years earlier, received a telephone call from a man purporting to be Hughes, stating that he had not
with Irving in any way and that the book must be a hoax.

But after reading the manuscript and cross-examining Irving about his meetings with the billionaire, McCulloch became convinced that Irving was telling the truth. Even if it was Hughes on the telephone, the
journalist reasoned, it was consistent with his character to dictate his autobiography and then deny all knowledge of it.

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