In late 1971, an extraordinary publishing event was announced. After fifteen years as a recluse, communicating nothing to the outside world, the billionaire Howard Hughes, maverick aircraft and movie mogul, inventor, and designer of a cantilevered brassiere for Jane Russell, had decided to publish his autobiography. It would correct the rumours about his bizarre, obsessive-compulsive behaviours, the sealed world of his Las Vegas penthouse. ‘It would not suit me to die without having certain misconceptions cleared up and without having stated the truth about myself’, Hughes explained (Irving 2008, 5). The publishers McGraw-Hill paid a $750,000 advance to Hughes and his co-writer, the journalist and novelist Clifford Irving. Irving had been chosen by Hughes because of his recent biography of the notorious art forger Elmyr de Hory called Fake! Irving first telephoned and then organised several clandestine meetings with Hughes in Mexico and Puerto Rico, where he recorded many hours of interviews.
Irving's editors read the transcripts amazed at the revelations. The authenticity of the details was confirmed by Noah Dietrich who had served as Hughes's assistant for years. At a certain point in the writing process it was agreed that the biographical interview would be lightly re-edited into a continuous first-person account with minimal interventions: it became a ghosted autobiography. This was scrupulously explained in Irving's introduction: ‘I have related my part of the tale in the interests of clearing up the mystery of how the autobiography came to be and dispelling the inevitable gossip concerning authenticity’ (Ibid., 24). Serialisation was internationally syndicated.
Immediately upon publication another extraordinary event took place: someone claiming to be long-silent and elusive Howard Hughes began to place phone calls to prominent journalists denouncing the book as a fraud. This person eventually persuaded a conference call of journalists that he was the real Hughes. Irving convincingly defended the book for weeks, since he had accumulated a vast archive of unpublished sources on the life of his subject. Quite quickly, however, a Swiss bank informed his publishers that the account of ‘H. R. Hughes’, opened to pay Hughes his advance, was being accessed by Irving's wife. The Irvings confessed to the fraud at the end of January 1972. Irving was sentenced to thirty months in jail; his wife received six months.