The Great Hoax: A Tale from the Wild Days of Ibiza
Text: Jerry Brownstein
Clifford Irving was an American author living in Ibiza who, in the early 1970’s, perpetrated the biggest literary hoax of the 20th century. He convinced the entire world that he had written an authorized autobiography of the reclusive billionaire Howard Hughes… but the book was actually based on fictitious meetings and interviews that never took place. It was a wild and crazy adventure that mirrored and magnified the free and easy spirit that flowed through Ibiza during that time. It is hard to imagine now, but for most of its history Ibiza has been an insular agrarian society. This gradually changed through successive waves of foreign migration that brought an ever-increasing touch of cosmopolitan sophistication to the island. Most people have heard about the wave of young hippies and hip celebrities that swept over the island in the late 60’s and early 70’s. This gave way to the subsequent waves of mass tourism that have increased with each passing decade.
But before all of that there was a first wave… or perhaps more of a ripple. In the 1950’s - when Ibiza was virtually unknown to the outside world - a small contingent of artistic Westerners found their way to this peaceful refuge. They were attracted to the stunning natural beauty, the incredibly low cost of living, the friendly and tolerant local people, and the amazing Mediterranean light that was particularly magnetic for the painters among them. But perhaps the most important factor that brought them to this strange and wonderful island was the freedom… freedom to live and create in a beautiful place without the rules and boundaries of their home countries. Writers, sculptors, painters, and free spirits of all kinds flocked to this small community of adventurous nomads. This was the world of Clifford Irving, who first came to Ibiza in 1953, and eventually settled here. It was a world of pirates and poets… a world beyond the borders of ‘normal’ society… a world where you could lose track of how far you could go…
One of the residents of Ibiza at this time was Elmyr de Hory - a Hungarian painter and art forger, who is said to have sold over a thousand forgeries to reputable art galleries throughout the world. He must have been an amazingly talented painter to pull that off, but eventually he was caught and went to jail. When he was released in 1969, he returned to Ibiza and became quite a celebrity, appearing in numerous magazine and television interviews. To capitalize on his new-found fame, he asked his friend Clifford Irving to write his biography. It was called: “Fake! The Story of Elmyr de Hory the Greatest Art Forger of Our Time”. Perhaps this relationship with De Hory is what inspired Irving to come up with the wild scheme that eventually made him both famous and infamous.
In 1970 Irving read a magazine article about Howard Hughes entitled, “The Case of the Invisible Billionaire”. Hughes had been wildly successful in the oil business as young man, and he then moved to Hollywood where he became a prominent movie producer. He was also a prominent playboy who dated many of the most famous Hollywood actresses of the time. In addition, he founded the Hughes Aircraft company which was a major innovator and producer of airplanes. Hughes was the most famous billionaire of his time… and then he suddenly dropped out of sight. By the time Irving read the magazine article, Hughes had not been seen nor heard from in public for over twelve years. The man who had been the toast of Hollywood had become a completely eccentric recluse who lived on the top floor of one of his Las Vegas hotels, and ran all of his businesses from his bedroom.
Clifford Irving, perhaps still enthralled by the ‘Fake’ book he had just written, became convinced that Hughes hated the limelight so much that he would never step forward to debunk anything written about him. He hatched a scheme to convince the world that Hughes had asked him to write his autobiography. Irving was already a fairly successful novelist, so the first step was to tell his publisher that Hughes had contacted him to propose collaborating on an autobiography. He then set about creating false evidence to back up his story. He studied Hughes’ handwriting so that he could forge letters that supposedly came to him from the reclusive billionaire. Irving also began calling his publisher from exotic locations where he claimed he was meeting with Hughes and developing a close relationship.
Irving’s scheme succeeded beyond his wildest dreams. His publisher, McGraw-Hill, paid him an advance of $750,000 for the book (a huge amount for those times). He sold the magazine and paperback rights for an additional $650,000, making a total of almost 1.5 million dollars - which is the equivalent of about ten million dollars today. Some critics were still sceptical, so over the ensuing months, as publication neared, Irving had to bluff his way past editors, lawyers, handwriting experts and journalists. The famous US television correspondent Mike Wallace did his best to expose Mr. Irving on live television, but he too was finally convinced.
But at the end of 1971, with the book ready to go to press, the scheme began to unravel. Howard Hughes came out of hiding long enough to make a conference call to reporters saying that he did not know Mr. Irving and had never authorized the book. As the evidence piled up, Irving’s carefully constructed house of cards began to collapse. He eventually pleaded guilty to conspiracy and grand larceny charges, which landed him in a New York prison for 17 months. When he got out he recounted the debacle in “Clifford Irving: What Really Happened,” which was published in 1972, and reissued in 1981 as “The Hoax.” In 2006 “The Hoax” was made into a feature film starring Richard Gere as Mr. Irving, and in 2012, the fake Hughes autobiography was published as an e-book under the title “Clifford Irving’s Autobiography of Howard Hughes”.
Throughout his life Mr. Irving offered various explanations for the Hughes affair, sometimes dismissing it as little more than an elaborate joke. He once wrote, “I had never realized I was committing a crime - I had thought of it as a hoax.” Yet at other times he seemed in awe of what he had created. In “What Really Happened” he wrote: “The whole Hughes affair had been a venture into the unknown, a testing of myself, a constant gauntlet of challenge and response. A certain grandeur had rooted itself into the scheme, and I could still spy a reckless and artistic splendour to the way we had carried it out.”
Clifford Irving passed away in December of 2017 at the age of 87. But he will always be remembered as an exemplar of the “reckless and artistic splendour” that characterized those early days of the Ibiza expat community… a splendour that lives on to this day.