Hoax by Fay, Chester and Linklater


£3 from Olivers in Whitley Bay. Sweet scent of vanilla from the lignin decomposition. Book found by proprietor after asking for books about forgeries.

Hoax is the story of Clifford Irving’s infamous attempt to fabricate and pass off a Howard Hughes autobiography as the real thing. The authors were Sunday Times journalists, and in similar fashion to Philby, has that 1970s newspaper sensational quality. This added to the period feel. Howard Hughes was a huge public figure, hence he was a lucrative target for a publishing scam.

Irving had already primed himself. He’d written a biography of the colourful art forger, Elmyr de Hory. He later wove into his pitch to McGraw Hill that he’d sent a copy of Fake! to Hughes, who apparently loved it and enquired as to whether there was a Hughes biography planned by anyone. The hook was in.

The forgery itself was eased by Hughes’s reclusiveness and eccentricity. Irving enlisted Richard Suskind as his researcher. He also enlisted artist friends to help forge written letters. And as with the Hitler Diaries, there was an audience and publisher whose hunger for the product was strong enough to overcome doubts.

Most of the material was cribbed from existing archives and an unpublished manuscript fleeced from James Phelan. As the book progressed, Irving was pressed for proof that his interviewee was genuine. This is the point at which I would have to get into plot spoilers.

I’m less interested in giving a review of this specific book than some thoughts on the kind of book it is. It’s a kind of morality tale about public interest. So, as with Philby, there’s plenty of censure of Irving’s character. In fact, the more he’s portrayed as a failed author, the more his escapades make apparent how simplistic such an account is. And then there’s the salivation over getting the kind of potential riches that the book’s subject, Hughes, had as the inheritor of an oil industry portfolio and as a Hollywood director.

It’s all rather yesterday’s news. Yet when compared with the minutiae of the lives of the over-abundance of public figures today, the tale is on a grand scale. How strange that a recluse unwillingly attracted monumental attention that the social mediati would kill for.

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