Clifford Irving almost got away with it. Exactly 35 years ago, his sham autobiography of Howard Hughes nearly made it into bookstores before the reclusive billionaire granted a rare press conference (via telephone) in which he claimed never to have met Irving, let alone participated in the marathon interview sessions upon which the book was said to be based. The game was up. Irving, his wife, Edith, and his co-conspirator, Richard Suskind, all pleaded guilty to fraud and served jail sentences of varying lengths. Egg-faced publisher McGraw-Hill stopped the presses, and The Autobiography of Howard Hughes retreated into myth. (Today, portions of the book can be downloaded from Irving’s Web site, www.cliffordirving.com.) Those events were recounted by the author in his 1981 memoir The Hoax, which has now been adapted into a feature film directed by Lasse Hallström and starring Richard Gere as Irving and Alfred Molina as Suskind. But as Irving himself cautioned when I spoke to him recently from his Aspen home, when it comes to Hollywood movies, seeing isn’t necessarily believing.

L.A. WEEKLY: How do I know this is the real Clifford Irving?

CLIFFORD IRVING: You don’t, but I’m going to answer questions on behalf of me whether you know it’s me or not.

In your preface to the tie-in version of The Hoax that’s being published by Hyperion in connection with the release of the film, you write, “I hope it’s a wonderful movie and wins lots of awards. If my friends recommend it to me, I’ll go see it.” Now that you have seen the movie, what was your take on it?

I have several takes on it. First of all, it’s very hard for me to see if it’s a great movie or a good movie or a bad movie or an indifferent movie, because I’m too close to it. I enjoyed a lot of it. I think it’s fast-moving. And I think Richard Gere is terrific in it, even though the character that he plays is not me. If I was that guy, I’d shoot myself, because that guy is desperate.

So, why is it that we so often seem to prefer a compelling fabrication to the cold, hard truth, whether it’s a fake autobiography of Howard Hughes or a fictionalized movie version of Clifford Irving?

I guess that telling my story as it really happened would be a little bit more complex than a lot of directors and Hollywood production companies would want to deal with, because contrary to the way this movie portrays things, it wasn’t the story of a guy who was broke, desperate and washed up. It was the story of a guy who was quite successful — I wasn’t burning the world down, but I had a four-book contract at the time, I owned a big house in Spain, I owned a boat and a Mercedes, and my wife had a private income. We were very well off, and it’s harder to grasp why someone like that goes off on an absurd, zany experience than why the character in the movie does. You remember that movie with Steve McQueen, where he’s a rich guy who’s also a bank robber?

The Thomas Crown Affair.

Yes. That’s the only movie I can think of that’s similar to the one I wish they had made. And the truth is that I never thought of that until this minute. You conjured up that image.

Was there a certain thrill to the idea of potentially getting away with it all?

Sure. It was the challenge and it was that feeling that we could get out of it anytime that we wanted to, that it wasn’t a crime, that we had the [advance] money in what we considered escrow. There was the sense that, “We’re only pulling a hoax. If worst comes to worst, we can always say, ‘Hey, guys, why don’t you just publish it as a novel?’” I don’t think that was very bright on my part, but that’s the way I was.

Before things blew up in a very public way, was there a point at which you realized there was no turning back?

You’re asking me to remember things that took place 36 years ago. Even the book I wrote that the movie is based on, although it’s essentially true, I don’t think anybody writes true stories. You write what you’re comfortable with and what you think happened. I did make an effort to tell the truth, because I felt it was time to do that. But did I achieve that? I don’t know. I tried. I’m always asked why I did what I did and I never have a good answer, because it’s hard to dig deep as to motivation in your own life. I was talking to Richard Gere the other day and we kind of homed in on something that not many people have talked about thus far, which is that the climate of the late 1960s and early ’70s was a climate of happening and events. And where I lived, on the island of Ibiza, that was a community of anything goes. It was sex, drugs and rock & roll. It wasn’t the real world. And that was a very important part of what happened that, unfortunately, is not included at all in the movie. They didn’t want to spend the money to shoot in Ibiza, so they changed the setting to Westchester County in New York, which took away all the atmosphere of what it was really about.

How did you end up on Ibiza in the first place?

I went to Europe when I was very young. I was 22; I wanted to write. I spent half my money in Paris in the first two weeks, hitchhiked down through France, over the Pyrenees, got on a boat and went to Ibiza. And when I saw Ibiza, it was like a dream come true, except I hadn’t dreamed of it. It was so beautiful and wonderful, and so cheap. For a Jewish kid from New York, it was like another side of the planet. I said, “This is for me. I’m going to stay here.” And I had a good life, although I was in my 20s, so that good life was tempered with all the angst that everyone has in their 20s: Who am I? Where am I going? But I stuck it out there and it finally became my home. The ’60s were so wonderful, and there were all kinds of crazy people on Ibiza. I loved all of that.

What are you working on now?

I’m writing a novel about the early life of Claude Monet and his struggles against poverty and the art establishment — it’s called Young Monet. When I come up against obstacles in that, I get back to writing a memoir about the first 20 years I lived in Europe, in the 1950s and ’60s. That’s called Rejoice, Young Man and it’s kind of a wild story. Looking back over my life, I’ve done a lot of things that were even riskier than the Hughes hoax.

Click here to read Ella Taylor's review of The Hoax
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