"Oh Howard, You Idiot!”Revisionist History
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- 13 Aug 2020
A billionaire turned recluse befriends a minor novelist. Together they seize the public’s imagination. Kind of. The true story behind the greatest autobiography you’ve never read.
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A question was nagging me, who killed truth, this truth problem? It isn't just bad, it's deadly. I'm Jalapa and I'm a historian at Harvard and a staff writer at The New Yorker. I spent a lot of time trying to solve mysteries like this one, so I decided to start a podcast. It's called The Last Archive. I'll tell 10 stories from the last hundred years, A History of America and of our arguments about truth and evidence. The last archive brought to you by Pushkin Industries.
In the middle years of the 20th century, Howard Hughes was one of the richest and most famous people in the world. He was tall, who's handsome. He took his father's drillbit business and turned it into a corporate colossus. He owned half of Las Vegas. He designed some of the most technologically advanced planes of his era. And once after he flew around the world in record time, he was given a ticker tape parade down Broadway.
He drove slowly through the manmade canyons of Manhattan while paper streams from office windows of LA Broadway. That's New York, his honor to the pilot who has carried the name of its face around the world and home again.
Hughes even owned a Hollywood studio, directed his own movies and squired every famous actress of the day around town, Ava Gardner, Katharine Hepburn, Lana Turner. Today, we have a category for the celebrity playboy, a category for the entrepreneurial genius, a category for the eccentric billionaire. In his day, Howard Hughes was all those things, all in one. But over the last 20 years of his life, Hughes became a recluse. He vanished from sight, never seen, never heard, with the exception of an interview he gave in the early 1970s where he was asked about his relationship with a man named Clifford Irving.
Yeah, I actually know his dad, J. He was a funny guy, a cartoonist, I think, met him in L.A. when he was out on a publicity trip. Do you remember what this was, 1940 or maybe forty one? I was shooting The Outlaw with Jane Russell. Jay came on the set. We stayed in touch on and off. He had a little boy with a. I always thought that was an old man's name. Strange to see a Clifford.
The kid Clifford grew up to be a writer one day said to me one of his books, Out of the Blue biography of some painter. God knows how he found me. It must have been sixty eight, sixty nine, a good thirty years later. And I thought, what the hell? Every other son of a bitch has told my story. Why not me?
Hughes wrote back, Dear Mr. Irving, thank you for the gift of your book, which I thoroughly enjoyed reading, it seems to me that you portrayed your man with great consideration and sympathy when it would have been tempting to do otherwise. For reasons you may readily understand. This has impressed me. Yours truly, Howard R. Hughes.
The note was handwritten, undated on yellow legal paper, Hughes always wrote by hand on yellow legal pads. Clifford Irving recalled years later that Hughes's handwriting, quote, extended well over the ruled left hand margin, the way a schoolboy might write, unquote. Clifford Irving read that note and thought, Oh, this isn't a thank you for a book. It's an invitation to write a book. Hughes wants me to help him tell his story. And so Clifford Irving did in an insane and wonderful work called The Autobiography of Howard Hughes.
My name is Malcolm Gladwell. You're listening to Revisionist History, my podcast about things overlooked and misunderstood. This episode is a book report like the kind you did in middle school, only with a twist, actually a lot of twists, so many twists. Like I said, the book is kind of insane, but also wonderful. From all of us here at Revisionist History, the autobiography of Howard Hughes gets two thumbs up. When Howard Hughes disappeared from sight in the last decades of his life, it set off a frenzy of tabloid speculation.
He was the most famous man in the world and all of a sudden he was just gone. There were rumors that he'd gone crazy, had hair down to his waist, was living in squalor in a Vegas hotel. He'd become the American Loch Ness Monster, a giant exotic creature submerged in the murky depths of his own celebrity, as you can imagine.
Then the publishers at McGraw-Hill were dumbfounded when Clifford Irving told them that he'd been in touch with Hughes and that Hughes wanted to collaborate on his memoirs.
Irving was a minor novelist, why on earth would he have picked him? But then Irving explained the family connection and reminded them of Hughes's known eccentricity, and McGraw-Hill realized they had been handed the publishing coup of the decade.
They offered a seven hundred and fifty thousand dollar advance for the book.
This was in nineteen seventy one was an extraordinary sum of money, Irving told Hughes the news. Hughes responded immediately, told Irving to check into a hotel in Manhattan and wait for a call at three o'clock the next morning. Hughes is on the line. He summoned Irving to Oaxaca in southern Mexico. There, Irving waited in a hotel for two more days until a man named Pedro called him. Pedro said, Please meet me in front of the hotel at dawn.
The two men drove to the top of a mountain, pulling up alongside another car. Irving got out, slid in on the passenger side, and there he was. Irving would later write this of his first encounter with the mysterious Hughes. He wore a cheap short sleeve shirt of nondescript color, a tan cardigan with a button missing Christless brown slacks and a pair of loafers into which his socks somehow always managed to slip and vanish so that when he crossed his legs, there was a gap of bony white chin between the sliding sock and the trouser cuff.
The two men then began an extraordinary partnership over the next few months, they would meet for a mammoth interview sessions in Paradise Island in the Bahamas, Palm Beach, Puerto Rico. Irving recorded hours and hours of Hughes's recollections. The result was a book told entirely in Hughes's voice that in manuscript form ran to more than a thousand pages.
Anticipation for the autobiography ran so high that Irving was booked on 60 Minutes for a sit down with Mike Wallace. Is he a good looking man still? He has the good looks of a man who once was extremely handsome and has dignity in his face. Does he wear a beard? Not a real one. Not a real one. What I mean is he has on occasion one, false beards and false mustaches and wigs with you. Like I said, there's a James Bond set up here that that's out of the worst possible detective novel you could ever read.
Everyone was hungry to know about the mysterious Howard Hughes, Clifford Irving held press conferences, Life magazine paid a fortune to run excerpts of the forthcoming autobiography. The bidding for paperback rights went through the roof. The world thought the autobiography of Howard Hughes would sell millions upon millions of copies, except.
McGraw-Hill never published it. No one did until 1999, when a now defunct outfit called W-W terrific books come out of Santa Fe, New Mexico, printed it up and put it for sale online. I found my copy in the used bookstore in England, the autobiography of Howard Hughes all but disappeared.
Because just as the book was about to come out, Howard Hughes called a press conference. He was in his penthouse suite at the Britannia Beach Hotel on Paradise Island in Nassau, speaking to an assembled group of journalists by phone because, of course, Howard Hughes never showed his face in public. Hughes declared that he'd never met Clifford Irving ever.
Well, let's go down in history. I only wish I was still in the movie business because I don't remember any script as wild or as stretch of the imagination as the yuan has turned out to be.
I'm not talking about the biographies over the memory of Howard Hughes says he's never read or seen or participated in or even heard of the book. That's supposed to be his own autobiography.
I don't know what's happened, but I mean, this episode is so fantastic that, in fact, that your imagination to believe that a thing like this could happen. All I never saw him. I never even heard of him until a matter of days ago when this thing first came to my attention. Can you believe it, everything was made up, the autobiography was a work of fiction. Howard Hughes never wrote Clifford Irving a letter on a yellow legal pad.
The two of them never met in Oaxaca or Palm Beach or Puerto Rico. And as for the interview with Hughes about meeting Clifford Irving as a kid, I made that one up just to get in the spirit of Things.
For a brief moment in the literary life of 1972, America, Clifford Irving was a major scandal. He wound up in prison. His marriage fell apart. He tried to capitalize on his hoax with a memoir called The Hoax. It was made into a movie with Richard Gere, which Irving hated in yet another of Irving's many feats of hutzpah because he thought it took too many liberties with the truth. But I'm not all that interested in Irving the hoaxer. I'm more interested in the hoax.
See how to use this entire book report is really just a meditation on those two absolutely baffling sentences from the real Howard uses phone call with the media. I never read it. I don't know what's in it. An accomplished writer writes a fake autobiography of you and you set out to squash it. You make it disappear, turn it from what would have been an enormous bestseller into something you can only get years later from terrific book, Starcom. And you didn't even read it.
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Well, what, if fact, made you decide to pull this hoax after he was discovered, Clifford Irving sat down with one journalist after another trying to explain himself. This is an interview with the BBC. But all the interviews he did of the same, basically Irving can't explain himself.
Well, undoubtedly some streak of lunacy screw loose somewhere. Spirit of adventure, greed, the literary challenge involved middle aged boredom, a whole combination of things. It's a lot easier after the event to analyze why you did what you did. But generally, you're wrong. I don't really know deep down why I did it.
Irving wasn't desperate or broke. He was a pretty successful writer. He had a four book deal with McGraw-Hill for 150000 thousand dollars, which would be close to a million today. Irving lived in a charming 17th century finca on the island of Ibiza. He was handsome and dashing. He had a beautiful wife and two small boys, plus a mistress, a blond Danish aristocrat who was also a world famous calypso singer, apparently because in the 1970s you could be a blond Danish aristocrat and still plausibly call yourself a calypso singer.
So why did Irving risk it all for a hoax? Irving died in 2017, but he planted some clues scattered throughout the various autobiographical accounts he left behind.
For instance, there's his run in with chief Red Fox. Chief Fred Fox was a Sioux Indian actor and performer who is a kind of minor celebrity in the late 1960s and 70s. He claimed to be the nephew of the famed Sioux chief Crazy Horse, and he made no less than five appearances on the Johnny Carson show.
May I ask, when you were born on June 11th, 1870, this was 1967, which would have made Chief Red Fox 97 years old.
Now, I guess you want to know what kept me so young. The showbiz, yes, Pockley, but smoking eighteens good cigars each day, 18 chief Fred Fox got a big book deal from McGraw-Hill for his memoirs.
But when Irving met him at Red Fox, his book party in Manhattan, he came away, convinced the chief was neither a chief nor close to a hundred years old.
And in fact, and I'm quoting now, he resembled nothing so much as an old retired shopkeeper sitting on a stoop of a Brooklyn tenement rattling on about his youth.
Just imagine what must have gone through Irving's mind, this guy can get a big publishing deal. Then there is the book Irving wrote just before his Hughes autobiography. That one was called And You Can't Make This Up Fake. It's nonfiction, the biography of one of Irving's friends from Ibiza, an accomplished art forger named Elmir de.
Whose real name, it turns out, was probably not Elmir, Dory, but whatever. In one of the many Byzantine twist to the Irving story, and as I warned you, there are a mountain of twists here, Orson Welles option fake and did a kind of post-modern documentary under Hauri. It's Welles, his next to last film and maybe his least watchable. But there's a fantastic moment where Welles interviews Irving about dangerous technique.
And I asked him to do three drawings for me to Matisse and a Modigliani, which he did before lunch, and put a little coffee stain on the edge of the Modigliani to make it look really as if Modigliani had done it in some Paris cafe. I then took the three drawings to the Museum of Modern Art. The museum examined them for two hours and came back with a verdict that they were absolutely genuine and in fact were horrified that I wanted to sell them to Matisses and a Modigliani painted before lunch by Almir Dary and verified by the Museum of Modern Art.
The point is, Clifford Irving did not have good role models. He was surrounded by people who got away with making things up. So one day he gets together with one of his best friends, a writer named Dick Suskind, and he says, Hey, Dick, why don't we try this forgery thing for ourselves? Let's forge an autobiography of the most famous man in the world.
Why, in fact, did you choose Hughes? He was there like Mount Everest to be climbed. He was inaccessible. No one had interviewed him in the last 20 years. And he could not step forward in public, in court or to in person, to to the media or anybody to deny it.
Erving's gamble was that Hughes wouldn't say anything. The man was, after all, a complete reckless. And if he did write an angry denial, no one would believe him. Irving could simply say, that's not really news. That's an impostor. And who would know?
When I said that Hughes was like the Loch Ness Monster, I meant it. There was a constant swirl of tabloid gossip and innuendo and speculation about him, and no one knew what was true or what was made up.
Worst case scenario, Hughes does come forward and announces the autobiography and convinces everyone that he is, in fact, Howard Hughes, but then Irving figures it's still OK. He can say I was duped.
Irving tells his publisher that Hughes has strict conditions for cooperating on the book, one condition is that only he Irving Connector's go between Irving will handle the money. Then he tells McGraw-Hill to make out the seven hundred and fifty thousand dollar advance to HRR, whose initials only crucial detail. Because once he has the check, Irving then takes one of his wife's old passports, she Swiss, and he forges a new name in it. Helga Bernardez Hughes and has her use that fake passport to open a Swiss bank account in the name of H.
R Hughes. And just like that, the rich. It's so brilliant.
He could easily have gotten away with it. How do you set about writing a book, inventing the story? Well, my collaborator, Dick Suskind and I did an awful lot of hard research. We traveled back and forth across the United States and wherever we could through libraries, newspaper files to get information on issues. We amassed a huge amount of data and we had access to time, life, secret files, which were excellent.
What they're interested in most is Hughes's speech patterns, his expressions and inflections. The book was written as one long conversation between Irving and Hughes, so they wanted their fake Q&A with Hughes to feel real, particularly to those who had years ago met the real Hughes and knew how he talked. Irving would come up with a story about how Hughes had summoned him Palm Springs, the Bahamas. Then he and Dick Suskind would fly their check into a hotel, generate receipts, go through all the motions in order to have the most perfect cover story, and then hang out in their hotel room and actually conduct the, quote unquote, interview.
I mean, what do you do? Sit down and talk to each other, just sit down, put a tape recorder going. I said, I've got a hangover today. You'll be Howard. I'll be Clifford. And after a while, when that turned stale, would switch roles. And then we edited the tapes, erased them because we didn't want them to fall in the hands of anybody else. And then after it was all typed and transcribed, we edited it to make it even more interesting.
And the result fools everyone, everyone. His publishers at McGraw-Hill read the manuscript, go over it with a fine tooth comb, give it to their lawyers, show it to skeptics. Irving forges letters that are supposed to be from Hughes. McGraw-Hill asks handwriting experts to verify their authenticity.
They do. People who read the manuscript who know Hughes come away saying, This is Howard. It could only be Howard. It's Howard's voice, his phrases, his way of thinking. Only a handful of people expressed any doubts, like Mike Wallace of 60 Minutes, famously the toughest, most skeptical, most unrelenting journalist in America.
Were there any witnesses to your meetings with Howard Hughes, any other human beings? Yes, there were. Who?
A researcher by name. A man named Richard Susskind. Irving says Dick Suskind, my collaborator, and then he adds a little perfect, whimsical touch and how I accidentally happen to be sitting with me in a room.
When news arrived too early, Suskind stood there.
You stood there. I stood there.
And finally I said, Well, this is Dick Suskind who's doing some research for me on a project. And he said, I suppose you know who I am. Suskind unfortunately, instead of taking that opportunity to slip out of the room, said, yes, I do. Mr. Hughes, how do you do? He started to stick out his hand and withdrew it instantly because Hughes is not very keen on shaking hands.
And then after another moment of awkward silence, he was reached into his pocket and pulled out a bag. We still disagree. I say it was a cellophane bag, Suskind says it was a paper bag.
And he said to Dick Suskind, have approved. Hughes carries a bag of prunes in his pocket. Of course he does. Irving tells the story to Mike Wallace as they sit in overstuffed armchairs in front of a fireplace, while us then turns to the audience and concludes, Is the autobiography genuine?
I can only say that it is laced with detail that one would think that only Howard Hughes could know.
Mike Wallace can't shake Irving's story. Erving's that good. Now, if you detect a certain affection in my voice for Clifford Irving, you won't be wrong. I mean, the whole thing is just so audacious. He's pranking the whole literary world. Plus, one of the world's richest men, the stuffed shirts of 60 Minutes, the Swiss banking system on and on. This is the irresistible temptation with the Irving hoax to get caught up in the wild genius of Clifford Irving.
But like I said, this episode isn't about Clifford Irving, it's about Howard Hughes. Hi there, I'm Michael Lewis, host of Against the Rules, and we're back for our second season. We're talking about coaches. It wasn't that long ago that we only had coaches in sports, but now there are life coaches and coaches. You can even hire a coach to improve your online dating performance and your charisma. But coaching has become an odd source of unfairness.
Who has access to these coaches and who doesn't find against the rules wherever you listen brought to you by Pushkin Industries. Marijuana, motorcycles and mayhem, deep cover is a true story. It begins with an FBI agent going undercover in a biker gang and it ends with, well, a war, a full scale U.S. invasion.
I'm Jake Halpern. I'm a journalist. And for the story, I've been at dive bars, horse farms, backwater swamps. I've talked to FBI agents, pirate radio actors and a bunch of big time drug smugglers. Listen to deep cover now. And your favourite podcast app or deep cover pod dotcom brought to you by Pushkin Industries. Howard Hughes was born outside of Houston in 1985. His father was in the oil business and made a fortune by inventing a new drill bit for oil wells.
Hughes's mother died when he was 16 and his father died when he was 18, turning Hughes into one of the wealthiest orphans in America.
Making news then has now millionaire sportsman and industrialist Howard Hughes unveil his new mystery plane in Los Angeles. Racer posted a thousand horsepower motor outstrip any plane ever. Almost immediately, Howard Hughes moved to Los Angeles and there he took up the three great passions of his life airplanes, movies and women. He founded an aviation company, he bought a movie studio, RKO Pictures, and he pursued beautiful actresses obsessively and compulsively.
How much genuine?
Charm and charisma. Does he have and how much is it simply a transaction on both sides of the of the relationship?
I think it depended on the woman. I'm talking with, Karina Longworth, author of the most fascinating of the Howard Hughes biographies, of which there are many. Hers is called seduction, sex, lies and stardom in Howard Hughes, Hollywood.
And certainly, I think later there was very little true feeling in these relationships. But Billy Dove, the silent film actress who was his first major girlfriend in Hollywood, she reported feeling like they were really in love. Katharine Hepburn in her memoirs paints a picture of them being really in love, which I've chosen to believe, even though there has been some skepticism about Katharine Hepburn in terms of her relationships with men, this seems to be just reading a book, deterioration in the quality of his relationships over time.
Yeah, I mean, I do think he got the part of his personality that was more of a collector started to take over.
And so it became less about being associated with one woman, one usually one very famous woman, and more about making sure his bases were covered so that if he lost one, he'd have three or more.
Ostensibly, Hughes was looking for actresses to star in movies, but his studio really didn't make that many movies. And after he sold his studio, he still kept collecting young actresses. He would stash them around Los Angeles in houses and apartments, each with their own minder.
Longer says that sometimes people compare Hughes to Harvey Weinstein, but to her, that's an inexact comparison. Hughes wasn't a predator. He's something else.
You talk about how they were so many of these starlets under escort who would go out, they would go out to restaurants and they would be the restaurant, the fancy restaurant in wherever Beverly Hills would be full of tables, made up of his various starlets with their with his, like, crazy.
Yeah. And they were always being escorted by the chauffeur or whoever he had sort of assigned to look after them. None of them were there with Hughes, I think. I mean, this was at a point where he wasn't really going out to dinner much at all. And a lot of these women who were under contract to him, never met him, never saw him. They were just sort of in the stable. You know, if he perchance decided at one point to put them to to pay them a visit and they all thought that they were going to be in movies.
But by that point, he had he had not made movies in years.
Hughes was deeply weird in other ways, too. He was a germophobia. He was emotionally arrested. He once proposed to the actress Faith America by saying, I love you, faith. I want to marry you. You're the child I should have had. Another time, he puts his head in the lap of the mother of the actress he's dating, starts crying and says, Helen has you, I don't have anybody. I'm an orphan. And then there's this story from the actress Janet Leigh.
All I know is that when I said if you and I had a date and we went out to dinner, yes, suddenly there would be a third place there and Howard Hughes would show up. I see. I see.
Lee was once one of Hollywood's biggest stars, which meant naturally that she was pursued by Hughes. She talked about it later with the journalist, Sibila.
And, you know, all of a sudden I go on a date with a with a with a gentleman and we're supposed to go sailing and we end up on his plane in Grand Canyon High and then Las Vegas. And I think, you know, I thought the nightmare would never end. He drove me crazy. And finally, I at one time I said, for God's sakes, why? Why do you manipulate that? I hated that. Yes.
You know, if you want to ask me out, ask me out like a man. Don't sit there and arranged like, you know.
And he said, all right, will you go out with me? And I said, no.
Mr. Hughes, there's something else I think a great many people would like to know about, there have been some very absurd descriptions of your physical appearance, even in the press conference that Hughes gives in 1972, where he's just there to denounce Irving.
The matter of his weirdness keeps coming up like his fingernails. A former Hughes associate had once told the press that Hughes never cut his fingernails, that they had grown to six inches long. Hughes responds to this allegation in two parts to be merciful.
I'm only going to play you part two as I start planning goes to it myself. I never have had manicures. I don't know. Maybe it as an outgrowth of my childhood running. Is these people about having read emails, about having manicures? I know I never have them ever, but I've always kept my fingernails at reasonable length and I try to look with scissors and nail file the way some people who I used clippers because they don't leave it up and I after work anyway, I take care of my family.
I always have.
And then someone asked him if he's happy and he starts up again.
I am not very happy, I'll tell you that. And one of the primary reasons is because of some of the things we've been discussing here tonight. That is to say, in other words, the impediments upon my freedom and the activities imposed by onerous litigation and the overhang perhaps of various types that the autobiography and so forth, all these matters are very draining and their impact upon me. And so if you lie when your question was, am I happy and content, the answer is no.
There's something tragic about his orphaned, lonely, compulsive, damaged. Do you think that he had a kind of. Was suffering from some kind of mental illness throughout his life, and what's your sort of broader explanation of some of his behavior?
So I'm not a medical doctor and so I can only only state my opinion based on what I've read.
I think that he exhibited signs of obsessive compulsive disorder over the course of his whole life, but I think that the bigger factor in what we could call the deterioration of his personality and his mental state seems to be the head injuries. Hughes survived multiple plane crashes, including one where he crashed into a house in Beverly Hills and nearly died.
And I think especially what we know now about head injuries, based on what we've learned from football and other sources, we can really see the impact of these things in a way that it wasn't understood during his lifetime.
Howard Hughes, famous player and sportsman was dragged out of this wreckage of an experimental plane he was testing. He was seriously injured. America's aviation trailblazers willingly pay the price in man's conquest of the air. But as weird and damaged as Hughes was, he didn't want to be seen as weird and damaged. He wanted to be seen as heroic, swashbuckling, a brilliant entrepreneur. And from the moment he arrived in Hollywood, he took great pains to create that mythical version of himself.
He put together a massive publicity operation in the Hughes archives at the University of Las Vegas, which, incidentally, aren't actually his archives, but the archives of his PR firm. There's a transcript of a conversation between Hughes and a magazine writer. The writer is working on a story about him, and Hughes is basically going through the draft line by line dictating what should and shouldn't be said. He's one of the richest men in the world and is editing some poor schmucks copy when he first gets to Hollywood and successfully builds his PR machine to put this image out there.
What is the is it possible the kind of. Describe precisely the image he is trying to create for himself. Well, I think this is actually somewhere where a comparison to Trump is useful because, you know, what is trump us to know about him or to think about him, that he's rich, that he's a ladies man, that he he lives in a golden castle. And these are very similar things to to what he was wanted out there. You know, he wanted people to think that he was the richest man in America, if not the world, that he was a ladies man who could have any woman that he wanted when in fact, you know, he did have wealth.
But he his wealth was entirely dependent on his father's tool company, which he kind of helped to run into some financial straits and which they were really only saved because of World War Two when they became defense contractors. And then in terms of women, he certainly dated a lot of women, but they report that he was awkward and not a ladies man, not suave from the very, very early on. He was having, you know, sort of private detectives follow women around and and he would use sort of go betweens to do the flirtation so that he wouldn't have to bother with it.
So, yeah, but he didn't want any of that out there. He wanted just this image of him, you know, at the Coconut Grove with Ginger Rogers or whoever it was out there.
He uses mythmaking, works to perfection for years. And then after the war, the machinery starts to falter. The world begins to see little glimpses of a very different Howard Hughes.
And so he retreats almost in embarrassment and shame. And just as that retreat seems permanent, a minor novelist from a Baeza named Clifford Irving decides to write a fake autobiography of Howard Hughes to do, in a sense, the very thing that Hughes himself has been trying to do for most of his life. Create a new version of Howard Hughes out of whole cloth.
Clifford Irving does a Howard Hughes on Howard Hughes, the genius of the autobiography of Howard Hughes is that everything checkable is true dates, timelines, key figures. It's a genuine biography. But mixed in amongst the truths are small, unverifiable details that are entirely imaginary.
And it is not easy, at least at first, to tell which is which, such as Hughes on the set of the outlaw, personally designing a special brasier to maximise the ample endowments of Jane Russell. That's actually true.
But Irving throws in a memo written by Hughes stipulating in highly technical engineers language just how the bespoke Jane Russell Brasier was to be constructed. I don't know whether that's true. Could be. Who knows? Or that there was once a ticker tape parade down Broadway in Hughes's honor, totally true. But Irving's book adds that Hughes ducked out of the parade early and jumped in a cab uptown in order to have sex with Katharine Hepburn. Don't think that's true. But then again, Hughes actually was the kind of shy, self-absorbed type who would think nothing of ducking out early on a ticker tape parade in his honor, particularly where Katharine Hepburn was involved.
About 100 pages into the autobiography of Howard Hughes, I figured it out. Here's how to untangle fact from fiction in Irving's book. Hughes was so creepy and strange that if you run across any detail that makes Hughes out not to be creepy and strange, then Irving and Suskind probably made it up. In real life, Hughes pursued very young, buxom starlets in vast quantities and to ill effect. But in Irving's book, Hughes has a real adult relationship, a true love, a sophisticated woman named Helga trapped in an unhappy marriage with a diplomat.
Helga is neither young nor buxom nor a starlet. Hughes happens to sit next to her on a flight from San Francisco to New York exchanges. A few magical charged words with her, then falls asleep.
Let us return to our fictional Howard Hughes to hear from the fictional autobiography of Howard Hughes. After Dark, I fell into a kind of doze and I swear I don't know how this happened. But when I woke up, this woman and I were holding hands. Isn't that incredible? We talked and one thing led to another. This is not true. Irving made this up. Now, if you'll remember, Clifford Irving forged his wife's Swiss passport in the name of Helga R.
Hughes so she could cash checks made out to H.R. Hughes. So the Helga in the book is a kind of insurance policy in case things go badly wrong. But that's not the important thing here. The key fact is that as far as we know, Howard Hughes had exactly one fulfilling romantic relationship in his life. And that relationship took place in the pages of Clifford Irving's fake autobiography. Irving gives Hughes a friend as well. Another obvious invention, because the real Hughes didn't exactly have friends.
Now, if you were Irving and Suskin sitting in the sun in Ibiza trying to come up with a perfect friend for Hughes, who would you choose? It would have to be someone famous and interesting because otherwise, why bother? Right. And also someone dead, because otherwise they just deny it or maybe even sue. So they pick the most dead most famous person they can think of. Ernest Hemingway. The occasion arose just after the war, some sometime in the winter of 1948, when I went out to look over Sun Valley, Idaho, with the idea in mind of buying it and making it into a popular resort area.
I flew out there and my bomber, a converted be 25. I knew Ernest was there with his family and he was hunting, and so I found out where he was living. I did something wholly uncharacteristic. I marched right up to his door, knocked on it. He opened it. In a brilliant move, Irving has Hughes use a fake name with Hemingway, Tom Garden, so the reader understands that Hemingway liked Hughes for who he really was, not because of his fame and fortune.
Hemingway loves Tom and Tom loves Hemingway, calls him when they talk for hours. Then they go up in the B 25 bomber. And Hemingway says to him at the end, with a touch of R in his voice, Tom, you're a hot pilot. Hughes goes to visit Hemingway in Cuba, they go out on the water and Hemingway's boat, and this is maybe my favorite passage in the whole book because it is so ludicrously, gloriously, brilliantly bananas.
After a while, Ernest said, let's go for a swim. Bare ass, Tom. I pulled off my skivvies and we drove over the side into the Gulf, which was perfectly flat and beautifully blue. That was an extraordinary experience for me because we were grown men. I was forty eight years old and Ernest was somewhat older than we were in the water naked. And Ernest started playing games. He would dive under the water and come up under me and tip me over by the ankles.
One of us had to be a shark and the other had to be a killer whale or a swordfish. And we would fight, yell, shout, warn each other, watch out. Well, here I come. Splash around like children. And it was marvelous. We let our imaginations run amok, we created a portrait of the billionaire in search of his soul, which was a hell of a damn sight, more exciting. I think that Howard Hughes is right.
And I think a proper straight biography of Howard Hughes could ever be written. Could it? I mean, the man himself is a mythic creature, a product of press clippings and seems to be the best biography or autobiography would simply be the most interesting. That's right.
I believe that. And perhaps we in our in our wild imagination got closer to what he was like and his dreams than his fantasies, than the reality of the man himself.
Two writers got together and created a better version of the Hughes fantasy than Hughes himself could create. Of course, they did this without Hughes's permission.
And along the way they violated every known journalistic standard in code, raising questions about their moral fiber in the line between truth and fiction and blah, blah, blah. Enough.
I think we should reserve our outrage for outrages that are truly outrageous. If someone attacks you, you don't always have to retaliate. And if discretion is the better part of valor, sometimes doing nothing at all is the better part of discretion. At the time Erving's Hoke's biography appeared, the real Hughes was sitting in the dark in a hotel room in the Bahamas, addicted to painkillers, watching the same movies over and over again and worrying about his fingernails.
Meanwhile, what did Clifford Irving have Hughes doing in the twilight of his life? It's all in the last chapter of the greatest unread autobiography of the 20th century.
Erving's Howard Hughes went to India, had a darshan with a guru where he at last found a measure of peace and self understanding.
Then Erving's Howard Hughes famous germophobia stripped down to his underwear and sat by the Ganges in the Lotus position, joining all the other beggars on the riverbank, and I was deluged with money, with dollars, with rupees with English, pounds with yen with marks and Franks people couldn't pass by without giving me something.
Indians, Asians, Europeans, everyone gave you.
See, money just gravitates to some people, whether they're accumulating TWA stock go or sitting by the side of a muddy river in India, they're money, magnets and money is like metal shavings.
I'm one of those people.
Clifford Irving elevated Howard Hughes into something other than a broken down old man in a hotel room. He turned him into the richest beggar the Ganges had ever seen.
Everyone who read Irving's book believe that passage. They thought it was real. Everyone at McGraw-Hill, people who had known Hughes for years believed it. Everyone and the whole world would have believed it to. All Howard Hughes had to do was read the book. Oh, Howard, you idiot. Revisionist history is produced by Mia LaBelle and Lehman guest you with Jacob Smith, Alawi's, Linton and Ana, not him. Our editor is Julia Barton, original scoring by Louise Gerra, mastering by Flon Williams, Fact Checking by Beth Johnson.
Special thanks to our voice artist Alex Robertson and the Pushkin crew, Heather Fain, Carly Migliore, Maia Karnig, Eric Sandler, Maggie Taylor, Jason Gambro and of course, LFA Jacob Weisberg. I'm in double.