Throughout history there have numerous cases of forgers faking diaries and biographies of people who are already dead. But, for obvious reasons, it is far less common for a forger to fake the biography of a person who is still alive. But this is exactly what happened when writer Clifford Irving forged the "autobiography" of the eccentric billionaire Howard Hughes, while Hughes was still alive.
Hughes had retreated from public life in 1958, thereafter refusing to be photographed or interviewed. This behavior created an enormous amount of speculation and curiosity about his life. Publishers were eager to publish the inside story of how Hughes spent his days, knowing such a book would be an instant best seller. But unfortunately neither Hughes nor any of his closest associates were talking. Until Irving came along, that is.
In 1971 Irving told his publisher, McGraw-Hill, that Hughes had contacted him after reading and enjoying one of his earlier books. Hughes, he said, wanted to write an autobiography in order to set straight all the lies and rumors that were circulating about his life, and he wanted Irving to ghostwrite the work. Irving produced letters from Hughes (all forged) to prove the offer was real. McGraw-Hill completely fell for Irving’s story. They eventually gave him almost $1,000,000 in order to secure the rights to the work, and in return Irving handed them Hughes’s “autobiography” a few months later.
The scheme almost worked, until something happened that Irving hadn’t counted on. Hughes broke his long media silence in order to come forward and publicly deny all knowledge of Irving and the autobiography.
After returning the money he had taken, Irving spent a short time in jail. When he got out he wrote the true account of how he had almost gotten away with writing the fake autobiography of Howard Hughes. The fake autobiography itself never saw the light of day until it was published on the internet in 1999.
A 2006 movie, The Hoax
, starring Richard Gere, tells the story of Irving's almost successful con.