Do you remember the Clifford Irving scandal of long-ago 1971? The episode by now is little more than a footnote on a page of dreary American history, with Vietnam reaching its crisis and Watergate soon to come, but it was notorious at the time. An obscure fiction writer, Irving decided to boost his career by ghostwriting Howard Hughes’s autobiography, based on a series of interviews with the ultrareclusive multimillionaire. His book promised to be the monster publishing event of the decade, and his publisher, McGraw-Hill, ultimately put a million dollars on the line for it. The only problem was the book was a fake. The interviews never happened; Irving simply made them up. And so a minor novelist became a major con man.

Con men are endlessly intriguing, and con jobs in the arts or literature particularly so. Jason Blair and the other recent cases of journalistic fraud pale in comparison to the majestic effrontery of what Irving tried to pull off. Faking the autobiography of an American icon-while the man was still alive!-required Irving’s audacity both in the corporate boardroom and on the page: cojónes and a literary style.

The Hoax follows the action as Irving (Richard Gere) and his accomplice, a children’s book writer named Dick Suskind (Alfred Molina), undertake research road trips, spend long nights at Irving’s house fabricating the bogus manuscript, and survive daunting encounters with Manhattan...

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About the Author

Rand Richards Cooper is Commonweal's contributing editor.