Author Clifford Irving sounded wistful, even proud, this week as he recalled his wild adventures of the early 1970s, when he infamously duped his publishers at McGraw-Hill, the media, handwriting analysts and, as legend has it, President Nixon and the congressman who later investigated Watergate, into believing that the reclusive Howard Hughes had dictated his memoirs to him.
But Irving's tone turned bitter when asked about the film "The Hoax," opening today, director Lasse Hallström's version of that remarkable feat, starring Richard Gere. So many liberties were taken with the true story, he said, that the finished film bears virtually no resemblance to him or his experience. And, he said, the key players in it — his good friend and collaborator Dick Suskind (Alfred Molina); his then wife, painter Edith Irving (Marcia Gay Harden); and his mistress, the Danish singer Nina Van Pallandt (Julie Delpy) — come off as cheap, stupid facsimiles of the real people.
That's why, Irving said, he requested that his name be pulled from the credits where he was originally listed as a technical advisor. While Irving isn't surprised by the Hollywood treatment, he said he's miffed that Hallström didn't read his 1981 book about the incident, also titled "The Hoax." (Hallström said he did read the book.)
"I think it's a movie about a hoax, perpetrated by a man who happens to bear my name," Irving said Wednesday, speaking from his home in Aspen, Colo.
Of the Irving character, he said, "I think he's a hysteric. A crackpot. Richard Gere plays him as nasty, manipulative and humorless. I've said before, if I were that guy, I'd shoot myself. I'm not saying it's not a good movie. I'm simply saying it's a hoax about a hoax."
Irving, 76, now lives a quiet life with his sixth wife, Julie, dividing time between his Colorado home and one in Mexico, writing, painting and hiking. He occasionally sees his three sons, who live in Atlanta, Berlin and on the island of Ibiza. Lately, he's been working on a novel about Claude Monet. And he's thinking about writing a memoir about his time roaming Europe, Asia and the Middle East in the 1950s and '60s.
"I have a wonderful life," he said.
The film has revived Irving's notoriety after decades spent as a successful novelist. He says he doesn't watch TV or read newspapers. So when reporters sought him out for comment after the James Frey-Oprah Winfrey novel-versus-memoir debacle, he had to tell them: "I don't know what you're talking about."
About his own scandal, Irving said he feels distant, even bored, by memories of it. That was a lifetime ago.
"Let me put it to you this way," he said. "I refuse to be caged by time and by the past. I try to live outside the cage. I know that the past — all history — is fiction. And so I can smile at it."
But sometimes the renewed scrutiny stings a bit. For example, despite the fact that he was convicted of fraud, served 16 months in three separate prisons and settled the business about his $750,000 book advance, Irving takes issue with headlines that refer to him as a con artist or swindler. He points out that he isn't the same man he was at 40.
"I resent it deeply," he said. "It's a label about something that happened 35 years ago."
Irving also resents the way that the Hallström film depicts him as a desperate, out-of-work, penniless character living in the sticks of Westchester County, N.Y. In fact, Irving said, he had a four-book contract with McGraw-Hill and was living in a 15-room house in Ibiza that he owned "free and clear."
So, why did he do it, then?
"It was exciting," he said. "It was a challenge. It became an adventure. It's very hard to look back 35 years and say why you did anything. I'm not sure.... We make up stories that are comfortable, that make us feel comfortable."
Despite all his issues with the movie, there is one aspect of it that he absolutely loves: its suggestion that his research on Hughes uncovered evidence of a loan from Hughes to Nixon's brother, inspiring the president to dispatch burglars to Watergate to find out whether the Democrats knew about it. In reality, Irving said, he didn't realize the nature of the information he'd uncovered. That is, until members of the Watergate investigation team visited Irving in prison to question him about it.
"I get a big kick out of that," Irving said. "If I brought down the Nixon White House ... hooray! Just tell me how to do it today."
Today, his Hughes book, which he now calls "a novel in the form of an autobiography," is available for download on his website, cliffordirving.com, for $5. He says it's "a terrific book."
"We had Howard Hughes' voice nailed," he said. "That was through research. The story seemed true, and all the parts that were bizarre and made up seemed even more true to the readers — and McGraw-Hill. Add to that, the fact that they wanted it desperately to be true. And they loved the 'fact' that Hughes went to India to find a guru because he decided later in life his life was too superficial. So he hooks up with Sai Baba in India.
"Before that he becomes friends with Ernest Hemingway and they [skinny-dipped] in the Gulf of Mexico and this is the best friendship of his life. And it was all made up. We were just trying to give a better life to this poor, half-demented reclusive billionaire than he had in actuality."