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Art History in "The Hoax" by Clifford Irving

Updated on September 19, 2017
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To sum up this story

Because of curiosity, I checked out this audio book and found myself thrown into the world of the early seventies. A time full of globe trotting, casual infidelity, and the preparation of a book that tricked everyone into thinking that Clifford Irving, along with coauthor Richard Suskind, interviewed Howard Hughes for an autobiography. What really baffled me was that when Irving told people he was close to that it was fake, they were more amused than put off by this scheme.

Hey look, consequences!

However, when other less amused people found out that the autobiography was a fake, Irving, his wife Edith, and his coauthor, were arrested and charged with fraud. By the way, Irving was completely shocked that this happened. Furthermore, Irving and his coauthor did wonder what would happen if people found out about their lie and dismissed any possible worst case scenario. In fact, Irving defended the lie because he wrote that writing a false autobiography did not cause any form of harm.

He admitted to stealing books from the Library of Congress.

Later, when Irving recounts how the people in his life steered clear of him, such as McGraw-Hill publishing and his mistress, I had no sympathy. This person cooked up a scheme for the thrill (not even a sense of desperation) and violated the trust of the people who gave them financial support. By the way, Irving himself also classified the scheme as "adventure" in an interview I found. These people lived the good life on Ibiza, and this fake book screwed it up for them. I only felt sorry for Irving’s wife Edith, who went along with the scheme because she wanted Irving to stop seeing other women. I also felt sorry for their offspring, especially since both of the parents went to prison. Even more galling, is that in this book, and other articles I read detailing the account, Irving tries to pass himself off as a rebel going against powerful people. No, he wasn't. He was someone who violated people's trust because his forgeries were verified by experts and people who knew Hughes. Even the link I embedded points that out.

Having faith

As the Howard Hughes book reaches the publication date, Irving and Suskind discuss how people want something to be a reality, which reminds me of a scene from a trailer to American Hustle. Another story that took place in the 1970s.

Never saw the film, but it's the Rembrandt scene at the beginning.

Did people really have faith in Irving?

Irving and Suskind claimed that people want to believe in something. In reality, McGraw-Hill only believed because they used experts to verify Irving and Suskind's documents. When the experts considered the documents true, it just verified the trust McGraw-Hill had in Irving. Furthermore, he constantly argued with McGraw-Hill (and others) that his book was for real until he confessed.

As I wrote earlier, Irving just violated people's trust in him.


However, given how much research and detail Irving and his coauthor put into the writing of the book, they should have just done away with the scheme altogether and just promoted it as an unauthorized, but well researched biography. If they stayed honest, I'm sure they wouldn't have gone to prison and continued to their idyllic life in Ibiza if they did just that.

So, where's the art history you mentioned in the title?

Now, about the art history I found in the book. Amusingly, a book about an attempted forgery starts with Irving mentioning his biography on Elmyr de Hory, someone who made up artwork and claimed they were done by Old Masters of the Modern art era. Unlike Hughes, Irving actually met Hory in person and even lived near the man. The way Irving wrote about the man in the memoir, he does not really cast an opinion on Hory as a person or judge the man's history. In fact, he explains that he plans to use the same template for his book on Hughes that he used when profiling Hory.

Ancient and Classical Ibiza

While traveling around the world and carrying out his scheme, Irving describes local culture that paints a full view of the locations. Expect this book to describe the numerous hotels he stays in. In the first part of the book, he describes places that combine both architectural ruins of a grand past and relaxing paradise for travelers and tourists. Since Irving lives mainly in Ibiza, he gave a history of its ancient past full of Phoenician art and Roman Empire era ruins left by people who lived there thousands of years ago. Even Irving's house is more than a century old.

Pre-Columbian era Mexico

The ancient past continues to act as a backdrop to Irving pretending to meet Howard Hughes in various locales. When Irving journeys to Mexico, he gives a brief dive into Oaxaca's grand architectural past (such as Monte Albán and Mitla), and indulges in "Oaxacan Black Clay" ceramics. He spends a lot of time surrounded by decay of a grand past. Modernity does exist in Mexico, with Irving's description of the Hotel Camino Real. That's not the name he gives to the hotel, it was what I found when I researched the actual hotel. Irving even writes about the Pre-Columbian art that decorates the walls of his Ibiza home.


Washington, D.C.'s Neo-Classical Aura (and other mentions of American art depicting Presidents)

In D.C., he spends time at the fabled Library of Congress and mentions the art that decorates the interior. He espouses a deep reverence for the Lincoln Memorial and compares the monument to a house of worship. While meeting with the higher ups at McGraw-Hill, Irving compares President Harold McGraw's countenance to a president on Mount Rushmore.


Every now and then, Modern Art rears its unique head.

When Irving tries (and fails many other times) to engage his wife Edith in Howard Hughes' life and wealth, she's reading about Salvador Dali. Obviously, Edith had different standards when it came to learning about famous eccentrics. Also, I wonder if she read his writings, or other people's books on the man.

When putting the finishing touches of his faux autobiography, out of nowhere, he mentions one of Folk Art’s most famous artists, Grandma Moses while briefly living in a well to do California home belonging to Stanley Myers.

When in New York, Irving describes a rather ritzy building and mentions Pablo Picasso and Raoul Dufy decorating the walls. He also visits another rich person with an interest in French Impressionism.

It is interesting that in the book, Modern and Contemporary art lives in the realm of the exclusive, while traditional Ancient art belongs in the realm of the travelers and working class.

But did you like it?

Yes, I did, and if you want to dive into the strange world of the 1970s, I recommend reading it (or hearing it in an audiobook).

© 2017 Catherine


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