I saw a pretty good movie the other night, “The Hoax,” and I immediately knew that I had to write a column about it.
The movie reconstructs the audacious attempt by freelance writer and novelist Clifford Irving to sell what he claimed was the authorized autobiography of billionaire recluse and world class eccentric Howard Hughes to McGraw Hill — all without ever spending a single second with the man.
The rise and fall of this magnificent fraud 36 years ago is portrayed with just the right mix of cunning and childlike zest by my former brother-in-law Richard Gere — “a perfect phoney,” one critic said in praising Gere’s performance. But no, this column is not about my former brother-in-law. While what I know about him would fill a book, I have not spoken to the man in years — what publisher would ever print something like that?
No, the character in the story that jumped off the movie screen at me was that of Frank McCulloch, the Time-Life investigative reporter and bureau chief who had been the last known journalist to ever interview the famed aviator, industrialist, and movie mogul. That interview took place in 1957. After that McCulloch — a former Marine — gained fame as a Vietnam War correspondent and as the leader of an aggressive Life magazine investigative reporting team. By the time I landed in the New York bureau of Time magazine in 1970 McCulloch was a legend around the Time-Life Building.
At the age of 22 or 23, I was just brash enough to skate on thin ice whenever I got the opportunity. One day I called into the office from the field and got McCulloch’s secretary. “Hey Holly,” I said. “Is Frankie in? I need to talk to him.”
A kid journalist calling Frank McCulloch “Frankie” would be like a cardinal calling the pope “pops.” I hoped the secretary would appreciate the wry humor. She did. I soon heard McCulloch’s no-nonsense voice: “Hey, Rich. It’s Frankie here. I understand you want to talk to me.”
When I first heard about the movie version of the Clifford Irving caper, I wondered if McCulloch would be portrayed in the movie. He was the one-man truth squad that McGraw Hill brought in to see if the memoir it was purchasing for a huge sum of money (and selling as a magazine excerpt to Life magazine) was authentic. When a lawyer representing Hughes set up a telephone conference call with Hughes himself and the publishing people to deny his involvement in the project, McCulloch was present to verify that it was really Hughes on the line.
In a 1972 paperback book — “What Really Happened” and later reissued as “The Hoax” and used as the basis for many of the scenes in the movie — Irving writes of his first face-to-face with McCulloch:
“McCulloch nodded and shook hands. He had a hard grip. He was a man of about 50, tall, ruggedly built, with eyes to match his handshake and a completely shaven, knobby skull that gleamed and rippled almost as though it was made of muscle. He looked at me coldly. He was the enemy. Until now the enemies had been gentle, sympathetic, believing, and the weapons I needed were almost too easy to come by. But McCulloch didn’t believe, and I had no weapon. Under that hard stare I felt weak and vulnerable, an amateur in the ring with a professional.”
Irving, unnerved by the impending call from Hughes, fled the scene. But Irving’s agent later reported that McCulloch had told the McGraw-Hill and Time-Life publishing corporate brass that Irving was “scared shitless.” And he added: “Off the top of my head I have to tell you — I think your man’s a phoney.”
But, as Irving recounts the story, McCulloch later second-guessed himself, and surmised that the material in the manuscript must have come from Hughes himself, because it contained a description of a conversation he had had alone with Hughes that had never been reported in public. (What McCulloch didn’t know was that a confidential memo he had written had been pirated out of the office and ended up in Irving’s inventive hands.)
I wanted to place a call to McCulloch, now 87 years old and living in California, where he worked at both the Sacramento Bee and San Francisco Examiner after leaving Time-Life.
But first I started leafing through my tattered copies of Irving’s 378-page “What Really Happened,” somehow cranked out in the few months between his confession on January 28, 1972, and his sentencing on June 16 of the same year. (Irving spent 14 months in jail, and his researcher, Richard Suskind, served five months. Because she also was convicted in a Swiss court, Irving’s wife, Edith, got the longest prison term and was not released until May of 1974.)
What struck me was not only how creative the hoax was, but how much hard work it required. It was an era before cell phones, the Internet, word processors, and even Fed Ex, and Irving and Suskind had to con their way into archives, dig through reams of paper files, carry them through airports, and handle logistics through pay phones and collect calls.
Compared to all that research the actual writing, done by feeding page after page into a Remington manual typewriter, may have seemed easy. And Irving was an expediter: At one point he describes hiring a woman to type and re-type various drafts, while he wielded the paste pot and scissors to handle the editing.
The movie captures a small slice of Irving’s book — in a classic pot and kettle statement Irving, now living in Colorado, has denounced the movie as a “hoax about a hoax.” He has a point. His one- paragraph description of Frank McCulloch, quoted above, is a better, quicker portrait of the man than the movie can offer.
The movie lasted two hours. I spent more time than that caught up in Irving’s book. By the time I looked up it was almost 1 a.m. — 10 o’clock on the coast and too late to call McCulloch. So here it is: Another story without a single second spent talking to the principal subject. So who will publish this?