Re “Clifford Irving, at 87; published fake Howard Hughes book” (Obituaries, Dec. 22): This was one of those “historic” literary moments that I witnessed firsthand as a young sales rep for McGraw-Hill in New York. We had a special presentation by the editor, the agent, and the author himself in the Warwick hotel ballroom, followed by a late-morning champagne toast. Landing the autobiography of Howard Hughes was a coup for the company, which, despite having published some major authors in the 1960s, was known more for its textbooks.
While there have been many accounts of this hoax, I haven’t seen any that dealt with the excitement of that morning at the Warwick, when Irving humbly thanked McGraw-Hill and his agent for believing in the project. He went on to explain convincingly how Hughes had identified him as the man to cowrite his memoir. Irving had published with us a worthy novel of political intrigue, followed by a biography of a little-known art forger, titled, yes, “Fake!” You would have thought his agent and editor might have made a connection, not to mention the legal department of a fine, upstanding Manhattan publishing house.
I will never forget walking out of the meeting — it was Friday, and we were all heading for our trains and planes — and looking up excitedly at one of the legendary book salesmen of the time. I said, “Boy, Charlie, looks like we’re gonna finally be able to make some big bucks on bonuses this year.” As he lit his Pall Mall with the classic Ronson lighter, squinting as the first puff drifted over his head, he responded, “Don’t be so sure, Michel. There’s something fishy about this whole thing. Mark my words.” Of course, who’s going to listen to a lowly sales rep with 45 years of experience. Just sell the books, Charlie, that’s what you’re paid to do.