This was more than just a literary coup – Irving claimed the famously reclusive Hughes had revealed shocking details of business dealings that could wreck political careers high up in the Nixon White House.
The book was poised to become a bestseller, but there was one serious problem: Irving never met Howard Hughes. He made up the whole thing.
Now the movie "The Hoax" examines Irving's life. Richard Gere plays a charming but complex con man based the writer.
"I kind of imagine Clifford sitting around at a dinner party," Gere told 48 Hours correspondent Erin Moriarty in an interview for Sunday Morning. "And by all accounts, he was an incredibly charming guy. And saying 'What if you wrote a book' — mixing drinks — 'what if you wrote a book about someone who could never refute it because he is too crazy to refute it?'"
According to Gere, playing a charming con man wasn't that much of a stretch.
"We've all lied," he said. "We all know what it's like to lie. And you get away with it. This was a way to show them that (Irving) was actually smarter than them. He was a better writer than they ever thought he was. Because he created a whole other reality that they bought into big time — millions of dollars."
With brown hair dye and a different haircut, Gere looks remarkably like the real Irving who was 40 at the time. In the movie, Gere re-creates the way Irving and his long time friend and fellow writer Dick Suskind — played by Alfred Molina — took turns pretending to be Howard Hughes to create interview transcripts that they then took to editors at McGraw-Hill.
But if it's a dream role for Gere, the real Clifford Irving thinks it's a "second-rate, silly story."
"Except for the fact that this guy commits a hoax, gets caught and goes to prison: Those three points were real," he said. "Everything else was fiction. Made up."
Now 76 and living in Aspen, Colo., Irving is anxious to set the record straight and to hear him tell it - the whole story is more high jinks than hoax.
"It seemed like a great idea at the time," he said. "It wasn't that I needed money. I had plenty of money. It wasn't that I needed fame. I didn't think I was gonna become famous. I just did it because it seemed exciting."
Irving says the idea came from an article in Newsweek that convinced him that Howard Hughes had become so reclusive he'd never go public to say the book was a fake. Irving persuaded Suskind to help him, along with Irving's wife at the time, Edith.
"Well, we didn't really know if we could fool everybody," he said. "But we thought it was worth a try. We thought the worst thing that could happen — we said in those days — was they'll find out. We'll admit it. And it will be published as a novel. I never once, neither did Dick and neither did Edith, think it was a crime."
Irving began by forging a letter from Howard Hughes that convinced McGraw-Hill that the billionaire had chosen him to help write his autobiography.