WASHINGTON – In theaters now,Richard Gere plays Clifford Irving,the scheming writer who tricked publishers at McGraw-Hill to pay him thousands for a fake biography of billionaire Howard Hughes in 1972.
In “The Hoax,” Gere,along with Alfred Molina,who plays Irving's sidekick and researcher Dick Suskind,recreates the journey Irving took from literary nobody to national pariah.
The story of the once-great innovator who broke speed records,motion picture box office takes and the hearts of starlets,had burrowed its way into my own head years ago.
When the movie opened,I was working as a reporter in Washington,and it sent me looking for the man who ruled a billon dollar empire.
As Capitol Hill braces for the onslaught of spectators and reporters expected to attend this week's hearings with Attorney General Alberto Gonzales,who will testify before the Senate Judiciary Committee about the firings of eight U.S. attorneys,I thought about how Hughes caused a similar stir in 1947.
I went thumbing through the archives in the Russell Senate Office Building and the Library of Congress,picking through news accounts and transcripts.
I started in the dark reading room at the Senate Library in Russell,hunched over the Congressional Record. I carefully turned the flimsy pages and tried to remain comfortable in the stern wooden chairs.
I found Hughes' name among the thousands of pages collected for the hearings on defense contracts held by the Special Committee Investigating the National Defense Program.
In the movie Irving,gets caught up in the same research.
But to get his book published,he acted on the idea that the more outrageous he sounded the more publishers would believe him.
His one oversight: that Hughes,then a hermit holed up in a Las Vegas hotel,would break his media embargo to rebuke the claim that he gave Irving exclusive biographical rights.
Hughes spoke on the telephone with seven reporters and said he had never heard of Irving before news broke of the book. Irving,Suskind,and Irving's wife,Edith,went to jail for their roles in the ruse.
Hughes returned to obscurity and never gave another interview. He died in 1976.
In his later years Hughes sat for days propped up in a hotel bed,injecting himself with morphine,watching a continuous loop of old movies projected on the wall. The caverns beneath his eyes and the bed sores blossoming on his legs went unnoticed because his aides had blacked out the windows.
When he stood before the Senate Committee,some 30 years earlier,he defended the $40 million government contract Hughes Aircraft had during World War II with much more bravado.
He fought through clenched teeth and riddled his accusers with a tenacious cross-examination.
During a bitter four-day battle,he sparred with Sens. Homer Ferguson,R-Mich.,and Owen Brewster,the Maine Republican who tried to destroy TWA,Hughes' airline,with his Community Airline Bill and subsequent character defamations in the press.
Brewster wanted TWA to merge with Pan America,the airline headed by Hughes' bitter enemy Juan Trippe. He wanted Hughes to bow down to his bill,which would have created a national airline for the United States.
Hughes said no.
So Brewster used his committee to hold hearings on planes the aviator never delivered,including the 200-ton cargo ship known today as the “Spruce Goose.”
People knew Hughes demanded a lot of his employees and the dozens of girlfriends he set up in Hollywood bungalows. No one knew he would demand the same from the senators.
He exposed Brewster's personal agenda,his connection to Trippe and the senator's offer to stop the hearings if Hughes relented.
Most probably remember Leonardo DiCaprio's portrayal of the scene in “The Aviator,” Martin Scorsese's 2004 biopic on Hughes.
In one of Hughes' submitted question,he asked,”Is it not true that you had the power to crack the whip on Howard Hughes?”
It didn't please Brewster.
“There was nothing I wanted from him,that I know of.” Brewster said,according to the transcript in the Congressional Record. “And when you talk about cracking the whip,why it is to my mind ridiculous.”
Ferguson also tried to quiet Hughes,pointing out his hearing problem and suggesting Hughes hold an earpiece to his ear.
But even that didn't stop the stampede of words directed at the dais.
“I don't mind having my picture taken with it,” Hughes said. “Everybody knows I am deaf. I don't try to hide it.”
On flat-screen monitors,in the Library of Congress' James Madison building,I found images of gritty newsprint that further backed up the billionaire.
William S. White described the hearings in an Aug. 7,1947,New York Times article: “The scene before them – the senator,middle-aged and bald and Mr. Hughes,somewhat younger,a thin,black-haired and rather laconic man with a dark,intense face – was extraordinary as well. In the high and ornate Senate Office Building caucus room sat and stood some 1,500 perspiring spectators. Outside stood lines of other hundreds. Over all played first two and then one blinding klieg light. The room rang with metallic bursts of voices from the amplifiers.”
By the early 1970s,as “The Hoax” shows,Hughes had succumbed to hiding behind aides in hotel rooms. His mental illness had robbed him of the guts he had in 1947.
Even Brewster,whom Hughes would muscle out of office in 1952 by backing his political opponent,seemed to understand what Hughes did to himself.
The government has paid for the “follies of a sort of mad genius,an insane perfectionist,a potential Michelangelo in his field,” the New York Times quoted him as saying on Aug. 9,1947.
Hughes escaped the congressional noose by pointing out the more than 60 contractual failures of other companies such as Boeing and Douglas.
He silenced the naysayers when he flew his cargo plane in California's Long Beach Harbor in November 1947,proving the largest plane ever built wasn't a ploy to swindle the taxpayers.
But the man who “put the sweat of my life” into the “Spruce Goose” ended up just like his beloved plane: admired but never allowed to fly again.