How Clifford Irving convinced the world that he was the official biographer of the reclusive ''Hell's Angels'' director

It had all the makings of a great miniseries: a reclusive billionaire, a dashing con artist, a puckish wife, and a blond femme fatale with a Euro name. In 1971, little-known novelist Clifford Irving, 41, claimed he was Howard Hughes’ chosen biographer and snared a $700,000 book advance from McGraw-Hill, which sold rights to LIFE for $250,000 (later re-paid). Never mind that the hermetic Hughes hadn’t ever met Irving. By the time the fanciful author was indicted on grand larceny and other charges on March 9, 1972, the son of a cartoonist had become a world-famous rogue.

Irving almost managed to pull off his stunt. He convinced McGraw-Hill’s editors that he had a direct line to Hughes with some 150 pages of bogus transcribed interviews and a forged letter of agreement with the billionaire. Irving’s notes had the smell of truth because he had stolen from a manuscript by free-lance writer James Phelan, who was collaborating on a Hughes biography with Noah Dietrich, Hughes’ longtime business associate. Irving’s wife, Edith, deposited the advance money (the checks were written out to one H.R. Hughes) in a Swiss bank account under the name Helga Hughes — even though blond singer-actress Nina van Pallandt (The Long Goodbye) was keeping Irving company in Mexico while he was supposedly interviewing Hughes.

The truth came out when Phelan tipped off the press after reading about an anecdote in Irving’s manuscript that he realized had been lifted from his own reporting. Hughes then made a rare public statement, saying, ”I have never even heard of [Irving] until a matter of days ago….” The writer served 17 months in prison; his wife was jailed for two months in the U.S. and another 14 months in Switzerland. They divorced after their sentences ended in 1974. Irving’s book was never printed in the U.S., but a Spanish edition, labeled fiction, was later published under the title The Autobiography of Howard Hughes — with the ”auto” crossed out in red ink.

These days Edith lives alone on the Spanish island of Ibiza and paints surreal landscapes that fetch up to $3,000. ”It was just a joke,” she says, laughing, of the hoax. ”We never thought it was a criminal thing.” Van Pallandt moved to Madrid in 1987 and works as an actress in Europe. Clifford Irving has since written five well-received novels, including last year’s crime yarn, Trial. He keeps a low profile with his present wife, Maureen Earl, near Guadalupe, Mexico, and refuses to speak to the press about his caper.

TIME CAPSULE: March 9, 1972
The book that people were reading — and reading — was Herman Wouk’s mammoth The Winds of War. For laughs, TV viewers watched All in the Family and The Flip Wilson Show, while the Ryan O’Neal-Barbara Streisand farce, What’s Up, Doc?, scored in movie theaters. Topping the pop charts: Nilsson’s cover of Badfinger’s ”Without You.”