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The Hoax Files: The Truth Isn't Out There

Poetic License

by Borgna Brunner

Who Wants to Impersonate a Billionaire?

Few figures in American life have generated as much wild speculation as the eccentric Howard Hughes. So the announcement in 1971 that McGraw-Hill and Life magazine were about to publish an autobiography of the billionaire hermit naturally incited a media frenzy. The book promised a gloriously lurid tale of money, movie stars, big business, heroic aviation feats, conspiracy theories, plus plenty of bizarre personal habits. Hughes's autobiography was to be written with the assistance of the writer Clifford Irving, who somehow had managed to secure the paranoid recluse's trust. Irving claimed he met secretly with Hughes more than a hundred times in Mexico and the Bahamas to tape-record his life story.

The impending publication was enough to drive Hughes temporarily out of seclusion. In a telephone news conference, Hughes lambasted Irving as a fraud and remarked, "This must go down in history. I only wish I were still in the movie business, because I don't remember any script as wild or as stretching the imagination as this yarn has turned out to be." Irving, whole-heartedly supported by his publisher, shrugged his shoulders at Hughes's denunciation, and appeared on 60 Minutes to declare: "For better or for worse, I think I know Howard better than any man alive. The autobiography is genuine." Handwriting experts concurred: "the chances are one in ten million that these many handwritten pages from Hughes to Irving and McGraw-Hill are not genuine. It would be beyond human capability to forge this mass of material."

But investigative reporter James Phelan discovered that Irving had pilfered portions of Phelan's own unpublished manuscript on Hughes. The hoax "beyond human capability" was exposed. While the public was still marvelling at his diabolical brilliance, Irving was sent off to jail. McGraw-Hill stopped the presses. But in 1999, Autobiography of Howard Hughes became available for the first time through an Internet publisher, terrificbooks.com (no longer in existence). Irving has written a variety of books since his infamous literary debut, including several novels and a memoir called Hoax, a purportedly honest account of his dishonest activities. He also wrote a biography of someone he no doubt understood deeply: master art forger Elmyr de Hory. And adding to the hall of mirrors effect, Orson Welles created a deliberately conterfeit documentary about huckster Irving interviewing forger de Hory.

Nazi Nonsense

On April 25, 1983, Stern magazine announced they had "the journalistic scoop of the post-World War II era": 62 volumes of Adolf Hitler's diaries. The German magazine had paid a whopping $3.8 million for the newly discovered diaries, which they began serializing that day. The remarkable volumes, Stern reported, had been found by farmers in a plane crash at the end of the war, and had eventually made their way into the hands of Stern's hard-boiled investigative reporter, Gerd "the Detective" Heidemann, through a Third Reich documents dealer named Konrad Kujau. Among the more historically important material recorded in the diaries, Hitler included mundane complaints ("On my feet all day long.") and personal reminders ("Must not forget to get tickets for the Olympic Games for Eva Braun.").

In their zeal to publish the scoop, Stern overlooked a host of historical inaccuracies that riddled the diaries, and they failed to run even the most basic authentication tests. The necessity of utmost secrecy contributed to Stern's stunning lapse of journalistic standards. As one Stern insider put it, "the catastrophe could only happen because all safety switches had been blocked in the attempt to keep the scoop secret." The hoax unraveled quickly, but not without first duping the London Times into purchasing and publishing the diaries and deeply embarrassing distinguished historian Hugh Trevor-Roper, who had vouched for their authenticity.

Kujau was convicted as the forger—one of his techniques was smashing the diaries with a hammer and aging them using tea leaves—and Heidemann, his accomplice, also served time. Despite a three-year prison sentence, the sanguine Kujau distinctly delighted in his hoax. He ended his formal confession by writing, in imitation Hitler script, "I admit having written the Hitler diaries. It took me two years to perfect my handwriting. [signed] Adolf Hitler." Having enjoyed a taste of notoriety, Kujau continued to seek the limelight by making the rounds of the talk shows, running for mayor of Stuttgart, writing a cookbook, and selling copies of his own imitation Picassos and Dalis—signed with his own name.

The Miseducation of Little Tree

The Education of Little Tree, first published in 1976 and released in paperback in 1986, was an inspiring memoir of a Cherokee orphan brought up by his loving grandparents in 1930s Tennessee. It recounts how the narrator learned the Indian way of life from his elders, developed a deep appreciation of nature, and struggled to maintain his integrity in a white world full of prejudice. The memoir became a word-of-mouth cult classic, popular among both children and adults, though some criticized it as a little too warm and fuzzy, pandering shamelessly to New Age trendiness. Eventually almost a million copies were sold and the book became number-one on the New York Times Best Sellers' list.

But in the midst of the memoir's phenomenal success, a historian discovered that the author, Forrest Carter, was not at all who he pretended to be. Instead of the soulful, nature-loving Cherokee portrayed in the memoir, he was an active member of the Ku Klux Klan who had been raised in Alabama and had only the most marginal claims to Cherokee heritage. His real name was Asa Carter, and at one time he worked as a ghost-writer for George Wallace. Asa Carter had in fact written the 1963 speech that branded Wallace the country's most infamous racist politician: "Segregation now! Segregation tomorrow! Segregation forever!" In 1970, Carter had even run against Wallace in the Democratic primary because he thought Wallace had gone soft on blacks and communists. Fans of Little Tree were shocked, and the publisher deleted "A true story" from the book's cover.

Little Tree still maintains a strong following despite its tarnished reputation. Carter had died in 1979, just a few years after the book's publication, leaving it a mystery how such a racist hatemonger could manage to write a poignant story (or saccharine, depending on your view) that touched so many.


Outing Ossian

In the 1760s a negligible Scottish poet named James Macpherson dazzled European culture with the publication of fragments of an ancient epic poem, which he claimed to have translated from the Scottish Gaelic. Written by "Ossian, the Son of Fingal," the fragments recounted the heroic undertakings of the third-century bard and warrior Ossian (pronounced Oh-SHEEN). The Romantic movement, enamored of primitivism and passionate expression, embraced Macpherson's Ossian as one of their sacred texts. Romantic poets imitated the Ossianic rhythmic style, and Goethe, high priest of the Sturm and Drang, had his protagonist in The Sorrows of Young Werther declare, "Ossian has displaced Homer in my heart." Napoleon reputedly carried a copy of Ossian with him on his campaigns.

Not all were so taken with Ossian—literary giant Samuel Johnson and Scottish philosopher David Hume smelled a rat from the outset and vehemently denounced Macpherson as a huckster. Controversy over the authenticity of Ossian continued until the end of the 19th century, when scholars concluded that although Macpherson based the poems on genuine Gaelic characters and themes, most of the poetry was of his own invention.

The Child Prodigy and the Romantic Poets' "Willing Suspension of Disbelief"

In 1769, Thomas Chatterton, a poor attorney's apprentice, claimed he had discovered the poetry of a fifteenth-century monk named Thomas Rowley in an old stack of papers in a church in Bristol, England. The discovery coincided with the Gothic revival that was the literary fashion of the day, and Chatterton's antique artifact became a sensation. The poems had all the admired trappings of medieval poetry yet also conveyed a strangely modern sensibility.

Chatterton managed to sell some of the poems before it was discovered that they were forgeries—the medieval monk/bard "Rowley" was none other than Chatterton himself. At the time his elaborate deception was uncovered, Chatterton was just 17 years old and had been writing faux-medieval poetry since he was twelve. Despondent that his hoax was uncovered, impoverished and unable to sell poetry under his own name, Chatterton committed suicide by swallowing poison a few months before his eighteenth birthday. Posthumously, however, Chatterton became a darling of the Romantic and pre-Raphaelite poets, who admired the considerable literary talent of the troubled young upstart.






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