The gypsies have a curse: May your dreams come true. Clifford Irving knows this curse. You could say he wrote the book on it.
Clifford Irving is 47 now and maybe just a little haunchier in the hips (despite a born-again devotion to tennis). Tall and tanned and handsome, he is still possessed of wit and an offhanded charm, the kind that must have snared him wives and mistresses without half trying.
It is isn't that he seems incorrigible. Not exactly. It's just that the greatest literary hoaxer of our time, maybe all time, gives the impression of a transgressor who can't get all worked up about past transgressions. Even though he will say, with a wry, pained little smile alighting on his face, that he's "suffered brain damage over all this."
"All this," of course, is Clifford Irving's fake autobiography seven years ago of Howard Hughes, a half-million-dollar gambit that got him international notoriety, 17 months in prison, an eventual divorce (from his fourth wife and co-conspirator, Edith), and the cover of Time magazine as "The Con Man of 1972." The gypsies are right: The dream can more than come true.
"Obviously, people will always remember the Hughes affair," he says, just for a moment searching his soul; he is biting on the stem of his black horn rims. "The best I can probably ever do is reach a point - and I guess this is what I dream in my greatest hallucinations - where people might say, 'Wow, what a mistake it was for us to think this Irving could only write a hoax book. In fact, he's a very good writer, a writer of quality. Let's forgive him the Hughes caper.'"
Clifford Irving came to Washington yesterday. He wasn't accompanied by Edith Irving, or the steamy Baroness Nina van Pallandt, or Dick Suskind (his little-known but all-important researcher in the Hughes hoax), but by Herbert Burkholz, a short, chubby little man who is a writer also and who has been in his pal since boyhood. Burkholz, says Cliff Irving, is America's most eminent unknown man of letters. Together, they have written a spoof spy novel.
The problem is, nobody but nobody wants to talk about this new book (which happens to be called "The Death Freak" and is very entertaining reading). All people seem to care about is Clifford Irving. And that notorious cast of characters. Where is Nina now? Is Edith on Ibiza? Is Suskind really starring in German movies?
"I've been frankly hurt and confused by how this is turning out," says Burkholz. He is sitting in a cafe on 19th Street, his double-knit jacket with red piping thrown over a chair. Irving, is slightly more fashionable attire, is beside him, intent on a pastry. "I've had to accept that Cliff is the focus. I had no idea people would still care. But I guess I forgot this in the day of the hyena and that we still live in the age of hype. I think I'm adjusting."
"You're adjusting very well," says Irving, looking up.
Well, as long as we're on it, what did happen to Edith? Burkholz shrugs.
"She's been living on Eastern Long Island," Irving answers. "She's married to my former lawyer. Edith and I have a very good divorce. She says a good divorce is more important than a good marriage - it lasts longer."
This is swept aside: Cliff is rolling. Locked at the corner of his mouth is a thin, bad-boy smile. He is talking in a dramatic whisper.
"Edith had a show of her paintings awhile ago. I helped arrange it." Edith has the two children, he says. Nedsky is 10. Barney is 8. "I had them all summer. I've been living in Mexico, in a little American colony called San Miguel de Allende. I'm working on a long piece of fiction. It's about Pancho Villa, Tom Mix and George S. Patton Jr."
He says this with an absolutely straight face. Apparently, it's true.
That's Edith. Where is Nina?
"Oh, I can answer that," Burkholz says, anxious to partake. "Actually, she's been my closest platonic friend for years. I knew her way before she was notorious."
Nina is in California, writer No. 2 says. Married and divorced (to and from a South African film producer), still hoping to make it in the movies. She had one good part - "The Long Goodbye." That was the film where the advertisements, trying to cash in, asked: "How will she play a woman of intrigue?" The answer: "From memory."
"Actually, I don't like Nina," Irving says. Appropos of this, he launched into a bawdy joke. "She's bad news."
Burkholz is a tad incensed. "It wasn't Nina who blew the whistle in the Hughes thing. It all would have come out in any case. I say a plague on both your houses. I pick whom I want for friends.
This leaves only the whereabouts of Suskind a mystery. "He's deep into the middle class," says Irving, unable to stifle a grin at this odd turn of events for his old crony in fraud.
"I can't tell you the city he's in, but I can tell you it's not New York and that he's buying advertising space for international concerns in various newspapers." Here Irving takes on his oldfriend's voice imitating a Japanese. "The next day he's imitating an Italian for some Italian newspaper. Last I heard, he had a house with a two-car garage."
Clifford Irving and Herb Burkholz themselves haven't had too many houses with two-car garages. "We're travelers," Irving says. "Home is where my typewriter is."
Home is also where Valdi is Irving's current amorata and roommate. "She plays tennis, takes care of me and the kinkajou." Pause. "She is not exactly women's lib."
The two are only recently back together as friends, they say. They had been separated for 20 years, after having grown up together in a Jewish neighborhood on the upper West Side of New York.
"They called it The Gilded Ghetto," says Irving.
"The Fox & Lox Belt," says Burkholz.
The talk is cheery and warm now. Sort of. "I used to run with the Irish kids," Burkholz says. "I didn't know any better. One day I came home and told my father we'd just beat up this little Rosenberg kike. The next thing I remember was his hand hitting my face. Then he sat me down and told me I was a laugh.
"You sure were," says Irving. They laugh.
The Irvings were a notch above the Burkholzes, says Burkholz. "I remember Cliff's parents one time took him to Hawaii. We were in P.S. 9. When he came back the school showed us movies his family had made over there. I kept thing: Hawaii.' For me, it was a big deal to get a trip to Yonkers."
"I can see you just as you were back then," says Irving. "Little Herbie Burkholz. I remember your folks' bedding store."
Eventually they both became writers. Irving wrote a novel called "On a Darkling Plain," then another called "The Losers," which Robert Graves termed the best short novel he'd read in 20 years. Burkholz, who didn't get to go to Cornell, as Irving did, made his mark with "Sister Bear," and, later, "The Spanish Soldier." A couple of years ago, after a long time abroad, Burkholz came back to the States to be a writer-in-residence at William and Mary in Williamsburg.
"They were actually teaching my books," he says with surprise and awe.
The only surprise and awe in Irving has to do with how he became such a literary persona non grata over the Hughes book. He still can't believe it. Sometimes, he can't even believe he wrote it.
"You see, I was living this fantasy life," he says. His look is very faraway. "And I projected that fantasy world into a real-life situation."
He stops. "I remember about half way through the book wondering if all this was really happening. I mean, by then it was all some sort of weird existential dream. But I had to keep on with it. I just had to."
At the moment, having sold their spy spoof to a paperback house and getting nibbles on movie rights, the two writers feel good about their futures. In November they will go to Greece and commence another collaboration. After that, Irving might go to Spain or to Mexico, Burkholz to the mountains. After that - who knows?
"Cliff basically likes the water. I like snow and skiing." Burkholz says. "We'll find each other again."
The talk is over.
Outside, trying to find a taxi, Burkholz gigs Irving about his tie. The tie is somewhere between purple and deep red. It is made of thick velvet, of maybe velour.
"It looks like a bell rope."
"Yeah. Bell rope."
"Hey, don't knock it. I only own three ties to my name. The last few years I've been traveling light."