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Genesis in Palma
The Juan March stood off the docks of Palma harbor, l needed coffee. A little after eight o'clock of a December morning, not yet full daylight, a raw wind blew off the mountains that fringed the north coast of Mallorca. Shivering, I pulled up the collar of my overcoat as I joined the crowd at the rail.
I spotted Dick Suskind at once. There was no missing that huge bulk, hands jammed in his pockets, planted in front of the terminal building. The gangway was lowered and a few minutes later we were shaking hands and grinning.
"Let's grab coffee here," Dick said, "and give Ginette time to get Raphael off to school. Then she'll fix you a real breakfast."
We sipped our cafés con leche at the counter inside the terminal. On each side of us groups of longshoremen were munching thick sandwiches of sobreasada and drinking glasses of red wine.
I had telephoned him yesterday from Barcelona to explain that Edith's mother had died ten days before and that with our two boys, Nedsky and Barney, we had flown to Germany for the funeral. We returned to Barcelona in a one-year-old Mercedes sedan, part of Edith's inheritance. A rich man's carabsurd for the island of Ibiza, whose dirt roads made a jeep the ideal vehicle. But it was mine now, and I was willing to learn to live with it. Edith and the kids had taken the morning plane home to Ibiza and I had put the car on the big ferry.
The Juan March was not due tocontinue its passage to Ibiza until eleven. Dick and I had seen each other seldom since he had moved from Ibiza to Mallorca. In those four years he had written and published a handful of history books; now he was halfway through a biography of Richard the Lion-Hearted for teenagers. He had run into a snag: Richard's rampant homosexuality. "How the hell do you get around something like that? I can't talk about sodomy and buggerymy editor would turn green." The book was taking a long time to write, and Dick was in trouble. "I'm in hock to the grocer, the landlady, Raphael's schoolyou name it. So what's with you? How's Edith? How's the Danish problem?"
I ducked that last one. "Can't complain," I said. I was two-thirds of the way through my new novel and I had a four-book contract with my publisher, McGraw-Hill, calling for a total advance of $150,000. I knew that I would have to offer Dick some money before I went on to Ibiza. Par for the course, and no problem. We had borrowed from each other in the past, and had alwaysalthough sometimes it took a whilerepaid the loans.
"It's no Mercedes," Dick said cheerfully, opening the door of a battered gray Simca, "but it gets me theremost of the time." We started along the coast road toward his home on the outskirts of Palma. A horde of new hotels and apartment buildings had risen since my last visit. I remembered how it had been in 1957, when Dick and I had first met to play chess at a sidewalk cafe in Ibiza: a few scattered hotels, a dozen ancient taxis, empty and pristine beaches where you rarely wore a bathing suit. My hand encountered the stiff crinkling of the Newsweek in my overcoat pocket. I pulled it out and opened it to the article on Howard Hughes"The Case of the Invisible Billionaire."
"See this? I read it on the boat last night."
Hughes had just escaped from his Las Vegas fiefdom to Paradise Island in the Bahamas, from the ninth floor of one hotel to the ninth floor of another. His Nevada empire looked as though it might be toppling. Dick, after a quick glance, turned his attention back to the road. "What's with that guy?" he said. "I read the same story in this week's Time. There's American decadence and lunacy in a nutshell. That's why I couldn't go back there to live, not even on a bet. The Biafrans are starving, the Pakistanis are starving, I'm on the edge of starvation, but some old fart with two billion dollars flies off for a vacation in the Bahamas and the press goes ape. What the hell has Howard Hughes done except discover lane Russell's tits and build that ridiculous flying boat?"
"It's not what he's done, it's the way he lives. He's the Lone Ranger of big business. He's practically a hermit. Do you know he hasn't been interviewed for fifteen years? The people who work for him have never even met him."
"I wouldn't be surprised if he was dead and it was all a cover-up for those guys around him to steal the whole boodle." Laughter rumbled in Dick's chest. "Why wasn't I born a Mormon?"
"Convert," I suggested. "It's never too late. But listenI've got a wild idea."
"Your last idea was to ride an elephant from India to Ibiza and have NBC film it and pick up the tab. Just so Edith could start a zoo and have some way to crush tin cans. You were also going to sail to Odessa in that leaky tub you call your yacht. What's the latest brilliancy?"
"Look, I'm laying this on you because you think clearly and you're one of the foremost cynics I know." Dick chuckled, accepting the compliment. "If you think I've flipped my lid, tell me so. Okay?"
"You flipped your lid a long time ago, when you took up with the Dane again. So tell me the idea."
"Well, Hughes fascinates me. There's never been a real biography written about him because he's so secretive. No one can get close to him. Suppose I went to a publisherlet's say my own publisher, McGraw-Hilland cooked up a scheme with them to pretend I'd met Hughes and he'd commissioned me to write his authorized biography. Authorized, you understand, by The Man himself." I would do the book, I explained, based on tape-recorded interviews with Hughesjust as I had written my last book, Fake!, based on tape-recorded interviews with Elmyr de Hory, the art forgerexcept that in this case I would never meet Hughes and the interviews would be faked. A hoax, a gorgeous literary caper, in which publisher and author would collaborate.
Dick's eyes swerved to me. "And you think McGraw-Hill would back you on a thing like that?"
"It's worth a try. They're always looking for best-sellers. Hughes would never be able to surface to deny it, or else he wouldn't bother. I'd have to get a publisher to back it because there's a tremendous amount of research involved. It would have to be a definitive biography with plenty of quotes from The Man himself. I bet you they'd pay a hundred grand for a book like thatwhich we'd damn well need. We'd have to travel all over the States, dig into records wherever Hughes has lived, interview hundreds of people who knew him, see ..."
"Hold on a minute. We?"
"I'm no researcher. Besides, it's too big a job for one man."
"Listen," Dick said, "I think I'd rather ride on the elephant with you. McGraw-Hill's a big outfit, not to mention the most conservative publisher in New York. They'd never go for an idea like that. Put up a hundred thousand bucks for a hoax? You tell them that, man, and then duck. But don't include me in it."
Dick slammed on the brakes at the end of a short, dead-end dirt road marked Calle Gamundi. His poodle gave us a noisy welcome at the iron gate and led the way down the cobbled path. "You have flipped your lid," Dick concluded. "But never mind, mental masturbation is an occupational disease. All writers have it. You finish your novel and I'll finish Richard the Lion-Hearted, a study in royal medieval pederasty."
Dick's French-born wife, dark red hair hanging loose about her shoulders, greeted me with a kiss on both cheeks. Bacon and pancakes were already sizzling in separate pans. Dick and I wandered through the house to his study. I started to say, "How about if Hughes ..." but Dick cut me off. He wanted to know about the housing situation in Ibiza. He and Ginette missed their old friends there, life on Mallorca was dull and expensive. "Look around for us," he said. "Something big and cheap. And give me a ring. We've both got telephones now, we can keep in touch. I'm lonely. I'm fed up. I feel middle-aged."
"So do I. It's a funny feeling."
"`The first forty years is text,'" Dick said, quoting Schopenhauer. "`The rest is commentary.'"
"But I don't feel ready to give up writing the text." Gloomily, I promised to do my best with the househunting chore and then, after breakfast we climbed back into the Simca and headed for the docks. The subject of money arose and I parted with 10,000 pesetas, about $150, so that the Suskinds could eat for the first month of the new year. "Pay me back when you can," I said. "I don't give a damn."
We were still rattling down the hill to join the coast road when I was struck with a variation on the theme. "Listen, on that Hughes thing, suppose ..."
"Go to Odessa," Dick said.
"No, hear me out. You're probably right, no publisher would go for the idea if they knew it was a hoax. But suppose they didn't know? Suppose I told McGraw-Hill I was in touch with Hughes. I mean, suppose I convince them it was true. Don't ask me how, just assume I could do it. Assume I could work out a phony private contract between me and Hughes forbidding communication between him and the publishers. Think what a great book could be done, what a great character could be createdusing the known facts about the man and inventing the rest. I'd still fake the interviews. I'd still research the book and write it the same way. Only the publisher wouldn't know."
Dick had listened attentively, slowing down to approach the crossroad of the coast highway. He reached for the stick shift, to gear down into second. "That," he said softly, "is a worthy idea. That's not bad at all ..."
"They'd put up the money for the research, an advance, and then later ... maybe ... when the book was done, I tell them it's a hoax. Or I don't tell them. Who knows? Either way, I keep the rest of the money intact for repayment. And either way there's a book, and it could be a dilly. I'll finish my novel by April or May ... I could start right after that."
"Jesus Christ," Dick murmured. Thinking aloud, I had got through to him. He slammed the gear stick so hard that it mapped off nearly at its base, two inches off the floorboards. "That could work ..."
The Simca drifted off the road and came to a bumpy halt in a patch of cactus. Dick stared dreamily at the length of stick clutched in his thick fingers. "What a fantastic idea! You know, it could work! We could do it ..."
"You asked me to help you before." He looked indignant. "Didn't you?"
"Get me to the goddam boat. I've got a wife and two children waiting for me. Think about it for a few days and then I'll call you And don't get so excited about thingsnext thing you'll wind up with the steering wheel in your hands."
Dick trapped the stub of the gear stick between his thumb and forefinger and wiggled the lever into second gear. We chugged along the coast road, concentrating on traffic lights and cars and the minutes ticking away. The marineros were already unroping the gangway when we reached the dock. I leaped out, fumbling in my pocket for the boat ticket. Dick snatched at my sleeve.
"Listen, if Hughes is ..."
"I'll call you," I promised. "And drive carefully. And don't lose any sleep over this. It's a wild ideamental masturbation, you called it. There's got to be a dozen snags in it. So think about it. I'll call you," I repeated, and stumbled up the swaying gangway.
Excerpted from THE HOAX by Clifford Irving. Copyright © 1981 by Clifford Irving. Excerpted by permission.