Summer of ’72

Novelist Clifford Irving spent a summer on Longboat Key before going to jail for the Howard Hughes hoax.


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By Clifford Irving

My love affair with Sarasota began in June 1972. I had been convicted of perpetuating the Howard Hughes hoax and sentenced to two-and-a-half years in federal prison. My wife was sentenced to serve 60 days, starting immediately. The judge delayed my time until she was released, so I could finish the book I was writing, to help me pay my legal fees, and look after our two young boys.

A dear friend lived on Longboat Key, where I had never been. It sounded remote, pleasant and I reckoned it had to be cheap in the heat of mid-summer. She invited me to come down.

There was a wonderful old airport then in Sarasota, rather like an African bush station. I found a rental house on Birdie Lane, hired an 18-year-old to help with the boys, and my friend gave me a beat-up old Cadillac she didn’t use. In the evenings and early mornings I worked, and almost every day drove the kids to the Colony Beach & Tennis Club. Murf Klauber, the owner, threw a fraternal arm around my shoulder and said, “Use the place. Be my guest.”

John D. MacDonald called and took me to a weekly luncheon of Sarasota writers, where Borden Deal befriended me. But MacKinlay Kantor wouldn’t come to the lunch. John D. and Borden explained, “Mac’s father was a con man of sorts. Mac doesn’t want to meet you.” Time magazine had recently put me on the cover, naming me “Con Man of the Year.” I hated that; it was painful, but I rarely let people know how much.

So the summer was strange, bittersweet perhaps. A little holiday by the Gulf of Mexico before spending two years in prison. Positioning myself in front of the air conditioner, diligently I wrote and finished my book, paid my lawyers. A letter arrived from my wife in Nassau County Jail. I couldn’t bear to think of her there. She talked of divorce. My kids and I splashed vigorously in the Colony pool, hit a few tennis balls in the merciless sun, went somewhere to watch dolphins cavort. Prison loomed in my mind.

My wife was released and flew down. How pale she was—and determined to divorce. In late August I left Sarasota for a prison camp in central Pennsylvania. I learned to pump iron, speak Italian and street black, steal food, say “sir” to guards and apologize to any man I bumped into in the hallways in case he was doing life without the possibility of parole. In winter now and then, I thought I heard shells crunching underfoot in the hot sand in front of the Colony, the yap and splash of kids in the pool.

Novelist and screenwriter Clifford Irving moved to Sarasota last year.