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Frey and second chances

May 14, 2008 |  2:36 pm

Consider this: An author rides high on the publicity about his book, a stunning work of nonfiction. He commands huge amounts of money in advances and expected royalties. The book, an autobiography, promises a glimpse into lives unimagined by most people. Does this sound like James Frey soon after "A Million Little Pieces" was published and he was being celebrated by Oprah?

Uh, no. It refers to Clifford Irving, who, more than 30 years ago, duped his publishers, the media and various investigators into believing that he had actually interviewed the reclusive Howard Hughes and wrote his memoirs for him. A 1972 article in Time, "The Secret Life of Clifford Irving," summed up Irving's breathtaking rise and fall in this graf:

"Just weeks ago, Clifford Irving was looking forward to the publishing coup of the decade. He had control of well over half-a-million dollars in publishers' advances and prospects for immense royalties. Last week, with his story in a shambles, he sat in a Manhattan hotel waiting for the law to close in. The Irvings had been caught in forgery; his version of how he had acquired the book in personal meetings with Hughes was seriously shadowed. He tried to bargain with federal authorities for immunity ...Cliffordirving in exchange for the full story, but the Government, apparently convinced that it has a solid case against the Irvings, was not interested."

Former Times staff writer Gina Piccalo talked to Irving last year on the occasion of the film "The Hoax," starring Richard Gere, which offered a version of Irving's incredible feat. Irving said something intriguing about the lasting effects of that scandal -- they haven't been lasting: "Let me put it to you this way.... I refuse to be caged by time and by the past. I try to live outside the cage. I know that the past -- all history -- is fiction. And so I can smile at it."

Responses to Frey's new work range from critical to adoring, but one thing no one can say with any certainty is that his career has been permanently tainted. You just can't accept that line of reasoning for him, especially when there is Irving, who now lives quietly in Aspen, Colo., and has published at least 10 books since the Hughes controversy in the 1970s. Forgiveness -- and forgetfulness -- seem eventual; some of the comments about our review seem to be leaning in that direction already.

Nick Owchar