Cover image for Can you ever forgive me? : memoirs of a literary forger
Title:
Can you ever forgive me? : memoirs of a literary forger
ISBN:
9781982100339
Personal Author:
Publication Information:
New York, NY : Simon & Schuster Paperbacks, [2018]
Physical Description:
x, 129 pages ; 22 cm
Contents:
Brick and pigeons -- Wretched and excessive -- A Mayan minute -- The flies -- Slippery slope -- Cousin Sidney -- Louise -- Riffing -- Faux Louise -- Dorothy -- Noël -- The jig is up -- Violets for his furs -- Trimester two -- This ain't no country club, Lee -- Prep time -- My third trimester.
Summary:
Before turning to her life of crime-running a one-woman forgery business out of a phone booth in a Greenwich Village bar and even dodging the FBI, Lee Israel had a legitimate career as an author of biographies. Her first book on Tallulah Bankhead was a New York Times bestseller, and her second, on the late journalist and reporter Dorothy Kilgallen, made a splash in the headlines. But by 1990, almost broke and desperate to hang onto her Upper West Side studio, Lee made a bold and irreversible career change: inspired by a letter she'd received once from Katharine Hepburn, and armed with her considerable skills as a researcher and celebrity biographer, she began to forge letters in the voices of literary greats. Between 1990 and 1991, she wrote more than three hundred letters in the voices of, among others, Dorothy Parker, Louise Brooks, Edna Ferber, Lillian Hellman, and Noel Coward-and sold the forgeries to memorabilia and autograph dealers.
Personal Subject:
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Book 923.41 Israe
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Summary

Summary

Now a major motion picture starring Melissa McCarthy--Lee Israel's hilarious and shocking memoir of the astonishing caper she carried on for almost two years when she forged and sold more than three hundred letters by such literary notables as Dorothy Parker, Edna Ferber, Noel Coward, and many others.

Before turning to her life of crime--running a one-woman forgery business out of a phone booth in a Greenwich Village bar and even dodging the FBI--Lee Israel had a legitimate career as an author of biographies. Her first book on Tallulah Bankhead was a New York Times bestseller, and her second, on the late journalist and reporter Dorothy Kilgallen, made a splash in the headlines.

But by 1990, almost broke and desperate to hang onto her Upper West Side studio, Lee made a bold and irreversible career change: inspired by a letter she'd received once from Katharine Hepburn, and armed with her considerable skills as a researcher and celebrity biographer, she began to forge letters in the voices of literary greats. Between 1990 and 1991, she wrote more than three hundred letters in the voices of, among others, Dorothy Parker, Louise Brooks, Edna Ferber, Lillian Hellman, and Noel Coward--and sold the forgeries to memorabilia and autograph dealers.

"Lee Israel is deft, funny, and eminently entertaining...[in her] gentle parable about the modern culture of fame, about those who worship it, those who strive for it, and those who trade in its relics" (The Associated Press). Exquisitely written, with reproductions of her marvelous forgeries, Can You Ever Forgive Me? is "a slender, sordid, and pretty damned fabulous book about her misadventures" ( The New York Times Book Review ).


Author Notes

Lee Israel was born in New York City on December 3, 1939. She received a bachelor's degree in speech from Brooklyn College in 1961. In the 1960s and 1970s, she was a freelance writer, contributing articles on film, theater, and television to several publications including The New York Times and Soap Opera Digest. Her first book, Miss Tallulah Bankhead, was published in 1972. Her other biographies include Kilgallen and Estée Lauder: Beyond the Magic.

In the early 1990s, she became a literary forger because her career was at a standstill and she could not handle getting a real job. She composed and sold hundreds of letters that she said had been written by the likes of Edna Ferber, Dorothy Parker, Noël Coward, and Lillian Hellman. She dealt with typed letters, which only required her to copy the signatures. When talk concerning the authenticity of her wares made composing new letters too risky, she began stealing actual letters from archives and leaving duplicates in their place. She was captured by the F.B.I., and in June 1993, she pleaded guilty to one count of conspiracy to transport stolen property in interstate commerce. She was sentenced to six months' house arrest and five years' probation.

This experience was documented in Can You Ever Forgive Me?: Memoirs of a Literary Forger, which was published in 2008. In recent years, she worked as a copy editor for Scholastic magazines. She died from complications of myeloma on December 24, 2014 at the age of 75.

(Bowker Author Biography)


Reviews 3

Publisher's Weekly Review

SignatureReviewed by Edward DolnickForgery is a strange crime because, until the police show up, the victims never know they've been done wrong. Muggings and thefts leave no such doubts. Even so, forgers themselves are seldom captivating figures. Reliant on the artists they imitate, they give off only reflected light. Lee Israel specialized in forged letters. Over the course of two years (1991-1992), she churned out hundreds of brief letters supposedly written by the likes of Noël Coward, Lillian Hellman, Dorothy Parker and a host of lesser names from the suburbs of celebrity.Most of the letters are mundane. That sounds like trouble, but Israel knew better. Her buyers didn't mind. They didn't want art; they wanted the whiff of authenticity. A few homey sentences only strengthened the illusion. Once Israel had tossed in a tiny joke and added a bold signature, she was home free. I loved your flowers, thoughtful boy, Edna Ferber supposedly wrote to an unnamed acquaintance. They were waiting impatiently for me when I returned from Main Chance.But Israel overreached. When she turned from peddling her own fakes to selling genuine letters she had stolen from libraries (after substituting her forgeries), the FBI came calling. She tells her story briskly--at 128 small pages, the book is thin to the point of anorexia--and devotes more time to self-mockery than self-justification. Israel had learned to recognize a grabby letter in the course of researching celebrity biographies. She produced books on Tallulah Bankhead, Dorothy Kilgallen and Estée Lauder, then fell on hard times. She conned her way back to financial respectability by peddling gossipy, scandalous forgeries to spectacularly incurious dealers. Crime hardly gets more small-time. Israel sold her letters for $100 each. The most famous literary forgers, like Clifford Irving, played for million-dollar stakes. Israel stuck to smaller game. She needed hardly any equipment beyond some vintage typewriters from a secondhand shop and a stack of biographies and collections of published letters. Then she plucked out the best lines, added a few innocuous sentences as padding and occasionally threw in one-liners of her own. Can you ever forgive me? is a line she put in the mouth of Dorothy Parker.Two of Israel's fakes made it into The Letters of Noël Coward, published in 2007. So she tells us, at any rate, and probably it is true. Israel reprints both letters; she might have copied them from the Coward volume, but that seems like a lot of trouble.But who can be sure? The hard fate of forgers is that, even when they tell the truth, they find themselves caught like the boy who cried wolf. Illus. (Aug.)Edward Dolnick won an Edgar award for The Rescue Artist. His new book, The Forger's Spell, was just published by Harper. (c) Copyright PWxyz, LLC. All rights reserved All rights reserved.


Booklist Review

Israel was the author of three unsuccessful biographies; when the last one met with poor reviews and abysmal sales, she remained determined to make her living as a writer even if she had to do it illegally. Hence, her new project: forging letters, hundreds of them, ostensibly written by famous names such as Noel Coward, Edna Ferber, and Dorothy Parker. This tantalizing memoir recounts how she created the letters (using vintage typewriters), how she sold them (through reputable dealers), and how the scam came crashing down around her. It's a fascinating story, very much in the spirit of literary-fraud stories like Clifford Irving's faking of Howard Hughes' autobiography (recounted most recently in the film The Hoax). Israel's tale is so intriguing we want to hear more; unfortunately, the book seems hurried, as though she put it down on paper in a burst of writing and then quickly sent it off to the publisher. It's a fascinating book even so, but many readers will sense how much more it might have been if Israel had taken the time to add more depth and texture.--Pitt, David Copyright 2008 Booklist


New York Review of Books Review

IN the annals of literary forgery, William Henry Ireland had Shakespeare ("Vortigern and Rowena" - who knew?), Thomas Chatterton the nonexistent medieval poet Rowley, and Lee Israel, well, the silent-film star Louise Brooks. Pretty far down Parnassus, you say? Don't be a snob. Israel displayed an excellent ear and fine false turn of phrase during the 15 or so months in the early 1990s when she sold hundreds of phony celebrity letters - and a lot of filched real ones - to about 30 different dealers. Now, all these years later, she's written a slender, sordid and pretty damned fabulous book about her misadventures. Kept to the straight and narrow, Israel coulda been somebody. In fact, she was: a well-regarded biographer of Tallulah Bankhead and Dorothy Kilgallen who, around 1990, was about to enter what "a court officer would later describe ... as a 'rough patch.'" She was drinking and spending too much, and romancing too hard ("a brilliant, beautiful bartender named Elaine"). A third biography, of the cosmetics queen Estée Lauder, bombed with reviewers and book buyers. Israel soon found herself hitting 50 and on welfare, harassing professional acquaintances and exasperating friends. She tried to keep going by selling some of her home library to the Strand bookstore, whose clerks eventually threw her out. "I was not in the flower of mental health," she admits, with understatement worthy of the above-quoted court officer. Her West Side studio apartment began to accumulate cat feces and flies. Then the cat died and its replacement, Doris, needed a vet whose bills Israel couldn't pay. It was about then that criminal inspiration struck. In the course of researching an article for Soap Opera Digest at the Library for the Performing Arts at Lincoln Center, she stole three rather ordinary letters by Fanny Brice and was able to sell them for $40 each. Israel, who would come to believe that most dealers didn't know that "provenance was not the capital of Rhode Island," felt no guilt: the letters she'd stolen "were from the realm of the dead. Doris and I were alive." Having learned that the first dealer "would pay more for better content," Israel was soon advancing to her own full-tilt production of letters from other luminaries. She bought a gaggle of vintage manual typewriters, had famous letterheads printed up on antique paper and used an old television as a light box on which she could trace signatures. Even so, while writing as Noël Coward, Dorothy Parker, Edna Ferber and, most convincingly, Louise Brooks, Israel remained more an enhancer than an outright fabricator. She would use some of her subjects' best real lines (Brooks on the studio head Harry Cohn: "My cat has spit up hairballs more attractive than him") and take care with the chronology of their lives. The seams rarely showed. Indeed, the editor of "The Letters of Noël Coward," published only last year, included two Israel pastiches - "a big hoot and a terrific compliment," thought the erstwhile forger. (I reviewed the book and never batted an eye.) One of Lee Israel's forged letters, reproduced in "Can You Ever Fogive Me?" Still, a bit of implausibility where Coward was concerned - having him write more candidly about his homosexuality than he would have allowed himself to - raised suspicions in one of the playwright's friends who was also a collector. Israel fell into her first pot of hot water. Some outlets would no longer touch what she was selling; a grand jury began investigating; one New York dealer said he'd refuse to testify if she paid him $5,000. The danger blew over, but Israel, now living in a "constant state of anxiety," decided to move on to a surer-fire if less creative m.o. - having a middleman, a wacky ex-con pal, fence only actual letters she stole from archives. To throw off the archivists, she would leave behind well-crafted replicas that she had prepared after careful study and note-taking. Sometimes she would spirit the originals past reading-room attendants in her shoe. Even so, the F.B.I. eventually caught on to the new scheme, and she couldn't get rid of those manual typewriters fast enough, dumping them "one by one, in trash cans along a mile stretch of Amsterdam Avenue." Thanks to a hard-working lawyer from the Federal Defenders Program as well as a kind-hearted judge, she got away with five years' probation and six months' house arrest. This second phase of her forgery career - purely mechanical and almost as dreary as plagiarism - makes one long to hear more of the first, in which Israel could be seen using talents she once brought to legitimate biography. She acutely characterizes her various ventriloquial quarries: Edna Ferber is "a scold, a snob, a low-profile dominatrix whose corseted asperity was never far from busting out," and Brooks is "the left-hemispheric actress turned essayist and critic" who during the 1960s found "her legend among cinéastes swelling like popcorn." Any guilt that Israel does feel, vet bills notwithstanding, comes from considering the upand-up work she once managed to do in archives and libraries, and her realization that "messing with those citadels was unequivocally and big-time wrong." ISRAEL is the kind of Manhattan eccentric who might once have caught the attention of Joe Mitchell. Fortunately, she's a vivid enough writer to capture, memorably, her own nerve and occasional nastiness. Israel is very hard to like on a couple of occasions, each candidly recounted, and it doesn't surprise a reader to hear that Jack Hock, her partner in the second forgery phase, was "somewhat afraid" of her. But he too goes into this book's wonderful little gallery of grotesques, recalled by the author as a chainsmoker who "believed that the little stubby cigarette holder he fastened to the ends of cigarettes would keep him cancer-free." Israel is, of course, her own best character, frantically riding the subway toward her scheduled guilty plea while hearing "some kind of hum from the older back of my brain ... the hum chewing over the horror of imprisonment... out of earshot, maybe in Yiddish so as not to upset me." Told by the merciful judge "that he never wanted to see me again 'in this context,' " she hears the words as being "not a total rejection." There's no honor in anything she did, but after reading "Can You Ever Forgive Me?" it's hard to resist admitting Israel to the company of such sharp, gallant characters as Dawn Powell and Helene Hanff, women clinging to New York literary life, or its fringes, by their talented fingernails. Israel tells us she went on to spend "six sufferable years" as a copy editor of "classroom magazines at Scholastic, the Spring Byington of the publishing world." That still, rather ominously, leaves a lot of time unaccounted for. If I were a librarian, I wouldn't let Lee Israel through the door, but I'd certainly make sure I had her latest book on the shelves. If I were an editor, I'd sign her up to write a biography of Louise Brooks - and not just to keep her out of trouble. Thomas Mallon is the author of "Stolen Words: Forays Into the Origins and Ravages of Plagiarism." His study of letters, "Yours Ever," will be published next year.


Excerpts

Excerpts

Can You Ever Forgive Me? Brick and Pigeons I??f with that last letter you pictured the urbane playwright in Switzerland, cigarette-holdered and smoking-jacketed, dashing off a letter in the 1960s from a cozy nook high up in Chalet Coward--the house he bought in the Alps to take advantage of Switzerland's kinda gentler tax laws--located at Les Avants, Montreux, just down the mountain from the David Nivens at Château d'Oex, where Coward entertained guests that included Marlene, Garbo, George Cukor, Rebecca West, and a group that Elaine Stritch once called "all the Dames Edith" . . . you would be wrong. Every letter reproduced here, along with hundreds like them, were turned out by me--conceived, written, typed, and signed--in my perilously held studio apartment in the shadow of Zabar's on New York's Upper West Side in 1991 and 1992. A room with a view not of Alpine splendor, but of brick and pigeons, a modest flat I took in the spring of 1969 with the seventy-five-hundred-dollar advance that G. P. Putnam's Sons had given me to do my first book, a biography of Tallulah Bankhead. I sold those letters to various autograph dealers, first in New York City, and was soon branching out across the country and abroad--for seventy-five dollars a pop. Noël Coward's soi-disant letters were typed by me on what I remember was a 1950ish Olympia manual, solid as a rock, bigger than a bread box, not so much portable as luggable. (Noël's Olympia was the one I would have the most trouble schlepping when the FBI was about to come calling.) For the nonce, I was content, researching my Tallulah bio--just me, my cat, and my contract, in my cozy, rent-controlled room-with-no-view. I had never known anything but "up" in my career, had never received even one of those formatted no-thank-you slips that successful writers look back upon with triumphant jocularity. And I regarded with pity and disdain the short-sleeved wage slaves who worked in offices. I had no reason to believe life would get anything but better. I had had no experience failing. Miss Tallulah Bankhead was a succès d'estime. The book had respectable sales and attracted many admirers, especially in the gay community. (By which I mean men. Lesbians don't seem to harbor the gay sensibility with the same vigorous attention to detail as the guys who, I suspect, are born with the Great American Songbook clinging to the walls of their Y chromosomes.) I continued to be wined and wooed by publishers, in various venues of young veal and Beefeater gin. My second book, Kilgallen, was conceived at one of those chic, deductible lunches, over gorgeous gin martinis. My work on the book began in the mid-1970s and continued for about four years. I researched at the Library for the Performing Arts at Lincoln Center, where I was always comfortable. (I had even given the library a percentage of my take on Tallulah.) Kilgallen sold well and made the best-seller list of The New York Times. It appeared for one week with a snippy little commentary by the book-section editor, running as a kind of footer--the commentary, not the editor. Since I had written for the Arts and Leisure section frequently, when it was under the talented editorship of Seymour Peck, the paper's distaste for my work surprised and chagrined. No matter. I was now entitled to say that I was a New York Times best-selling author, and I frequently did. A particularly compelling part of the Kilgallen story was her controversial death, which had occurred just after she told friends that she was about to reveal the truth about the assassination of JFK. I remember swimming laps, with the mantra "Who killed Dorothy? Who killed Dorothy?" playing under my swim cap. I made money from my second book. Not Kitty Kelley, beachfront-property money, and no more than I would have made in four years in middle management at a major corporation . . . as if any major corporation would have had me, or I it. There was enough, however, to keep me in restaurants and taxis. Excerpted from Can You Ever Forgive Me?: Memoirs of a Literary Forger by Lee Israel All rights reserved by the original copyright owners. Excerpts are provided for display purposes only and may not be reproduced, reprinted or distributed without the written permission of the publisher.