The scandalous memoirs of an unreliable narrator
Lee ISRAEL fancies herself a rather gifted fabulist. Federal prosecutors in New York disagreed. Not known for their tact, they called her a thief. A judge agreed, so now Israel is a felon. But nobody has ever accused her of being boring.
“Can You Ever Forgive Me? Memoirs of a Literary Forger” chronicles Israel’s harrowing descent from legitimate writer to low-rent crook. In the early 1990s, the author of well-regarded but commercially unsuccessful biographies of Tallulah Bankhead and Estee Lauder found herself adrift in her Upper West Side apartment, broke, unable to pay her significant bar tab or land a new book contract.
“I was imprudent with money and Dionysian to the quick,” she confesses, though not with a great deal of shame. Salving her disappointments with hate-filled anonymous calls to former colleagues, Israel cast about unsuccessfully for a suitable book subject, preferably someone famous or infamous enough to attract a hefty advance.
Women of greater strength -- Israel would say of lesser ingenuity -- might have taken a job outside the glittering world of letters. But mundane work held no appeal to a woman of Israel’s delicate artistic sensibility. She turned to crime instead.
Israel had what was, for her, an original thought. While writing about famous people was a time-consuming process with uncertain returns, selling the writings of famous people meant quick, easy cash: “Thinking of celebrity letters as salable things rather than primary sources of information was new to me.” But, bless her heart, she took to it like a duck to water.
In just two years, Israel says she forged and sold approximately 400 letters purported to have been written by literary figures including Noel Coward and Dorothy Parker. When an unwitting buyer mentioned that better content produced higher prices, Israel was inspired. Freed from the burden of integrity, relieved of her obligation to accuracy, Israel let her imagination run wild.
“I have a hangover out of Gounod’s ‘Faust’ ” Israel has Parker write in one forgery, a bit over the top, perhaps, but memorable. Dropping references to Marilyn Monroe, Joe DiMaggio and the Kennedys in a forged letter from Louise Brooks proved money in the bank. Coward writing that he looked forward to seeing Marlene Dietrich because the “canny old Kraut remains one of my most cherished friends” should have struck someone as too good to be true. It didn’t.
On the contrary, Israel chortles that her forgery of Coward was included in Barry Day’s 2007 “The Letters of Noel Coward.” “For me, this was a big hoot and a terrific compliment.”
Like any grubby counterfeiter, she became obsessed with paper, ink and watermarks.
She prowled used hardware stores for manual typewriters, swiped old stationery and notebook paper where she could find it, and lived like a pack-rat in her crowded apartment, surrounded by her forger’s tools.
But she never lost her writer’s ego, or its pathetic need for affirmation. She was proud of her ability to forge signatures, "[b]ut it was the content, style, and humor that really sold the letters . . . that made me for a time the sensation of the raffish autograph business.”
Israel proudly reprints a number of her forgeries in the book, which raises a number of interesting questions.
How is one to review the quality of fraudulent letters? Does one use objective criteria based on historical accuracy, as Israel does, pointing out how detailed her research was, and how closely her frauds hewed to the known record? Or is the gold standard more subjective, based on the style and strength of deception? And can Israel or anyone else create a Lillian Hellman letter that’s more fraudulent than what Lillian Hellman wrote herself?
“Can You Ever Forgive Me?” is an entertaining read that showcases Israel’s many gifts as a writer, as well as her tragic defects as a human being. Caveat emptor: It is the work of a self-confessed liar.
Not even the title is authentic. Israel’s plea for forgiveness is disingenuous. She considers herself quite a good forger, despite having been caught, and blames others for her plight, including the dolt whom she duped into selling the letters for her, and the publishing industry itself that forced her to take such desperate measures.
While she’s proud to be a forger, Israel was actually convicted of stealing. Criminal literary pretensions aside, Israel swiped documents from college libraries, low crimes indeed, no more clever than shoplifting a bottle of aspirin from a drugstore, another crime Israel admits to.
But, then, “Memoirs of a Shoplifter” probably wouldn’t have sold.
Israel is funny but venomous, in turns self-hating and self-serving; no wonder she was so adept at mimicking the likes of Edna Ferber, Parker and Brooks. Israel admired tough New York literary broads, shared their mercurial tendencies and easily aped their voices. All that Israel lacked was their talent, integrity and character.
Jonathan Shapiro, a former federal prosecutor, is an adjunct law professor at USC and a co-executive producer on the NBC television drama “Life.”