The things we do for money when we get desperate: sell plasma, pawn family heirlooms, barter agreements of various natures, forge letters from famous people and sell them to memorabilia collectors…bet you hadn’t even thought of the last one, had you? You’re welcome!
It takes real skill and imagination to create believable forgeries of some of the most well known names in Americana – Noel Coward, Dorothy Parker, Lillian Hellman, Louise Brooks. It also takes real desperation and chutzpah to keep doing it. Stealing personal correspondences from a library collection, buying antique typewriters from an exact time period, creating a fake uncle of your own from whom you inherited these personal treasures that you can hardly bear to part with (wink, wink)…it’s a lot of work. In fact, it sounds like a caper from a movie that might star someone like, let’s say, Melissa McCarthy. Drama, hijinks, laughs, and a lesson learned at the end. Throw your popcorn away and go home.
If that’s a movie you want to see, you can! It’s real and so is Lee Israel’s story, a fact I didn’t realize when I plucked this book from a library display. I glanced at the back cover blurb, not reading it too closely (obviously) and thought it sounded interesting. It wasn’t until I got a little ways into the book and did my usual Google searches that I put the pieces together. Israel was a successful and respected celebrity biographer in the 1970’s and 1980’s, thus her skill in working out the nuances of a person’s character in the faux personal correspondences when she turned to forgery for a living. Israel’s fall came from a biography on Estée Lauder that was rushed to publication before it was ready (trying to beat the real Estée Lauder’s own memoir) and received with lackluster reviews. It was the failure that curtailed her professional writing career. That failure and her own difficult personality made her practically unhireable and she was on the brink of destitution. To top it off, her beloved cat was sick and she couldn’t afford the vet fees. That is what caused her to steal and sell her first celebrity letter and spurred her forward into the world of forgery.
As a matter of “professional pride as a writer,” Israel never directly plagiarized her material. Rather, she researched and read and studied other correspondence and life events of her subject and wrote the letters “in the style of” the subject, adding small details and personal thoughts from her vividly accurate imagination. Sometimes, the more embellished or racy the gossipy letter was, the more money she would get. As Israel writes, “I had already discovered that the scandalous pleased the dealers. A clucked tongue meant a better price.” Don’t we all love those scurrilous details? I’ve included a link here to an interview Israel did with NPR in 2008. It’s fascinating.
Sadly, Israel was a gifted writer but is mostly known for her criminal dealings. She died alone in 2015. I have not seen the film adaptation of this book yet, but I did find a trailer here. The movie was releases this week and hopefully is playing somewhere near you. This Vox article has some great tidbits about Israel’s life, including her purposeful downplaying of her partner in crime, Jack Hock. Israel never seemed very contrite about her con jobs and, in fact, was paid to write about her life and forgeries after being caught, as we know by this book review you’re reading! Others also seemed to admire her despite the criminality. The lead FBI investigator on Israel’s case, Carl Burrell, called her “brilliant” in her obituary and has stated his favorite letter of hers was one signed as Ernest Hemingway where he complained of Spencer Tracy’s casting in The Old Man and the Sea. Even those who bought the forgeries were not as angry as you might think. In this New York Times article, Naomi Hample, one former buyer of Israel’s faux letters, said, “I’m certainly not angry anymore, though it was an expensive and very large learning experience for me,” Ms. Hample said. “And she’s really an excellent writer. She made the letters terrific.”
For a slim volume (127 pages), there are certainly a lot of layers to peel through. If you’re very lucky, you may find one of the forgeries that are rumored to still be in circulation. Ironically, an Israel forgery can be pretty valuable. After all, they were so good that two of them were put into a collection of Noel Coward’s letters – as his own work! Now, that’s some good writing!