This summer, we were collectively swept away with sordid and entrancing stories about scammers. Anna Delvey posed as a German heiress, socialized with the global upper crust, and successfully solicited millions of dollars to fund her mysterious art project — before her scam collapsed and landed her in Rikers Island. The so-called Vogue scammer Yvonne Bannigan was accused of stealing $50,000 from her boss, Grace Coddington. Finally, the struggling 29-year-old Louise Wilson in Tara Isabella Burton’s magnetic book, Social Creature, tried to steal her heiress best friend's life.
Frankly, though, none of these women can compare to the curmudgeonly biographer-turned-forger Lee Israel, who once rocked the exclusive literary scene in the '90s with her forgeries of author letters. Israel refused to apologize for her scams. To her, they were her finest work. The FBI agent who investigated her crimes agreed, calling her work "brilliant" to the New York Times. The extraordinary movie Can You Ever Forgive Me?, out October 19, unspools the outrageous story, with Melissa McCarthy playing the queen of all scammers in a landmark dramatic role.
Usually, as in the case of Delvey and Bannigan, we rely on intrepid reporters and police work to piece together the story's sordid details. Not here. In her slim 2008 memoir, also called Can You Ever Forgive Me?: Memoirs of a Literary Forger, Israel fesses up the account of how she conned the literary community with 400 letters herself. After all, Lee's a writer, and she knew no one could tell her story better than she could.
It begins, as many good stories do, in New York. When she turned to a life of crime, Israel was living in a squalid one-bedroom apartment with only her cat, Jersey, her books, and her withering ambition for company. Earlier in her career, Israel had achieved some success as a celebrity biographer. Her first book, Miss Tallulah Bankhead, about the eponymous actress — was published in 1972. The second, Kilgallen, about journalist and game show panelist Dorothy Kilgallen, spent a week on the best-seller list in 1980. But Israel's career swerved downward with the 1985 book Estée Lauder: Beyond the Magic. Israel rushed the research process to ensure her Lauder biography came out before Lauder's memoir, set to be released in the same year. Her Lauder biography was critically panned and a commercial failure. In her memoir, Israel admitted she regretted not taking Lauder's buyout to not release the unauthorized biography.
So by 1991, the time of her first forgery, Israel was in dire financial straits. She refused to get a 9 to 5 job, saying, "I regarded with pity and disdain the short-sleeved wage slaves who worked in offices." Also, her bristly demeanor would've been an issue in most offices. This left her living on welfare, drinking profusely, and working on a memoir about the silent era actress Fanny Brice, which her agent didn't want.
As it happened, her research for the Brice memoir is what led her into this new line of work. Israel uncovered three letters written by Brice in a book in the New York Public Library for the Performing Arts. Israel embellished a Brice letter on her typewriter and sold it for a $40 at New York's Argosy bookstore."For the first time in a long time, I had some jingle in my jeans," Israel recalled.
Israel realized the same skills that went into being a biographer — ceding her own literary voice and adopting the subject's — translated quite well into literary forgeries. So she kept doing it. Over the next three years, Israel mimicked the distinct voices of numerous literary icons, including Dorothy Parker and Noël Coward. To create the letters, Israel bought a specific typewriter for each author, and then forged signatures by tracing over the original letters. She sold the finished forgeries to various booksellers and autography dealers in the city, typically generating $50 to $100 (adjusted to today's inflation, that's about $95 to $180). Israel found that more embellished content generated more money.
After generating about hundreds of letters, Israel hit a road block. Some of her Coward letters were deemed fishy for their overt gay references – phrases like "dear boys" and"hey boy." People started to think Israel's whole enterprise was suspicious. Israel recounted in the memoir, "I don't think I gave it much thought, but somebody else did: Noël Coward came up in a very difficult period to be homosexual. It was a jailing offense. So it would have been very unlikely for Coward to put all these kinds of campy [references] into any kind of correspondence that went out into the world." As a result of her suddenly questionable reputation, a New York dealer forced Israel to pay him $5,000 for the forged letters she sold him.
After that, Israel stopped forging — and started stealing instead. Israel lifted letters from university archives and replaced them with her forgeries. Her friend, Jack Hock (an amazing Richard E. Grant in the movie), sold the originals to the same booksellers than had banned Israel.
Eventually, the F.B.I. caught up with Israel's scheme. Israel was sentenced to six months of house arrest and five years of probation, but not prison. Israel's probation stipulated that she had to attend Alcoholic's Anonymous meetings. She did not. But she did concede to an office job, working as a copy editor for Scholastic.
In a way, she got away with it. And she continued to get away with it: Two of her forged letters ended up in The Letters of Noël Coward, published in 2007. Likely, some of her forgeries remain in circulation. So, if you're ever buying a Dorothy Parker letter, be sure it's authenticated — unless you're searching for a Lee Israel original, that is. Israel died in 2014 at the age of 75.