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Can You Ever Forgive Me? Memoirs of a Literary Forger Hardcover – Deckle Edge, August 5, 2008
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Amazon Best of the Month, August 2008: If David Carr's voluminous, well-documented Night of the Gun is the Warren Report of apologetic memoirs, Lee Israel's Can You Ever Forgive Me? is its cheeky, slim opposite. Barely repentant and witheringly funny, Israel recalls her short life of literary crime as, first, the forger of signed letters by such personages as Dorothy Parker, Noel Coward, and Louise Brooks, and then, more desperately, an out-and-out thief of such documents, all for resale to dealers and collectors. She has nearly as much fun telling her story as she did as a forger, and she proudly includes many examples of her handiwork (two of her Coward fakes passed muster enough to be included in the authoritative Letters of Noel Coward). Reading her memoir, it's no surprise she could take on the roles of these legendary wits; she's a master of the cutting, brilliant observation that made her subjects famous (her portrait of her hapless criminal partner is vicious and priceless). No doubt they would have found her an excellent correspondent. --Tom Nissley
From Publishers Weekly
SignatureReviewed by Edward Dolnick Forgery 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.
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Isreal was an acclaimed biographer of Tallulah Bankhead and Dorothy Kilgallen who, having written a bad book about Estee Lauder, found herself down and out. So, she bit the hand that had stopped feeding her. She took to forging letters by Noel Coward, Louise Brooks, Lillian Hellman and Dorothy Parker. Ironically, these letters represented some of her best work. She sold her little fictions to collectors who often made grand sums reselling them. A few even appeared in published volumes. Evetually she got nabbed, her works exposed as fakes, and reputations soiled.
However, all is not lost, for our lady of the forgers has composed a memoir worthy of the admiration of Coward, Brooks and Parker. Israel is gifted with a lacerating and acerbic wit; her observations and self-deprecations are barbed treasures that inspire broad smirks of appreciation. This is a book for those of us who enjoy books about books and writers. there is a touch of Helene Hanff, a smattering of Elaine Stritch At Liberty and even a little of Miss Dottie Parker. Thirty years ago I stopped for a pastry in the lobby of a hotel in Brussels, a little lemon danish I've always remembered; "Can You Ever Forgive Me?" is its literary equivalent: tart, and not soon forgotten.
She began her "first trimester of crime" by stealing a clutch of Fanny Brice letters, then moved onto forgery by adding bogus postscripts to Brice's somewhat dull news, once she realized that the spicier the content, the more likely dealers would offer big bucks.
Then she began manufacturing letters wholesale, often starting with what she calls an "ur letter," one from which she could extrapolate the general emotional tone of the writer, and above all else, one from which she could practice the signature to success by due diligence. (Her account of "inventing the lightbox" is surrealistic, unsettling.) Noel Coward, Louise Brooks, and Lillian Hellman were her cash cows, and with Edna Ferber--chosen for the extreme simplicity of her signature--and Dorothy Parker, she could milk her own caustic wit and alcoholic bonhomie.
Eventually she got caught--rather quickly in fact--and the suspense of how she is going to get busted pervades the second half of the book. She was on probation for years, and is still persona non grata at many libraries, research centers, and of course, autograph dealers hate her to this day.
She is as blisteringly harsh on herself as Jean Rhys was, and like Rhys she casts a cold eye on the class structures embodied in late capitalism that condemn clever women to the dustheap of history. You ask yourself how a writer could abase herself so fearlessly, but maybe the alcohol burned off Lee Israel's shame long ago. How many people are making a living off of "signed" photos of Brad and Angelina on Ebay as we speak? Do even authors write letters any more--those quaint pieces of paper things? Israel's crime is site-specific--it couldn't have happened anywhere except ritzy, pricey Manhattan Island--and it's specific to a certain era as well. Her book is an extraordinary performance, a De Profundis for our times.
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