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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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I'm adding a response to these words by Mr. Abell: "The exception is the conspiracy theorizing about Dorothy's death, where Israel betrays the itch to, let's say, tart up the facts. That itch would eventually land her in forgery and federal court."
Ms. Israel worked on her Dorothy Kilgallen book between 1975 and 1978 using a 40,000 - dollar advance from Delacorte Press.
She began forging letters in 1991 or 1992, many years after publishing companies stopped paying her. Her eventual poverty and welfare status motivated her to cross a boundary into white-collar crime.
Therefore, her criminal frame of mind in 1991 and 1992 doesn't reflect in any way the text of her Kilgallen book.
Many What's My Line bloggers have said the way Ms. Kilgallen slurs her words on a few live What's My Line episodes (sprinkled throughout a period of three years) proves she never had a scoop on Lee Oswald or Jack Ruby.
That makes no sense because What's My Line wasn't the forum on which Ms. Kilgallen could discuss Oswald or Ruby, and she knew it. It was a fun game show. John Charles Daly allowed very few people to make controversial comments over the years. Henry Cabot Lodge was one. He preached against communism on an episode that CBS aired live in 1956. But Ms. Kilgallen knew Mr. Daly never would allow her to say anything controversial on-camera. She intelligently relied on other circumstances for making her comments, such as her use of a typewriter and her visits to late-night TV talk shows hosted by Les Crane and David Susskind.
Game show fans tend to ignore what Dorothy Kilgallen said under those non - game show circumstances. If you choose to quibble with the witness statements and facts that surround the Kilgallen - Oswald conspiracy theory, you have to address these witness statements and facts. An old game show doesn't constitute evidence of Oswald acting alone. Neither does the criminal behavior of a has-been biographer that began almost thirty years after the assassination.
I'm trying to defend Dorothy Kilgallen. She has been unable to defend herself for 49 years. Judge her by what she wrote and said under circumstances that had nothing to do with comedians playing fun games.
Lee Israel never put words in Ms. Kilgallen's mouth. What Ms. Israel did was to gather some witness statements and facts during the limited time she had while Delacorte Press paid her. Many years after the deadline that Delacorte gave her, the internet became commonly used by nostalgic people. Some cited those witness statements and facts while others depended totally on the fun game show and Ms. Israel's reputation, and they concluded that Oswald had acted alone. The latter group used poor logic.
Some Kilgallen witnesses remain alive today. Ron Pataky is one. Mary Brannum Bringle is another. You can find them with Google. Other Kilgallen witnesses who have died left behind their statements. Marlin Swing is one. He knew Walter Cronkite personally. Cronkite said Swing was an honest personal friend, and Swing believed his friend Dorothy Kilgallen had been murdered.
If you depend on the Warren Commission as a source while you also cite black-and-white game show videos and Lee Israel's behavior in the early 1990s, then you are trying to time travel. Such a thing is a fraudulent approach to the Oswald mystery.
I don't support any particular theory about Lee Oswald or Jack Ruby. I believe that as long as some sane people doubt the Warren Commission conclusions -- they include the legendary White House reporter Helen Thomas -- then the Dorothy Kilgallen dimension of the mystery requires bloggers to cite serious evidence. They blow it when they try to cite a humorous old game show or a 1993 sting that the FBI did on an impersonator of the humorous Noel Coward almost thirty years after Ruby shot Oswald. The game show tells you nothing about the Kilgallen dimension of the Oswald/Ruby mystery. The 1993 FBI sting on Ms. Israel tells you nothing about it, either.
Fraud doesn't matter when you read -- for fun -- the entertaining letters that Lee Israel wrote while impersonating Coward and other funny people. Can You Ever Forgive Me ... presents them to you. The book is funny. Enjoy. If the fraudulent side of them makes you angry, please don't blame that on Dorothy Kilgallen.
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.
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