February 24, 2021

The ‘cursed’ author who went from failure to becoming a hulking forger of writers’ letters


“It started, like almost everything bad, gradually.” The one speaking is a woman in her late twenties, with a firm, almost mocking voice. Shortly after, he will confess to a crime he committed when he was 50. But before he laughs, he says that he has just published a book called Can you ever forgive me? Memoirs of a literary forger. He will say that the FBI was in his footsteps, that among his favorite authors to imitate in their fraud was Dorothy Parker in the first place. After years of being almost a secret and being tried for numerous crimes, Lee Israel decided to put on the official forger’s suit and publicly tell in a book that came to sell nearly 400 apocryphal letters from writers and famous people from the United States that he made to survive.

Until the release of that publication in 2008, a mixture of confession and memoir –A text full of anecdotes between funny and grotesque, with a spicy tone and light prayers– few remembered Israel and the scandal that it had carried out decades ago.

Born and raised in Brooklyn, Lee Israel began to become known in the suffocating New York literary environment from the 1960s, when she began working in different magazines of the time in cultural sections. On one occasion he wrote a commented profile of actress Katharine Hepburn, whom he interviewed for the magazine Esquire shortly after the death of one of the great loves of his life, the actor Spencer Tracy.

In the 1970s, the journalist and writer continued to collaborate in numerous publications until she climbed another step in her career: she was called upon to write some books that told the biography of celebrities of the moment.

First it was actress Tallulah Bankhead, about whom he wrote the book Miss Tallulah Bankhead In 1972 and 1979 it was the turn of television star Dorothy Kilgallen, a biography that, with modest sales success, made it to the coveted list of best-sellers From the newspaper New York Times.

According to Lee herself a few years later, in 1983 the Macmillan publishing house offered her an advance to write a biography of Estée Lauder, the businesswoman and owner of an empire in the world of cosmetics.

The writer accepted and got to work. Before long, Lauder learned about the project and wanted to stop it at all costs. In his memoirs, Lee assures that the woman, one of the most important fortunes of the time, even offered him a millionaire bribe to stop him writing the book. Lee went on anyway and around 1985 published the text, in the style of an unauthorized biography. There he revealed alleged secrets of the businesswoman, who, outraged, decided to tell her own version of the most important moments of her life in a book that came out in parallel.

Between the book against Lauder and the official biography, the public chose the latter. And Lee, who had had some success with his previous publication, was left in the background, that of failure. His reputation was also affected by the episode: he got bad reviews and that promising career slowly faded.

All for $ 40

By the 1990s, Lee Israel was something of a cursed writer, still hanging around cocktails and book launches, systematically slamming doors in her face.

Sullen, lonely and lost in alcohol, she still had the illusion of publishing a new biography that would save her skin and make her rebound. When he could, he did research on the life of comedian Fanny Brice.

Meanwhile he had short jobs in editorials and magazines, which he was losing due to his outbursts of anger and a bad mood that became permanent.

Born and raised in Brooklyn, Lee Israel began to become known in the suffocating New York literary environment from the 1960s, when she began working in different magazines of the time in cultural sections

Without money, as she herself recounted years later, she realized that she had hit rock bottom when her cat fell ill and had no way to raise the $ 40 they were asking for treatment.

She tried everything to raise money: she sold old volumes from her library in used bookstores, which usually offered very low sums for what she considered treasures.

On one occasion he argued so much with the clerk of the famous bookstore Strand of New York – that true temple for the readers – that they prohibited access to him for life (years later, Lee herself came to reveal that she plotted revenge against that employee with a friend: she chased him, got his address and one day She phoned work posing as a neighbor to tell her that her building was on fire.)

One day in the library, while trying to track down information about Fanny Brice, he found inside a book a letter written by the actress herself. Without hesitation, he stole it and kept it among his things.

He knew that this document had a value and he sold it quickly. Then it was for more: he inquired into the world of literary collectors and realized that he could search for more letters or directly forge them. He had an unmatched talent for detecting styles and then imitating them in writing.

Thus began his new career, this time from the shadows. For that, in addition, he got several typewriters and old papers in which he practiced until he perfected himself.

In those days he followed a premise: he would write letters from authors who have already passed away. His favorite was Dorothy Parker, with whom he shared a similar tone of humor. But then came Aldous Huxley, Eugene O’Neill, and even Tennessee Williams. There were so many – according to the author herself about 400 – that the list surely continues.

Israel went so far as to say that in many cases she embellished the stories told by the apocryphal letters and even improved the writing of several of those famous authors.

Everything she wrote was sold in antique shops and used bookstores where they were fascinated by the material she carried. She claimed that they had been found in a family home or that they belonged to a collector relative who had died and shortly after, due to the perfection with which they were made, experts in the field certified them as valid.

He followed a premise: he would write letters from authors who have already passed away. His favorite was Dorothy Parker, with whom he shared a similar tone of humor. But then came Aldous Huxley, Eugene O’Neill, and even Tennessee Williams.

This way, she raised thousands of dollars and even had an accomplice, Jack Hock, who helped her in the business.

Fearing discovery, Israel and Hock plotted a new phase of counterfeiting. The writer began going to libraries and archives, where she stole material of which she later made a forged copy at home. Then he kept the original and “returned” the imitations to the archives, so that no one would suspect or detect the sudden disappearance of letters and documents. That way no one could accuse her of deception: now she was selling 100% genuine texts.

However, some collectors began to notice suspicious movements of the accomplice of the writer and soon after the pair was wanted by the FBI, which worked undercover for almost a year to catch them.


Hock fell first and then they went in search of Lee. One afternoon when she lost contact with Hock, she became suspicious and quickly began to dispose of some evidence. Among other things, he threw away 12 typewriters that he had at home to emulate the writing of great figures of letters and the world of entertainment from different times.

Finally, the justice prosecuted Lee, for the crime of theft in the archives and the falsification of documents. In 1993, she was sentenced to six months of house arrest and to do community work for five years.

“Somehow the character belongs to you. I finally had Noel Coward and Edna Ferber and Louise Brooks or people like that. I always adored great personalities and had a good ear, plus some talent for entertaining. I can be funny when I want to, and that’s how I did it, “he said in an interview when he finally published his 2008 memoir by Simon and Schuster. Some criticized the publisher for giving the author space for so many forgeries and hoaxes, although the book had a good impact.

In 2015, a year after the writer’s death – she died of cancer of the bone marrow – it was announced that Lee’s story would make its way to the cinema when a production company bought the rights to her biography.

In 2017, filming began on the streets of New York with the actress Melissa McCarthy in the role of Israel. Finally, the feature film – a tough, well-told and compelling story that earned McCarthy an Oscar nomination for his great performance – was released in 2018, how could it be otherwise, with the title of Can you ever forgive me?

TO THE

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