When Israel's third book--an unauthorized bio of Estée Lauder--tanked, her situation went from no worries.


Lee was nice enough to send us some copies (the originals are long gone) of unpublished letters from her halcyon days of chicanery. Some of her earliest stabs at forgery were closely based on real Louise Brooks letters. Brooks was fond of saying stuff like “I wouldn’t fart in his direction” and “My cat has spit up hairballs more attractive than him,” so embellishment wasn’t really necessary. Her tactics here mostly relied on massaging and rearranging.
In the 70s, everything was tip-top for biographer and editor Lee Israel. Two best-selling books had allowed her the publisher-courted and martini-lunched bon vivant life of a successful writer. Then Israel’s third book, an unauthorized bio of Estée Lauder, tanked. Her situation went from no worries, to unreturned phone calls, to being fired from graveyard-shift jobs, to welfare, to being so kooked out that it took an exterminator’s refusal to enter her Upper West Side apartment for her to realize that the swarms of flies in her apartment were being attracted by a treasure trove of cat feces under her bed. Lee Israel had gone off the rails.

Lee had been scraping by on a combination of one-off articles for magazines like Soap Opera Digest and selling her personal library to the pissants at the Strand bookstore. Then the inconceivable happened. Jersey, her 21-year-old cat, died. She soon found another cat in the street, but it refused to eat and desperately needed an appointment with the vet. Around the same time Lee was doing some research at a library when she happened upon a few letters by Golden-Age actress and singer Fanny Brice. She did what any hard-up pet owner would do: slipped three letters into her shoe, walked out the door, and sold them. It was easy money but she quickly realized the scheme was too risky to be a real solution to her financial woes. Then she came up with a better idea: forgery!

Over the next two years, most of Israel’s income came from fabricating missives from Dorothy Parker, Noël Coward, Edna Ferber, and Lillian Hellman. Israel spent countless hours carefully studying her subjects’ styles, rhythms, tics, and signatures. From there it was just a matter of Xeroxing the letterheads, scouring biographies, obtaining the proper vintage typewriters, and keying out convincing imitations. It was something akin to literary bodysnatching.

Memorabilia dealers paid about $75 a pop for her fakes, which they would then sell at outrageous markups. Eventually the dealers grew suspicious of the seemingly limitless supply and one day a couple of feds dropped in on her at a restaurant where she was waiting for her accomplice to return from a transaction. The jig was up. She was found guilty and sentenced to five years’ probation with six months of house arrest.

Shortly after her half a year of time-out, Israel landed a gig as a copy editor at Scholastic and shared her story with anyone who asked. An old editor friend caught wind of the tale and pushed her to put it on paper. Can You Ever Forgive Me?: Memoirs of a Literary Forger was released earlier this year and it’s a nice little unconventional crime caper that you can get through in less than a day. We’re real big fans of deception and cunning ruses, so we had to ask Lee about the ins and outs of becoming a professional bullshitter.

Memorabilia dealers could never get enough of the Dorothy Parker letters. However, Lee wasn’t able to produce many because Parker resided at the address on this particular letterhead for only a few years. Most of the source material came from the biography Dorothy Parker: What Fresh Hell Is This? by Marion Meade.
Vice: Hi Lee. What’s the last lie you told?

Lee Israel:
Well, I lied just the other day. Somebody called me to get together and I said I had a previous engagement. Those are called white lies. Don’t people tell them all the time?

Sure. But the reason I ask is because it’s been about six months since the release of the book you wrote about living off wonderfully intricate and fascinating paper-based deceptions, and now you’re doing the opposite by making a living off the truth of the whole ordeal.

It’s made my life a lot easier. I have some money, I don’t have to worry about the rent being due, I can buy a couple of lamps, and I can take my cats to the vet. What is more important than having a minimally decent lifestyle? It’s only once around, I suspect, and if you’re living in poverty and on welfare, that’s the pits. People were overcome with joy for me when the book came out. It was totally wonderful and surprising, and it was never taken for granted.

Things took a turn for the worse when you wrote the Estée Lauder biography after declining a counteroffer from her to write an official version. Now that you’re at the other end of years of lying and all the crap is off your shoulders and the new book is out, do you feel back on top?

It’s entirely different because I’m a different person now. I was very happy when my books were published back then. It was so easy. I expected it and it came to me. I never made a fortune, but that didn’t matter. I had a decent lifestyle, the respect of my community, pride in myself, self-esteem, and I was doing the work I loved. I think I just hit a very difficult patch. In addition to that, you might say I was doing the wrong stuff. That patch lasted 14 years—maybe more. Although I won’t admit to more. Was I drinking too much? Was I crazy? Was I behaving badly? Yes. I’d always behaved badly and drank too much, but all of a sudden it wasn’t working.

Do you miss writing the letters? It seems like they might have been addicting.

The letters were great fun. They were an immediate high, like tiny essays. The French call it un jeu d’esprit—a flight of fancy. It was very creative and brought about very immediate satisfaction. I wrote each one in a day, I’d bring them to a dealer, the dealer adored the letter, and I’d be paid in cash. I loved it. Although I think I rather enjoyed writing the memoir, maybe more so than the letters. I was living hand to mouth back then. When someone expressed interest in something, I did it. If the rent was due, I did five of them. There was never any money put away. It was always a by-order, paint-by-numbers kind of thing.

Because of its nature, I assume that the fact-checking on the book was very rigorous.

Absolutely. I’ll tell you how rigorous it was. First of all, it came out in the time of what some call Memoirgate. There were a bunch of phony memoirs, but mine wasn’t a phony memoir. It was a memoir about a phony time. There’s a brilliant lawyer who works for Simon & Schuster, and I spent maybe 30 hours with her. We’d go through each letter line by line and I would tell her where it came from, what my source was, how much was mine, and how much was created. Every particular was scrutinized. It wasn’t that I couldn’t be trusted; no one was trusted at the time, and it was understood that these questions would be asked of me. We left no turn unstoned.

Noël Coward was the only male subject of Lee’s letters (apart from a few one-offs). She got more creative here, and her inclination to fill the letters with sensational allusions to Coward’s homosexuality and refusals to get off “the weed” put them in high demand. It also led to her undoing. The notes you see in the margins were made by Lee to keep track of who bought which letter and the price it fetched.
You created a pretty elaborate backstory to explain how you obtained the letters, all to establish provenance because you were worried about dealers questioning their authenticity. How scrupulous were they?

It didn’t matter. It was astonishing. If you brought me a letter and said whatever you said, I would want to know where and how you got it. It’s just interesting to hear the story, never mind verifying its authenticity. But as pro forma, I was never asked one question about provenance. It could have been because they knew Lee Israel was a writer of some note, and why would she do a thing like that? Also, when it began to pay off a great deal for most of these autograph dealers, I think they stopped asking questions.

But if you would have brought them to Antiques Roadshow

[Laughs] They don’t know anything, but it’s a fun thing to watch. You know, there’s somebody in one of those little recherché autograph-dealer journals who wrote an exposé comparing the real signature of Louise Brooks to my forged signature. He noted the lack of spontaneity, and I just think he’s full of shit, because I didn’t see any lack of spontaneity. The whole thing of handwriting expertise… it doesn’t really hold up in a court of law, and I think it’s a little low on the totem pole of scientific irrefutability.

Well, it could’ve been that they didn’t fuss because you went to such great lengths to make the content of the letters believable and entertaining.

Yes. For instance, my Louise Brooks letters were based on her actual letters. In the beginning, I spent weeks reading these fabulous letters by her in the library. I got into her soul and her sensibilities and gained lots of knowledge about her life. So when I sat down to do the forgeries, I was just taking baby steps. In the beginning those letters were mostly Louise’s words with a bunch of stuff just changed around. But when they started to sell like hotcakes, I got surer of myself and moved farther and farther away from the model. The Noël Coward and Dorothy Parker and Edna Ferber stuff was not even based on real letters. I was using things written in other forms and incorporating them into my work.

In the book you say that your forgery subjects were chosen mostly by coincidence—the ability to obtain letterheads and the ease of copying their signatures being two of the main factors. But I can’t help but think there’s something more there. A lot of them had associations with the Algonquin Round Table and your earlier biographical subject matter. It almost seems too good to be true.

I think it is too good to be true, which is why I really don’t have an answer. I think about that from time to time. It just worked out like that. The angularity of their personalities had amused me and interested me throughout my whole writing career. I’d always been interested in large personalities, which is why I wrote books and profiles about people with large personalities. They make life as interesting as possible. I’m no stick. I’m a very interesting person myself. So it was fun and it worked for me, because it incorporated all the things I did so well—all my passions and dispositions and talents.

The ease of forging Pulitzer Prize winner Edna Ferber’s signature was the main factor in Lee’s decision to add the author and playwright to her roster. Again, research gleaned from biographies was the crux of the letters’ subject matter.
And part of your unraveling, when the dealers began to become suspicious, was writing candidly about Noël Coward’s sexuality. In one letter you have him commenting on some guy named Kevin’s “beautiful ass.” It was almost like a taunt.

I was sowing the seeds of my own destruction, all on Kevin’s ass. I mean, who would even say that? It was so tacky of me. But the dealers loved what I was doing. They knew they could sell it. It was Noël Coward and a half. So I went bigger and bigger. A lot of it was homosexual stuff because it’s flamboyant and fun and it makes people laugh. There’s no way Coward would have put such stuff down and sent it out for the world to see. He was brought up in a time when homosexuality was a jailing offense, and you didn’t fool around with that. They should have known.

So you’re saying the majority of memorabilia dealers aren’t exactly reputable? What a shock.

Not very, in my experience. Some of them are crooked, some of them are cheap and crooked, some of them are loose and crooked, some of them are naive, some of them are stupid, and some of them just got taken. I had supper with one of the dealers, who said, in reference to himself and another dealer wanting more, “They’re real if we say they’re real.” That’s kind of a dead giveaway, isn’t it?

You mentioned in the book that you also did a few one-off letters from people like Humphrey Bogart. What happened with those?

Yes, there would be stuff from left field. I would be among the archives and the annals, searching for old paper, looking at stuff, being fascinated, and going through boxes of things that celebrities and noncelebrities gave to the library. Occasionally I would come across something that was so delicious I couldn’t pass it up. It would be like a blank piece of paper from the Algonquin that was maybe from the 1940s or 50s. So when I came upon an Algonquin piece of paper I just had to use it. I read somewhere that Humphrey Bogart stayed at the Algonquin when he was in New York during a particular era. And I knew his signature was easy because I had some souvenirs that included it. So I wrote a couple of lines and signed “Bogey” or whatever. I did the same thing with Eugene O’Neill, because I came upon some blank stationery from the Provincetown Players. There would also be the occasional Tennessee Williams.

The title of the book comes from a closing line you came up with for a Dorothy Parker letter. You were using it as a tongue-in-cheek, catchall apology for her drunken mishaps and bad behavior she couldn’t recall. Is the title meant to be taken in the same context? Are you remorseful?

What can I say? It has a certain poignancy, doesn’t it? I want to be forgiven, yet I’m not going to give a full-throated apology like I was some con appearing before a New York State parole board. More than forgiveness, I want respectability and I finally have it. A lot of people like the book, but there are also those who object to it for ethical reasons. I’m not a sociopath, I know what I did was wrong, and I’m embarrassed by the fact that my reputation is not unsullied. The blogs had a field day with me. And, Jesus, you know I recently googled “Lee Israel kike” and there’s a lot of hateful stuff out there. But it doesn’t matter in a way, because what has happened I never expected to happen: There have been extraordinary raves about my work and my style and me as a writer that never happened before when I was a respectable biographer. I’m nourished and heartened by it. But I don’t like the fact that people call me a forger, a thief, a crook, or whatever. It hurts, but I gave up my whining rights when I signed my contract with Simon & Schuster.