Biographer turned forger turned memoirist

Filed under: News — marcia at 9:29 pm on Sunday, August 3, 2008

The New York Times Book Review has a piece on “Can You Ever Forgive Me?” — the memoir of Lee Israel, a biographer who turned to forging letters from famous literary and entertainment figures when times got tough.

She bought a gaggle of vintage manual typewriters, had famous letterheads printed up on antique paper and used an old television as a light box on which she could trace signatures. Even so, while writing as Noël Coward, Dorothy Parker, Edna Ferber and, most convincingly, Louise Brooks, Israel remained more an enhancer than an outright fabricator. She would use some of her subjects’ best real lines (Brooks on the studio head Harry Cohn: “My cat has spit up hairballs more attractive than him”) and take care with the chronology of their lives. The seams rarely showed. Indeed, the editor of “The Letters of Noël Coward,” published only last year, included two Israel pastiches — “a big hoot and a terrific compliment,” thought the erstwhile forger.

It was her Coward forgeries that ultimately led to her downfall. A friend of Coward’s saw forged letters that were more open with his homosexuality than he ever would have been in correspondence. And so the Feds were alerted to Israel’s activities, and her forgery career was over.
I’m dubious about supporting someone profiting from their crimes. But damn if this all isn’t terribly fascinating.


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