Lee Israel: The real-life story behind Oscar-nominated Can You Ever Forgive Me?

The new film tells the story of a once-successful biographer who fell into the world of literary forgery

Clarisse Loughrey
Friday 01 February 2019 13:20 GMT
Can You Ever Forgive Me? - Trailer

We can sometimes find redemption in the strangest of places. Lee Israel, a once-successful biographer, fell into the world of literary forgery as a way to save herself from destitution – and to pay her cat’s vet bill.

Selling off letters she claimed to be penned by titans of culture – from Dorothy Parker to Noël Coward – but that were, in fact, her own creations, Israel maintained the ruse for just under three years. When the FBI caught up with her in 1992, it seemed like it was all over. She pleaded guilty to her crimes in a federal court.

Yet a memoir she wrote about the period, published in 2008 to mixed reviews, has now been given further life, adapted into a film bearing the same title: Can You Ever Forgive Me? The film, directed by Marielle Heller, has seen both its stars anointed with Oscar nominations: Melissa McCarthy is up for best actress for her portrayal of Israel, while Richard E Grant is in the running to win best supporting actor for playing Israel’s partner-in-crime, Jack Hock. Nicole Holofcener and Jeff Whitty are also nominated for best adapted screenplay.

On screen, Israel has had the final word on her own legacy. The film passionately argues that while Israel broke the law, it took true talent to get away with it. Certainly, it was no small feat to write convincingly as some of the 20th century’s greatest minds. As New York City bookstore owner Naomi Hample told The New York Times after the publication of Israel’s memoir: “I’m certainly not angry any more, though it was an expensive and very large learning experience for me. And she’s really an excellent writer. She made the letters terrific.”

Israel was born to a Jewish family in Brooklyn in 1939, graduating from Brooklyn College in 1961. Soon after, she began to work as a freelance writer, contributing articles on theatre, film, and television for everyone from The New York Times to Soap Opera Digest. Her career is now largely associated with the great cultural personalities she captured. In 1967, she profiled Katharine Hepburn for Esquire magazine, shortly after the death of her great love, Spencer Tracy.

Israel’s first biography, published in 1972, focused on the life of actor and bon vivant Tallulah Bankhead, while the second, published in 1980, chronicled the life of Dorothy Kilgallen, a journalist best-known for her regular appearances on the popular game show What’s My Line? The latter was a New York Times bestseller.

Yet Israel’s career aspirations were soon stymied. Macmillan handed her an advance in 1983 to write a no-holds-barred unauthorised biography on cosmetics magnate Estée Lauder; In Can You Ever Forgive Me?, Israel writes that Lauder offered her money in return for dropping the book and, after the author refused, she simply wrote her own memoir and scheduled its release to coincide with Israel’s book.

Israel was forced to rush writing the biography, titled Estée Lauder: Beyond the Magic, and the result was both a critical and commercial failure. Marylin Bender of The New York Times damned it a “cut rate job”.

Israel’s life collapsed around her. She went on welfare, but found herself unable to pay a $40 vet bill for her cat Doris. This was her turning point. In the midst of researching an article on comedian and actor Fanny Brice, she stole several letters from an archive at the New York Library for the Performing Arts at the Lincoln Centre, hiding them in her shoe. She sold them to a rare book store for $40 each and later claimed she felt no guilt about the act, as the letters “were from the realm of the dead – Doris and I were alive”.

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However, it also presented Israel with her first taste of forgery. She said in a later interview: “There was a big white space at the bottom of a letter after ‘Yours truly, Fanny Brice.’ I got an old typewriter, and I wrote a couple of hot sentences that improved the letter and elevated the price.”

What started out as a desperate measure slowly built into a thriving industry. Selling her creations for anywhere between $50 and $100, it’s estimated Israel stole, altered, or forged more than 400 letters, making her one of the most successful forgers in literary history.

She rented out a storage locker on Manhattan’s Upper West Side and filled it with old typewriters from the era of the letters she was forging, with labels bearing names like “Humphrey Bogart” and “Louise Brooks” as a reminder of which machine to use. She visited libraries and tore out blank pages from the back of period journals to ensure she had a supply of appropriate aged paper.

She carefully studied her targets so she could mimic them more closely, tracing over the signatures so she could duplicate them flawlessly, while being careful to make the contents of the letters mundane enough not to rouse suspicion.

The title of her memoir comes from one of her favourite forgeries, a letter from Dorothy Parker which reads: “I have a hangover that is a real museum piece; I’m sure then that I must have said something terrible. To save me this kind of exertion in the future, I am thinking of having little letters runoff [sic] saying, ‘Can you ever forgive me? Dorothy.’”

McCarthy and Richard E Grant, as Jack Hock, in the film 

Her Noël Coward forgeries were some of her most convincing – but they also led to her eventual downfall. “It was very good Coward; it was better Coward than Coward. Coward didn’t have to be Coward. I had to be Coward and a half,” she said of her work. One of the Coward letters describes Julie Andrews as “quite attractive since she dealt with her monstrous English overbite”.

While some made it into a book of his correspondence, published in 2007, the more overt references to his sexuality alerted several buyers to their fakery, since Coward would have risked imprisonment if the truth ever became public.

Soon after, a dealer in New York also discovered that several Dorothy Parker letters he purchased weren’t authentic, and demanded Israel pay him $5,000 or risk him testifying against her in court. Israel returned to stealing real letters, this time leaving forgeries in their place, targeting several prestigious institutions, including the New York Public Library and the libraries of Yale, Princeton, Harvard, and Columbia Universities.

The film deals heavily with her associate Jack Hock, though he receives little mention in Israel’s memoir and is largely brushed off as an “old bartending acquaintance”. Although Grant’s performance depicts him as British, Hock was in fact an American, born in Portland.

The film is correct, however, in presenting Hock’s involvement in Israel’s scheme, helping to fence the stolen letters while the authorities honed in on her forgeries. However, she later came to realise that Hock had been keeping more than his agreed share of the profits.

Can You Ever Forgive Me? Clip - Pay Me $5000

Israel was finally caught when David H Lowenherz, an autograph dealer, discovered that the Ernest Hemingway letter he had been sold was actually part of Columbia University’s collection.

After getting in contact with the university, Lowenherz not only confirmed that the letter was stolen, but discovered that Israel was one of the last people to have had access to it. She pleaded guilty to one count of conspiracy to transport stolen property across state lines for profit in 1993 and was sentenced to six months’ house arrest with five years probation.

She later wrote Can You Ever Forgive Me?, her fourth and final book, while working as a copy editor for Scholastic magazines. The memoir was a defiant statement, the sincerity of the appeal for forgiveness much in doubt. In it, she wrote: “I still consider the letters to be my best work.”

Israel died in 2014 of complications from myeloma, aged 75. In her obituary, the lead FBI investigator on her case, Carl Burrell, called her “brilliant”. He said that his favourite forgery of hers was a Hemingway letter, in which he complained about Spencer Tracy being cast as the lead in film adaptation of The Old Man and the Sea. The FBI have recovered many of Israel’s fakes, but were forced to admit that it is likely her work is still in circulation. Who knows how long they may remain undiscovered.

Can You Ever Forgive Me? is out in UK cinemas now

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