For author Lee Israel, forgery wasn’t just theft — It was theft and artistry.
In the 1970s and 80s, Israel, who identified as a lesbian, was known for her biographies on theatrical sensation Tallulah Bankhead, journalist and game show panelist Dorothy Kilgallen, and cosmetics queen Estee Lauder.
But the early 1990s, Israel’s writing career was in a rut. When she couldn’t afford to the medical bill for her cat, Israel turned to selling forged letters of famous, deceased actors and authors.
The film “Can You Ever Forgive Me?” tells Israel’s story and stars Melissa McCarthy as the Manhattan-based author. The film opens in select theatres Friday.
Israel made a living from her forgery system until her embellishments in letters about closeted gay composer-playwright Noel Coward brought down the house of cards.
Here are five things you need to know about Lee Israel.
Israel sold about 400 forged letters
Israel spent time perfecting her forgery system. She forged letters from celebrities like Dorothy Parker, Ernest Hemingway, and Louise Brooks by immersing herself in their worlds and learning their lives. Israel even collected old typewriters she used for each person. Convincing dealers of authenticity was easy, Israel said.
“I had a whole cock-and-bull story made up about the cousin who died and left me these wonderful letters,” Israel told NPR about selling Dorothy Parker’s letters. “I never had to explain.”
The first time Israel was suspected of forgery, no legal action was taken, but autograph dealers spread the word to keep an eye out for suspicious letters. Instead of quitting the game altogether, Israel stole authentic letters from prestigious archives, including Columbia, Harvard, Yale, Princeton, and New York University. Israel would copy the letters at home, replace the authentic one with her fake one, and sell the authentic one.
In Israel’s fake Coward letters, she made overt references to his homosexuality, not realizing Coward was in the closet and didn’t write about being gay. Israel wrote about 150 fake letters pretending to be Coward. One of Israel’s fake Coward letters even made it into the book “The Letters of Noel Coward.”
Going to court
In June 1993, Israel pleaded guilty to one count of conspiracy to transport stolen property in interstate commerce for her forgeries. She was sentenced to five years of probation, six months of house arrest, and was barred from many libraries.
Israel eventually wrote her fourth and final book, the 2008 tell-all memoir “Can You Ever Forgive Me?” a title taken from one of her forged Dorothy Parker letters.
Proud of her forgery
Once caught, Israel candidly spoke of her forgeries, saying they were some of her best writing. She described them as “larky and fun and totally cool,” according to The Telegraph.
Referencing her Coward letters, Israel told NPR, “It was better Coward than Coward. Coward didn’t have to be Coward. I had to be Coward and a half.”
Israel also told NPR that she knew she was committing a crime.
“I’m not a sociopath, of course I knew,” she said. “But I also knew that I had no choice, it seemed to me.”