I read Lee Israel’s book, Can You Ever Forgive Me? Memoirs of a Literary Forger, and no, I can’t forgive her, and neither should you. I hesitated to even buy the book and thus indirectly reward her for her crimes, but my curiosity was piqued by the glowing review in the New York Times Book Review (which called it a “pretty damned fabulous book”), and I knew one of the autograph dealers in the story. I have a wicked case of buyer’s remorse.

From 1990 to 1992, Lee Israel created over 400 forged typed letters “signed” by Dorothy Parker, Lillian Hellman, Noel Coward, Edna Ferber, Louise Brooks and others, she sold them to over thirty different autograph dealers, and she stole authentic letters from libraries and replaced them with her forged copies. Throughout the book, she takes great pride and delight in her crimes and her cleverness, and she gloats over the fact that two of her forgeries were published in 2007 in The Letters of Noel Coward: “For me, this was a big hoot and a terrific compliment.”

She was at one time a successful biographer but explains, “I was imprudent with money and Dionysian to the quick… Over a period of about three years, I plummeted from best-sellerdom to welfare.” Instead of going to work, when she needs money for her sick cat (no, I’m not making this up), she steals from the Library for the Performing Arts at Lincoln Center. “So I stole three Fanny Brice letters, slid them into a small notebook, ducked into the ladies’ room, and planted them gingerly between my socks and my Keds…. I felt no guilt about the letters. They were from the realm of the dead. Doris [her cat] and I were alive and well and living on the West Side.” She sells the letters to the Argosy Book Store, and when she discovers that interesting content will bring more money, she buys an old manual typewriter and begins composing and selling her own Fanny Brice letters. She quickly moves on to forging letters from other writers and celebrities, buys more typewriters, steals old paper and stationery, and throws herself into her new business.

When suspicions are eventually raised about some of her forged letters, she begins stealing real letters and replacing them with her fakes, and she hires a friend to sell the originals for her. Her only qualms surface in her dreams: “I was surrounded by the celebrity subjects of my forgeries, who were not on this occasion such good company: all nattering about how bad my typing was, how inept my punctuation. Dorothy Parker sniffed at my use of serial commas, which she compared to serial killers.”

She is finally caught after an autograph dealer calls the FBI. While waiting for her court date, she visits an autograph shop, asks if they have “something in a Dorothy Parker,” and finds they have two of her forgeries. “This one was priced unframed at $2,500!… Delighted as I was at my letter’s being experienced as Parker pure, I was nettled. I was going on trial as people were still making a great deal of money from the fruits of my labor. The extreme markups, which I’d not been aware of until this time, also annoyed me. Since the autograph business is gossipy and incestuous, I wondered how any dealer could not have known about the spurious pedigree of the letters.”  Instead of telling him directly that she forged the letters, she leaves the shop and writes a letter to the dealer as Dorothy Parker: “Poor wayward Lee Israel received only eighty-five dollars a pop when she sold them originally.”

Getting caught didn’t change her attitude at all. “I did the usual bullshit… voluntary community service, as impressive to the Court as discovering Jesus as personal Lord and Savior… Meanwhile, my lawyer… was doing a marvelous job bringing the numbers down on the federal sentencing guidelines, writing letters to the Court stressing my distinguished past and the badness of the patch that had driven me into a life of crime.” She tells the judge, “I feel and have felt over the past year enormous guilt and anxiety. I feel that I have betrayed really my community of scholars, a citadel of culture.” She never serves a day in jail for her crimes– she is sentenced to five years probation and six months of house arrest.

She ends the book with a token pretense of remorse, as if her editor told her she should at least pretend to be sorry. “I had spent a good deal of my professional life hunting and gathering in annals and archives, and messing with those citadels was unequivocally and big-time wrong…. I suffered and I paid by being barred from the libraries that I had plundered…. My guilt over the original thefts is mitigated somewhat by the gathering in of the epistolary diaspora. I cooperated with the FBI, and the real letters… were so far as I know all recovered and returned safely to their archival homes. I have never experienced strong qualms about [the forged letters… They] were larky and fun and totally cool… Any remorse I experience about this phase of my life in crime has nothing to do with the money various dealers might have lost.”

This very short book (129 pages, many of which are reproductions of her forgeries) has received a disturbing amount of positive media attention, and the writers of the reviews and articles about her, with very few exceptions, seem rather amused by her “adventures.” I was not amused. Her writing didn’t impress me either, as she comes across like a sociopathic Dorothy Parker wannabe, overly impressed by her own wit and quite pleased with herself for getting away with it.

Unfortunately, this is yet another example of the long tradition of glamorizing and minimizing crimes involving rare books and autographs. Book thieves and autograph forgers rarely serve jail time or pay meaningful restitution. But these aren’t petty or victimless crimes– they are not only crimes against literature and culture, they are also crimes against the very people, businesses, and institutions dedicated to discovering, documenting, promoting, protecting, and preserving for all time the valuable and often irreplaceable artifacts of our civilization. The fact that these types of offenses aren’t taken seriously by the media, the law, or the public is the real crime.

6 responses to “Unforgivable

  1. So, this is a real book, about a real forger? It seems more like an intro to an especially paranoid Tim Powers book, by the end of which the forger is in some good and sticky situation (in Hell, perhaps, aboard the Houseboat on the Styx) created by her own web of lies.

    It disturbs me to think of how much of a mess this person has created, the doubt and uncertainty (at best) and canonized misinformation (at worst) that will now dog all literary scholarship that was contaminated by her.

  2. This reminds me of the Elmyr de Hory (art forger) story written by Clifford Irving (literary scam artist). Both de Hory and Irving have been celebrated in films, likely because people admire the audacity of criminals whose only victims are portrayed as elitists. The Robin Hood appeal of their stories stems from the erroneous assumption that the crime affects only the rich. The brazen forger, on the other hand, represents the underdog, an “everyman” (or woman) able to navigate, profit from, and then expose (and then profit from yet again) the highbrow world of art/literature.

    Even from within that world, forgery raises questions about authenticity, authority, commerce, and others all of which seduce the literate mind.

    I agree with your post and will not buy the book, but I understand how easily that kind of narrative can drawn in an audience wanting a good philosophical tale. Too bad the reality of the damage is far less sexy.

  3. It is disgusting to think anyone would be proud and bragging about forgery. It is unforgivable to mess with the literary backbone of our culture and disregard it in such a way. It burns me even more that she is allowed to continue to make money from this endeavor by selling this book. It sends the message that it is okay … as long as you can get a book deal.

  4. it also harms the deceased writers being forged. interesting that you should describe lee israel as a ‘dorothy parker wannabe’ – what she did is a form of identity theft. it’s hard enough to puzzle people out from the content of their *actual* papers. now think about this. the archivist says, as the box is brought out, ” oh yeah. and 5% of what’s here is forged. but we don’t know which 5%.”

    “hilaaaaaaaaaaaarious.” and – lee who? too bad no one will ever want to forge *her* correspondence.

  5. Thumbs up! Thank you for having no mercy with her. I’ve read some of the positive reviews and it made me sick.

  6. When I read your entry, I thought if this Hannah Arendt quote on thinking:

    “Cliches, stock phrases, adherence to conventional, standardized codes of expression and conduct have the socially recognized function of protecting us against reality, that is, against the claim on our thinking attention which all events and facts arouse by virtue of their existence. If we were responsive to this claim all the time, we would soon be exhausted; the difference in Eichmann was only that he clearly knew of no such claim at all.”

    Lee’s no Nazi but her book’s popularity rests upon people not thinking authentically. Still makes me uncomfortable. I would feel guilty having it around, too.

    Quote is from Hannah Arendt’s lecture “On Thinking and Moral Considerations.” Published in the Social Research Journal, 1971.