For Lee Israel to take an interest in a celebrity, they had to be dead. Otherwise, they could get her into trouble. That's because she built a career from pretending to be them.
In the early 1990s, Israel faked around 400 letters from deceased celebrities, including writers Noel Coward, Dorothy Parker and Lillian Hellman, and sold them to literary dealers. Until the FBI came knocking three years into her creative enterprise, few people asked any questions.
Although she says her career as a forger is supremely dead, she's turned this period of her life into a memoir, Can You Ever Forgive Me?: Memoirs of a Literary Forger, published by Simon and Schuster.
Her foray into forgery "happened incrementally, like most evil things do," she tells Madeleine Brand on a recent afternoon. She had been a New York Times best-selling biographer — penning the histories of actress Tallulah Bankhead, journalist and TV personality Dorothy Kilgallen and cosmetics queen Estee Lauder. The latter one was not so successful, Israel says, and was the start of her "downward tumble."
Step One: A Simple Theft
She needed money for her sick cat, money "to survive." So it began with a simple theft.
"I went to the library and was given a bunch of letters, which I should not have been given in a nonsecure area," Israel says.
She says she needed $40 to get her cat's tests back, so she "took a couple of Fanny Brice letters, slipped them in my sneakers, and sold them to a place called Argosy on the east side of New York City."
She got $40 a piece for the letters, and "for the first time in a long time, I had some jingle in my jeans," she says.
As she stole and sold more and more letters, she began to realize that autograph dealers would pay more for better content — so she began supplementing.
Step Two: Hot Content
"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."
Israel then stopped stealing, she says. Working as a biographer had been perfect training for forgery. Satire, parody, literature, research — important parts of her previous, legal works — all go into letters, she says.
"I used what talent I had and what voice I had to duplicate the voice and the letters of some very famous people," she says.
It was also a bit like writing fiction, Israel says, which can sometimes be more fun than writing reality.
"You own the character. I finally owned Noel Coward and Edna Ferber and Louise Brooks and people like that," she says. "I had always adored large personalities, I had a good ear and I guess a talent to amuse. I could be funny, and that's how I did it."
For Dorothy Parker, for example, "I had her letterhead duplicated blank, and then I wrote stuff." The dealers were "spectacularly incurious," she says.
"I had a whole cock-and-bull story made up about the cousin who died and left me these wonderful letters. I never had to explain," Israel says.
She faked 400 letters over a period of three years.
Sexuality Raises A Red Flag
Eventually, Noel Coward's sexuality did her in. She thought she had figured out how to capture his essence.
"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 says.
Several of her letters even made it into The Letters of Noel Coward, published in 2007.
But Israel got a little too bold with the nods to his homosexuality.
"There were a lot of references to 'Dear boys' and 'Hey boy' and 'How is Bernie?' and that sort of thing. But the fact of the matter is — and I don't think I gave it much thought, but somebody else did: Noel Coward came up in a very difficult period to be homosexual. It was a jailing offense. So it would have been very unlikely for Coward to put all these kinds of campy [references] into any kind of correspondence that went out into the world."
West Coast dealers smelled something fishy. Not long after, a New York dealer who bought several Parker forgeries threatened to testify before a grand jury unless she paid him $5,000.
"That was the end of my career as a forger," she says.
But she wasn't ready to totally give up the criminal life. She still needed a source of income.
Step Three: Steal Some More
"So this is when I think it gets bad, I mean evil, I mean you know, bad. Hold your ears if you can't stand it. I went to very prestigious archives, and I would duplicate the letter. I'd go back to the library, and I'd switch," she says. "And then I'd have a real letter from usually a very well-known writer, and a friend of mine would sell the letters."
It worked for a while, until the FBI caught up with her and her ex-con friend. It's not that she didn't know she was doing something wrong all along, she says.
"I'm not a sociopath, of course I knew," she says. "But I also knew that I had no choice, it seemed to me."
Step Four: Write A Book
Israel didn't serve jail time, but she was sentenced to five years' probation and six months' house arrest. She was also barred from many libraries.
For money these days, she's still writing — but only under her own name. Her publisher Simon and Schuster carefully vetted each and every fact in her book, she says.
Beyond that, her options are limited.
"Copy editing gives me enormous pleasure. So would another book, but I can't think of one right now. I'm a little dry," Israel says.
And there's still a chance to make money off her forgeries — "honestly," of course.
"It has come to my attention that some of the letters are now on the market as Lee Israel's forgeries. ... My work has received some attention and marvelous reviews, and people have liked the letters. And so they're salable, apparently," she says.