“Can You Ever Forgive Me? Memoirs of a Literary Forger” by Lee Israel. Simon and Schuster, 2008. 130 pages
In “Can You Ever Forgive Me,” Lee Israel recounts the events that led her into literary forgery and theft. While the lengths Israel went in producing these forgeries is impressive, her lack of remorse makes it difficult to empathize with her situation.
Lee Israel began her career as a celebrity biographer, first writing a successful biography of the actress Tallulah Bankhead, and followed by an equally successful biography of Dorothy Kilgallen, the journalist and What’s My Line panelist. Israel writes, “I had never known anything but ‘up’ in my career, had never received even one of those formatted no-thank you slips that successful writers look back upon with triumphant jocularity…I had no reason to believe that life would get anything but better. I had had no experience failing.” However, Israel’s luck was soon about to change.
Israel was approached to write an unauthorized biography of Estée Lauder. She was given a counteroffer not to write the book by Lauder herself, but decided to write it regardless. It was a rushed publication as Lauder decided to publish an autobiography after her offer to Israel was refused. Israel’s book was a failure, and this marked a downturn in her career. Alcoholism complicated her change in circumstances, and she soon found herself essentially destitute.
Eventually, Israel began working for Soap Opera Digest. While doing research at the Library for the Performing Arts at Lincoln Center, she was given a collection of letters written by Fanny Brice. Knowing there might be a market for these letters, she decided to steal three of the Fanny Brice letters, sneaking them out folded in her shoe. She then bought a vintage typewriter, and created her own versions of these letters, adding new material to jazz them up. One of her creations was valued at $595.
She soon discovered a collection of letters by Louise Brooks, the actress and critic. Under higher scrutiny, she studied her letters extensively, and used this knowledge to create imagined correspondence. She soon repeated this for letters from Edna Ferber, Dorothy Parker, and Noël Coward. Some of the content altered people familiar with Coward’s life that these letters were forgeries, and Israel changed her methods.
Posing as she was researching authors who struggled with alcoholism, she began stealing letters from libraries and archives, creating forgeries at home, and returning the forged copies to the library collections, while a friend sold the originals. Israel was eventually caught by the FBI, and sentenced to house arrest and probation.
The highlight of “Can You Ever Forgive Me” is the incredible effort Israel put into her forgeries. She spent hours researching her subjects to create convincing fakes, one letter even appearing in an official collection of Noël Coward’s letters. However, she expresses no remorse towards those she stole from and defrauded. Israel even admits that she was a better forger than she was author. Readers will be left wondering what Israel might have accomplished if she had used her immense talents in a more reputable manner.
Elizabeth Weislak is the Youth Services Coordinator for Alamance County Public Libraries. She may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org