Arts & Culture

The True Story of Lee Israel and the Literary Forgeries in Can You Ever Forgive Me?

In a role that's earning early Oscar buzz, Melissa McCarthy plays Israel, a writer who forged 400 letters from Dorothy Parker, Noel Coward, and more.
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Lee Israel came late to a life of crime. Though her forgeries of letters from luminaries like Louise Brooks, Dorothy Parker, and Ernest Hemingway would ultimately become a far more enduring legacy than her work as a biographer, the criminal enterprise that inspired the upcoming film Can You Ever Forgive Me? (out October 19) comprised a mere three years of the author's life.

Prodigious years they were though. Over the course of those months, Israel managed to steal, alter, and flat-out fabricate around 400 letters, making her one of the most prolific literary forgers in history.

The film, starring Melissa McCarthy, is based on Israel's 2008 memoir of the same name, in which she details the crimes and the forces in her life that lead her to commit them.

Far from the comic roles that have been McCarthy's bread and butter in recent years, her potent turn as Israel (which is already inspiring Oscar buzz) takes a much darker turn. Israel was an alcoholic and known to be difficult. “She was very feisty, and people did not want to work with her,” her friend, David Yarnell, told The New York Times after the writer's death in 2015.

I regarded with pity and disdain the short-sleeved wage slaves who worked in offices. I had no reason to believe life would get anything but better.

Born Leonore Carol Israel in New York City, 1939, Israel earned a bachelor’s degree in speech from Brooklyn College in 1961. She spent much of her early career as a freelance writer, contributing articles to a range of publications from The New York Times to Soap Opera Digest, but her greatest (legal) success came as a biographer. Through the '70s and '80s Israel crafted histories of the lives of actress Tallulah Bankhead and journalist Dorothy Kilgallen, the latter of which made it to the New York Times bestseller's list when it was released in 1980.

Her third book, an unauthorized biography of Estée Lauder didn't fare so well—it was released almost simultaneously with Lauder's own memoir which, along with a poor critical reception, significantly dampened sales. It was, by Israel's measure, the catalyst that sent her into a downward spiral toward her later criminal activities. "I had never known anything but ‘up’ in my career," she wrote in her memoir. "I regarded with pity and disdain the short-sleeved wage slaves who worked in offices. I had no reason to believe life would get anything but better."

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Melissa McCarthy as Lee Israel in Can You Ever Forgive Me?

Following the failure of her latest biography, Israel struggled to make ends meet and ultimately went on welfare. It was at this time, plagued by overdue bills and a cat in need of veterinary care, that Israel made her first foray into crime.

"[It] happened incrementally, like most evil things do," she told NPR in 2008. "I went to the library and was given a bunch of letters, which I should not have been given in a nonsecure area." Tempted by the possibility, Israel tucked a few letter from actress Fanny Brice into her shoes and walked out with them.

She sold the letters for the fairly paltry sum of $40 a piece, but it the amount was enough to meet Israel's immediate needs—and more importantly, to inspire her to find ways to refine her scheme. "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," she said.


Lee Israel

Thus, Israel transitioned from thievery to forgery, using her skills as a researcher and her ability to parody the tone of other writers to craft new letters from prominent figures of the past. She acquired old typewriters secondhand, tearing vintage paper out of the back of period journals in libraries to scribe her new works upon. She sought out published letters from her subjects, mining them for idiosyncrasies that she could use to add a patina of authenticity to her forgeries and tracing over signatures to copy onto her finished projects.

The letters were very convincing: two of them featured in The Letters of Noël Coward published by Alfred A. Knopf in 2007, over ten years after Israel pleaded guilty for her crimes. "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," she told NPR, referring to the autograph dealers she worked with as "spectacularly incurious."

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I still consider the letters to be my best work.

It likely helped that Israel was charging relatively little for her letters, $50 to $100 in most cases, and that they dealt mostly in personal anecdotes and opinions—details interesting to a collector, but not dramatic enough to attract too much scrutiny from scholars, in most cases at least. A few references to Coward's sexuality in some of her forged letters attracted the attention of some of her buyers, and a New York dealer later demanded $5,000 in exchange for not testifying against her before a grand jury.


Melissa McCarthy on set for Can You Ever Forgive Me?

It was the end of Israel's sales of forged letters, but not her work as a literary forger. Having decided that selling her fictionalized creations was too risky, Israel instead opted to go back to her original MO, with a twist. Going into the archives of prestigious libraries, she would examine existing letters, figuring out how to create perfect forgeries of them. Then, she would go home, create her replica, and return to the library, stealing the original and leaving her own copy in its place. A friend of hers would then sell the legitimate letter to private collectors.

Can You Ever Forgive Me?: Memoirs of a Literary Forger, amazon.com, $12.98

The gambit lasted until David H. Lowenherz, an autograph dealer in New York, discovered news that the missive from Ernest Hemingway to Norman Cousins that he had purchased was in fact part of Columbia University's collection. He got in contact with the university and together they discovered the forgery. “I said, ‘Is there any way you can tell who had recent access to this letter?’" he told The New York Times. "He came back and said: ‘We have this card. It’s signed by Lee Israel.'"

From there, the FBI was able to uncover significantly more of Israel's forged works and the stolen letters she had sold were returned to their archives (though the FBI Agent in charge of the case told the Times in 2015 that it was likely more letters remained undiscovered.) Israel pleaded guilty to one count of conspiracy to transport stolen property in interstate commerce in 1993 and was sentenced to six months house arrest with five years probation.

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She would go on to work as a copy editor for Scholastic magazines and to write her fourth an final book, the memoir upon which McCarthy's film is based, but it was her criminal works that she was most proud of in the end. As she wrote in her memoir, “I still consider the letters to be my best work."

*This story originally appeared on Townandcountrymag.com

*Minor edits have been made by the Townandcountry.ph editors

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