Who isn’t intrigued by a literary scandal? As I type, a few pop to mind – Helen Demidenko, James Frey, and whether Harper Lee ever wanted Go Set a Watchman to be published. But I’d never heard of Lee Israel – best-selling author and ‘literary forger’. She fesses up to her criminal activity in her memoir, Can You Ever Forgive Me? (and yes, let’s park the fact that she profited from writing a memoir about her crime).
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.
It’s a slim volume, describing the years when Israel finds demand for her writing has dried up and she’s strapped for cash. She starts a forgery business. Having previously written biographies, Israel knew how to research and access historical documents. Add meticulous copying of autographs and the acquisition of various vintage typewriters, and she was all set. Israel penned more than 300 fake letters, imitating the styles of famous writers including Dorothy Parker, Noël Coward, and Louise Brooks.
Louise Brooks, the left-hemispheric actress turned essayist and critic, a fabulous creature – literate, passionate, bitter as a root, a great destroyer of Hollywood myth, and an Olympic hater…
The letters were sold to memorabilia and autograph dealers – two of her ‘Coward’ letters were even included in a Coward biography. After one dealer became suspicious, the FBI got involved, and Israel finished her career with ‘six sufferable years‘ as a copyeditor at Scholastic Publishing (and quite a bit of community service under her belt).
What struck me most about this memoir was Israel’s complete lack of remorse or sense of guilt. It seemed that she viewed the whole thing as an elaborate joke, ‘…a big hoot‘, and the fools were the dealers who couldn’t spot a fake.
I felt no guilt about the letters. They were from the realm of the dead.
Clearly, Israel is a very good writer – the memoir is engaging, revealing (she’s open about her method of mining libraries of their archival collections, and in some cases stealing from those collections), and examples of her ‘finest’ work are peppered throughout the book.
But what makes Israel feel entitled to profit from deception? Her only wobble was revealing that at one point she was a ‘sack of worry‘ about the scam – not because she was ripping people off, but because she feared going to prison.
“I still consider the letters my best work.”
As the legal ramifications of the scam played out, Israel sent a letter ‘from Dorothy Parker’ to a dealer who was still selling one of her forgeries. She chided the dealer for not giving Israel a fair share of the profit. Again, all a ‘joke’ but clearly Israel couldn’t see that the joke was well and truly over.
There’s a faux-apology and show of guilt toward the end, but again it’s attached to the punishment (that Israel is banned from the libraries that she had plundered), and that she hurt some people she apparently genuinely liked (which begs the question, why intentionally hurt them?!). But the apology sits uncomfortably after two-hundred pages of ‘it’s just a joke’.
2.5/5 What a brat.
Before the forgery business took off, Israel got into trouble for impersonating Nora Ephron –
They used words like harassment. “Well”, I said, “If she can’t take a joke…” I promised to cease and also desist, but knew the impulsivity that gin induces would inevitably chivy me to the telephone.
There’s a lot of gin in this memoir, which of course leads me to Noël Coward’s view that ‘…a perfect Martini should be made by filling a glass with gin, then waving it in the general direction of Italy.’