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Biographer-Turned-Felon Talks about Her Literary Crimes

Can an author redeem herself after being convicted of literary forgery and theft? We’ll talk with Lee Israel, author of “Can You Ever Forgive Me?” about what drove her to forge letters of famous peop

Audio

Aired 7/20/09

Can an author redeem herself after being convicted of literary forgery and theft? We'll talk with Lee Israel, author of "Can You Ever Forgive Me?" about what drove her to forge letters of famous people, and ultimately steal literary works from libraries.

This is a rush transcript created by a contractor for KPBS to improve accessibility for the deaf and hard-of-hearing. Please refer to the media file as the formal record of this interview. Opinions expressed by guests during interviews reflect the guest’s individual views and do not necessarily represent those of KPBS staff, members or its sponsors.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH (Host): I'm Maureen Cavanaugh. You're listening to These Days on KPBS. Lee Israel is a New York writer who forged what she claimed were rare letters, written by literary celebrities, and sold them to collectors. Eventually, the law caught up with her, and she was convicted to a term of probation and house arrest. But if you think cheaters never prosper, you should know that Israel has written and published a book about her life of crime. It's called "Can you Ever Forgive Me?: Memoirs of a Literary Forger." Israel's work and memoir teach us something about the craft of forgery, and it raises some interesting moral questions. Last summer, Tom Fudge interviewed Lee Israel about why she did what she did, and why she decided to write a book about it. Here's that interview.

TOM FUDGE (Interviewer): Lee, the title of your book makes it sound like you're asking readers for forgiveness but I think that's not quite true. Where does that line 'can you ever forgive me' come from?

LEE ISRAEL (Author): Well, it comes, ironically, from a line I made up and put into the mouth or the pen of Dorothy Parker. Can you ever forgive me? She's just talking to a friend probably with whom she's mouthed off and is asking in her way for forgiveness but, in point of fact, Dorothy didn't really mean it. She just was getting through the day.

FUDGE: Uh-huh. Now, you're a biographer…

ISRAEL: Yeah.

FUDGE: …and you've written books and had them published, books, I think, about Tallulah Bankhead and…

ISRAEL: My first was about Tallulah Bankhead.

FUDGE: And Estee Lauder?

ISRAEL: Estee Lauder was the third and in between I did a book about Dorothy Kilgallen, who was a columnist here but was also a major sort of TV personality.

FUDGE: So you went from this respectable writing career to being a forger. Now why in the world would you do that?

ISRAEL: Well, it – my landlord was making certain demands. I was broke. I was – ran out of money. I ran out of career over a period of eight or nine years and I was in desperate straits. A probation officer of mine called it a rough patch. It was very rough indeed.

FUDGE: Okay, so I guess that sort of explains it. Now, before you started forging letters, you actually stole some from a New York library.

ISRAEL: Yes, the Lincoln Center Library.

FUDGE: The Lincoln Center Library. And then you sold those. Now I assume that gave you the idea that it might make more sense just to write the letters yourself.

ISRAEL: Yeah, I did it myself. Yeah, well, I took a couple because, well, the approximate cause was my kitty, Doris, was in the hospital and needed some tests. I had no dough. I was on welfare. And I loved the cat and I was given, by mistake, a box of letters written by Fannie Brice, little bread and butter notes, not very significant, put on – I should have been in a more secure area. A mistake was made. And I thought, well, you know, three letters will get my cat out of hock. And so I took them, probably the first thing I stoled (sic) in my life.

FUDGE: And you sold those letters to an antique store? To a collector?

ISRAEL: Well, a bookstore here…

FUDGE: To a bookstore.

ISRAEL: …on the east side. And the dealer told me – I had no idea what they would go for. In fact, I got $40.00 apiece for them and I had some jingle in my jeans for the first time in a long time. And she said, just by the by, that she'd pay more for better content. Well, there was a great deal of room at the bottom of the paper for better content so I – and I had an old typewriter at home and I – I P.S.'d.

FUDGE: You – I'm sorry, you P.S.'d?

ISRAEL: I P.S.'d.

FUDGE: Oh. Oh, wrote a little postscript.

ISRAEL: Yeah, yeah.

FUDGE: Okay.

ISRAEL: Yeah.

FUDGE: Okay. Now describe the kinds of letters you decided to forge. I mean, who were they supposed to be written by? Why did you choose those writers? And why were they valuable?

ISRAEL: Well, I took – I started with Louise Brooks. She was a – whom you may or may not know. She was – the cineacs in New York, around the country kind of know her. She was an old time movie actress screen star who suddenly became a rather important critic of silent screens and writer and she became a cult figure. I came upon a bunch of letters of Louise's in the library, more than 120 of them, wonderful letters, bitter, literate, terrific, gossipy. And I started taking notes and – and I thought that probably that she, with her following, frequently her monied following, there would be a market for those letters. So what I did was I took parts of the letters and I moved them around, I invented certain things, I – They became more and more liberated as I became more and more in touch with Louise Brooks. I did the same thing with Noel Coward. Why did I pick Noel Coward? Because he was a gas, he was literate. He amused me and I thought there'd probably be a market for his letters. And…

FUDGE: Now – now…

ISRAEL: …additionally, his signature was easy.

FUDGE: And we'll talk about doing the signatures in a moment but it sounds like what you did, aside from the signature, which you had to imitate as best you could, you…

ISRAEL: Yeah.

FUDGE: …used old typewriters, supposedly the kind of typewriters that might be used by people writing in that era.

ISRAEL: Yeah.

FUDGE: Okay. And you mentioned Noel Coward. Let me read a little bit of a letter that Noel Coward wrote to a friend. Of course, this is not really Noel Coward, this is you writing the letter. It says, 'Dear Boy, the London sojourn was exhausting.' And, by the way, he's talking about Marlene Dietrich in this, I should mention.

ISRAEL: I – Okay.

FUDGE: 'Dear Boy, the London sojourn was exhausting. Marlene's opening was divine. That silly old Kraut remains one of the most attractive women on the face of the earth and during this brief period of triumph has ceased moaning about getting old. As I have told you on – As I have told you on countless occasions, I’m sure, Marlene seems to think that she's the only primate that suffered the depredations of growing old and she is determinedly ungraceful about the whole business.' And then it goes on. And I assume you wrote that having some knowledge about the relationship between Noel Coward and Marlene Dietrich.

ISRAEL: Absolutely.

FUDGE: And knowing a little bit about what Noel Coward might say about Marlene Dietrich.

ISRAEL: I got most of the factual – all of the factual stuff in the case of Noel Coward from his diaries. And I had been a – I learned what he thought, whom he had dinner with, actresses he liked, his problems he had with his diverticulitis. I learned stuff about him and I would take the stuff and put it into a letter in the style of Noel Coward, except it really wasn't, it was Noel Coward and a half. You know, I had to be Noel Coward, he didn't.

FUDGE: And one thing that was a little tough about Noel Coward is he had a very characteristic and very artistic signature that he would use to sign his letters.

ISRAEL: Yeah, the – I didn't do the 'Coward,' I just – I did the 'N' which was a rough one. That was the hardest of all the letters of all my creations. Chirography, I think it's called, that was the toughest thing to do. But I mastered it, finally. I haven't been able – You know, people kid me once in awhile and ask me to sign a book in the style of Noel or Edna Ferber or any of the people I did, well, I sort of lost my chops. I can't seem to do it as well anymore.

FUDGE: You used old typewriters to write these letters to make them look like they may have been written by those writers. Did you have to find old, yellowed stationery to write them on?

ISRAEL: Not really. And – No, not old, yellowed stationery. As a matter of fact, I had some stationery made brand new. What I did was I would copy an old letter, take the letterhead to a printer and have, you know, maybe a hundred pieces of paper run off with that celebrity's unique letterhead on top. In one case, in the case of Louise Brooks, I found some oldish paper in the papers of an oldish actress and I – I typed Louise's letter on that – those letters on those plain papers because she didn't have the dough and would not have been inclined to have personalized stationery.

FUDGE: In one of these letters that you wrote, and I can't remember who was supposed to have written it, but somebody was complaining – I think it was Louise Brooks who was complaining about the Kennedys?

ISRAEL: A lot of people – Well, Louise Brooks, yeah, yeah, she complained about the Kennedys and…

FUDGE: And how they treated Marilyn Monroe…

ISRAEL: Yeah.

FUDGE: …so obviously you were trying to get gossip in it, mention other celebrities to…

ISRAEL: Right.

FUDGE: …to make them more attractive to sell.

ISRAEL: Yeah, the – they were, you know, if a dealer chuckled, I had a sale. And the dicier, the better.

FUDGE: My guest is Lee Israel. She is a biographer, a New York writer, and author of a new book "Can You Ever Forgive Me?: Memoirs of a Literary Forger," which is a memoir of her life in crime as a forger of supposedly rare letters written by literary celebrities. Israel, while you were doing this, did it ever occur to you that you were doing something wrong?

ISRAEL: Of course. I'm not a sociopath.

FUDGE: All right. But – Well, how guilty did that make you feel?

ISRAEL: Well…

FUDGE: I guess not guilty enough to stop doing it.

ISRAEL: I didn't stop doing it, no. You know, people write memoirs, as a rule, about behavior – about being an extremist, and I was an extremist. So the point of the book is not to justify what I did. The point of the book is to turn out a book which is much appreciated, as humorous and wise in places, and fascinating. People are loving it. The Times called it pretty damn fabulous. Sure, I knew what I was doing was wrong but I did it to survive.

FUDGE: Umm-hmm. Now I'm going to read back to you something that you were quoted as having said and I can't vouch for the quote but let me read this. You say that while what you did may have embarrassed somebody, nobody was hurt by it. Did you say that?

ISRAEL: I don't know. I said it in the book, yeah. I said, in terms of the letters, the forged letters, that nobody got hurt. The fact of the matter is, the letters amused. I had a talent to amuse. People loved the letters. Dealers made a lot of money. I sold one letter for eighty dollars that turned up finally for $2500.00, a letter. So profits were high. Enjoyment was rampant. And people are still having a great deal of fun with the letters.

FUDGE: Well, now I'm – obviously, you didn't murder anybody or anything but every…

ISRAEL: Well, as a matter of fact, Tom…

FUDGE: As a matter of fact, you never did, but every crime has a victim with the possible exception of crimes of vice and…

ISRAEL: Yes.

FUDGE: …you took money from people who thought they were buying something that had value.

ISRAEL: Yeah, but you know what?

FUDGE: How can you say you never hurt anybody?

ISRAEL: Well, the fact of the matter is that restitution was paid to all the dealers and in – As we speak, my letters are being sold as forgeries by the selfsame dealers. This is a letter by Lee Israel.

FUDGE: Ahh…

ISRAEL: They – So there's a…

FUDGE: So they have value even though they're forgeries.

ISRAEL: Yeah, it's a strange, parallel universe that's going on. So nobody, as far as I know – Obviously, people were deceived, you know, no gang feng (sp). But nobody lost any money and I – there was a corpus of letters created that are – continue to amuse and delight people.

FUDGE: So you say that nobody lost money because they received restitution if they…

ISRAEL: There was restitution and there is now finally other dealings going on now that my book is getting some attention. The 'Lee Israel forgeries are worth something' kind of thing. And at the time, tremendous profits were made as my initial pittance was, you know, resold on the market at enormous profits.

FUDGE: And how did you finally get caught?

ISRAEL: Well, it's a – Well, how did I finally get caught? The first – Actually the first step in my undoing had to do with the Noel Coward letters. Someone was finally bright enough to know that the letters were a little over the top and that they were – they capered and camped a little too much, and though they were considered very witty, Noel Coward had come up at a time when homosexuality was a jailing offense so he would've been – he was very careful about what he wrote down. He would never have written the sort of letters that I wrote and sold as Noel Coward's, which, incidentally, have been included in a recent collected of Noel Coward letters. Apparently the editor took my letters to be the real McCoy.

FUDGE: I see, and so you had Noel Coward admitting to his homosexuality at a time where he never…

ISRAEL: No.

FUDGE: …never would have done that?

ISRAEL: No, not admitting to his homosexuality, nothing like that.

FUDGE: Uh-huh.

ISRAEL: Admission is over the top. The fact of the matter is that Noel was writing in a style – the style that he uses in his letters, which was cavorts and camps and calls people 'dear boy' sort of thing and deals with certain subjects which are, you know, kind of camp. He never would have done that in his own correspondence. He doesn't admit to homosexuality.

FUDGE: I see, and so some dealer looked at that and said, ah, this isn't right.

ISRAEL: Some – No, not a dealer. The dealers, it turned out, were, in fact, particular. Some buyer out on the coast, your coast, which is – your coast, saw a letter and thought it would have been unlikely…

FUDGE: Ahh…

ISRAEL: …that his friend Noel would have written in such a way as to disclose his certain sensibilities.

FUDGE: By the way, you said that you became a forger because you were destitute. Did your forgeries allow – bring you out of poverty? I mean, was it a good life for awhile?

ISRAEL: It was – it was – I did it serially and always to pay the rent. It meant – it meant that I was free from terrible, nagging threat of being on the street but I did it only when – I'm not – I did it only when I had to. There were not enormous profits involved or anything like enormous profits. We're talking like eighty dollars a pop…

FUDGE: Sure.

ISRAEL: …for something that would take me maybe two or three hours to compose.

FUDGE: One last question, and I know that this is a question that you've gotten from a lot of people who have interviewed you. If you were not telling the truth when you forged these letters, how can we read your memoir and believe that you're telling the truth in your memoir?

ISRAEL: Well, read it intelligently. The book is dispositive. There are dates in it. I tell people exactly how I did it. They can go to a book on my shelf and see what I took and how it was transformed into another shape. The book was carefully vetted at Simon and Schuster. I mean, every 'and' 'if' and 'but', believe me, was scrutinized, so I think you can be pretty sure that I'm telling the truth about things that were ultimately untruthful. But this is not another memoir – that's not another memoir that's made up, it's very carefully vetted and we were scrupulous about – This was, you know, it was done at a time when there was – memoirgate was going on and there were a lot of phony memoirs. This one was – Don't worry about that. You might disapprove of it but you can take it as legitimate.

FUDGE: Okay, well, Lee Israel is a biographer and author of a new book called "Can You Ever Forgive Me?: Memoirs of a Literary Forger." And thanks for joining us.

ISRAEL: Bye-bye.

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