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December 3: Fake Letters, by Lee Israel

Lawrence Bush
December 3, 2016

Lee Israel, who wrote magazine celebrity profiles as well as biographies of Tallulah Bankhead, Dorothy Kilgallen, and Estée Lauder before turning to forgery to make a living, was born in Brooklyn on this date in 1939. Over the course of some eighteen months in the early 1990s, Israel wrote and sold some 400 letters supposedly written by dead celebrities, “using skills she had honed as a writer,” writes Margalit Fox in the New York Times. “[S]he scoured her subjects’ memoirs for salient biographical details; their published letters for epistolary style; and their original, archived letters for typing idiosyncrasies. She bought a flock of period typewriters from secondhand shops and, on furtive library visits, tore blank sheets of vintage paper from the backs of old journals. . . . She managed to fly under the radar by charging little, selling her creations to autograph dealers around the country for about $50 to $100 each. She made it up in volume . . .” Her primary targets for forgery included Noel Coward, Edna Ferber, Louise Brooks, and Dorothy Parker. Israel was an alcoholic and was described by acquaintances as having a difficult personality. She wrote a memoir about her crimes, Can You Ever Forgive Me? (quoting Dorothy Parker), which was published a couple of years before her death in 2014.

“Dealers in such property were glad to see Israel come through the door. Some of them, she believes, were on to her scam, but they were making big bucks . . . So the game went on until Israel hooked up with an old friend, Jack, a man as sly as she but with bigger ideas and a more abbreviated moral code. Jack became her go-between, and at his urging she increased her output and began to steal and forge some high quality historical epistles. . . . Serving jail time was never on the table, but Israel was under house arrest and on probation for a suitably chastening few years.” --Barbara Bamberger Scott

​​​​Lawrence Bush edited Jewish Currents from 2003 until 2018. He is the author of Bessie: A Novel of Love and Revolution and Waiting for God: The Spiritual Explorations of a Reluctant Atheist, among other books. His new volume of illustrated Torah commentaries, American Torah Toons 2, is scheduled for publication this year.