How A Successful Biographer Became A Forger Over three years, Lee Israel faked 400 letters from famous dead writers and sold them for "some jingle." Following an FBI sting and six months of house arrest, she's out with a memoir about her experience.
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How A Successful Biographer Became A Forger

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How A Successful Biographer Became A Forger

How A Successful Biographer Became A Forger

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Back now with Day to Day. As the saying goes about New York City, there are eight million stories in the Naked City. A few of them - more than a few of them - they aren't true. That's because they were made up by my guest, Lee Israel. Lee is the author of the new memoir, "Can You Ever Forgive Me?" In it, she details a period of her life as a literary forger. She faked letters from famous dead celebrities - Noel Coward, Dorothy Parker, Lillian Hellman - and then sold them to dealers. Lee Israel, welcome to the program.

Ms. LEE ISRAEL (Author, "Can You Ever Forgive Me?: Memoirs of a Literary Forger"): Thank you. They're dead. They had to be dead.

BRAND: Yeah, because otherwise they'd say, I didn't write that.

Ms. ISRAEL: I would have heard.

(Soundbite of laughter)

BRAND: All right. Well, let's get a little background on you first. For awhile, you were doing OK. You were a successful biographer. You - one of your books was on Tallulah Bankhead, and - what happened, what drove you to forging letters?

Ms. ISRAEL: Well, there were three books, all of them well-received. I did Tallulah, I did Dorothy Kilgallen, and finally a book about Estee Lauder. The third was not so successful, and that began my downward tumble.

BRAND: Your downward tumble. So, you actually did this because you didn't have a lot of money, right?

Ms. ISRAEL: I did this to survive.

BRAND: Yeah. So, why did - how did you come up with this idea?

Ms. ISRAEL: It happened incrementally, like most evil things do. I needed the dough. I was in a lot of trouble. The proximate need for money had to do with my sick cat. I went to the library and was given a bunch of letters, which I should not have been given in a non-secure area. I needed to come up with 40 bucks to get my kitty's, Doris', tests back. And I took a couple of Fanny Brice letters, slipped them in my sneakers, and sold them to a place called Argosy, on the East Side of New York City.

BRAND: So, these were actual letters that you stole.

Ms. ISRAEL: These were actual letters from Fanny Brice. I got about 40 dollars apiece for them, and for the first time in a long time, I had some jingle in my jeans.

(Soundbite of laughter)

BRAND: So, how did you go from stealing to actually forging letters?

Ms. ISRAEL: Some of the autograph dealers told me that they would pay more for better content. So, 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.

BRAND: And then you moved on. You moved on to Louise Brooks...

Ms. ISRAEL: Yeah, well, that wasn't moving on. I stopped stealing. I used what talent I had, and what voice I had, to duplicate the voice and the letters of some very famous people.

BRAND: Can you read a little bit?

Ms. ISRAEL: Well, I can read a Dorothy Parker.

BRAND: OK, read a Dorothy Parker. That would be great.

Ms. ISRAEL: OK. This one is datelined Thanksgiving, from Dorothy Parker. It says, Dear Joshua, Alan told me to write and apologize, so I'm doing that now, while he dresses for our turkey dinner with the boys across the road. I have a hangover that is a real museum piece. I'm sure that I must have said something terrible. To save me this kind of exertion in the future, I'm thinking of having little letters run off saying, can you ever forgive me? Dorothy. Can you ever forgive me? Dorothy.

BRAND: So, when you would sell these letters to the dealer, what would the dealer say to you?

Ms. ISRAEL: Thank you.

BRAND: Just that.

(Soundbite of laughter)

BRAND: They wouldn't question the authenticity, that's it?

Ms. ISRAEL: No. Well, OK. The dealers were spectacularly incurious. I was never asked. 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.

BRAND: Eventually you were caught.

Ms. ISRAEL: Yeah.

BRAND: How did you get caught?

Ms. ISRAEL: Well, it was Noel Coward what done me in. The overhanging theme mostly was his sophistication and his homosexuality. So, there were a lot of references to dear boys, and hey, boy, and how is Bernie? And that sort of thing. But the fact of the matter is, and I don't think I gave it much thought, but somebody else did. Noel Coward came up in a very difficult period to be homosexual. It was a jailing offense. So, it would have been very unlikely for Coward to have put all these kind of campy (unintelligible) into any kind of correspondence that went out into the world. And somebody said, hey, I don't think so. And a couple of dealers talked to each other and told the other dealers, don't you dare sell those. They're toxic. They come from Lee Israel's well. And that was the end of my career as a forger.

BRAND: And there was actually an FBI sting, right?

Ms. ISRAEL: Yeah, there was a sting.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. ISRAEL: Yes.

BRAND: You can laugh about it now, but that sounds pretty serious.

Ms. ISRAEL: Well, yeah. I wasn't laughing then. I was really scared. It was awful. It was, you know, it was the FBI showing me a badge in the sun outside of a fancy delicatessen. I had started to steal letters. After it was known that my letters were forgeries, I could no longer sell. So, this is when I think it gets bad, I mean, evil, I mean, you know, bad. Hold your ears if you can't stand it. I went to very prestigious archives, and I would duplicate the letter. I'd go back to the library and I'd switch. And then I'd have a real letter from, usually, a very well-known writer, and a friend of mine would sell the letters.

BRAND: So, 400 of these letters you wrote. How many of them were actually tracked down? How many of them were used for serious scholarship and actually made it into...

Ms. ISRAEL: Well, yeah, the Noel Coward Collection. The editor of that was fooled and used, actually, three letters of mine in "The Collected Letters of Noel Coward." One of them was nearly - was almost the eleven o'clock number. I mean, he was obviously very amused by the letter, and it was very good Coward. It was better Coward than Coward. I mean, Coward didn't have to be Coward. I had to be Coward and a half. So, it was witty and it was fun, and he was taken in, and the book was published with my letters. The paperback will be issued without my letters.

BRAND: And did you ever think, this is just wrong, I can't do this anymore, I can't deceive people anymore, this is - I just can't bear this?

Ms. ISRAEL: Yes, yes, as soon as the FBI showed up.

(Soundbite of laughter)

BRAND: As soon as you were caught, in other words.

Ms. ISRAEL: As soon as I was caught.

BRAND: So, you didn't think you were doing anything wrong.

Ms. ISRAEL: Oh, I knew I was doing something wrong. I'm not a sociopath.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. ISRAEL: Of course I knew. But I also knew that I had no choice, it seemed to me.

BRAND: Well, you know, I want to ask the obvious question, but I think it needs to be asked. How do we know you're telling the truth in this memoir?

Ms. ISRAEL: It was thoroughly, thoroughly vetted. You can check it. You can see it. You couldn't make this up.

BRAND: Have you received any criticism at all from the literary dealers that you...

Ms. ISRAEL: They're not happy.


Ms. ISRAEL: They're not happy. But it has come to my attention that some of the letters are now on the market as Lee Israel's forgeries.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. ISRAEL: And they're being sold qua forgeries. Nobody is deceiving anyone. But my work has received some attention, and marvelous reviews, and people have liked the letters. And so they're saleable, apparently.

BRAND: Lee Israel is the author of the book "Can You Ever Forgive Me?: Memoirs of a Literary Forger." Lee Israel, thank you very much.

Ms. ISRAEL: Thank you.

BRAND: It appears they can't forgive her. Want to read some of Lee Israel's forged letters? Just go to our website, Day to Day is a wholly authentic production of NPR News, with contributions from I'm Madeleine Brand.


Really? I'm Alex Chadwick.

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