Thursday, January 8, 2015

Lee Israel, writer who forged Louise Brooks letters, has died

Lee Israel, a writer and biographer who forged a series of letters from Louise Brooks and others, has died. She was 75 years old. The New York Times has an extensive obituary on her.

Earlier in her career, Israel had published a popular biography of the actress Tallulah Bankhead, but as a writer, fell on hard times. She turned to forging letters from famous personalities, including actors, entertainers and writers such as Humphrey Bogart, Ernest Hemingway, Eugene O'Neil, and Louise Brooks.

The New York Times noted, "In the early 1990s, with her career at a standstill, she became a literary forger, composing and selling hundreds of letters that she said had been written by Edna Ferber, Dorothy Parker, Noël Coward, Lillian Hellman and others. That work, which ended with Ms. Israel’s guilty plea in federal court in 1993, was the subject of her fourth and last book, the memoir Can You Ever Forgive Me?, published by Simon & Schuster in 2008." Brooks' name, x'ed out, appears on the cover. (Read the New York Times review of the book, which mentions Brooks, here. Also, check out the Los Angeles Times review here. And the NPR story can be read or listened to here.)

After her memoir was published in 2008, Israel turned to selling her forged letters (as such) on eBay. As I noted on this blog at the time: "The eBay description reads, 'Lee Israel, author of the recently published Can You Ever Forgive Me? Memoirs of a Literary Forger, which The New York Times called 'pretty damned fabulous,' is offering several letters for sale – the hilarious forgeries that experts from coast to coast could not distinguish from the extraordinary letters written by the silent film star. These are the letters Lee Israel had not yet sold when the FBI came knocking at her door. $75 each, suitable for framing to bamboozle your literary friends. Letters of inauthenticity provided."

I didn't buy any of Israel's forgeries, but did email her. We exchanged a couple of notes, but all-in-all, she was reticent to talk about what she did. In an interview with Vice magazine, she said this:

VICE: Well, it could’ve been that they didn’t fuss because you went to such great lengths to make the content of the letters believable and entertaining.
LEE ISRAEL: Yes. For instance, my Louise Brooks letters were based on her actual letters. In the beginning, I spent weeks reading these fabulous letters by her in the library. I got into her soul and her sensibilities and gained lots of knowledge about her life. So when I sat down to do the forgeries, I was just taking baby steps. In the beginning those letters were mostly Louise’s words with a bunch of stuff just changed around. But when they started to sell like hotcakes, I got surer of myself and moved farther and farther away from the model. The Noël Coward and Dorothy Parker and Edna Ferber stuff was not even based on real letters. I was using things written in other forms and incorporating them into my work.

One of Lee Israel’s forged Louise Brooks letters, reproduced in Can You Ever Forgive Me?

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