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Literary forger tells of bogus missives in memoir

EDITOR'S NOTE — Jonathan Lopez is an art historian and the author of ‘The Man Who Made Vermeers,' a biography of the art forger Han van Meegeren

By JONATHAN LOPEZ

For The Associated Press

“Can You Ever Forgive Me? Memoirs of a Literary Forger” (Simon & Schuster, 128 pages, $20), by Lee Israel: “She is a bright, talented actress,” Noel Coward once wrote of Julie Andrews, “and quite attractive since she dealt with her monstrous English overbite.”

Pure Coward — except that it isn't. Banged out on an old Olympia typewriter in 1991, this quote was invented by Lee Israel, the screwball literary forger of Manhattan's Upper West Side. During an improbable crime spree lasting approximately 18 months, Israel impersonated not just Coward but also Fanny Brice, Dorothy Parker, Lillian Hellman, Louise Brooks, Humphrey Bogart, and a host of other major and minor celebrities (all long dead) in over 400 phony letters sold to autograph and memorabilia dealers across the country.

Israel made only a modest living through her misdeeds, but she fooled a lot of people, experts and scholars among them. The Julie Andrews line wound up appearing in a book of Coward's collected correspondence.

In part, Israel succeeded because she knew her territory so well. Before her career in fraud, she had been a respected celebrity biographer. Her first book, “Miss Tallulah Bankhead,” received admiring reviews when it appeared in 1972 and quickly made the young writer a hot property on the New York publishing scene.

In “Can You Ever Forgive Me?” — her new memoir — Israel affects a mock-heroic voice (think Rosalind Russell in “Auntie Mame”) as she describes those early days of being “wined and wooed by publishers in various venues of young veal and Beefeater gin. My second book, ‘Kilgallen,' was conceived at one of those chic, deductible lunches, over gorgeous gin martinis.”

Her tone of amused self-confidence begins to fade, however, as she delves into her mid-life crackup. “Kilgallen,” about columnist Dorothy Kilgallen, turned out to be a best seller, but it was followed by a hastily written biography of Estee Lauder that flopped completely. After a few other book projects stalled or collapsed, Israel suffered a partial nervous breakdown. Drinking heavily, she took to phoning major figures in the publishing world, cursing them out while pretending to be Nora Ephron. In time, Ephron's lawyers had to issue an order to cease and desist.

Broke, Israel adapted her penchant for role playing to more lucrative ends, marketing bogus personal missives written in the names of the celebrities whom she had once studied. She purchased a series of second hand typewriters that closely matched the real ones used by each of her alter-egos, learned how to fake the famous signatures by tracing known samples with a light box and carefully researched the oddities of her targets' writing habits. Coward, for example, always skipped five spaces after periods.

With her knowledge of Hollywood and Broadway lore, she had no trouble salting her fake letters with appropriate period gossip and references. And unlike in the Ephron incident, there was no one alive to cry foul at the imposture.

Pronouncing the dealers who bought her fakes “spectacularly incurious,” Israel appears to impugn the memorabilia market's standards for authenticity. To a limited degree, that charge may have its merits, but it does not ring entirely true: The rising suspicions of various California dealers compelled the flighty forger to adopt increasingly complex and disreputable tactics.

In an episode that she herself has trouble excusing, Israel stole dozens of genuine celebrity letters from libraries and archives, replacing the originals with fakes. Hiding behind a slowwitted accomplice who acted as her front man, she then put these purloined artifacts on the market. It wasn't long before the FBI came calling.

Convicted of larceny and fraud, Israel received a light sentence of five years' probation and six months' house arrest. She agreed to cooperate with the authorities in recovering all the stolen archival letters, found a real job as a copy editor for a publisher of children's magazines and abandoned most of her delusions of grandeur. Penitent and a bit down on herself, she ruefully concludes, “I was a better writer as a forger than I ever had been as a writer.”

There, perhaps, she goes too far. Writing under her own name, Lee Israel is deft, funny and eminently entertaining: Noting that the judge at her sentencing had said that he never wanted to see her again “in this context,” she deadpans that at least it was “not a total rejection.” She also has a good tale to tell. “Can You Ever Forgive Me?” offers a gentle parable about the modern culture of fame, about those who worship it, those who strive for it and those who trade in its relics.

“My success as a forger was somehow in sync with my erstwhile success as a biographer,” Israel observes. “I had for decades practiced a kind of merged identity with my subjects; to say I 'channeled' is only a slight exaggeration.”

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