Grifter Life: Can You Ever Forgive Me? by K A Laity

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Behind the terrific 2018 film is the slim volume penned by serial forger/biographer Lee Israel. Memoirs of a Literary Forger fascinates not only for its insight into how Israel managed to pull off not one but two iterations of forgeries, but also for the evident joy the process brought. She found great pleasure in channeling the minds of great correspondents like Dorothy Parker, Edna Ferber, Louise Brooks and Noël Coward, capturing their individual styles with considerable success.

Hundreds of letters: all produced in her ‘perilously held studio apartment in the shadow of Zabar’s on New York’s Upper West Side.’ A first flush of success with the biographies Miss Tallulah Bankhead and Kilgallen gave Israel a misapprehension about how easy this writing lark would be. It probably didn’t help that, as she confessed, ‘I was imprudent with money and Dionysian to the quick.’

She had trouble getting started on a third project, abandoning a few misstarts before embarking on a ‘warts-and-all’ biography of cosmetics queen Estée Lauder for a five-figure advance (those were the days, eh?). Via the notorious Roy Cohn, Israel received a counteroffer from Lauder to drop the project: $60,000. It would have been enough to take care of outstanding debts and put her back on easy street.

She turned it down: she blamed the influence of Gregory Peck movies, giving her a conscious. That didn’t last long: the book—rushed to print, hastily written—was pipped to the post by Lauder’s own volume and tanked. Within three years she was in danger of losing everything.

Stopgap employment went poorly. It didn’t help that Israel had a freelancer’s dislike of tedious labour or kowtowing to people who thought they were more important. There may have been some anger management issues and alcohol abuse, too. Banned from the Strand where she had been selling off her books, things were desperate indeed.

can you ever forgive me 2While casting about for a possible topic to get her back on top, Israel opened a box at the Library for the Performing Arts at Lincoln Center to discover an unexpected cache of Fanny Brice letters. Thinking of the Katharine Hepburn letter she had recently sold in desperation and worrying about her cat Doris’ needed tests, she stole three of the letters. 

To sell them, she needed to explain how she got them: Cousin Sidney, ‘an independently wealthy and well-connected world traveler always with a carnation in his lapel’ who of course corresponded with the glitterati. The letters would have sold even without Cousin Sidney, but his creation speaks volumes about the real appeal of the grift beyond just the need for cash: the fiction.

The glorious delight of the fictions is really what sustained Israel through her criminal career, and probably why she seems somewhat less than fully contrite about the business. There was no way it was going to last; she just wasn’t interested enough in the technical side of faking the letters. The joy came from inhabiting these witty, fascinating, larger-than-life people. By her own admission, Israel was a real introvert, bordering on hermetic. She got a thrill from living vicariously in their (mostly past) lives of glamour. Israel even plundered her own store: a letter from Lillian Hellman refusing an interview for her Tallulah bio became fodder for a dozen fakes. ‘She was a difficult woman: happily, her signature was easy.’ 

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A more timid soul would have given up when the first suspicions arose. Israel instead got a partner, Jack Hock: ‘despite a touch of wayward charm, he was a grifter at heart.’ He had even optioned her second book for a film with borrowed cash, continuing to try to make a deal even after the option had expired.

Part two involved Jack charming buyers whilst Lee continued her forger’s art with a twist: leaving the fakes in the libraries and selling the unimpeachable originals. It’s all doomed to failure but there’s a certain joy in her telling that makes it plain that beyond the mere fact of the money the life of the grift has a thrill of its own. In the film Melissa McCarthy softens some of Israel’s abrasiveness yet maintains her singularity. Of course Richard E. Grant gives jaunty life to the character of Jack, whose reality is much sadder and far less charming than his spin. But this slim volume is well worth a read, not only for her account of the brief criminal life, but for the letters which shine.