Dispatches | September 13, 2008

It takes some pretty fancy foot work to forge over 400 literary letters and then get a book deal out of it as Lee Israel has done with her recently published memoir “Can You Ever Forgive Me? Memoirs of a Literary Forger.”
In the 90s when Israel’s career as a biographer stalled she made a bold move; she became a forger of literary letters. In her memoir, she recounts her craft and ingenuity. First she made a careful study of the style and voice of her chosen alter egos: Noel Coward, Louise Brooks, Dorothy Parker, and Lillian Hellman among others. Next she scoured flea markets and antique stores for old typewriters and for vintage paper she tore pages from journals in a New York library. She traced the authors’ signatures and sold the fakes to reputable book dealers. She swapped her forgeries for real letters in library special collections and sold those, as well.
The white-collar crime got her five years probation and six months house arrest, just enough time to pen a 127-page account of her crime. Upon reflection, she learned that she was a much better writer as a forger than she had been as a writer.
As one of the editors of TMR’s “Found Text” and “History as Literature” features I have spent days in the readings rooms of some of the best research libraries in this country and England combing through boxes and folders of literary letters for the gems to bring to our readers. It never occurred to me to create fakes. The fiction writer in me sees the fun in imitating a missive by Jack Kerouac or Laurence Olivier. But as a scholar, I’m put off by Israel’s breezy attitude toward her crime; she doesn’t seem the least bit contrite. I hope curators across the country are throwing darts at her author photo, and I imagine that down in Austin at the Humanities Research Center they’d like to string her up.
The good die young and the morally bankrupt get book deals. Pity the poor memoirist who hasn’t done a stint in prison, slept with her father, run the gamut of addictions and psychosis or stolen something of value. Don’t get me wrong; I’ve been bad but only in the most pedestrian ways. For me, sitting at a mahogany desk in a reading room at the British Library meditating over a rare manuscript is a form of devotion and one of the few places where I gladly abide by the rules.