Lee Israel

Leonore Carol "Lee" Israel (December 3, 1939 – December 24, 2014) was an American author, who is known for literary forgery. A film adaptation of her 2008 confessional autobiography Can You Ever Forgive Me?, starring Melissa McCarthy as Israel, was released in 2018. Israel was born in Brooklyn, New York, to a Jewish family. Her parents were Jack and Sylvia Israel; she also had a brother, Edward. She graduated from Midwood High School, and in 1961 from CUNY's Brooklyn College. Israel began a career as a freelance writer in the 1960s. Her profile of Katharine Hepburn, for which Israel had visited California shortly before the death of Spencer Tracy, ran in the November 1967 edition of Esquire magazine. Israel's magazine-writing career continued into the 1970s. In the 1970s and 1980s, she published biographies of the actress Tallulah Bankhead, the journalist and game-show panelist Dorothy Kilgallen, and the cosmetics tycoon Estée Lauder. The Kilgallen book was well received, and appeared on The New York Times Best Seller List.

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Lee Israel
Born
Leonore Carol Israel

(1939-12-03)December 3, 1939
DiedDecember 24, 2014(2014-12-24) (aged 75)
New York City, U.S.
Alma materCity University of New York
Occupation
  • Author
  • copywriter
  • journalist
Known forLiterary forgery

Leonore Carol "Lee" Israel (December 3, 1939 – December 24, 2014) was an American author, who is known for literary forgery. A film adaptation of her 2008 confessional autobiography Can You Ever Forgive Me?, starring Melissa McCarthy as Israel, was released in 2018.[1]

Early life and education

Israel was born in Brooklyn, New York, to a Jewish family.[2] Her parents were Jack and Sylvia Israel; she also had a brother, Edward. She graduated from Midwood High School, and in 1961 from CUNY's Brooklyn College.[3][4]

Career

Israel began a career as a freelance writer in the 1960s. Her profile of Katharine Hepburn, for which Israel had visited California shortly before the death of Spencer Tracy, ran in the November 1967 edition of Esquire magazine.[5] Israel's magazine-writing career continued into the 1970s. In the 1970s and 1980s, she published biographies of the actress Tallulah Bankhead, the journalist and game-show panelist Dorothy Kilgallen, and the cosmetics tycoon Estée Lauder. The Kilgallen book was well received, and appeared on The New York Times Best Seller List.[6]

In her 2008 memoir Can You Ever Forgive Me? Israel claimed that in 1983 she had received an advance from Macmillan Publishing to begin a project on Lauder, "about whom Macmillan wanted an unauthorized biography — warts and all. I accepted the offer though I didn't give a shit about her warts."[7]:16 Israel also claimed that Lauder repeatedly attempted to bribe her into dropping the project.[7]:17[8] In the book, Israel discredited Lauder's public statements that she was born into European aristocracy and attended church regularly in Palm Beach, Florida.[9] In 1985, Lauder wrote an autobiography that her publisher timed to coincide with Israel's book.[8][7]:17 Israel's book was panned by critics and a commercial failure.[7]:17 "I had made a mistake," Israel said of the episode. "Instead of taking a great deal of money from a woman rich as Oprah, I published a bad, unimportant book, rushed out in months to beat [Lauder's own memoir] to market."[7]:16 After this failure, Israel's career went into decline, compounded by alcoholism and a personality that some found difficult.[4][10]

Literary forgery

Israel is best remembered for her criminal enterprises.[4] By 1992, her career as a writer of books and magazine articles had ended. She had tried and failed to support herself with wage labor.[7]:21 To make money, she began forging a number of letters (estimated to total more than 400) by deceased writers and actors. Later, she began stealing actual letters and autographed papers of famous persons from libraries and archives, replacing them with forged copies she had made. She sold both forged works and stolen originals. This continued for over a year before two undercover FBI agents questioned Israel on a Manhattan sidewalk.

It is unclear how her forgeries were detected, but in her memoir she indicates that her ability to sell letters ended universally and abruptly. She mentioned that a Noël Coward expert insisted that Coward would not have referenced his homosexual activities so enthusiastically in letters at a time when such behavior would be punished with a prison sentence. Other suggestions are that the sheer abundance of letters being sold by her aroused suspicion, and that she had been caught using paper with anachronistic watermarks, or that she was using very ordinary (aged) paper for celebrities expected to have had the finest stationery, and so forth. Her memoir makes clear that her name, associated with celebrity letters, suddenly became toxic. At the same time she criticizes the guild of autograph brokers: although they never required her to recite her prepared lies about how a letter came into her hands, their own code of conduct required all of them to be able to attest unquestioningly to a detailed account of the provenance of each document.[7]

In her memoir, in which she cites FBI documents from her case file, Israel says the agents left without arresting her or telling her what was going to happen next.[7][4] She immediately returned to her apartment and started to destroy all evidence of her crimes, discarding in public trash cans more than a dozen typewriters she had used to emulate the look of the famous writers' letters.[7] By the time she was served with a federal warrant ordering her to save this evidence, it had already been destroyed.[7] Israel also claims she was never arrested or handcuffed, instead receiving summonses for federal court dates.[7] In June 1993, Israel pleaded guilty to conspiracy to transport stolen property, for which she served six months under house arrest and five years of federal probation.[4] Additionally, she was barred by almost all libraries and archives, ending any opportunity to resume her honest career as a biographer. She eventually supported herself copy editing for Scholastic magazines.[7][4] Even after her exposure and sentencing, some of her forgeries were still being sold by reputable dealers as authentic—and at many times the price she had been paid for them. Some were even quoted in published books as if they were real.[7] Israel later expressed pride in her criminal accomplishments, especially the forgeries.[10][4][11]

Memoir controversy

Some reviewers of Israel's memoir questioned Simon & Schuster's decision to publish it, because she would profit from the sales.[12] One reviewer wrote, "What this is is a hilarious memoir of a self-described miscreant and her pursuit of a meal ticket. Ironically, in a joke the reader will share, by purchasing her book we all participate in buying her that meal."[13] Upon the publication of the memoir, Naomi Hample, a New York City bookstore owner who had purchased some of Israel's forged letters in 1992, was quoted by The New York Times as saying, "I'm certainly not angry anymore, though it was an expensive and very large learning experience for me. And she's really an excellent writer. She made the letters terrific."[14]

Death

Lee Israel died in New York City on December 24, 2014 from myeloma, a cancer of plasma cells. According to a New York Times obituary, she had lived alone and had no children.[4] Regarding her family, she wrote in her memoir, "I had a brother with whom I had never had much in common."[7]:111

Biopic

In April 2015, it was announced that a film version of Can You Ever Forgive Me?, starring Julianne Moore and directed by Nicole Holofcener, would be produced.[15] In July 2015, Moore dropped out of the project.[16] In May 2016, Melissa McCarthy was confirmed to be playing Israel, while Marielle Heller would direct the film.[17] Filming of Can You Ever Forgive Me? took place in New York City in early 2017.[18]

The film held its world premiere at the Telluride Film Festival on September 1, 2018,[19] and was theatrically released in the United States on October 19, 2018.[20] For her portrayal of Lee Israel, McCarthy was nominated for an Academy Award for Best Actress.

Bibliography

  • Miss Tallulah Bankhead (1972)
  • Kilgallen (1980)
  • Estee Lauder: Beyond the Magic (An Unauthorized Biography) (1985)
  • Can You Ever Forgive Me?: Memoirs of a Literary Forger (2008)

References

  1. Stevens, Dana. "Can You Ever Forgive Me? Reveals a New Side of Melissa McCarthy". Slate. The Slate Grou. Archived from the original on October 18, 2018. Retrieved October 18, 2018.
  2. "Can You Ever Forgive Me? vs the True Story of Lee Israel's Letters". HistoryvsHollywood.com. Retrieved 2019-02-14.
  3. "Family Census records". FamilySearch.org. Retrieved May 19, 2015.
  4. 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 Fox, Margalit (January 7, 2015). "Lee Israel, a Writer Proudest of Her Literary Forgeries, Dies at 75". The New York Times. p. B10. Retrieved January 8, 2015.
  5. "Last of the Honest-to-God Ladies", Esquire, November 1967, retrieved October 19, 2018
  6. "Best Sellers: February 3, 1980" (PDF). New York Times. February 3, 1980. Retrieved December 4, 2018.
  7. 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10 11 12 13 14 Israel, Lee. Can You Ever Forgive Me?: Memoirs of a Literary Forger. Simon & Schuster. ISBN 1-4165-8867-1.
  8. 1 2 Yamamoto, C. (November 19, 1985). "Inside Info: The Story of Estee Lauder". Lodi News-Sentinel. p. 14. Retrieved August 29, 2016.
  9. "Empress with a finger in every pot of cream". The Glasgow Herald. re-published at Google News. April 8, 1986. p. 10. Retrieved August 29, 2016.
  10. 1 2 Champagne, Jennifer (January 8, 2015). "Lee Israel 1939-2014". Paste. Retrieved January 8, 2015.
  11. "Instances of literary forgery". Encyclopædia Britannica. Retrieved January 8, 2015.
  12. "Reviewers and commentators". NitrateVille. Retrieved August 29, 2016.
  13. Bamberger, Barbara (2010). "Review: Can You Ever Forgive Me?: Memoirs of a Literary Forger by Lee Israel". BookReporter.com. Retrieved August 29, 2016.
  14. Bosman, Julie (July 24, 2008). "She Says It's True, Her Memoir of Forging". The New York Times. Retrieved January 30, 2015.
  15. Child, Ben (April 10, 2015). "Steal Alice: Julianne Moore to play celebrity letter forger". The Guardian. Retrieved April 11, 2015.
  16. McNary, Dave (July 15, 2015). "Julianne Moore Leaves 'Can You Ever Forgive Me?'". Variety. Retrieved September 14, 2015.
  17. McNary, Dave. "Melissa McCarthy to Play Novelist and Literary Forger Lee Israel". Variety. Retrieved August 29, 2016.
  18. "Can You Ever Forgive Me?" (PDF). Directors Guild of America. Retrieved March 2, 2017.
  19. Kohn, Eric (September 1, 2018). "Can You Ever Forgive Me?' Review: Melissa McCarthy Gives Her Best Performance as a Forger Who Dreams of Fame — Telluride". IndieWire. Retrieved 3 November 2018.
  20. Merin, Jennifer (October 14, 2018). "Movie of the Week October 19, 2018: Can You Ever Forgive Me". Alliance of Women Film Journalists. Retrieved 3 November 2018.

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