I wouldn’t know anything about Lee Israel’s curious life of crime, nor her book about it, had it not been for the movie trailers I’ve seen for the film of the same name, starring comic actor Melissa McCarthy in what has been touted as her first serious role. I haven’t seen the film yet, but I just gobbled up Israel’s book, Can you ever Forgive Me: Memoirs of a Literary Forger.
In a recent blog post about Levon Helm’s memoir, This Wheel’s on Fire, I noted I rarely read autobiographies or biographies. On considering this, I realize this year that is not at all true – this year I’ve actually read 4 of them – this one, Tommy James’ book, Me the Mob and the Music, The Mayor of MacDougal Street, about Dave Van Ronk, and Levon Helm’s book – more of this kind of book than I’ve read in the past 3 or 4 decades.
I enjoyed this book. First of all, it’s beautifully brief. Lee Israel chose not to bore us with chapters about her childhood, her parents and on and on. Instead, she cuts right to the chase. She was a successful author (a biographer) from the get go and when the bottom fell out, she found herself broke and ill-adapted for the work-a-day world. Through it all she liked her booze. As well, she alludes many times in the book to her precarious mental state.
The book focuses on Lee Israel’s literary crime spree. Her first idea was to create letters by famous people like Dorothy Parker and Edna Ferber and Noel Coward and sell them. She went as far as to have stationery printed up, and even built up a collection of old typewriters she used to create the letters. She did her research and put herself into the minds of her subjects, creating fictitious letters based on real, detailed biographical information. Later she escalated her crimes by making reproductions of existing letters, and switching up the forgeries with the real ones, then selling the real ones.
Lee Israel did not express much remorse about her criminal activities. She writes that she considers her forgeries to be her best work. I think she delighted in penning the fake letters. The second part of her crime spree I think was driven by desperation. She writes, “The remorse here is personal. I betrayed some people whom I had grown to like. With whom I’d made jokes and broke bread. And in doing so I joined, to my dismay, the great global souk, a marketplace of bad company and bad faith.”
The dealers in autographs and memorabilia don’t come out of this book very well. Here’s Lee Israel’s comment about the dealer who first called the FBI. “I wasn’t surprised; he was one of the few in his field who I suspected knew that provenance was not the capital of Rhode Island.”
Can you ever Forgive me is a highly readable real-life tragicomedy. 27th Street recommended.