My old friend Clifford Irving was a literary con man. He wrote a phony Howard Hughes autobiography … and almost got away with it.
Lee Israel was a literary con scammer also. She had been a successful biographer, penning books about celebs ranging from Katherine Hepburn to Tallulah Bankhead to Estée Lauder. But as her writing career dried up, she decided to support herself by forging letters by literary figures.
Israel had reached a low period in her life. Her career was failing, she faced financial troubles, and she battled alcoholism. So she sold a letter she’d received from Katherine Hepburn to a bookstore. Then a few other such letters followed (some stolen), but they didn’t bring much money because of their blah content. So she began to write her own letters – forgeries – that were spicier and sold much better.
She fell under suspicion when she sold a letter by Noel Coward was identified as a forgery, getting her shunned by most of the 30-some dealers who were buying memorabilia from her. So she convinced her drug dealer pal Jack to act as front man, selling phony letters for her. A 50/50 plus expenses deal.
The relationship, its ups and downs, are at the core of this story.
There’s now a movie based on Lee Israel’s 2008 memoir about her career as a literary trickster. “Can You Ever Forgive Me?” is currently playing at Tropic Cinema.
Rotund comedienne Melissa McCarthy (“Bridesmaids”) takes a dramatic turn as Lee Israel. Lanky British actor Richard E. Grant (TV’s “The Scarlet Pimpernel”) joins her as Jack.
As a result of their edgy performances, McCarthy and Grant have earned nominations as Best Actress and Best Supporting Actor nominations at the 91st Academy Awards, 76th Golden Globe Awards and 72nd British Academy Awards, to name a few.
The supporting cast includes McCarthy’s husband, Ben Falcone; along with SNL alum Jane Curtin; comedian Marc Evan Jackson; comedian Kevin Carolan; and Dolly Wells, daughter of the late British comic John Wells. An interesting collection of funny folks for such a serious subject. But the casting works.
Lee Israel committed felonies with her forgeries. And for these crimes she received house arrest and probation.
Even so, Melissa McCarthy defends her erasable character: “I’d let Lee walk in a minute. In terms of all the terrible, hurtful things you can do in the world, I don’t think this even gets put on the list. I do realize it was wrong, but I still think, god, those letters were good. I’m a little biased because I kind of fell in love with Lee along the way.”
People love rascally con men like Clifford Irving, art forger Elmyr de Hory (who sold fake Matisses and Modiglianis), or even Paul Newman and Robert Redford in “The Sting.”
Melissa McCarthy continues her character’s defense. “I wouldn’t have even put her on house arrest. But maybe it’s good that they did, because she probably wrote more because of it.”
Israel wrote an estimated 400 hinky letters during a two-year period.
Unable to find other work, she eventually supported herself by working as a copy editor for Scholastic magazines (the company where I had once been a group publisher).
Lee Israel remained unrepentant for her counterfeit documents. “The forged letters were larky and fun and totally cool,” Israel wrote in her memoir. “I still consider the letters to be my best work.”
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