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How many of us dream of reinventing ourselves? Writer Lee Israel did just that when she turned to a life of crime as a literary forger. Her intriguing story, which she recounts in Can You Ever Forgive Me? (Simon & Schuster, 2008), was made into an Oscar-nominated film last year.
A bestselling biographer whose subjects include Tallulah Bankhead and Estée Lauder, Israel, by the early 1990s, was broke, usually drunk, and desperate to continue her literary life on the Upper West Side of Manhattan. Using her extensive research skills, she wrote letters in the voices of Louise Brooks, Noel Coward, Dorothy Parker, and other literary greats. She then sold the forgeries to collectors and autograph dealers.
Eventually, Israel began copying and stealing original letters from libraries and rare book rooms. She enlisted the sales assistance of an old friend, which was the beginning of the end of her literary capers.
Throughout the book, Israel never shirks responsibility for what she has done. She does share her remorse for the materials stolen from libraries and admits that “messing with those citadels was unequivocally and big-time wrong.” However, she also admits that the forged letters “were larky and fun and totally cool” and ultimately her best work.