No, I can't forgive you.
20 August 2008
I did not enjoy Lee Israel's Can You Ever Forgive Me? Memoirs of a Literary Forger. The story's simple. Israel, who was, for a time, a bestselling biographer of such titles as Estee Lauder: Beyond the Magic and Miss Tallulah Bankhead, recounts her freefall into authorial obscurity and poverty (particularly after sales of the Estee Lauder bio tanked). So what did she do to make her living? Why, she started forging letters from such luminaries as Dorothy Parker, Noel Coward, and film star Louise Brooks, of course. Isn't that what anyone would do?
Israel explains her methods, which included visiting letter and author archives, tracing signatures, and stealing old, blank pieces of paper from those collections to use as the authentic antique paper for her forgeries. Eventually she graduated to stealing letters and re-selling them, along with an accomplice, until she was caught by the FBI in 1992 and eventually sentenced to five years' probation. I'd like to explain the whole sordid affair better, but I'll admit I only skimmed the 127 pages of the narrative, as, in addition to sounding snarky, Israel managed to make her tale dull as well.
Wondering if she feels any remorse? Nah. Here she explains it:
"The forged letters were larky and fun and totally cool. Parodies of icons--Coward, Ferber, Mrs. Parker, Louise, Lillian Hellman, and poor Clara Blandick. They totaled approximately 100,000 words, give or take...I still consider the letters to be my best work. Reminiscent of Dustin Hoffman's summing up in Tootsie, I was a better writer as a forger than I had ever been as a writer. Any remorse I experience about this phase of my life in crime has nothing to do with the money various dealers might have lost; I think most of the dealers came out ahead. The remorse here is personal. I betrayed some people whom I had grown to like." (p. 127.)
Wow, how very heartfelt. Oh, and Ms. Israel, your forgeries of Dorothy Parker? I'm pretty sure anyone who read them was probably convinced by her forged signature, while they simultaneously thought, hmm, Mrs. Parker must have been having an off day. You, madam, ARE NO DOROTHY PARKER.
What a stupid book. Skip it.