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Apr 12, 2018

Lee Israel
B. 1939

Literary Theft

First she stole their words. Then she made them up.

By Michael Paterniti

Here’s a dirty secret: Writers are an unruly tribe of thieves, frauds and ventriloquists, desperately lifting what they can from real life, other writers, liquor stores — it doesn’t matter — and putting it to sometimes dubious use in the name of art and authenticity. If that sounds outrageous, or ungenerous, remember T.S. Eliot’s boiled-down dictum: Good writers borrow, great writers steal. Or that the best-selling novel of all-time, Dickens’s ‘‘A Tale of Two Cities,’’ was most likely ripped off from, among other sources, ‘‘The Dead Heart,’’ a play by a writer we most certainly don’t remember, Watts Phillips.

This literary shoplifting — the appropriation/borrowing/outright larceny of material and lyric — happens in various manners, among all phyla of writer, in all genres. At its most ham-fisted, it’s outright plagiarism, while in the hands of the masters, the contraband becomes inflected, ingrained, inconspicuous. (It’s like Nirvana endeavoring to write a Pixies song and coming up with ‘‘Smells like Teen Spirit.’’) But in the case of Lee Israel — a successful celebrity magazine writer and biographer whose best years roughly spanned the two decades from 1970 to 1990 — the kleptomania went a click further, from ventriloquy to forgery, from aspiration to identity theft.

At the height of her career, Lee Israel was, as her lawyer Lloyd Epstein phrases it, ‘‘People magazine before People magazine.’’ As one of the premier celebrity journalists of her day, she profiled Katharine Hepburn for Esquire, as well as Paul Simon and Peter Fonda for The New York Times. She wrote biographies, including a best seller about Dorothy Kilgallen, a regular panelist on the game show ‘‘What’s My Line’’; other subjects included Estée Lauder and Tallulah Bankhead, the insouciant, polysexual theater and film star who once uttered, ‘‘I’m as pure as the driven slush.’’ Israel seemed to idolize strong, witty, acerbic women. But as she chronicled the glamorous and beautiful — those who went swanning from party to party and partner to partner in Hollywood, or clustered at the Algonquin Hotel to drink and gossip — she lived alone, writing with a cat on her lap in her Upper West Side apartment. She was a solitary method writer, living dozens of glittering lives in her mind while possessing a fairly dull one out of it.

And then, as these stories often go, things took their turn. The work dried up; the martini lunches evaporated; bouts of depression and full-blown alcoholism hindered both her professional and personal relationships. She went from ‘‘best-seller-dom to welfare,’’ as she wrote, working temp jobs she could barely hold. (In one case, after being fired by a very rich woman, she was shown to the door by ‘‘one of the Chinese domestics … doubtless to make sure that I did not pocket one of the pre-Columbian arrowheads — which I would have done in a Mayan minute.’’) She entered a messy phase of midlife squalor that she herself noticed only when flies appeared everywhere in the apartment, attracted by the cat excrement collecting under the bed. Drunk, she made crank calls as Nora Ephron or as Barbra Streisand’s secretary, just to see if she could get powerful editors and agents, the ones who would never accept a Lee Israel call now, on the line. (Eventually, Ephron’s lawyers asked her to cease and desist, which she did.)

Her greatest solace came at the library. Bereft of opportunity, energy and ideas, she read the letters of the writers she revered in hopes of finding some candle of inspiration. And inspiration indeed followed, but warped by need. First, in 1990, she stole three letters written by Fanny Brice, an actress and singer from the ’20s. She sold them for $40 a piece, to a dealer who told her exactly what gave such letters their value. (Personal details were gold; postscripts always pushed the price into bonus territory.)

Later, Israel would say that the idea to turn her theft into a creative act — to forge instead of steal — first occurred to her while reading the letters of F. Scott Fitzgerald. Yes, they were good, but really, Israel thought, they could be better. Just a little. In these casual, chatty word bursts, even the greatest writers seemed human, revealing the mundanities and cattiness of everyday life. Being broke, Israel also realized that such letters could cast a more money-worthy spell if she wrote them herself. People of a certain ilk — like the rich woman with the pre-Columbian arrowheads — loved such letters. It didn’t matter so much what they said, or if they were even real in the end, just so long as the illusion prevailed that they’d been touched by some famous hand.

When she found a cache of correspondence by Louise Brooks — the American actress and dancer who became the living incarnation of a flapper — she began by copying them at the library, then finding the appropriate stationery and typewriter to recopy them. Then she added new paragraphs and postscripts. (‘‘That terrible old fart, the Tyranny Addict Joe Kennedy, ruined Gloria Swanson,’’ read one.) Soon there were more copied letters by more famous people, and eventually fully imagined epistles constructed from her research. Over two years, the final sum of her subterfuge was about 400 ‘‘bogus billets,’’ as she had it, totaling nearly 100,000 words. She blurred into Dorothy Parker (‘‘I have a hangover out of Gounod’s Faust’’), witticized as Noël Coward about Marlene Dietrich (‘‘Marlene seems to think that she is the only higher primate to suffer the depredations of growing old’’), expounded as Edna Ferber (‘‘Poor, lovely, touching Jimmy Dean! His self-slaughter [and that’s exactly what it was] appalls me.’’). In others, she became Eugene O’Neill, Aldous Huxley, Lillian Hellman, Humphrey Bogart and Kurt Weill. She told dealers that a cousin had been a collector, but some of them were concerned less with pedigree than with profit. The letters were a hit!

Eventually she kept a hidden locker full of typewriters — Royals, Adlers, Remingtons, Olympias — tagging each model with the name of its putative owner. She forged signatures by holding her newly written masterpieces up against the copied letters on her ‘‘light box,’’ an old TV that broadcast static but produced enough glow to allow her to trace the handwriting. ‘‘My success as a forger,’’ Israel wrote, ‘‘was somehow in sync with my erstwhile success as a biographer: I had for decades practiced a kind of merged identity with my subjects.’’ Two of her missives made it into ‘‘The Letters of Noël Coward’’; another was so good it was valued at $2,500.

On July 27, 1992, Israel was approached by two F.B.I. agents after she finished a pastrami sandwich at a Midtown deli. They confronted her with what they knew (West Coast dealers had long come to suspect her forgeries, in part because her dear Noël Coward discussed his homosexuality, something in life he’d been loath to do). She parried with her Miranda rights, so they didn’t arrest her immediately. At home, she guzzled Scotch from the bottle, shredded research and stationery, rushed to her typewriter locker, where she removed the offending machines and, racing to and fro, deposited them, trash can by trash can, over a mile stretch of Amsterdam Avenue. That evening the agents returned, this time with a subpoena.

‘‘In the end, our defense was that there’d been a conspiracy of the willing,’’ Epstein says. ‘‘The dealers were in on it and made a lot of money from it, dealers who would have known. And there were buyers, people who had status — effete, precious snobs — who wanted to show off. No harm, no foul. On the other hand, I think she felt very guilty about the letters she actually took. She understood her own desperation, verging on mental illness at the time, and it was something she was not proud of.’’ Israel was sentenced to six months of house arrest, and five more months on probation, banned for life from the libraries she so loved. What pained her as well, she said, was that she’d joined ‘‘the great global souk, the marketplace of bad company and bad faith.’’

And yet — and here’s the oddest thing — her shame was accompanied by a kind of exhilaration. Pure, unbridled exhilaration. Joy, even. In the act of inhabiting her heroes, Israel had finally actualized herself as a writer. ‘‘I was a better writer as a forger,’’ she admitted. Her greatness came in the stealing, as T.S. Eliot would have it, and in the stealing she created a life full of intrigue and a legacy where there’d been none.

Soon the phone rang again. The agents and publishers who’d snubbed her were now asking her to lunch. Would she write a memoir about her felonious run?

Titled ‘‘Can You Ever Forgive Me?’’ the book — by turns witty and conspiratorial and full of her forgeries, replete with their forged signatures — is signed at the end, in cursive, Lee Israel’s own name by her own hand. The L loops gracefully. The I reaches higher than the other letters. It’s a beautiful signature, really. The nicest of the lot.

Sometimes you can't see yourself clearly until you see yourself through the eyes of others. Ellen DeGeneres

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