This is not the story of the perfect crime. The perfect criminal doesn't get caught, but Lee Israel got caught inky-handed. This is not the story of vindicated rights, either, because a lot of the people wronged were complicit in Israel's crimes. What this is is a hilarious memoir of a self-described miscreant and her pursuit of a meal ticket. Ironically, in a joke the reader will share, by purchasing her book we all participate in buying her that meal.
Lee Israel was a smart woman who wrote a good book about Tallulah Bankhead back in the good old days of her writer's life when "I had had no experience failing." She acquired a modest apartment in New York City, and followed her success with Bankhead by researching a slightly less shiny bio of Dorothy Kilgallen. Then followed a long wait during which she was courted and ultimately rejected for a book about Bette Davis; advances she had already spent had to be returned. Fortuitously, she was tapped by Macmillan to create an unauthorized biography of the mysterious Este Lauder, "the colossus of fragrance and cosmetics." There followed some dicey dealings, including Israel's refusal to accept a substantial sum under the counter from Lauder not to write the book. Honorably, she took Macmillan's offer. The much-anticipated bio sold in the hundreds, and Israel "plummeted from best-seller-dom to welfare."
With self-deprecating wit, Israel describes her slow slide into a miasma of alcohol abuse and kitty poo accumulation in her dark fly-ridden flat. After selling all of her books and being told by her landlord that the exterminator refused to even enter her apartment, Israel chanced on a way out. She began forging letters. She did what writers are supposed to do, sticking with what she knew best. She concentrated on the missives of deceased famous writers and Hollywood figures with whom she'd rubbed shoulders, people whose style she knew. She would purloin real letters from the library long enough to get a good signature and had to avoid people whose John Hancock was as complicated as, well, John Hancock's. The forgeries were typed on several different machines using a variety of authentic, sometimes stolen paper. Edna Ferber, Louise Brooks, Dorothy Parker and Noel Coward were among her most heavily mined sources. Using her writer's skills, she made up short, bright, chatty letters from these famous folks. It was her version of Dorothy Parker who admits to a friend that she "must have said something terrible" when she was drunk and pleads, "Can you ever forgive me?"
Dealers in such property were glad to see Israel come through the door. Some of them, she believes, were on to her scam, but they were making big bucks and paying her chicken (or cat) feed. So the game went on until Israel hooked up with an old friend, Jack, a man as sly as she but with bigger ideas and a more abbreviated moral code. Jack became her go-between, and at his urging she increased her output and began to steal and forge some high quality historical epistles. Her modus operandi, as later described by the FBI, was to weasel her way in to academic libraries and replace original documents with "high quality forgeries." The fall, when it came, had the stamp of inevitability all over it, but was no less humiliating for its predictability. Serving jail time was never on the table, but Israel was under house arrest and on probation for a suitably chastening few years.
During the denouement of her criminal career, she saw a Dorothy Parker forgery for which she had been paid $85, on sale in a dealer's catalog for $2,500. Using the same stationery as the offending item, she wrote the dealer a scathing letter from the dead Dorothy chiding him for cheating "poor wayward Lee Israel."
Israel says that she enjoyed writing her celebrity letters and thought that phase of her downward spiral into crime was "larky and fun and totally cool." Readers may agree. Israel's sarcasm, often self-directed, gives this brief bio a rich flavor, and while we may not wholly empathize with her problem-solving strategy, we can't help but admire her chutzpah.
Reviewed by Barbara Bamberger Scott on December 26, 2010