AbeBooks' Reading Copy

AbeBooks book blog

Advanced Search Browse Books Rare Books Textbooks
Advanced Search

Lee Israel: from author to forger

Melissa McCarthy plays Lee Israel

Have you heard of Lee Israel? She was a run-of-the-mill author of non-fiction books, who became an exceptional forger of literary letters by the rich and famous.

Israel’s career in crime is now being brought to the big screen with Melissa McCarthy starring as the American writer who forged letters from notable people such as Dorothy Parker, Noel Coward, Lillian Hellman and Louise Brooks.

The film, released on October 19, is called Can You Ever Forgive Me?, and co-stars Richard E. Grant. The movie marks a change of dramatic focus for McCarthy who is well known for her comedy roles. Can You Ever Forgive Me? is based on Israel’s 2008 memoir of the same name – a short, breezy book which describes Israel’s descent into the criminal world, resulting in more than 300 forged letters.

As an author, Israel – a wise-cracking and feisty New Yorker with a drink problem – wrote biographies of the actress Tallulah Bankhead and journalist Dorothy Kilgallen, which sold well. Her third book, an unauthorized biography of cosmetics mogul Estée Lauder, flopped as Lauder simultaneously released her own memoir. From there, things went downhill fast and she was soon in financial strife with rent to pay, a cat to feed and no money coming in.  Unsecured access to a collection of letters in a library opens the door for her.

Lee Israel’s memoir from 2008

Israel’s trick was to visit libraries, request to see letters from famous people stored in the archives, stealthily make a copy of the signature, study the style and content, and then do more biographical research before putting typewriter to paper. She acquired a storage locker full of old typewriters and old blank writing paper.

She then offered the forged letters to autograph dealers, who were convinced they were real and attracted by the cheap prices she was asking.  Israel’s scheme worked because she was a good researcher who understood her chosen celebrities and their private lives. She knew detail was everything and also learned that autograph dealers craved letters with interesting content, so Israel would insert gossip, comments about relationships and revealing little comments to add spice.

Two of Israel’s forgeries were even featured a book called The Letters of Noël Coward.  Without spoiling the movie, Israel is forced to turn to theft and that’s where things go pear-shaped for her, and the FBI comes calling.

The Can You Ever Forgive Me? book reveals Israel took great pride in her forgeries.

“They totaled approximately 100,000 words, give or take,” she wrote. “Not bad for less than two years work. I still consider the letters to be my best work. I was a better writer as a forger than I had ever been as a writer.”

Find copies of Can You Ever Forgive Me?

Richard Grant co-stars in Can You Ever Forgive Me?


The Art Forger by B.A. Shapiro

Fiction. Shapiro delivers a compelling tale of a forgery tied to the real unsolved Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum heist in Boston. The protagonist is a struggling painter called Claire Roth, who is convinced to create a replica of a Edgar Degas painting stolen in the 1990 robbery.

The Bookman’s Tale by Charlie Lovett

Fiction. A mysterious portrait ignites an antiquarian bookseller’s curiosity. This story starts in Hay-on-Wye in 1995 as Peter Byerly searches through a used bookshop. He picks up an 18th century study of Shakespeare forgeries and a picture falls out.

I Was Vermeer: The Rise and Fall of the Twentieth Century’s Greatest Forger by Frank Wynne

Non-fiction. This is a biography of arguably the most famous forger of all time, Han van Meegeren, a disillusioned Dutch painter, who created fake paintings by the master Johannes Vermeer. Nazi leader Hermann Göring was among his unwitting customers.

Provenance: How a Con Man and a Forger Rewrote the History of Modern Art by Laney Salisbury & Aly Sujo

Non-fiction. Journalists Salisbury and Sujo uncover the decade-long scam of con-man John Drewe and painter John Myatt, who copied famous artworks. Drewe’s trail was covered by falsified provenance records and fake documents planted in the Tate archives in London. Myatt’s work still hangs in many collections.

Catch Me If You Can: The True Story of a Real Fake by Frank W. Abagnale

Non-fiction. In his brief but notorious career, Abagnale donned a pilot’s uniform and co-piloted a jet, masqueraded as a member of hospital management, practiced law without a license, passed himself off as a college professor, and cashed over $2.5 million in forged checks before he was 21. Now recognized as a leading authority on financial foul play, Abagnale went from poacher to gamekeeper. Leonardo DiCaprio played Abagnale in a 2002 movie.

Caveat Emptor: The Secret Life of an American Art Forger by Ken Perenyi

A 2002  FBI investigation in conjunction with the U.S. Attorney’s Office in New York was about to expose a scandal in the art world that would have been front-page news in New York and London. After a trail of fake paintings of astonishing quality led federal agents to art dealers, renowned experts, and the major auction houses, the investigation inexplicably ended, despite an abundance of evidence. The case was closed and the FBI file was marked “exempt from public disclosure.”

Fake! The Story of Elmyr de Hory, the Greatest Art Forger of Our Time by Clifford Irving

Elmyr de Hory was a Hungarian-born painter and art forger, who is said to have flogged more than a thousand forgeries to top-drawer art galleries around the world. Orson Welles made a documentary film about him called F is for Fake in 1974. Picasso, Matisse, and Renoir were among the artists that Elmyr de Hory was able to copy. One Texas oil baron purchased more than 50 of his fake paintings.

Twitter Digg Delicious Stumbleupon Technorati Facebook Email

One Response to “Lee Israel: from author to forger”