Lee Israel has died. Who? She published a number of biographies, but that’s not what she’s best known for:
In the early 1990s, with her career at a standstill, she became a literary forger, composing and selling hundreds of letters that she said had been written by Edna Ferber, Dorothy Parker, Noël Coward, Lillian Hellman and others. That work, which ended with Ms. Israel’s guilty plea in federal court in 1993, was the subject of her fourth and last book, the memoir “Can You Ever Forgive Me?,” published by Simon & Schuster in 2008.
The techniques of her illicit craft sound quite interesting:
In a rented storage locker on Manhattan’s Upper West Side, the writer Lee Israel kept a cache of antique typewriters: Remingtons and Royals, Adlers and Olympias. Each was tenderly curated, hung with a tag whose carefully lettered names — Edna, Dorothy, Noël, Eugene O’Neill, Hellman, Bogart, Louise Brooks — hinted at the felonious intimacy for which the machines were used.
When dealers started to suspect her she switched tactics.
By dealing in typed letters, Ms. Israel was obliged to copy only the signatures. This she did by tracing over the originals, first covertly in libraries and later in her Upper West Side apartment, originals in hand. For over time, after whispers among dealers about the authenticity of her wares made composing new letters too risky, Ms. Israel had begun stealing actual letters from archives — including the New York Public Library and the libraries of Columbia, Yale, Harvard and Princeton Universities — and leaving duplicates in their place.
“She would go into these libraries and copy the letter in question, go back to her home and fake as best she could the stationery and fake the signature, and then she’d go back to the institution and make the switch,” David H. Lowenherz, a New York autograph dealer, said on Monday. “So she was actually not selling fakes: She was substituting the fakes and selling the originals.”
She was also a “feisty” alcoholic who couldn’t hold a day job.
Dead at 75.
(Hat tip: Elizabeth Hand’s Facebook page.)