Lee Israel, a Writer Proudest of Her Literary Forgeries, Dies at 75
By MARGALIT FOX
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.
Lee Israel, in 2008, wrote biographies of Tallulah Bankhead, Dorothy Kilgallen and Estée Lauder before turning to crime.CreditAndrew Henderson/The New York Times
Ms. Israel, who died in Manhattan on Dec. 24 at 75, was a reasonably successful author in the 1970s and ’80s, writing biographies of the actress Tallulah Bankhead, the journalist Dorothy Kilgallen and the cosmetics magnate Estée Lauder.
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 memoir drew mixed notices. But if nothing else, it remains a window onto its author’s hubris and nemesis, and onto the myriad discontents of the freelance writer’s life, a “New Grub Street” for the late 20th century.
As Ms. Israel told it, her forgeries were born less of avarice than of panic and began after a stretch of poor reviews and writer’s block, mixed with alcohol and improvidence. What was more, those who knew her said this week, she possessed a temperament that made conventional employment nearly impossible.
“She drank an awful lot — she was an alcoholic,” David Yarnell, a friend, said in an interview on Monday. “And she was very feisty, and people did not want to work with her.”
Ms. Israel’s criminal career married scholarship, fabrication, forgery and outright theft. Using the research skills she had honed as a writer, she scoured her subjects’ memoirs for salient biographical details; their published letters for epistolary style; and their original, archived letters for typing idiosyncrasies. She bought a flock of period typewriters from secondhand shops and, on furtive library visits, tore blank sheets of vintage paper from the backs of old journals.
She managed to fly under the radar by charging little, selling her creations to autograph dealers around the country for about $50 to $100 each. She made it up in volume, she said in her memoir, generating some 400 letters over about a year and a half.
Ms. Israel was, by all accounts, a remarkable literary mimic. “She was brilliant,” Carl Burrell, a retired F.B.I. agent who was the lead investigator on her case, said on Tuesday.
He recalled one letter with particular fondness. “My favorite was Hemingway,” Agent Burrell said. “He was complaining about Spencer Tracy being cast as the main character in ‘The Old Man and the Sea.' ”
Two of Ms. Israel’s gossipy Coward impersonations — one of which describes Julie Andrews as “quite attractive since she dealt with her monstrous English overbite” — found their way into “The Letters of Noël Coward,” published by Alfred A. Knopf in 2007.
Of her body of forgeries, Ms. Israel wrote in her memoir, “I still consider the letters to be my best work.”
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.”
Leonore (some sources spell it Lenore) Carol Israel was born in New York City on Dec. 3, 1939. After attending Midwood High School in Brooklyn, she earned a bachelor’s degree in speech from Brooklyn College in 1961. In the 1960s and ’70s she was a freelance writer, contributing articles on film, theater and television to The New York Times, Soap Opera Digest and other publications.
Ms. Israel’s first book, “Miss Tallulah Bankhead,” was published in 1972; her second, “Kilgallen,” spent one week, at No. 15, on the Times best-seller list in 1980. Her third, “Estée Lauder: Beyond the Magic” (1985), was largely eclipsed by Ms. Lauder’s own memoir, published pre-emptively at the same time.
Reviewing Ms. Israel’s biography in The Times Book Review in 1985, Marylin Bender faulted its “incoherent style,” adding that the book “comes off as a cut-rate job.”
Until then, Ms. Israel wrote in her memoir, “I had never known anything but ‘up’ in my career.” But even afterward, when she went on welfare, a 9-to-5 job was beyond contemplation.
“I regarded with pity and disdain the short-sleeved wage slaves who worked in offices,” she wrote. “I had no reason to believe life would get anything but better.”
When life did not, Ms. Israel, visiting the New York Public Library for the Performing Arts, slipped three letters by Fanny Brice into her shoe, and by 1991 her new calling was underway.
It ended the next year, after Mr. Lowenherz learned that an original letter he had purchased from Ms. Israel — from Ernest Hemingway to Norman Cousins — was actually owned by Columbia. He met with the university librarian.
“He had a forgery,” Mr. Lowenherz said on Monday. “I said, ‘Is there any way you can tell who had recent access to this letter?’ He came back and said: ‘We have this card. It’s signed by Lee Israel.' ”
Mr. Lowenherz alerted the F.B.I., and in June 1993 Ms. Israel pleaded guilty to one count of conspiracy to transport stolen property in interstate commerce. She was sentenced to six months’ house arrest and five years’ probation.
The court also directed her to attend an alcohol-treatment program, “which,” Ms. Israel wrote breezily in her memoir, “I never did.”
The letters she stole have been returned to their archives. It is likely, however, that at least some of Ms. Israel’s outright forgeries remain in circulation, Agent Burrell said.
Ms. Israel, whose death, from complications of myeloma, was confirmed by Mr. Yarnell, lived alone and had no children. Information on other survivors could not be confirmed.
In recent years, she earned her living as a copy editor for Scholastic magazines, commuting daily to the company’s office in Lower Manhattan.
Correction: January 9, 2015
An obituary on Thursday about the author Lee Israel misspelled the given name of the writer who reviewed Ms. Israel’s book “Estée Lauder: Beyond the Magic” for The New York Times Book Review. She is Marylin Bender, not Marilyn. (The Times has misspelled Ms. Bender’s given name numerous times over the years, including in her byline.)