Lee Israel: 1939-2014

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Lee Israel died on Dec. 24 at the age of 75, reports The New York Times. The author was more well-known for forging letters of other famous authors than her own original works.

Israel experienced moderate success as a writer in the 1970s and 1980s, publishing biographies of Tallulah Bankhead, Dorothy Kilgallen and Estée Lauder. However, in the 1990s, Israel’s success dwindled from poor reviews and sales of Estée Lauder: Beyond the Magic (his own autobiography hit the shelves simultaneously), alcoholism and writer’s block. Additionally, Israel proved difficult to work with. Financial difficulties settled in, eventually leading to a life on welfare, and the author turned to literary forgeries as a quick fix to supplant her income.

Israel’s background in biographical research proved helpful in her quest. She searched secondhand stores around the city to find the typewriters used by the famous writers, tore antique paper away from old journals and studied archived letters for insight into her subjects’ correspondence style.

Israel would type the body, then forge their signature at the bottom to rid her of the challenge handwritten notes would pose. The letters would sell for $50-$100, a steal for dealers who were quick to snap them up with little question. However, when their authenticity began to be questioned, Israel started stealing actual letters from archives, replacing them with false duplicates she often created herself.

In 1992, Israel’s career as a forger ended after a buyer learned three letters he purchased were actually the property of Columbia University. The F.B.I. investigated and charged Israel with conspiracy to transmit stolen property. She pled guilty in 1993 but later went on to work in copy editing for Scholastic from 1997 to 2004.

Israel penned a 2008 memoir titled ’s Can You Ever Forgive Me? that looked back on her career as a forger. The memoir received mixed reviews.

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