Can We Ever Forgive Her? (Case Study Analysis)

Her name is strange. We can’t deny that. In fact, if said in one breath, her name amusingly and unintentionally sounds like “Lee Is Real.” Paradoxically though, critics of her work would argue that Lee Israel is a fake. Not necessarily due to her work as a celebrity biographer, from the mid 70s to mid 80s, but rather her work as a literary forger through the early 90s. What was a spur of the moment action to pay her sick cat’s veterinary visit, became the starting point to make use of her hidden talent — writing letters. Specifically, writing letters claiming to be written by other authors and selling them.

Israel breaks this down even further in her notable memoir “Can You Ever Forgive Me?” Published in 2008, she explains the birth and rise of her acts of forgery. During an NPR interview, Israel “says she needed $40 to get her cat’s tests back, so she ‘took a couple of Fanny Brice letters, slipped them in her [my] sneakers, and sold them to a place called Argosy on the east side of New York City.’ She got $40 a piece for the letters, and ‘for the first time in a long time, she [I] had some jingle in her [my] jeans,” (How A Successful Biographer Became A Forger).

However, it’s her unusual talent to write like other famous authors, her ability to go unnoticed and her skill to essentially, completely put herself into someone else’s perspective that entices critics and enthusiasts. And it’s what she did, that begs to analyze the ongoing argument. In a world yearning to create originality- what does Lee Israel’s evident forgery prove about literature?

Having written over 400 letters claiming to be written by distinguished authors, Lee Israel would sell these letters to rare book sellers for hundreds, sometimes thousands, of dollars. What’s more, is she had selected typewriters for the authors she did choose to impersonate. As time went on and business was high, she would purposefully use withered paper to try and make the letters look more authentic. And when some sellers caught onto her act and began blackmailing her, Israel began selling the original letters. She did this by stealing the original from the library, going home and forging the letter on her own, selling the original to rare book sellers and then placing her forged letter in place for the original at the library. This strategy will later work against her.

To call what Lee Israel committed wrong is understandable. Perhaps the outcome would be different if she hadn’t done it for monetary value. We would focus more on her unique, internal motive to write as someone else. But in reality — she initially did it for the money. Her motive continued to be prevalent even later in life when she garnered an audience of her own. In an interview, actress Melissa McCarthy, who played Israel in “Can You Ever Forgive Me?”, mentioned how Lee Israel would talk with the scriptwriter, eat dinner, order drinks and subtly part ways without any mention of her bill. It’s interesting how her ability to get away with things translated into her everyday life and not just in her writing. Nonetheless, she succeeded in writing as someone else where she failed to write as herself.

Still, to say Lee Israel wasn’t original is an area shaded with grey. This is a concept; Alfred Lessing dissects in “What Is Wrong With A Forgery?” In his writing, Lessing, a renowned philosopher, argues about the value of forgery and why society should look at the forger in a different light. Instead of scrutinizing the fake for its false deception, maybe we should consider admiring the artist for their creative spin on the original. To support his argument, Lessing utilizes one of the greatest art forgeries to date as an example, Han Van Meegeren [twentieth century] forging Dutch artist, Johannes Vermeer [seventeenth century]. In short, Meegeren, a once rising painter of some sorts, fooled critics and individuals from the upper end of the ladder when he claimed the works of Vermeer to be his own. With this in mind, Lessing points out that, “we all know that a few authentic pen and ink scratches by Picasso are far more valuable than a fine landscape by an unknown artist” (Lessing 90)

Similarly, Lee experienced this firsthand. After her memoir became popularized, it was adapted into a motion picture in 2018. In the movie, “Can You Ever Forgive Me?” starring Melissa McCarthy, there’s a scene where “successful” books fill the shelves in the front of a library. Alternately, her books hid under the lights, far from hinting at success, and on
sale…. 75% off to be exact (0:07–0:20). And so, I think Lessing would draw these two comparisons, Lee Israel and Han Van Meegeren, and suggest their “forgeries” be nothing less from the original work. In their professional careers, as a biographer and painter, both Israel and Meegeren succeeded at the inception of their work. Unfortunately, though, as history shows us, their success only lasted for so long.

For Meegeren, art enthusiasts looked for art that spoke to the future and Meegeren drew techniques from the past. For Israel, money and responsibilities blocked her opportunity to write for herself. Certainly, their differences couldn’t be any more evident but as Lessing would view it, in both cases Meegeren and Israel were the “unknown artists”. Whereas, Johannes Vermeer and Noel Coward (a playwright Israel most notably copied) could be seen as the “Picasso” of their respective fields, or put more simply, the original geniuses.

Lee Israel forged famous playwright, Noel Coward. Done with such diligence, a handful of the forged letters are incorporated in Noel Coward’s biography “The Letters of Noel Coward.”

This brings us to our analysis of Israel and her act of literary forgery. In the end she did plead guilty for her actions and was given six months of house arrest, five years of probation and forbidden from ever stepping into libraries. Ironically though, due to her forge letters going undetected for so long, it’s rumored her letters are still roaming around in libraries despite the sellers knowing of its false content. And this was a pattern from the past. Shown in the motion picture, “Can You Ever Forgive Me?”, the book sellers were very smitten and gushed over reading the forged letters. For example, in Dorothy Parker’s case, Israel wrote in the voice of Dorothy to act as if she was writing a letter about her intoxication, “To save me from this kind of exertion in the future, I’m thinking of having little letters runoff saying ‘Can You Ever Forgive me?’ Dorothy” (Mallon) with a fake signature signed at the bottom of the letter.

Israel would sometimes include these additional writing in efforts to sell “her” letters for a higher price. For instance, when she sold her first letter, Israel initially offered the original for a particular price. But when the seller insisted on a lower price due to its bland content, Lee took this as an opportunity to go home and write further “content” which in turn made the letter more intriguing to read, increasing its value. Israel described this ability in her memoir, writing “I had for decades practiced a kind of merged identity with my subjects; to say I ‘channeled’ is only a slight exaggeration” (Hughes).

Forgery charges aside, for the most part, Israel gave literature enthusiasts something to indulge in. Even after all the stealing and lying, the FBI detective on her case didn’t hesitate to call Lee Israel “brilliant” (Fox). Ultimately, the same person who tracked Israel down for forgery, also, shamelessly and willingly admitted to admiring Lee Israel’s “work.” Lessing explores this notion further, remarking, “and when they succeed in achieving this originality, we call their works great not only because they are beautiful but because they have also unlocked, both to artists and to appreciators, unknown and unexplored realms of beauty.” (Lessing 98)

Lee Israel did just that. Despite, pleading guilty, Israel’s work still managed to amuse both readers and literary experts, making her work independent of the authors, like Noel Coward and Dorothy Parker, and therefore achieving originality. Based on Lessing’s view on unknown artists and forgery, I think it is possible for an act of forgery to be viewed as morally wrong and yet seen as an original.

It is inevitable that forgery in it of itself is doomed to encounter legal action. However, governments stripped and all, when it comes to focusing on solely the literature itself, we are left with the bare bones of compelling letters. Although, she didn’t quite live up to her name, Lee Israel’s literary forgery, just as, arguably, Han Van Meegeren did, “unlocked, both to artists and to appreciators, unknown and unexplored realms of beauty.” The difference? One held a paint brush while the other pressed letters on a machine. The result? Creativity.

--

--

Get the Medium app

A button that says 'Download on the App Store', and if clicked it will lead you to the iOS App store
A button that says 'Get it on, Google Play', and if clicked it will lead you to the Google Play store