Sunday, December 7, 2008

Book review: Can You Ever Forgive Me?

In a word: no. In this witty, well-crafted, and appalling memoir, Lee Israel traces her journey from author of carefully researched biographies of Tallulah Bankhead and Dorothy Killgallen to manuscript thief and forger. Any archivist concerned about security (i.e., every archivist) should read this book.

Israel’s life and career hit the skids after the publication of her third book, a hastily produced and quickly remaindered biography of Estee Lauder. Editors and agents who once sang her praises stopped taking her calls, and her prickly personality, heavy drinking, and increasingly erratic behavior rendered her virtually unemployable. She went on and off welfare, supplementing her income by selling off bits and pieces of her book collection and freelancing whenever she could. She was “not in the flower of mental health.”

Israel’s first theft was an impulsive act. She was doing research for a magazine article at the New York Public Library for the Performing Arts at Lincoln Center, and staff let her examine archival materials in the unsecured general reading room because they thought the papers lacked cash value. However, the collection contained three ordinary letters from comedienne Fanny Brice. Down to her last few dollars and desperate to obtain veterinary care for a stray cat she had taken in, Israel realized that the letters might have cash value. She nervously placed them inside a small notebook that she had with her, then took the notebook to the restroom and placed the letters in her shoe.

After she cleared security, a wave of “exultation and relief” washed over her:
I felt no guilt about the letters. They were from the realm of the dead. Doris [the cat] and I were alive and well and living on the West Side.
The dealer who bought the Brice letters for $40.00 apiece off-handedly mentioned that letters with “good content” would have fetched a higher price. Israel found and stole more routine Brice letters, purchased an ancient, battered manual typewriter, and added colorful postscripts to all of them. They commanded tidy sums.

All the while, Israel continued doing legitimate research at the repository. Her discovery of a collection of typescript letters written by Louise Brooks, who relished exposing the hypocrisies and false pieties of Hollywood, led to the next stage of Israel’s criminal career: forgery. She closely studied the letters, surreptitiously traced Brooks’ signature, and stole blank sheets of aged paper she found in other archival collections, then used her own typewriter to produce forged letters that deftly emulated Brooks’ literate, lacerating prose style. Dealers eagerly snapped them up.

Additional purchases of old typewriters and thefts of old blank paper and letterhead stationery ensued, and autograph dealers were thrilled by the many Edna Ferber, Dorothy Parker, and Noel Coward letters that Israel produced and proffered. Counterfeit letters from Humphrey Bogart, George S. Kaufman, Clara Blandick (Auntie Em in The Wizard of Oz), Tennessee Williams, Bette Davis, and Lillian Hellman also made their way to market.

Archivists should note that all of the luminaries whose letters Israel forged had several things in common: all of them were the subjects of published works that could be mined for biographic details, had distinctive and readily recognizable signatures and styles of writing, and frequently used typewriters to conduct their correspondence. Moreover, Israel seems to have personally identified with many of the women whose letters she forged; as she herself points out, Brooks, Parker, Ferber, and Hellman were all noteworthy writers and bitter, miserable drunks.

Brooks was the only person whose forged letters were based on extensive archival research. When producing her other fakes, Israel relied chiefly on biographies and other published sources – a strategy that ultimately tripped her up. She based the tone and content or her Noel Coward letters upon Coward’s diaries, which were published posthumously. However, Coward, who was relatively open about his homosexuality in his diaries, was cautious and guarded in his correspondence. A West Coast dealer began asking questions, and a New York City dealer informed Israel that a grand jury had been convened and offered not to testify in exchange for $5,000.

Desperate to pay off her blackmailer and too afraid to fob off any more counterfeit letters, Israel began forging letters that she found in archives, swapping the copies for the originals, and stealing and selling the originals. Afraid of showing her face to the dealers, she arranged to have a friend -- an ethically challenged and terminally ill charmer -- handle the sales.

Armed with a forged book contract -- for a work focusing on writers and alcoholism -- Israel embarked upon “a crook’s tour of major research libraries.” She paid visits to Columbia, the New York Public Library's Berg Collection and Library for the Performing Arts, Yale, Penn State, Syracuse, Cornell, Harvard, Princeton, and the University of Georgia. Her modus operandi bears careful study:
I would call up a box of letters, choose two or three [typescripts] to my liking and copy them for word for word, comma for comma, noting spacing, indentation, type, and paper size; then, carefully -- and this was when my heart thumped like a bass fiddle in back of Barbara Cook -- I traced the signature . . . .

After I had done the initial copying I repaired to my apartment, or to my hotel if I was out of town, and replicated the letter . . . . I would return to the library the next day, request the same box, make the switch, and watch nervously as the librarian on duty counted and took -- I was always happy to note -- only a perfunctory look at the contents. I left the building after making a trip to the ladies’ room, where I put the valuable pelf in my shoe.
On one occasion, a Princeton archivist almost caught her with stolen letters on her person; however, Israel quickly devised a ruse that enabled her to return to the reading room, replace the stolen originals, and hide the copies she had created in an obscure book shelved in the furthest reaches of the room. None of the other repositories she visited ever questioned her actions or closely looked at her notes.

The noose was nonetheless tightening. On 27 July 1992, two FBI agents accosted Israel on the street. A suspicious dealer had contacted the FBI, and the friend who sold the letters for her instantly confessed. She was merely questioned on that afternoon; afterward, she went home and destroyed all the evidence she could. However, it was extremely easy to assemble a criminal case against her: at every repository she had visited, she had given her real name and address and presented legitimate photo identification.

Israel cooperated with the authorities and pled guilty to the thefts:
I drew the Get Out of Jail Free card. Judge [Robert W.] Sweet told me that he never wanted to see me again “in this context” (not a total rejection). I was sentenced to five years on probation, six months' house arrest . . . . I wasn’t to leave the state or consort with felons; I was to pay restitution within my means. I was directed to attend AA meetings, which I never did . . . .
Shortly after her house arrest ended, Israel managed to put her life back together and found freelance work copy editing children's magazines published by Scholastic, “the Spring Byington of the publishing world.” The work was dull, but she did it well and she was soon offered a staff position with benefits; starting as a freelancer allowed her to evade disclosure of her felonious past. She still works as a staff copy editor for Scholastic and still lives in the studio apartment in which she produced so many of her forgeries.

And how does she regard her past misdeeds? She seems to regret her thievery:
I had spent a good deal of my professional life hunting and gathering in annals and archives, and messing with those citadels was unequivocally and big-time wrong . . . .

I suffered and I paid by being barred from the libraries that I had plundered. An all-points bulletin was issued by Ex Libris, an archivists’ group, alerting all to my misdeeds, and it remains looming in cyberspace to this day . . . .

My guilt over the original thefts is mitigated somewhat by the gathering in of the epistolary diaspora. I cooperated with the FBI, and the real letters of the drunken American writers were so far as I know all recovered and returned safely to their archival homes.
However, she has little guilt about the letters that she herself created:
The forged letters were larky and fun and totally cool. Parodies of icons -- Coward, Ferber, Mrs. Parker, Louise, Lillian Hellman, and poor Clara Blandick. They totaled approximately 100,000 words, give or take. A quantitation falling somewhere between Madame Bovary and Madame X -- not bad for less than two years’ work. I still consider the letters to be my best work. Reminiscent of Dustin Hoffman's summing up in Tootsie, I was a better writer as a forger than I had ever been as a writer. Any remorse I experience about this phase of my life in crime has nothing to do with the money various dealers might have lost; I think most of dealers came out ahead. The remorse here is personal. I betrayed some people whom I had grown to like. With whom I’d made jokes and broke bread. And in doing so I joined, to my dismay, the great global souk, a marketplace of bad company and bad faith.
Lee Israel really is a gifted writer -- some of her Coward fakes made it into a carefully edited documentary edition of Coward’s correspondence -- and she enjoyed doing legitimate archival research. Being denied access to the source material for her books and articles must be a genuine punishment. However, given that her regret over having been caught at times seems to outweigh her regret over having tampered with the historical record, it is gratifying to learn that her one post-conviction attempt to visit a repository -- the unsecured floor that houses the circulating collections of the New York Public Library for the Performing Arts -- ended when she was spotted, searched, and escorted out of the building.

Can You Ever Forgive Me? provides fascinating insight into the mindset, motivation, and methods of one archival forger and thief. Every archivist and manuscript curator should spend a few hours poring over it . . . and then remain on the lookout for its author and others of her ilk.

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