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the take

Screw Our Principles — We’re Totally Reading Lee Israel’s Book

Photo: Andrew Henderson/The New York Times/Redux


We've not proud of everything we've read (or not read), but, as writers, we try at least to maintain some kind of principles about whose pages we grace with our eyeballs. We'll avoid a book either because we're repulsed by its author or because we don't want to support a writer who brought shame upon our profession. Which is why we'd expect to be totally turned off by Lee Israel, whose memoir Can You Ever Forgive Me? comes out next month. According to the Times, she's a "biographer and editor in New York who spent two years writing [letter] forgeries from her studio apartment on the Upper West Side and then selling them to autograph dealers," and in the memoir, she "confesses to a host of offenses, both criminal and literary, and recounts how she was eventually caught by a dealer who took his suspicions to the police."

We know we should take a moral stand against this author — after all, if liars are getting all the book deals, where does that leave honest folks? And yet our immediate reaction is not distaste, but fascination. The sixtysomething (or so she says!) author seems to feel little remorse — "They were fun, and nobody got hurt, and everybody made money," she tells the Times — and though we wouldn't rush out to buy a James Frey or Margaret Seltzer tell-all, there's something about Israel that has us intrigued. After stealing (and selling) three Fanny Brice letters from the New York Public Library for the Performing Arts at Lincoln Center, Israel began penning her own letters from literary luminaries like Lillian Hellman and Dorothy Parker, and a few even made into a book called The Letters of Noël Coward. (“Sitting down with his diaries for inspiration and a British dictionary by my side to help with my ‘humours’ and ‘cosys,’ I composed over time more than one hundred fifty letters that I attributed to Noël Coward,” Israel explains.) To make a long story short: She lied and got caught and we don't really want to reward this sort of behavior. But … well … we just might read this sucker.

Maybe it's that even booksellers have forgiven her (“I’m certainly not angry anymore … And she’s really an excellent writer. She made the letters terrific," says bookshop owner Naomi Hample). Or perhaps it's that we've always kind of liked reading the personal correspondence of famous people, and when the fake writing is done well, we're no less entertained. Or it could just be that we can totally relate to lines like this, found in a "Dorothy Parker" letter: "I have a hangover that is a real museum piece; I'm sure I must have said something terrible." But whatever the specific draw, we suspect her forthcoming memoir might be one of those works to file under "guilty pleasure" — and we'll likely read it before we ever get to Catch-22. (Yeah, that was us.)

Plus, just look at the woman. She could probably reduce Oprah to tears. —Lori Fradkin

She Says It’s True, Her Memoir of Forging [NYT]