Israel, Lee


1990 TLS of the 1980s-90s literary forger offering to sell 5 Louise Brooks letters that she created


Condition: Very good
Description: (1939-2014) Author and literary forger. Her 2008 confessional autobiography Can You Ever Forgive Me? was adapted into a 2018 film starring Melissa McCarthy (nominated for an Academy Award) as Israel.

Brooklyn-born Israel was a freelance writer in the 1960s, her profile of Katharine Hepburn ran in Esquire Magazine’s Nov. 1967 edition. Her magazine-writing career continued into the 1970s-80s. She published biographies of Tallulah Bankhead, journalist-game show panelist Dorothy Kilgallen, and cosmetics tycoon Estee Lauder. Israel’s book on Lauder was panned by critics and a commercial failure. Her career went into decline, compounded by alcoholism and a difficult personality.

By 1992, her career as a writer of books and magazine articles had ended. She tried and failed to support herself and eventually began forging a number of letters (estimated at 400+) by deceased writers and actors. Later, she stole actual letters and autographed papers of famous persons from libraries and archives, replacing them with forged copies she made. She and an accomplice, Jack Hock, sold forged works and stolen originals for over a year until undercover FBI agents questioned her.

The sheer abundance of letters sold by her aroused suspicion among autograph professionals; her memoir makes clear that her name suddenly became toxic among autograph collectors and dealers no matter exactly how they caught on. Her criminal prosecution was set in motion over forgeries she was slipping into library and museum files to replace genuine letters she was stealing. The forgeries she sold before had not involved interstate commerce or great sums of money, and so were overlooked by the FBI and other law enforcement.

When autograph dealer David Lowenherz learned that a Hemingway letter he had purchased from Israel’s accomplice, Jack Hock, was supposed to be in Columbia University archives, it was then discovered that Columbia’s letter had been replaced by a forgery and Israel had signed the register for having examined that folder. An FBI investigation showed that Israel had stolen authentic letters, replacing them with forged copies, from several institutional collections. She had begun to destroy evidence of her crimes, discarding a dozen+ typewriters she used to emulate the look of the famous writers’ letters. By the time she was served with a warrant ordering her to save this evidence, it had already been destroyed.

Israel and Hock were arrested by the FBI. In June 1993, she pleaded guilty in federal court to conspiracy to transport stolen property, for which she served 6 months under house arrest and 5 years of federal probation. She was also barred by almost all libraries and archives, ending any opportunity to resume her career as a biographer, eventually working as a copy editor for Scholastic

TLS on her 11 x 8 1/2 (typed) letterhead, NYC,  October 4 1990, offering to sell 5 Louise Brooks letters to a dealer (me) @ $75, noting their condition including her comment “…being very poor, [she] wrote on the reverse sides of paper that had some writing on it” and that she signed the letters “…each characteristically in colored pencil or crayon.” She adds in a typed postscript that “there is in the offing a major motion pic about Brooks – to star Shirley Maclaine.” “Louise Brooks: Looking for Lulu” was a 1998 documentary recounting the life story of Louise Brooks narrated by Maclaine. With photocopies of the 5 “Louise Brooks” great content letters she references plus photocopies of 4 “Noel Coward” letters that she also created.

Type: Letter

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