Before turning to her life of crime, running a one-woman forgery business out of a phone booth in a Greenwich Village bar, and dodging the FBI, Lee Israel had a legitimate, even celebrated, career as an author of biographies. Her first book on Tallulah Bankhead was a New York Times bestseller, and her second on the late journalist and reporter Dorothy Kilgallen made a splash in the headlines when Lee revealed in her research that Kilgallen had perhaps been murdered before she could speak publicly about her final, private interview with Oswald-assassin Jack Ruby.
With her reputation soaring as well as her advances, Lee signed on for a biography of cosmetics giant Estee Lauder--and almost instantly, Lauder herself made it clear through lawyer and mouthpiece Roy Cohn that she would not cooperate and would be writing her own side of the story. The biography was a disaster and Lee's career began to sink along with it.
By 1990, almost broke and desperate to hang onto her Upper West Side studio and care for her adored cat Jersey, Lee made a bold and irreversable career change: inspired by a letter she'd received once from Katharine Hepburn, and armed with her considerable skills as a researcher and celebrity biographer, she began to forge letters in the voices of literary greats. Between 1990 and 1991, she wrote more than 300 letters in the voices of, among others, Dorothy Parker, Louise Brooks, Edna Ferber, Lillian Hellman, and Noel Coward--and sold the forgeries to memorabilia and autograph dealers, beginning in New York and soon across the country.
For a first-timer, Lee was a fairly meticulous criminal; she invented stories to validate the provenance of her letters in an eccentric, deceased cousin named Sidney; she purchased and utilized a number of vintage typewriters that the celebrities would have used; and above all, she used her enormous talent as a parody writer to inhabit the voices of the names she chose to impersonate on paper. These letters make for some of the most entertaining and utterly hilarious reading around. In addition to her creative endeavors, though, she began to steal original letters from libraries and research archives on the east coast and alternate them into her repertoire.
Unfortunately, circumstances and sheer luck caught up with Lee after almost two years of pulling the act off -- one or two dealers followed up on their suspicions some of her letters weren't authentic, and Lee was told in secret by a dealer that a Grand Jury was convening against her in New York. Mysteriously, nothing came to pass, but several months later, as she was leaving a restaurant an FBI agent confronted her and told her in no uncertain terms that she was under investigation and that her recent accomplice had already testified against her.
In the harrowing weeks and months that followed, Lee underwent a trial and was lucky enough to avoid a jail term; she was sentenced to house arrest and a probationary period--and she was barred for life from all libraries and research facilities in the United States. Lee cooperated with the Feds to recover the original letters in circulation, however, there are still many of the 300-plus letters she wrote and forged herself still in circulation.
No one can deny that she committed a serious crime and that her actions--especially stealing from libraries, which she felt most contrite about--were reprehensible, although it also simply can't be denied that Lee Israel's story is a fascinating one, and a completely irresistable read. As a writer, she produced some of her best material--even for fans of the writers she imitated these letters are delightful and seductive.