The Forgeries of Lee Israel
Anyone who saw Melissa McCarthy's dramatic turn in 2019's "Can You Ever Forgive Me?" is familiar with the name Lee Israel. The film was based on Israel's memoir of the same name, which chronicled her theft and forgery of about 400 letters from figures like Dorothy Parker and Ernest Hemingway. While Israel saw some success as a biographer in the 1970s and 1980s, her career stalled after her third book flopped.
As she struggled to pay the bills, Israel came into possession of some letters from actress Fanny Brice. She sold them for $40 each and then realized how easy it would be to alter the letters to make them juicier and more valuable. She did just that, and then transitioned to flat-out forgery, using old typewriters to compose entirely fake correspondence from famous figures. "I had a whole cock-and-bull story made up about the cousin who died and left me these wonderful letters," Israel later told NPR. "I never had to explain."
She eventually stopped selling letters, but then moved on to stealing letters from library archives, replacing them with her own carefully crafted replica, and selling the stolen original to private collectors. It wasn't until autograph dealer David H. Lowenherz learned that the Ernest Hemmingway letter he'd purchased was actually part of Columbia University's collection that Israel's scheme was uncovered. The FBI found the rest of the writer's forgeries and she pleaded guilty to one count of conspiracy to transport stolen property in interstate commerce in 1993. Israel was sentenced to six months' house arrest with five years' probation, and while she was able to work again as an author and editor, she said, "I still consider the letters to be my best work."