Lee Israel

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Lee Israel
BornLeonore Carol Israel
(1939-12-03)December 3, 1939
Brooklyn, New York City, U.S.
DiedDecember 24, 2014(2014-12-24) (aged 75)
Manhattan, New York City,U.S.
Alma materBrooklyn College
OccupationAuthor, copywriter, journalist
Known forLiterary forgery

Leonore Carol "Lee" Israel (December 3, 1939 – December 24, 2014) was an American author, known for her involvement in literary forgery. A film adaptation of her 2008 confessional autobiography Can You Ever Forgive Me? was released in 2018.[1]

Early life and education[edit]

Israel was born in Brooklyn, to Jack and Sylvia Israel; she also had a brother, Edward. She graduated from Midwood High School, and in 1961 from Brooklyn College.[2][3]

Journalist and author[edit]

She began a career as a freelance writer in the 1960s. The November 1967 edition of Esquire ran her profile of Katharine Hepburn for which Israel had visited California shortly before the death of Spencer Tracy.[4] Israel's magazine career continued into the 1970s.

In the 1970s and 1980s she wrote biographies of actress Tallulah Bankhead, journalist and game show panelist Dorothy Kilgallen, and cosmetics tycoon Estée Lauder. The biography of Kilgallen was well received and appeared on The New York Times Best Sellers List.

In her memoir Can You Ever Forgive Me? published decades later, Israel claimed that in 1983 she had received an advance from Macmillan Publishing to begin a project on Lauder, "about whom Macmillan wanted an unauthorized biography—warts and all. I accepted the offer though I didn't give a shit about her warts."[5]:16 Israel also claimed that Lauder repeatedly attempted to bribe her into dropping the project.[5]:17[6] In the book, Israel discredited Lauder's public statements that she was born into European aristocracy and attended church regularly in Palm Beach, Florida.[7]

In 1985 Lauder wrote an autobiography that her publisher timed to coincide with Israel's book.[5]:17[6] Israel's book was panned by critics and a commercial failure.[5]:17 "I had made a mistake," said Israel of the episode. "Instead of taking a great deal of money from a woman rich as Oprah, I published a bad, unimportant book, rushed out in months to beat [Lauder's own memoir] to market."[5]:16

After this failure, Israel's career went into decline, compounded by alcoholism and a personality that some found difficult.[3][8]

Criminal career[edit]

Israel is best remembered for her criminal enterprises.[3] By 1992, her career as a writer of books and magazine articles had ended. She had tried and failed to support herself with wage labor.[5]:21 To make money, she began forging a number of letters, estimated to be more than 400, by deceased writers and actors.

Later, she began stealing actual letters and autographed papers of famous persons from archives and libraries, replacing them with forged copies. She sold both forged and stolen original works.

This continued for over a year before two undercover FBI agents questioned Israel on a Manhattan sidewalk. According to her memoir, in which she cites FBI documents from her case file, the agents left without arresting her or telling her what was going to happen next.[5] She immediately returned to her apartment on Riverside Drive in Manhattan and got rid of all evidence, discarding in public trash cans more than a dozen typewriters she had used to simulate various typefaces.[5] By the time she was served with a federal warrant ordering her to save evidence, it was already gone.[5]

In Israel's memoir, she also claims she was never arrested or handcuffed, instead receiving summonses for federal court dates.[5] In June 1993, Israel pleaded guilty to conspiracy to transport stolen property, for which she served six months under house arrest and five years of federal probation.[3]

Israel later expressed pride in her criminal accomplishments, especially the forgeries.[8][3][9]

Memoir controversy[edit]

Some reviewers of Can You Ever Forgive Me?, the book in which Israel confessed her crimes in detail, questioned Simon & Schuster's decision to publish it so that she could profit from the sales.[10] One reviewer wrote, in 2010, "What this is is a hilarious memoir of a self-described miscreant and her pursuit of a meal ticket. Ironically, in a joke the reader will share, by purchasing her book we all participate in buying her that meal."[11] Naomi Hample, a New York City bookstore owner who had purchased some of Israel's forged letters in 1992, was quoted by The New York Times upon the publication of Israel's memoir in 2008 as saying, "I'm certainly not angry anymore, though it was an expensive and very large learning experience for me. And she's really an excellent writer. She made the letters terrific."[12]


Lee Israel died on December 24, 2014 from myeloma in New York City. According to her New York Times obituary, she had lived alone and had no children.[3] Regarding her family, she wrote in her memoir, "I had a brother with whom I had never had much in common."[5]:111


In April 2015, it was announced that a film version of Can You Ever Forgive Me?, starring Julianne Moore and directed by Marielle Heller, would be produced.[13] In July 2015, Moore dropped out of the project.[14] In May 2016, Melissa McCarthy was confirmed to be playing Israel.[15] Filming of Can You Ever Forgive Me? took place in New York City in early 2017.[16]

The film held its world premiere at the Telluride Film Festival on September 1, 2018,[17] and was theatrically released in the United States on October 19, 2018.[18]


  • Miss Tallulah Bankhead (1972)
  • Kilgallen (1980)
  • Estee Lauder: Beyond the Magic (An Unauthorized Biography) (1985)
  • Can You Ever Forgive Me?: Memoirs of a Literary Forger (2008)


  1. ^ Stevens, Dana. "Can You Ever Forgive Me? Reveals a New Side of Melissa McCarth". Slate. The Slate Grou. Archived from the original on October 18, 2018. Retrieved October 18, 2018.
  2. ^ "Family Census records". FamilySearch.org. Retrieved May 19, 2015.
  3. ^ a b c d e f Fox, Margalit (January 8, 2015). "Lee Israel, a Writer Proudest of Her Literary Forgeries, Dies at 75". The New York Times. p. B10. Retrieved January 8, 2015.
  4. ^ "Last of the Honest-to-God Ladies", Esquire, November 1967, retrieved October 19, 2018
  5. ^ a b c d e f g h i j k Israel, Lee. Can You Ever Forgive Me?: Memoirs of a Literary Forger. Simon & Schuster. ISBN 1-4165-8867-1.
  6. ^ a b Yamamoto, C. (November 19, 1985). "Inside Info: The Story of Estee Lauder". Lodi News-Sentinel. p. 14. Retrieved August 29, 2016.
  7. ^ "Empress with a finger in every pot of cream". The Glasgow Herald. re-published at Google News. April 8, 1986. p. 10. Retrieved August 29, 2016.
  8. ^ a b Champagne, Jennifer (January 8, 2015). "Lee Israel 1939-2014". Paste. Retrieved January 8, 2015.
  9. ^ "Instances of literary forgery". Encyclopædia Britannica. Retrieved January 8, 2015.
  10. ^ "Reviewers and commentators". NitrateVille. Retrieved August 29, 2016.
  11. ^ Bamberger, Barbara (2010). "Review: Can You Ever Forgive Me?: Memoirs of a Literary Forger by Lee Israel". BookReporter.com. Retrieved August 29, 2016.
  12. ^ Bosman, Julie (July 24, 2008). "She Says It's True, Her Memoir of Forging". The New York Times. Retrieved January 30, 2015.
  13. ^ Child, Ben (April 10, 2015). "Steal Alice: Julianne Moore to play celebrity letter forger". The Guardian. Retrieved April 11, 2015.
  14. ^ McNary, Dave (July 15, 2015). "Julianne Moore Leaves 'Can You Ever Forgive Me?'". Variety. Retrieved September 14, 2015.
  15. ^ McNary, Dave. "Melissa McCarthy to Play Novelist and Literary Forger Lee Israel". Variety. Retrieved August 29, 2016.
  16. ^ "Can You Ever Forgive Me?" (PDF). Directors Guild of America. Retrieved March 2, 2017.
  17. ^ Kohn, Eric (September 1, 2018). "Can You Ever Forgive Me?' Review: Melissa McCarthy Gives Her Best Performance as a Forger Who Dreams of Fame — Telluride". IndieWire. Retrieved 3 November 2018.
  18. ^ Merin, Jennifer (October 14, 2018). "Movie of the Week October 19, 2018: Can You Ever Forgive Me". Alliance of Women Film Journalists. Retrieved 3 November 2018.

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