Like a lot of people, I hadn’t heard of Lee Israel until I saw Richard E. Grant gleefully doing the pre-Oscars circuit earlier this year. I went to see the film- funny, sad and well worth watching if you can. Melissa McCarthy is particularly brilliant in.
Of course, being me, I went out to find the source material- Lee Israel’s memoir of her time as a forger of letters of high profile 20th Century writers and celebrities such as Noel Coward, Dorothy Parker and Louise Brooks. If you’re obsessed with the pop culture of the 1920s and 30s like I am, it’s a brilliant list of names (I’m pretty sure I read Israel’s biography of the brilliant, scandalous Talullah Bankhead when I was 17. I was a slightly… niche teenager.)
The book itself details Israel’s struggle to cope with the realities of her fading career as a biographer (having had success, her later books struggled to find the same level of audience) and the money issues that came with that- as well as piling bills and a sick cat, Israel had an alcohol problem. In order to survive, she began to forge and sell letters to collectors, even going to the lengths of buying stationery and typewriters from the correct time period for each of her subjects and, eventually, stealing genuine letters from university libraries. As these things so often end up, Israel was caught by the FBI and prosecuted.
It’s an entertaining read; Israel is a spiky and humorous writer, although there is a brittleness that you suspect is hiding something else. She finds the absurdity of her criminal career, as an older woman, amusing and there’s genuine affection for her co-conspirator, Jack Hock, a much smaller character than he is in the film. It doesn’t give any real depth to the film, so those looking for finer detail won’t find it here. I suspect that Israel only ever let people see what she wanted them to, whether in person or on paper.