Wednesday, February 23, 2011

The Monkey Reads: Miss Israel Regrets (Maybe)

Can You Ever Forgive Me?
Memoirs of a Literary Forger
By Lee Israel
(Simon & Schuster)
The snakes-and-ladders path from obscurity to stardom to poverty rarely surprises. We know the story arc well yet still tune in. A once-celebrated biographer, Lee Israel bucked expectations by skipping the drugs and rehab nonsense – really what’s interesting about that? Instead, she opted for something daring and far more fun: forgery.

In Forgive Me, Israel carefully lays out how she ends up tossing multiple typewriters into dumpsters around Manhattan, the FBI hot on her trail. It reads like a true-crime confessional because it is.

Early success with biographies of Tallulah Bankhead and Dorothy Kilgallen led to spending advances before Israel could produce the work. She lived beyond her means, and produced a biography of Estee Lauder that bombed with both reviewers and retailers. From there it was short ride to finding out she hated “real work”; then welfare and a sick cat pushes Israel to make some poor choices.

Israel’s bad judgment makes for some compelling reading. She’s a classic anti-hero who admits to being over-confident, elitist and coarse to many people to whom she should have been kind, even if she’d had to fake it.

One thing she didn’t fake was her first celebrity letter. Israel simply stole three Fanny Brice letters and sold them to a collector.

When asked if she had any others, the reader can practically hear the lightbulb spark to life above Israel’s head and she sets to work on imitation Dorothy Parker, Noel Coward and others. Her Parker letters are a delight to fans of that writer, perhaps because they both drank too much and pissed off friends.

Israel’s outlaw charm makes Forgive Me sing. She can’t believe she’s getting away with it any more than her audience can but neither can she stop herself. The con is too delicious and too profitable. Root for Lee Israel all the way to the end because, unlike bloated rockstars who do the drugs-and-rehab routine and end up recording flaccid comeback music, her post-reform output is outstanding.