– The Unforged Truth
Melissa McCarthy’s new film, “Can You Ever Forgive Me?” is based on the eponymous memoir by Lee Israel, a pathetic, misanthropic and alcoholic biographer who turned to crime when her failed talent as a writer morphed into a short-lived, though quite successful career as a forger and thief of literary letters.
I know her story and that of her conspiratorial partner Jack Hock very well because I am the dealer who alerted the FBI to her activities and wore a “wire” during the sting operation that led to their arrest.
This well-acted and excellently produced film tells a good yarn, but the tale is not entirely accurate and the facts are, in some ways, more compelling and devastating than what the film shows.
As accurately portrayed in the movie, Lee became known in the autograph trade as the purveyor of especially interesting and revealing letters by Louise Brooks, Noël Coward, Dorothy Parker and other 20th-century authors and performers. Most of the film concentrates on this part of her career, and many dealers were taken in by her forgeries until she was found out and warned by some of them to stop or they would report her to the police. The film inaccurately portrays the FBI’s participation early on. Not only were they not involved at that time, they would never have considered the case because the amount of money she made was inconsequential, and there was little or no interstate commerce in her fraud.
A short time after she had been warned, I saw her at one of the regular NYC autograph shows that were held in the early 90s and asked her what she was doing there. She looked at me, smiled, and replied “Research.”
It turns out that her research led to a clever plan to photocopy original letters held in library archives, bring them back to her apartment where a battery of typewriters, sheets of period stationery and fountain pens and ink were arranged to create the newly minted letters that she brought back to the library to switch with the originals. They were then smuggled out of the library and given to her accomplice, Jack Hock, to sell.
When Jack first walked into my office with a batch of original letters for sale, he claimed that he had found them in the closet of his dead lover’s apartment and was disposing of them. He indicated there were more and if we could do some business he would offer them to me first before approaching anyone else. I eagerly acquired the first and several subsequent groups of letters but never sold any because something told me that Jack and his story were fake even if the letters were genuine. Several more purchases were made. Jack, in an act of generosity, even used some of the money (my money!) to treat my future wife (who is a psychoanalyst and felt from the beginning that I should pay close attention to my inner feelings about Jack) and me to an engagement dinner prior to our marriage.
My wife’s warnings notwithstanding, I decided to mention to a West Coast collector a letter Jack Hock sold me: a Hemingway letter to “Saturday Review” editor-in-chief, Norman Cousins. He shared the content with a Hemingway scholar who maintained that the letter belonged to Columbia University. A quick call to Columbia suggested that they were not the owner. Some time passed, but the scholar was insistent and a follow-up call, this time with the head of Manuscripts, led to a conversation in which the librarian insisted he had the original in his hands, while I was simultaneously holding the original in mine.
I raced up to Columbia and after comparing the two “originals” it became clear that the library owned an “authentic” forgery. I asked if the library kept records of individuals who looked through the archives; they did. A few minutes later the curator came back with the file card, showed it to me and then everything fell into place. The last person to have seen the original Hemingway letter had clearly penned her name on the card: Lee Israel.
I quickly contacted an agent I knew at the FBI and after some careful sleuthing on their part it became clear that Lee had perpetrated a financially large crime at a number of East Coast libraries. In the film, she is shown making the switch only once when, in fact, she probably did so dozens of times, potentially causing great harm to our country’s cultural heritage.
The FBI suggested that a sting would be the best way to catch Jack and Lee, so on his next visit to my office to offer new (stolen) material, I wore a wire, with the FBI listening in from an adjacent office. I had Jack repeat the story of the letters’ provenance and wrote him out a check. The FBI secretly followed him out of my office building to my bank in the Empire State building where Lee was waiting for him to split the cash. Both were arrested on the spot. The film’s story that Jack betrayed Lee who was later arrested in a bar while waiting for him to bring her share is pure fabrication.
It is true that part of Lee’s sentence was to pay restitution to her victims, and I was right up there with the swindled. She started paying me $25 a month before she couldn’t pay anymore, which was pretty soon after her arrest, but years before her 2010 memoir and her death in 2014. Jack died of AIDS in 1994. Neither of them served any prison time. In fact, shortly after their arrest, I ran into Jack while walking down the red carpet aisle of the orchestra section at the Metropolitan Opera. He smiled at me and I smiled back at him. He had the last laugh, though; I had probably paid for his ticket.