Louise Brooks Society

louisebrookssociety.blogspot.com · May 15, 2018

Story of Louise Brooks' forger Lee Israel comes to the big screen

As Louise Brooks fans everywhere await the Fall release date of The Chaperone (the PBS Masterpiece film based on an incident in Brooks' life)....

Fox Searchlight has announced that Can You Ever Forgive Me?, the story of literary forger Lee Israel, will hit screens later this year. The film's release is scheduled for October. Melissa McCarthy stars in this forthcoming adaptation of Israel's 2008 memoir, also titled Can You Ever Forgive Me?

Louise Brooks plays a significant part in Israel's story. Nearly three chapters are given over to Brooks in Israel's slim 2008 book, in which she admits to forging at least a handful of letters from the silent film star. (Four of the Brooks forgeries are depicted in the book.) Brooks' name also appears on the book's cover, XXX'ed out, as do the names of Israel's other subjects, Dorothy Parker, Noël Coward, and Lillian Hellman.

From the trailer embedded below, I don't know that Brooks figures in this new film. A few days ago, I messaged the screenwriters asking if Brooks is mentioned, but have yet to hear back.

Can You Ever Forgive Me? is the true story of best-selling celebrity biographer and friend to cats Lee Israel (Melissa McCarthy), who made her living in the 1970’s and 80’s profiling the likes of Katharine Hepburn, Tallulah Bankhead, Estee Lauder, and journalist Dorothy Kilgallen. When Lee is no longer able to get published because she has fallen out of step with current tastes, she turns her talents to deception, abetted by her loyal friend Jack (played by Richard E. Grant).

Earlier in her career, Israel had published a popular biography of the actress Tallulah Bankhead, but as a writer, she fell on hard times. She turned to forging letters from famous personalities, including actors, entertainers and writers such as Ernest Hemingway, Eugene O'Neil, Fannie Brice and Humphrey Bogart. According to Israel, two of her fakes even made it into The Letters of Noël Coward, published in 2007.

In its 2015 obituary, The New York Times noted, "In the early 1990s, with her career at a standstill, she became a literary forger, composing and selling hundreds of letters that she said had been written by Edna Ferber, Dorothy Parker, Noël Coward, Lillian Hellman and others. That work, which ended with Ms. Israel’s guilty plea in federal court in 1993, was the subject of her fourth and last book, the memoir Can You Ever Forgive Me?, published by Simon & Schuster in 2008." (Read the New York Times review of the book, which mentions Brooks, HERE. Also, check out the Los Angeles Times review HERE. And the NPR story can be read or listened to HERE.)

After her memoir was published in 2008 and all became known, Israel turned to selling her forged letters (as such) on eBay. As I noted on this blog at the time: "The eBay description reads, 'Lee Israel, author of the recently published Can You Ever Forgive Me? Memoirs of a Literary Forger, which The New York Times called 'pretty damned fabulous,' is offering several letters for sale – the hilarious forgeries that experts from coast to coast could not distinguish from the extraordinary letters written by the silent film star. These are the letters Lee Israel had not yet sold when the FBI came knocking at her door. $75 each, suitable for framing to bamboozle your literary friends. Letters of inauthenticity provided."

I didn't buy any of Israel's forgeries, but I did email her. We exchanged a couple of brief messages, but all-in-all, she was reticent to talk about what she had done. In an interview with Vice magazine, however, she said this:
VICE: Well, it could’ve been that they didn’t fuss because you went to such great lengths to make the content of the letters believable and entertaining.
LEE ISRAEL: Yes. For instance, my Louise Brooks letters were based on her actual letters. In the beginning, I spent weeks reading these fabulous letters by her in the library. I got into her soul and her sensibilities and gained lots of knowledge about her life. So when I sat down to do the forgeries, I was just taking baby steps. In the beginning those letters were mostly Louise’s words with a bunch of stuff just changed around. But when they started to sell like hotcakes, I got surer of myself and moved farther and farther away from the model. The Noël Coward and Dorothy Parker and Edna Ferber stuff was not even based on real letters. I was using things written in other forms and incorporating them into my work.

I am looking forward to the film, which looks very promising.
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