The value of private letters

I saw the new Melissa McCarthy movie a few nights ago, the one where she portrays Lee Israel, the writer who forged signed letters from such literary luminaries as Dorothy Parker, Ernest Hemingway, Eugene O’Neill, and Noël Coward. She was struggling financially. In the movie, she’s unable to get advances from her agent for a book about Fanny Brice. Israel turned to forgery to make ends meet, selling her creations to unsuspecting rare book dealers. The F.B.I. agent in charge of Israel’s case, quoted in Israel’s New York Times obituary said, “She was brilliant.”

The movie is based on Israel’s memoir, Can You Ever Forgive Me? Memoirs of a Literary Forger, which I hadn’t read before seeing the movie. Maybe the book would have been less anxiety-producing. About halfway through the film, I was so distressed by the literary crime that I started texting my anxiety to a friend (a curator of rare books), stopped before sending the text, and then considered walking out. The feeling I had was intense – a simmering, useless frustration that felt like I’d personally been taken advantage of, or betrayed. Even that, though, doesn’t measure how much Lee Israel’s thievery got to me.

Can You Ever Forgive Me by Lee Israel

I have signed letters from authors. A few Israel could’ve done well with, especially the two sentences from Bernard Malamud. A clever postscript by Lee Israel, typed below his signature, would add a few dollars to its value. She did that for a Fanny Brice letter. It’s what got her started, the catalyst for the 400 fake letters she would cast into the collectible marketplace. I also have letters from Rudi Vrba, whose memoir of his escape from Auschwitz became a bestseller in France. We corresponded after meeting at a conference. Those letters, however, would’ve been out of Israel’s range: They’re hand-written. And then there’s the letter I have from an author who won the National Book Award for Fiction. He was my adviser in graduate school, and we corresponded after I graduated, when he won the award. It has lots of information Israel could’ve mined for those nuanced references she added to her made-up letters, which made them so real.

Malamud Letter
When this letter arrived, with a Vermont return address, I couldn’t imagine who it was from. I was so delighted, I hung the letter on my refrigerator, where sunlight turned the paper brown. Thompson was my married name.

In 1989, Pig Iron Press literary journal, run by Jim Villani in Youngstown, Ohio, announced an upcoming themed edition, “The Epistolary Form and the Letter as Artifact”. In the call for submissions of stories, poems and essays, the journal also asked for genuine historical or contemporary letters. I considered submitting and sent an inquiry to Mr. Villani asking for details, specifically about how they would handle letters from writers still living. He assured me he would get permission to publish such letters, not only as courtesy but also for legal requirements.

I was much younger then, not as experienced in the literary world as I am now. Put another way, I was youthfully, ambitiously eager in 1989. I wanted to show off what I had; and yet, deep down in that place where a small voice of reason lives, I knew I would regret sharing my few letters from authors. “Call it a moral dilemma on my part,” I wrote to Mr. Villani, and I backed out.

Pig Iron Press
Mr. Villani wrote me another letter, after this one, explaining further the project: “I’m not necessarily asking you to reconsider your decision, but I thought I should let you know that we understand the problem that you face, and that we are attempting to put in place procedures to insure fairness all the way around.”

I occasionally read books of collected letters. I love the intimacy that comes in a written voice addressing one person, that singular, directed emotion. Some letter books in my library include the correspondence of Eudora Welty, Flannery O’Connor, James Wright, Gustave Flaubert, and John Keats, to name a few. Also, I have Jack Kerouac, Allen Ginsberg: The Letters. I underlined passages in that book, something I refrain from doing anymore, and yet, I couldn’t resist, capturing lines like this in a letter from Jack to Allen:

Other times I feel inferior to you – as I doubtlessly do this moment. I’m afraid that you’ll never understand me fully, and because of that, sometimes you’ll be frightened, disgusted, annoyed, or pleased … The thing that makes me different from all of you is the vast inner life I have, an inner life concerned with, of all things, externals … But that would be discussing my art, and so intimate is it become that I don’t want to babble about it.

The movie “Can You Ever Forgive Me?” is a crime story made for entertainment. Usually, topics or events in movies don’t get to me. Not like this one as, driving home, I thought of other types of forgeries and if they would bother me. They didn’t: neither wine, handbags, perfume nor paintings. Several years ago, a visit to the Museum of Counterfeiting (Musée de la Contrefaçon) on a trip to Paris didn’t affect me; I thought it was amusing. No forgery has irked me like Israel’s money-making letters. They hit too close to home for what I care about, like any movie scene where a dog is put in danger. No no no, don’t kill the dog, I mutter, urging the movie not to go in that direction.

Lee Israel didn’t go to jail. She got house arrest and probation. According to the movie, she would try to pay back the rare book dealers she deceived. The movie’s ending information didn’t say whether or not she worked toward that pay-back, let alone mention if Israel helped retrace her steps to remove all her circulating fakes. Perhaps that’s in her memoir. Nevertheless, it’s pretty evident in articles I’ve read about Israel that she didn’t realize what she’d done, beyond commit a crime. Not fully. Likely because, as she told the sentencing judge in the movie, she regarded the forged letters as her greatest work. For me, she killed the dog.

6 thoughts on “The value of private letters

  1. No surprise, but I loved this post, you articulated better than I could’ve my own frustrations with the idea of this movie. The premise for the Pig Iron Press issue is fascinating and ambitious; I wonder what the final product and the response to it were like!

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    1. I found a copy of the Pig Iron Press journal for sale by a bookshop, after an online search. I’m tempted to buy it. I’m curious about any letters that might be included. Will let you know!


  2. Among other reasons, it’s because letters are indeed personal and private, that the idea of forgery is even more distasteful than for a painting, etc. It’s a betrayal on a different level. The money just adds to the insult. Sounds like the movie was effective, if nothing else!

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