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Can You Ever Forgive Me?: Memoirs of A Literary ForgerBy Lee IsraelSimon and Schuster, 128 pages, $19.95 In exams, girls

Can You Ever Forgive Me?: Memoirs of A Literary Forger
By Lee Israel
Simon and Schuster, 128 pages, $19.95

In exams, girls beat boys. We all know this. Recently, British psychologist Guy Claxton presented a paper admonishing Western educational establishments for creating a system responsible for a generation of high-achieving girls who feed off quantified success—be it academic, sporting or musical—but live in fear of failure. In the real world, Mr. Claxton concluded, "bright girls go to pieces."

We’re also familiar with the group of graduates from elite universities who, on approaching life in the job market, consider it rather a chore to leave their lazy lifestyles and abandon their delusions of grandeur. The artsy crowd in particular, the actors and the writing workshop habitués, contemplate the payroll with dread and revulsion.

Lee Israel belongs to both groups, though in her case the crackup was delayed by the publication of two successful biographies (of Tallulah Bankhead and Dorothy Kilgallen), which meant that she was constantly "wined and wooed by publishers" and sustained by "gorgeous gin martinis." Until the mid-’80s, she writes, "I had never known anything but ‘up’ in my career."

Her attitude to what she scathingly calls "the short-sleeved wage slaves" serves as a warning sign: This sensitive and accomplished writer was ill-equipped for life, or, it turns out, for failure. A chapter titled "Wretched and Excessive" begins, "I was imprudent with money and Dionysian to the quick." That’s more of a sophomoric boast than a confession.

In the ’90s, Lee Israel went to pieces, which is where her story begins.

 

DRIVEN BY FINANCIAL necessity (her cat was sick and vets are expensive), she discovered the autograph memorabilia market. She began slowly, making additions to genuine Fanny Brice notes stolen from the Library for the Performing Arts at Lincoln Center. (Having been informed by her first autograph dealer that she "would pay more for better content," Ms. Israel decided to provide it.) Abruptly, she’d broken out of the high-achieving schoolgirl mold to become something quite different: an entrepreneur, with an illegal métier.

She deftly characterizes the celebrities she impersonated (calling Edna Ferber "a scold, a snob, a low-profile dominatrix"), demonstrating both her biographer’s commitment to research and her skill as a writer. The attributes that made her forgeries successful (she calls herself "the sensation of the raffish autograph business") are manifest in her book. Forgery taught her to seize on a person’s single defining characteristic and articulate it with a quick phrase. There’s the bookstore owner who "never once greeted me"; or a New York letter buyer, "a square, squat dumpling of a woman who looked like one of those aging sopranos given to wearing long capes." They stand before you.

This lightness of touch makes her slender memoir enjoyable. Ms. Israel gilds moments of personal trauma with humor. In an episode involving an inexplicable fly infestation in her apartment, she takes on the "critters" with fly paper "four tubes to a package, which depicted dead flies promisingly, upside-down and plainly dead. I unfurled all the rolls. …" Needless to say, the flies don’t submit.

 

THE BOOK IS AN attractive physical article, its ragged pages mimicking the appearance of a portfolio containing letters from Ms. Israel’s "criminal career." The forgeries accompany the text, so that her trouble with Noel Coward’s difficult signature, for example, is illustrated by a reproduction of her effort.

Unfortunately, the memoir gets off to an awkward start: Ms. Israel presents four letters with background information about the writers, not mentioning that the letters are forgeries. Since we’re aware of what’s to come from the moment we read her subtitle, the attempt at suspense is feeble. The memoir also seems occasionally confused as to genre: The plentiful material at times lacks development, so the juxtaposition of action and technical explanation is sometimes clumsy. She could certainly have lingered on the backstory of certain letters.

That said, Can You Ever Forgive Me? is funny and the author’s brash, irreverent voice distinctive. The feat of fooling so many hints at hidden reserves of talent: Forging 400 letters over a period of two years, Lee Israel’s creativity in her "newfound vocation" was boundless. Her deft narrative touch as she unspools her "sexy crime" (no drugs or violence, but a splash of alcohol) makes for entertaining reading. Perhaps she might want to try novels next.

Kate Mason studies English literature at Cambridge University. She can be reached at books@observer.com. Take a Letter