In her upcoming fall movie, Can You Ever Forgive Me?, Melissa McCarthy is trying her hand at playing an actual person for the first time. The actor portrays Lee Israel in the film, an author of biographies who later turned to crime by creating forgeries of letters by various famed and notable icons. The film's plot is certainly wild, and shares its subject's unique story with a wide audience, but what happened to Lee Israel in real life, and was she involved at all in the film, hitting theaters on Oct. 19?
Unfortunately, Lee Israel passed away on Dec 24, 2014 at the age of 75 after a battle with myeloma, according to her New York Times obituary. But before her life ended, Israel left quite an impact with her story; a story she had recorded in her memoir Can You Ever Forgive Me?, which of course was used as the basis for the new film. She began her career as a writer — a legitimate writer — penning articles for magazines like Esquire, according to The New York Post. In the '70s, she became an author of biographies, writing tomes about the lives of actress Tallulah Bankhead and celebrity journalist Dorothy Kilgallen; the latter of which landed on the New York Times Best Seller list in 1979. Then in the early '80s, Israel wrote an authorized biography of Esteé Lauder that failed to take off due to Lauder releasing her own memoir around the same time, and her career as an author never recovered.
In the early '90s, Israel discovered a new career path: literary forgery. She began forging and selling letters that she claimed were written by various famous people, using her considerable skills as a literary mimic to fool professionals. She wrote and sold letters she claimed were penned by Edna Ferber, Dorothy Parker, Noël Coward, Lillian Hellman, Ernest Hemingway, and others, creating over 400 forgeries by her own estimation, according to The New York Times. While she was still alive, she had stated that she considered her forgeries to be the work of which she was most proud out of all her writings.
Although it may have earned her a reputation (and, eventually, a motion picture based on her life), Israel's career as a forger lasted only a year and a half. After one of her buyers realized that his newly-purchased Hemingway letter actually belonged to Columbia University, he reported Israel to the FBI, and in 1993 she pleaded guilty to one count of conspiracy to transport stolen property in interstate commerce. She received a sentence of six months of house arrest and five years' probation, according to the Times, bringing her run as a criminal to an end. She eventually found honest work again, returning to the magazine world as a copy editor for Scholastic.
Unfortunately, Israel isn't here to give her thoughts on the finished film, but McCarthy told The Hollywood Reporter that two producers of Can You Ever Forgive Me? knew her well and were able to offer their personal experience. And in another THR interview, the star recounted meeting one of the writer's friends when she was shooting at a New York City bar that Israel frequented. When she asked if Israel would be "happy" with the film, he responded, "Happy wasn't really Lee's thing ... But she would love the attention on her work."
Lee Israel certainly led an interesting, if controversial, life. She's no longer around to see Melissa McCarthy's portrayal of her in Can You Ever Forgive Me?, but since the film focuses on what she considered to be her life's most impressive accomplishment, she likely would have approved.