I was able to read this in a day, and even though some of the snippets of letters Lee fabricated drag the story, it was really easy to tell why Lee’s first two publications from 1972 and 80 were such hits. She has a way with vocabulary and sentence rhythm that is both fancy and fun, best of two worlds that don’t usually mingle well.
Lee Israel was a very prideful woman, who had a clear mindset of both how the world should work and her part to play in it, and her venture started out exactly the way she envisioned and remained steady for years, to the point where once it became different, she was stuck and unwilling to try and readjust. You see, she was a writer, and chose her route of making a living from it through biographies. The author of three prior books between 1972 and 85, each of famous women, her first biography of Tallulah Bankhead was successful enough for her to devote years to her next biography on Dorothy Kilgallen, which stayed on the New York Times bestseller list for a week. Her next big project ended up not just bumpy but tire-blowing; several book ideas for other biographies, this time of people still alive, just didn’t pan out, and five years later her newest book on Estee Lauder bombed in sales and criticism.
Lee also admits that, as well as the flunking of her last book, she had a reputation for being rude and an alcoholic, as well as too smug to find a job where she’d have to adhere to a boss. Plus the fact the industry no longer wanted her kind of writing. The book world was evolving into action, sci-fi and sexy romance, not caring anymore about books featuring the detailed life of individuals, especially when it wasn’t the auto kind of biography. This all causes her to fall into poverty and desperation. But one day she finds out, after selling one of her old letters written to her by Katharine Hepburn, that there’s an industry for letters back from an age where everything was printed on typewriters and you’d expect not to hear from people for perhaps weeks as letters were mailed, and you had to put up with grammatical errors in your final letters because you couldn’t erase or undo. Turns out there’s still an industry for relics of times gone by, and with Lee’s skills in research from her biography career, she ends up forging hundreds of letters in the early 90s, impersonating some of the most influential celebrities between the forties and sixties, inventing history by creating museum pieces dealers can sell. Fifteen years after that ended, she was able to publish her tale with Simon & Schuster, and that is Can You Ever Forgive Me?, and the title is not a question she’s asking us for her crimes. It’s a slogan she invented, claiming to have been written and said by Dorothy Parker, as she presumes she must have said something terrible while drunk last night out.
Let’s first face some facts that are kind of sad: If this wasn’t made into a movie with Melissa McCarthy, I never would’ve gotten interested in this story if I came across it. Maybe it’d be cool reading in a short article, but definitely not a full book. I’m a 22-year-old Gen-Z who likes the Ninja Turtles and follows the MCU. I’ve never watched a movie with Louise Brooks or Katharine Hepburn or Clark Gable. That might be a confession right there of a movie critic who hasn’t done homework, but generations go by and interests change. I’m not saying I’ll never be interested in those movies. There are in fact a fair few I’ve come across I might one day watch. I’m always interested in Charlie Chaplin and I’ve watched a fair handful of classics, if those have any weight. But with every year that goes by, movies and television shows and general pop culture from a past generation slowly age out of the interest of most. So almost all of the people Lee talks about I’d never heard of (though I got the reference of the banjo song in Bonnie & Clyde, Foggy Mountain Breakdown from Lester Flatt and Earl Scruggs. You think the banjo is uncool and unexciting? Think movies from the sixties would be perceived as boring now? If so you’ll eat those words listening to that song and watching that movie). What’s cool about this memoir is despite the fact it was in the world of obscure forgotten-in-my-generation people, it was not only enormously entertaining, but I think even reluctant readers will enjoy Lee’s misadventures thanks to the tasty structure and style she imbues in the writing good enough for her to have once believed she could, solely with it, make her way through life.
One of the shortest books I’ve read since I was a child, Israel tries to document three years of her crimes, with snippets of before and after, into 124 short pages with a fraction of them dominated by a forged letter. This isn’t exactly criticism; as we all become more and more accustomed to conveniences, our attention spans often drop more and more. Israel’s book is a fast read and not clogged with stalling exposition. Her details are most often to the point about what she pulled to forge her letters and how her scheme slowly got wrecked like an inch-at-a-time sink into quicksand. This makes it a very undemanding book. At the same time I wished for a little more. I’ve seen snippets of the movie, which brings a lot more detail and significance to one of her old friends who helped with her business, Jack Hock. Whereas in the book he’s barely a character. I guess fans of this story will get to decide how much he really played a part in Israel’s life and scheme.
And as I said prior, sometimes the letters that pop up pause the story a bit stiffly. A few times I wished the letter had been placed somewhere different when the story was a lot more fascinating. So the book does leave a bit to be desired. It could’ve been about 30 pages longer. But considering how much I enjoyed myself with this book and how fast I read it, especially the fact it’s better than a lot of other books I’ve recently read that are my typical genre, Can You Ever Forgive Me is easy to understand, once you give it a go, why it merited a movie.