Having learned that the first dealer “would pay more for better content,” Israel was soon advancing to her own full-tilt production of letters from other luminaries. She bought a gaggle of vintage manual typewriters, had famous letterheads printed up on antique paper and used an old television as a light box on which she could trace signatures. Even so, while writing as Noël Coward, Dorothy Parker, Edna Ferber and, most convincingly, Louise Brooks, Israel remained more an enhancer than an outright fabricator. She would use some of her subjects’ best real lines (Brooks on the studio head Harry Cohn: “My cat has spit up hairballs more attractive than him”) and take care with the chronology of their lives. The seams rarely showed. Indeed, the editor of “The Letters of Noël Coward,” published only last year, included two Israel pastiches — “a big hoot and a terrific compliment,” thought the erstwhile forger. (I reviewed the book and never batted an eye.)
Still, a bit of implausibility where Coward was concerned — having him write more candidly about his homosexuality than he would have allowed himself to — raised suspicions in one of the playwright’s friends who was also a collector. Israel fell into her first pot of hot water. Some outlets would no longer touch what she was selling; a grand jury began investigating; one New York dealer said he’d refuse to testify if she paid him $5,000. The danger blew over, but Israel, now living in a “constant state of anxiety,” decided to move on to a surer-fire if less creative m.o. — having a middleman, a wacky ex-con pal, fence only actual letters she stole from archives. To throw off the archivists, she would leave behind well-crafted replicas that she had prepared after careful study and note-taking. Sometimes she would spirit the originals past reading-room attendants in her shoe. Even so, the F.B.I. eventually caught on to the new scheme, and she couldn’t get rid of those manual typewriters fast enough, dumping them “one by one, in trash cans along a mile stretch of Amsterdam Avenue.” Thanks to a hard-working lawyer from the Federal Defenders Program as well as a kind-hearted judge, she got away with five years’ probation and six months’ house arrest.
Is there such a thing as an honest forger? Maybe so. A few days ago I saw a job listing on craigslist for what I suppose would be called a “ghost-signer”: someone skilled enough to trace an author’s signature hundreds of times per day inside copies of the author’s just-published book.