As a rare-book seller, I long ago became resigned to the fact that my profession is not considered heroic. In film, the only positive portrayal I can recall is Frank Doel, played by Anthony Hopkins, in 84 Charing Cross Road, staring into the middle distance as he dictates thank you letters for transatlantic gifts of tinned ham, his character safely neutered by austerity, marriage and knitted cardigans. The entire story is predicated on the utter impossibility of the rare-book dealer being a romantic hero. True to form, he never meets his admirer.
People try to console me by citing Hugh Grant’s character Will Thacker in the film Notting Hill, but I remind them that his is a specialist travel bookshop, not a shop selling rare books. His emporium, though realistically short of customers, looks as carefully set-dressed as a Cornish holiday cottage. No, on this occasion Hugh will not do.
Now comes the Netflix series You, featuring the youthful owner of a fictional New York shop selling rare books. Early on, he locks a young woman in a glass cube in the basement. When asked to comment on the likelihood of this, Sky Friedlander, manager of New York’s Strand Bookstore, was scathing: ‘Maybe an enormous shop like Peter Harrington would have a less dramatic version of a similar setup, but this is completely nuts.’ Well, I work at Peter Harrington, and I can confirm that we do not have a climate-controlled glass cube in our basement. But the likelihood of a rare-book dealer being a psychopath goes unremarked.
Hot on the heels of You has come a film adaptation of the confessional memoir written by the late literary forger Lee Israel, archly titled Can You Ever Forgive Me?. Surely now my trade must be portrayed in a good light. Although the story concerns signed letters (‘autographs’ in trade jargon) rather than rare books, the practices and ethics of dealing in the two are much the same. Israel was a deeply unappealing woman, an alcoholic misanthrope and literary failure. In the early 1990s, she was caught selling stolen and forged typed letters purportedly signed by various literary celebrities.
She didn’t get away with it for very long, a couple of years at most. Suspicious dealers realised what she was up to, acting as quickly as they could in those pre-internet days, and notified the FBI. While she was cooking up new forgeries, the dealers carried on their day-to-day business of running shops, employing people and paying taxes. They still found time to expose her crimes.
The film does not give many names, probably for excellent legal reasons, but Israel’s memoir, published in 2008, does. One of the few dealers she has a good word for is David Lowenherz, who trades under the name Lion Heart Autographs. His website rightly draws attention to the major role he played in detecting Israel’s forgeries and helping with the FBI sting operation that ended her career. Here, one might think, is an opportunity for the rare-book dealer to feature as hero, as righter of wrongs, a custodian of ethics. But no, Lowenherz is not portrayed in the film – at least not directly. The mostly anonymous dealers in the film do a lot of heavy lifting, but what they are being made to lift is Lee Israel’s reputation out of the gutter.
Part of Israel’s modus operandi was to steal real letters from special-collection libraries and replace them with forgeries. She produced her forgeries on vintage typewriters, tracing the signatures from genuine examples using a lightbox improvised from an old television set. Spotting that writers often left the lower half of a typed sheet empty, she spiced up dull but genuine letters by adding her own sensational postscripts. Having been a biographer of a schlocky sort, she exhibited a certain creativity in inventing material to titillate potential buyers, though she made silly mistakes. She sold most of her letters to specialist autograph dealers in New York.
One of the more dubious aspects of the book is the outrage Israel affects that these dealers should charge more for the forgeries she conned them into buying than they paid her for them. Unfair as this may seem to her, it is the basic proposition of capitalism: buy wholesale; sell retail. It was she, not the dealers, who introduced a dishonest element to the transaction.
The film looks for every possible reason to transfer her guilt to the dealers, who are portrayed in varying degrees as malicious, rude, duplicitous, gossipy, disingenuous and greedy. The only exception is a naive younger lesbian dealer invented for the screenplay, nicely played by Dolly Wells, niece of the rare-book seller John Chancellor. She takes Israel out on a date and shyly shows her one of her short stories. Even she is subtly implicated in Israel’s crimes by suggesting that letters with salacious content sell better.
The final scene of the film re-enacts an episode described in the memoir, in which Israel, after being arrested, finds two of her Dorothy Parker forgeries offered for sale by a dealer. In the book, she describes how she wrote to the dealer to explain that the letters were forgeries. ‘The letters were removed promptly from the dealer’s inventory,’ she admits. The scene is crucially altered in the film. A single forged letter is shown propped up on an easel in a shop window. As Israel, in a sardonic voice-over, informs the dealer that the letter is a fake, he reluctantly takes the letter off display. The voice-over ends. He thinks for a moment, and then puts the letter back in the window for sale.
The film closes on that cynical note. What are poor Lee’s peccadilloes when weighed against the general dishonesty of the world, and of rare-book and autograph dealers in particular? The only problem is that the scene is a complete fiction, a further distortion of Lee Israel’s already self-exculpatory text. One might even call it a forgery.