In the early 1990s, with her career at a standstill, she became a literary forger, composing and selling hundreds of letters that she said had been written by Edna Ferber, Dorothy Parker, Noël Coward, Lillian Hellman and others.
That work, which ended with Ms. Israel’s guilty plea in federal court in 1993, was the subject of her fourth and last book, the memoir Can You Ever Forgive Me?, published by Simon & Schuster in 2008.
The memoir drew mixed notices. But if nothing else, it remains a window onto its author’s hubris and nemesis, and onto the myriad discontents of the freelance writer’s life, a “New Grub Street” for the late 20th century.
As Ms. Israel told it, her forgeries were born less of avarice than of panic and began after a stretch of poor reviews and writer’s block, mixed with alcohol and improvidence. What was more, those who knew her said this week, she possessed a temperament that made conventional employment nearly impossible.
“She drank an awful lot — she was an alcoholic,” David Yarnell, a friend, said in an interview on Monday. “And she was very feisty, and people did not want to work with her.”
Ms. Israel’s criminal career married scholarship, fabrication, forgery and outright theft. Using the research skills she had honed as a writer, she scoured her subjects’ memoirs for salient biographical details; their published letters for epistolary style; and their original, archived letters for typing idiosyncrasies. She bought a flock of period typewriters from secondhand shops and, on furtive library visits, tore blank sheets of vintage paper from the backs of old journals.
She managed to fly under the radar by charging little, selling her creations to autograph dealers around the country for about $50 to $100 each. She made it up in volume, she said in her memoir, generating some 400 letters over about a year and a half.
Ms. Israel was, by all accounts, a remarkable literary mimic. “She was brilliant,” Carl Burrell, a retired F.B.I. agent who was the lead investigator on her case, said on Tuesday.
He recalled one letter with particular fondness. “My favorite was Hemingway,” Agent Burrell said. “He was complaining about Spencer Tracy being cast as the main character in ‘The Old Man and the Sea.’ ”
Two of Ms. Israel’s gossipy Coward impersonations — one of which describes Julie Andrews as “quite attractive since she dealt with her monstrous English overbite” — found their way into The Letters of Noël Coward, published by Alfred A. Knopf in 2007.
Of her body of forgeries, Ms. Israel wrote in her memoir, “I still consider the letters to be my best work.”
By dealing in typed letters, Ms. Israel was obliged to copy only the signatures. This she did by tracing over the originals, first covertly in libraries and later in her Upper West Side apartment, originals in hand. For over time, after whispers among dealers about the authenticity of her wares made composing new letters too risky, Ms. Israel had begun stealing actual letters from archives — including the New York Public Library and the libraries of Columbia, Yale, Harvard and Princeton Universities — and leaving duplicates in their place.
“She would go into these libraries and copy the letter in question, go back to her home and fake as best she could the stationery and fake the signature, and then she’d go back to the institution and make the switch,” David H. Lowenherz, a New York autograph dealer, said on Monday. “So she was actually not selling fakes: She was substituting the fakes and selling the originals.”
Israel wrote in her memoir, “I had never known anything but ‘up’ in my career.” But even afterward, when she went on welfare, a 9-to-5 job was beyond contemplation.
“I regarded with pity and disdain the short-sleeved wage slaves who worked in offices,” she wrote. “I had no reason to believe life would get anything but better.”
When life did not, Ms. Israel, visiting the New York Public Library for the Performing Arts, slipped three letters by Fanny Brice into her shoe, and by 1991 her new calling was underway.
It ended the next year, after Mr. Lowenherz learned that an original letter he had purchased from Ms. Israel — from Ernest Hemingway to Norman Cousins — was actually owned by Columbia. He met with the university librarian.
“He had a forgery,” Mr. Lowenherz said on Monday. “I said, ‘Is there any way you can tell who had recent access to this letter?’ He came back and said: ‘We have this card. It’s signed by Lee Israel.’ ”
Mr. Lowenherz alerted the F.B.I., and in June 1993 Ms. Israel pleaded guilty to one count of conspiracy to transport stolen property in interstate commerce. She was sentenced to six months’ house arrest and five years’ probation.
The court also directed her to attend an alcohol-treatment program, “which,” Ms. Israel wrote breezily in her memoir, “I never did.”