By David Segal
Washington Staff Writer
Thursday, June 21, 2007
NEW YORK, June 20 If they ever make a movie of the life of Laura Albert -- and for reasons we'll get to, that now seems unlikely -- the scene Wednesday in a Manhattan courtroom would make a killer denouement.
The troubled and struggling writer turned literary hoax maestro took the stand in a civil trial where she had come to defend her infamous creation: JT LeRoy.
LeRoy was supposedly a real-life former boy prostitute who had grown up sexually abused and turned tricks in a West Virginia parking lot. "Sarah," a novel under his name said to be "60 percent true," earned him underground cult figuredom and celebrity endorsements from the likes of Winona Ryder and Billy Corgan of the Smashing Pumpkins, not to mention raves from serious publications. As LeRoy gained fame, Albert asked a friend to portray the 20ish writer to make public appearances, and a handful of reporters ultimately profiled a trembling JT -- he was apparently traumatized and exceptionally shy -- in dark sunglasses and a wig. The little fella unspooled a riveting story.
It was all made up. Albert, it turned out, had never set foot in West Virginia, as she testified Wednesday. She was raised in Brooklyn and later moved to San Francisco, which is where Jeremiah "Terminator" LeRoy was born.
For fans and onlookers, the unmasking of Albert, which happened in 2005, was like finding out that John Updike is a robot. But it was a more serious matter for the owner of Antidote Films, an indie-movie company in Manhattan, which had acquired the film rights to "Sarah" back when everyone assumed that LeRoy was flesh and blood. The company has sued in U.S. District Court to get back its money -- about $110,000 -- accusing Albert of fraud. "Sarah," attorneys for Antidote say, is worthless now that the truth has emerged.
Albert, who can switch from fragile to fierce in a matter of seconds, says she will give nothing back. She claims she was merely partaking in the revered literary tradition of using a pseudonym, plus a little Andy Warhol-inspired performance art. The book, she maintains, is still the book and its value and truth are independent of its authorship. She also has refused Antidote's attempts to acquire the rights to her life story, which the company had sought in the hopes of making an "Adaptation"-style movie about the fabrication of LeRoy and its fallout.
"It's like they got a meal at a restaurant that they didn't like and now they want a different dish," Albert fumed Tuesday, outside the courthouse. "And so they say, I want that dish. Or more like, I want the whole restaurant."
Albert's appearance on the stand Wednesday was the first time she had told her life story under oath, a significant detail given her gift for confabulation and fudging. Among the many questions was the nature of her relationship to LeRoy. Would she say this was just a lark, a desperate career move, or something else?
"He was my respirator," she said on the stand, choking up. "He didn't want to go." She never would have admitted the truth, she added. "Ever! Ever!"
Albert even engaged in some lit crit, too.
"I don't believe in fiction, and I don't believe in autobiography," she said. "It's all coming through the filter of your being. I don't believe in any of these labels."
There was a large crowd on hand Wednesday: journalists, a handful of Albert's friends and plenty of gawkers. The judge's young legal interns were there in full force, as well, having demanded some free time to watch the trial.
"I was wondering if Laura would show up and say, 'I couldn't tell the difference between JT and me,' " said Marjorie Sturm, who is working on an unauthorized Laura Albert documentary. "But that's not what she's saying. She's saying, 'I was in complete control.' "
What we really learned after her many hours on the stand was that Albert is far more fascinating and complicated than the character she confected for the page. She wore a gray business suit and bright red lipstick, but took the prim image only as far as the courtroom door. On a shelf near the back of the room sat her Adidas wrestling sneakers, which she straps on every day when the trial adjourns.
In and out of court, she comes across as both shy and shamelessly exhibitionistic. Her face has that strangely spackled, smoothed-out look that Michael Jackson has, and when she walks outside she puts on buglike sunglasses that scream both "Look at me" and "Don't look at me." When the paparazzi approached Tuesday, they expected her to bolt, movie-star style. Instead, she chatted and posed, albeit demurely. ("Don't shoot from down low," she pleaded with a smile, "it looks horrible!") She bonded with one photographer over their weight problems as kids, and when she left him she gave him a soulful hug.
LeRoy was known for instantly bonding on the phone with strangers -- usually celebrities and writers he hoped would help his career. It's a trait he clearly picked up from Albert. Or maybe vice versa.
During direct examination Wednesday, Albert often punctuated her narrative with a grippingly odd cackle-cry -- a mix of laughter and agony -- that froze everyone within earshot. The details of her life, at least in her telling, weren't very funny. She was molested as a child, she said, by boyfriends of her mother, and ran away as a teen. She wound up hospitalized a number of times, for depression, an eating disorder and suicidal feelings, and then landed in a group home.
"We used to joke that Ed Koch was our father," she said, referring to the New York mayor at the time.
She later developed her gift for impersonation -- she would talk endlessly in the guise of LeRoy -- as a phone-sex operator, work that allowed her to master many accents. She tried her hand at an online sex-advice column and sang in a band, but nothing quite panned out.
LeRoy, she explained, was a figure she cooked up on the fly, on the phone with her therapist, who urged her to write down her (well, his) life stories. Some of the particulars came from her own experience, including, she claimed, an R-rated interlude with a truck driver in Virginia, where she had been on vacation as a youngster.
The gist was that she and JT LeRoy were forged in a similar fire, so it doesn't matter if the latter was real or not. And the point wasn't to deceive anyone, but to tell a story so touching that it brought people together.
"It wasn't a hoax," she said. "I still object to that word. A hoax is a trick."
The plaintiff's attorney tried to tar Albert as a careerist schemer who came up with a winning lie and ran with it. Albert yielded almost nothing, and when she couldn't argue about specific events in her past, she claimed she couldn't remember them very well.
Closing arguments are scheduled for Thursday. It's not just the subject matter that makes the case an anomaly in these halls of justice. The stakes, by the standards of corporate law, are minuscule, and the president of Antidote, Jeffrey Levy-Hinte, says he has spent many times the damages he hopes to win.
"We tried to settle out of court, of course, but they wouldn't even return our calls," he said during a break. His motives are simple: He wants his money back, and though he never expected the case to go to trial, he didn't see any place in this contentious journey to walk away.
Albert claims she's all but broke. (Her lawyer, she said, is working without charge and will get his fee only if he wins.) The best that Levy-Hinte can do is prevail here, then leverage his victory into ownership of the rights to proceeds from future works by Albert, including a possible memoir. The problem is that Albert says that if she loses, she'd rather give up publishing than enrich her adversary.
That vow aside, we might not have seen the last of Laura Albert's unforgettable imaginary friend. Asked on the stand if a work in progress titled "Labour" will be written by JT Leroy or Laura Albert, she whispered, "I don't know."