Janet Cooke, author of the most notorious journalistic hoax in modern history, is working in a Kalamazoo, Mich., department store for $6 an hour.
Fifteen years after disappearing from public view, the former Washington Post reporter has resurfaced this week to use one of her few remaining assets -- her famous name -- in an effort to revive her writing career.
Cooke won a 1981 Pulitzer Prize for a bogus story in The Post about an 8-year-old heroin addict named "Jimmy," then admitted after a lengthy interrogation that she had made it all up. Now 41 and divorced, she contacted a onetime boyfriend, former Post reporter Mike Sager, to tell her story, and is appearing on "Nightline" tomorrow.
"What I did was wrong," Cooke told Sager for an article in the June issue of GQ magazine. "I regret that I did it. I was guilty. I did it, and I'm sorry that I did it. I'm ashamed that I did it."
But, she said, "I don't think that in this particular case the punishment has fit the crime. I've lost my voice. I've lost half of my life. I'm in a situation where cereal has become a viable dinner choice.
"It is my fault that I've never spoken up. But I'm a 41-year-old woman now. . . . If only people understood why this really happened, maybe they'd have a different take on things. Maybe they'd think I wasn't so evil."
A dazzling woman who seemed on top of the world at 26, Cooke's "pitiful tale," as she put it, unfolded outside the glare of publicity. She married an attorney after leaving The Post and moved to the Maryland suburbs, but her attempts to write for Cosmopolitan and Washingtonian didn't pan out. Cooke wound up behind the jewelry counter at Bloomingdale's, but when a news crew showed up, she quit.
The couple moved to Paris in 1985 but later divorced. Two years ago, with a plane ticket provided by her mother, Cooke returned to her native Toledo. She worked at the Limited Express for $4.85 an hour, walking miles home on some nights because she didn't own a car, the GQ article says. Then she moved to Kalamazoo, where she works at the Liz Claiborne boutique in Hudson's department store. She suffers from asthma but hasn't seen a doctor because her part-time job doesn't provide health benefits.
"I think it's unfortunate," said Milton Coleman, who was city editor at the time and has just been named The Post's deputy managing editor. "I think she had talent. I would hope there would have been opportunities for her to utilize that talent as a writer. The misfortune was that her very serious mistakes compounded some of the mistakes of youth. . . . You always hope that people have opportunities to redeem themselves."
Sager describes his former girlfriend as an accomplished liar from childhood and their romance as "a painful, exhilarating psychodrama." Cooke once called him to say she had swallowed a whole bottle of Valium, only to admit it wasn't true.
"It was one of those tumultuous affairs that was the best of times and the worst of times," Sager said yesterday. "I always felt she was a very damaged person."
The article, he said, "was very difficult for her. We did hours and hours of interviews. She gained strength as she went along."
In Cooke's account, her father, a Toledo Edison official, was a stern taskmaster who wouldn't allow his wife or daughters to buy so much as a skirt without his approval. They would make the purchases behind his back. "The conclusion I've come to is that lying, from a very early age, was the best survival mechanism available," Cooke told Sager. "And I became very good at it. It was like, do you unleash the wrath of Dad's temper, or do you tell something that is not exactly true and be done with it?
"It is a very twisted way of thinking, I know. Believe me, I know. The problem becomes, what do you do when your worldview is based on such a twisted proposition?"
The Post hired Cooke from the Toledo Blade on the strength of an inflated resume; it turned out she did not speak French and Spanish fluently or graduate magna cum laude from Vassar. "My goal was to create Supernigger," she said. Cooke, a black reporter hired when many newspapers were pushing to recruit more minorities, felt she had to outperform her white colleagues, according to the article.
In Cooke's view, she did not invent "Jimmy" to win a Pulitzer or make a big splash; she was just desperate to get off The Post's Weekly staff, which she described as "the ghetto." Cooke was also trying to get away from her Weekly editor, whom she despised.
After an employee at a Howard University drug program told her an 8-year-old was being treated there, Cooke mentioned it to Coleman, who declared it a front-page story and urged her to find the child. She could not.
"I kept hearing Milton telling me to offer total anonymity," Cooke recalled. "At some point, it dawned on me that I could simply make it all up. I just sat down and wrote it."
Thus, in September 1980, was born the 2,200-word story of "a precocious little boy with sandy hair, velvety brown eyes and needle marks freckling the baby-smooth skin of his thin brown arms."
"Did we put pressure on her?" Coleman asked. "Did we contribute in that way? I would like to think that the pressures on her were no different than the pressures that are always placed on reporters in a business that seeks great stories. Most people don't totally fabricate something in response."
After the piece was published, D.C. Mayor Marion Barry said officials knew who Jimmy was and that he was in treatment. Barry's office later retracted the statement and the police called off a citywide search, calling the tale a hoax.
Cooke, fearing exposure, developed insomnia and drank Jack Daniel's or Dewar's, according to GQ. After she won the Pulitzer, Post editors learned of serious discrepancies in her resume. It took more than 11 hours of grilling by several editors for her to admit that "Jimmy" was fiction.
The Post quickly returned the tarnished prize. An 18,000-word investigation by the ombudsman, Bill Green, blamed several top editors, calling the episode "a complete systems failure."
Sager says things might have been different if Cooke had flamed out in today's media culture. Would she have done Oprah and Geraldo, made the cover of People, starred in a made-for-TV movie? After all, Barry is mayor again after being videotaped smoking crack; Richard Nixon was given a statesman's funeral; Hugh Grant did his mea culpa routine on late-night talk shows. Almost no one disappears in disgrace, as Janet Cooke did, her name lingering as a cautionary tale in every journalism ethics course.
"She knows this is the only way she can get her life back," Sager said. "Yeah, she's destitute, and she doesn't like it. She folds sweaters. She sells retail. The bottom line is she's a writer, and she couldn't stand it anymore.
"Writers are people who feel somehow inside that they're special. That's what it's about. . . . I think there's a place for her. She's got a lot to say now. She's been through the wringer."