There's never been a literary enterprise quite like JT LeRoy. It's not just his career, which includes an acclaimed novel, "Sarah," a movie based on a short-story collection and credit for collaborating on early drafts of the Gus Van Sant movie "Elephant." It's not just his relative youth -- he's 24 -- nor the long list of celebrities and authors that have hailed him as a wunderkind, among them Bono, Tom Waits, Winona Ryder, Melissa Etheridge, Michael Chabon and Mary Gaitskill.
It's his life story. Raised by a drug-addicted mother, LeRoy got hooked on heroin in his early teens and worked as a "lot lizard," a cross-dressing male prostitute at a truck stop in West Virginia. He survived that ordeal and wound up on the streets of San Francisco, where a social worker found him in a psychotic haze. She took him to a shrink, who suggested that writing would be excellent therapy. He started faxing his handwritten pieces to well-known writers and literary agents. Before long, he had a book deal. Afflicted with a crippling shyness, he rarely met any of his admirers, and on the few occasions he appeared in public, he wore sunglasses and a wig.
Amazing? No question. True? Mmmm, probably not.
This week, New York magazine ran a lengthy piece that strongly suggests there is no JT LeRoy. There is, however, a woman named Laura Albert, a Brooklyn-raised, 39-year-old mother and one-time rock singer, who seems to have been writing or co-writing the work attributed to LeRoy -- and possibly playing him on the phone. The whole long affair appears to be one of the great literary hoaxes of our day, and it fooled a whole lot of people as well as media.
Including the New York Times, which last year ran a lengthy profile of LeRoy. In it, the reporter meets a 5-foot-5 person with a "girlish voice, his conversation punctuated with childlike yelps when something pleases him." LeRoy is described as a sweet, traumatized and streetwise victim, grateful to be alive and avidly networking with a welter of famous fans. Madonna, he said, had recently sent him a book on Kabbalah.
"I was feeling hopeless and she was really good at pointing out that if someone is in a rip current the instinct is to pull the opposite way, but you need to just go along," LeRoy tells reporter Warren St. John.
Who exactly showed up for that interview is an open question. In 2001, after rumors began to surface that there was no JT LeRoy, a diminutive character with a furtive smile and a black hat started to appear, every once in a while, at assorted events held in the author's honor. But the writer of the New York magazine story, Stephen Beachy, isn't buying it.
"My theory is that it's an actor playing the part," he said on the phone yesterday. "I've heard it's a relative of Laura Albert's."
Beachy, a San Francisco novelist, has been sleuthing this matter for months. His research found not a trace of evidence that someone named Jeremy LeRoy -- the T is for "Terminator," allegedly an ironic nickname he earned as a hustler -- lived in West Virginia, the son of a famous theological writer, raised by a mom who stripped for a living, as LeRoy has long claimed. In his piece, Beachy presents an impressive sum of circumstantial evidence -- no, there's no proof -- that LeRoy was invented by Laura Albert.
She's an obvious suspect here. LeRoy supposedly lives with Albert, and her husband, Geoffrey Knoop, and the couple's son, in an apartment in San Francisco. It was Albert who discovered LeRoy in traffic back in 1993, though according to the New York story, she did so under an assumed name and identity that she still uses -- as an outreach worker named Emily Frasier.
Beachy's research found that Albert was most likely behind all the faxing LeRoy did in the mid-'90s, when faxing was LeRoy's preferred method of communication. Beachy traced one number on a LeRoy fax to a guy named Paul Falotico, who reports that he was a friend of Albert's. Falotico at the time read some of Albert's own writing, and it touched upon the very subjects that would make LeRoy famous -- harrowing tales about neglect, broken families and pornography. She frequently faxed her hand-scrawled creative writing assignments to Falotico and asked him to type them up. That's exactly what JT would do with writers and agents when he began producing stories.
There's much more in the New York story and by the end, Beachy is on the phone with JT LeRoy/Laura Albert. "I reserve the right to grow and change my identity," he/she says. It's not exactly a confession, but it's not a total profession of innocence, either.
Reached by cell phone yesterday, a person calling himself/herself JT LeRoy struck a nearly identical tone. Except more hostile. When the person was asked point-blank, "Are you Laura Albert?" there was a moment of silence. Then, "No. Are you?"
The voice on the line sure sounded like that of a woman, with a hint of a Southern accent in there, plus lots of profanity. According to this person, the New York story is the work of a jealous writer who has a "personal vendetta." Beachy, this person said, was dropped by LeRoy's literary agent and resents LeRoy's success. (The former is true, Beachy says, but not the latter.) "You can say I am anyone you think I am," LeRoy/Albert said. "I'm not here to make you feel comfortable. I'm not here to make anyone feel comfortable. I reserve the right to be whatever gender I want to be. From now on, if you ask me if I am Laura Albert, I'm going to say, 'Maybe.' "
He/She said that there were omissions in the magazine story and that one photo of him/her isn't him/her at all, but the singer Pink. And he/she added that if this were a conspiracy, it would have to involve a lot of people, including the psychologist who saved his/her life. (The psychologist, one Terrence Owens of St. Mary's Medical Center in San Francisco, returned a phone call yesterday to say that it would be unethical for him to comment.) Still, if you are Laura Albert, you just pulled off something pretty amazing, in its own way, didn't you?
"Yeah, wait for the movie people to come around," this person said. "If they offer me enough money, they can say I'm [expletive] Mickey Mouse."
LeRoy/Albert also said that Beachy had failed to contact people who'd spent quality time with LeRoy. One of those people is Ira Silverberg, LeRoy's literary agent. Yesterday, Silverberg said that he had traveled to Cannes last year with LeRoy and remains convinced that he exists. Well, mostly convinced.
"As far as I know, the little person with whom I've spent time is JT, and that is my truth and that is what I believe," Silverberg said. He echoed the allegation that Beachy has it in for LeRoy, calling him a "poorly published novelist who's worked the same turf." But he hedges a bit.
"A year from now," he acknowledged, "this could be a very different story."
If there is no JT LeRoy, Silverberg is just one of dozens of people who have been bamboozled. Last year, a gallery in New York City hosted an exhibit of art and a reading inspired by LeRoy's most recent novella, "Harold's End." Among those who showed up to read aloud were Lou Reed and Tatum O'Neal, and the news release touted a quote from Tom Waits: "JT's stories are like stitches, like exit wounds, dispatches, dispositions. He is the brilliant, gifted and profound fly on the wall. You'll need handkerchiefs and novocaine to get through this."
Getting through this might take more than Novocain over at the New York Times. Not only did the newspaper profile LeRoy, the travel magazine also recently ran a story by LeRoy about a trip to Euro Disney. In it, the writer recalls the time he spent in Orlando, where his mother stripped for a time and where it was his job to separate the Disney money from the real stuff.
A spokesman for the New York Times said yesterday, "We have nothing to add to what we've printed."
The LeRoy affair is eerily similar to the strange case of Anthony Godby Johnson, also purportedly a lost child of the streets, who wrote an "autobiography." The book, "A Rock and a Hard Place," achieved literary liftoff after the social worker mother who adopted Johnson brokered telephone- and online-only friendships with such writers as Armistead Maupin and Paul Monette.
If LeRoy is a figment of Laura Albert's imagination, what were her motivations? Success, for one. As a critical darling, LeRoy got assignments from other magazines and traded up in the publishing world. And check out Jtleroy.com. There aren't a lot of writers out there selling signed whiffle balls ($8 postage paid) or raccoon baculum necklaces, which are sexual amulets that turn up in LeRoy's novel. (Those are $17.) Though notoriously bashful, LeRoy -- or the person playing LeRoy -- hung out with such stars as Courtney Love and Winona Ryder, almost always accompanied by Laura Albert.
Then there's another question: How? LeRoy ingratiated himself to a lot of people over the years, which, along with those well-received books, might be the character's singular achievement, if a character is what he is. His back story was part of it -- who could resist helping a charming reformed junkie with such a tragic biography, and with such laudable ambitions for a drug- and psychosis-free life?
But then there was the execution. By sheer coincidence, this reporter began an e-mail correspondence with LeRoy just last week. LeRoy has guest-edited a collection of essays for an upcoming book called "Best Music Writing 2005," and a piece written for The Washington Post appears in that volume. LeRoy put his e-mail address in the book and invited anyone to drop a line. This reporter sent a note to say, basically, "Thanks for choosing my story." Soon after, a very warm, totally endearing reply was received. Another e-mail or two later, and LeRoy asked this reporter to give him a call, saying that he needed some help.
The conversation took place on Monday night, as LeRoy shopped at a Trader Joe's. ("Should I get these cookies?" he wondered.) He wanted this reporter to read a new magazine piece he said he was writing. There was something in that voice that made its owner sound desperate for affection, but there was also a forwardness and ambitiousness that seemed pretty bold. He basically wanted a proofreader and editor.
"I can't punctuate at all," he said. "I never learned that. You can tell me how to do it and I'll just come back the next time with the same mistakes."
It was flattering, in a way. This guy is famous and vulnerable and sad and triumphant, all at the same time. You could see why people would want to help him. He seemed like a character you could love.
Courtney Love, left, with a man identified as JT LeRoy, center, and Laura Albert (aka Speedie and Emily Frasier) at a party in New York in 2003 after a reading from LeRoy's writings, including his novel, "Sarah."