The literary parlor game of “Who Is J. T. LeRoy?” got its final answer in February: The mysterious boy novelist with the horrifying tales of childhood abuse was the invention of a 40-year-old San Francisco woman. But the untold story behind this literary hoax is even more outrageous than the fictions.
Part One: The Making Of J.T.
J.T. LeRoy’s literary career seemed headed for a downturn, and he was only 24. Back in his teens, he had achieved cultish notoriety for his autobiographical fiction, which drew on a childhood marred by horrific physical and sexual abuse—most famously stints working in truck stops in his native West Virginia as an under-age transvestite prostitute, side by side with his drug-addicted mother. (“She felt angry about the competition, but she also liked the money, too” he told Terry Gross in an interview on NPR’s Fresh Air.) The truck-stop liaisons were only the most lurid episode in his past. He had had his first sexual experience at the age of five or six. He had been raped and regularly beaten. He eventually became addicted to heroin and at the age of 13 ended up living on the streets in San Francisco, working as a hustler. He was H.I.V.-positive. He cut himself. He burned himself. He associated love with brutality and exploitation, could only feel human connection through physical pain. It was a life story that read like an encyclopedia of the myriad ways children can be victimized by adults. But in a culture that fetishizes suffering and consumes memoirs of abuse as a form of off-the-rack therapy, it was a life story that also had commercial potential.
And in that J.T. appeared to have found salvation. A social worker, who had found him wandering into traffic in a daze, introduced him to a psychologist who encouraged him to write about his experiences. It turned out he had a native gift, producing fragments of raw but vivid memoir. By phone and by facsimile in those pre-e-mail days—J.T. would haul around a fax machine a kindly john had given him and set it up in public bathrooms and convenience stores—he reached out to established writers, many of whom took an interest in him and his work, taught him craft, and passed him along the literary food chain.
In 1997, when he was 17, he published his first piece of writing—about dressing up like his mother and seducing one of her boyfriends—in the Grove Press anthology Close to the Bone: Memoirs of Hurt, Rage, and Desire. No longer using heroin, he had formed an ad hoc family, living with the social worker who had helped rescue him, her husband, and their young son. A novel, Sarah, followed in 2000. A year later, when J.T. was finally old enough to have a legal drink, he brought out a collection of linked stories, The Heart Is Deceitful Above All Things. The books were mostly well reviewed, and even critics who didn’t care for the prose, or found the disturbing subject matter overwrought as art, paid obeisance to the horrible contours of the life.
By 2004, however, the well seemed to be running dry. He had a contract for a third book but hadn’t yet produced much that was worthwhile. When he did write, aside from completing a thin “novella,” he spent most of his energy on journalism for publications such as BlackBook, Nerve, and T: Travel, a New York Times Sunday-magazine supplement, which sent him to Disneyland Paris. Mostly he seemed to be caught up in a whirlwind of literary celebrity—“the Truman Capote highway,” in the words of one friend. He had long suffered from pathological shyness as a result of his childhood traumas—most of his writer friends had never met him in the flesh; he was famous for ducking people, even editors and agents—but around the time of his second book he began making tentative public appearances at literary events, a waif-like, androgynous figure hiding behind sunglasses, big blond wigs, and a girlish, whispery voice. He would sit tremulously to the side as a coterie of famous, mostly female admirers that included Rosario Dawson, Tatum O’Neal, and Shirley Manson read from his works. Madonna, an e-mail pal, reportedly sent him books on Kabbalah. Friends such as Carrie Fisher opened their homes to him. There were movie deals with the director Gus Van Sant (who optioned Sarah) and a Web site selling J.T. merchandise (including $17 necklace-ready raccoon-penis bones, or baculums, objects which figure prominently in Sarah). J.T. went on European tours, attended splashy parties with rock bands, took home racks of free designer clothes. He appeared in a feature in an Abercrombie & Fitch catalogue. He and his ad hoc family formed their own band, Thistle. J.T. wrote the lyrics; the social worker, Emily Frasier, who had begun calling herself Speedie, sang; her husband, known as Astor, played guitar.
There were also appearances in glossy magazines, among them Vanity Fair. In an introduction to his short Q&A with J.T., the singer-songwriter Tom Waits wrote, “He is the witness to all the tales that go on in the dark, and for all of us, long may he have the courage to remember.” This was accompanied by a photo of J.T. dressed as “Cinderella after the ball” in a tutu and beaded sweater.
And who, after what he had been through, would begrudge J. T. LeRoy a little harmless, glitzy fun? His agent, however, was growing impatient. “This was perhaps one of the more demanding—and I mean time-wise—clients I’ve ever had,” the agent, Ira Silverberg, told me recently. “Insanely long conversations not about writing, not about career, but about celebrities who he met and who he’d been e-mailing with. Endless, endless. It was a litany of name-dropping. You know, ‘Gus Van Sant came through town and we went out and I ate oysters at the most expensive restaurant in San Francisco and I said to Gus, “They taste like boogers!”’ For me it was like, ‘That’s great. You want to show me some pages?’ ” At the 2004 Cannes Film Festival, where the movie version of The Heart Is Deceitful Above All Thingspremiered, Silverberg took J.T. aside and lectured him: “Honey, you’ve got to get off the road. You’ve got to get back to the writing. The celebrity obsession is taking over your life.” Silverberg feared that his client was on the verge of becoming “the Grace Jones of literature, if you know what I mean.”
Others thought the fault lay less with J.T. himself than with Speedie and Astor, whose eagerness to piggyback on J.T.’s success seemed, at times, almost pitiable. Speedie, who spoke with a malleable British accent and who at times still went by Emily, seemed in particular to exert a Svengali-like influence on J.T. She almost never left his side in public and often answered questions for him. He would look to her for cues and ask her permission even for innocuous actions—taking off his wig in a hot, sweaty disco or breaking away from a group to go shopping. “She was clearly very manipulative of J.T.,” says Thomas Fazi, the writer’s Italian publisher. “She was clearly using the J.T. character in some way to suit herself, exploiting him economically.”
“I used to call Speedie and Astor the jailers,” says Roberta Hanley, one of 28 credited producers of The Heart Is Deceitful Above All Things. “J.T. seemed like a prisoner of this horrible rock band. I thought he should get away from these grifters who were living off his work. I wanted to sit him down and say, ‘You’re a famous writer. You should get your own place. You should get away from these people and stop sharing your salary with them.’ ”
Charlie Wessler, a film producer who has worked on most of the Farrelly brothers’ movies, met J.T. and Speedie/Emily one weekend last spring at Carrie Fisher’s home in Los Angeles. Wessler would become close to J.T., even buying him a computer, but he was surprised at the way Emily, within minutes of their introduction, began pushing J.T.’s books on him, as if she were his publicist. She also catalogued for him the various C-list celebrities J.T. was supposedly sleeping with—a discomfiting boast given J.T.’s recent past as an H.I.V.-positive child prostitute. Fisher, Wessler quickly learned, was not a fan: “Carrie couldn’t stand Emily. She thought this kid”—J.T.—“was living in this woman’s house and being dragged around by her. Carrie started sending these e-mails saying, ‘You’ve got to get away from this Emily woman. She’s ruining your life.’ Carrie thought she was a fucking idiot.” (Fisher herself declined to be interviewed for this article.)
For his part, J.T. remained stubbornly, sometimes touchingly loyal. In an e-mail response to a friend who had criticized Emily’s behavior, J.T. defended her with tenderness and generosity: “Emily had purity of intent. She is not bad or toxic for me. She gets lost sometimes coz she is also finding out who she is, so please just love on her the way you do. We all come from great pain.”
What wasn’t apparent at the time, and what in the light of day renders J.T.’s defense more than a little odd and, if you are of generous disposition, even heartbreaking, is that the writer was in fact defending himself. Or rather herself. Because as was revealed last fall and winter in a series of magazine and newspaper articles, first in New York magazine, then, more definitively, in The New York Times, J. T. LeRoy was the invention of Speedie/Emily, whose real name is Laura Albert. Now 40, she wrote all of J.T.’s books, articles, and stories, corresponded as J.T. by e-mail, and spoke as him on the phone, putting on a southern accent she thought was in accordance with J.T.’s supposed West Virginian origins. (The high, feminine pitch was sometimes explained away as a result of J.T.’s not having fully matured physically due to the abuse he suffered.) Her co-conspirators were Astor, whose real name is Geoffrey Knoop, 39, and his half-sister Savannah Knoop, a 25-year-old aspiring clothes designer who, once J.T.’s career took off, was drafted to play the writer in public—the wigs-and-sunglasses figure.
Many otherwise savvy people who thought they knew J.T. intimately, who had spent considerable time with him on the phone and even in person, who were touched by his story, connected the sometimes obvious dots only in hindsight—after all, who would second-guess a homeless, self-mutilating, H.I.V.-positive teenager struggling to overcome an unthinkable legacy of abuse?
The novelist Dennis Cooper was the first writer Laura Albert contacted. He had a long and sometimes emotionally draining phone relationship with J.T. and suspected he was being hustled on some level—that, of course, had been J.T.’s original profession—but at the same time Cooper thought he understood where the hustle ended: “I knew that he was a pathological liar, but I had a sense I knew him. I thought I knew whenhe was lying.”
Gus Van Sant bought the film rights to Sarah and commissioned J.T. to write a screenplay about a school shooting that provided the seed for the 2003 film Elephant (for which J.T. received an associate-producer credit). Van Sant met J.T. twice and spent hours with him on the phone. “I still kind of believe that he exists, just not in the flesh,” Van Sant says. “I think he exists in Laura’s head. Either it’s something she obsessively works on as a character or it’s something she can’t help but work on.
That’s a fine but telling distinction, one that many who knew J.T. have wondered about: to what extent was Laura Albert really in control of her creation? “God knows I’ve been over this in my mind, and I can’t picture the scenario in which someone would invest the amount of time and effort that this person went through with me personally for the ends they got,” says the novelist Joel Rose, who was another early champion of J.T.’s and who, like Cooper, not only extended himself professionally for J.T., helping him find an agent and a publisher, but also talked the younger writer through any number of supposed midnight crises. “If you’re going to pull off some kind of scam or hoax,” Rose says, “it seems like it could have been a lot more succinct.”
It certainly could have.
When talking about J. T. LeRoy, people who knew him tend to do two things. One, they try to mimic his seductive, high-pitched accent, which invariably sounds like someone’s cocktail-party imitation of Blanche DuBois. (You can hear J.T. “himself” in his 2001 interview with Terry Gross on NPR’s Web site. It’s an odd listen in that the southern-inflected voice is credible as an effeminate young man’s while at the same time, when you know who’s really speaking, clearly an older woman’s—the aural equivalent of the classic optical illusion where you see a crone and a young beauty in the same face.) And, two, with the benefit of hindsight, they tend to become extremely self-conscious when using pronouns. He, she, it, they—whatever. (Indeed, I’ve changed pronouns in quotes here and there for the sake of coherence.)
This is all true even of Geoff Knoop, whom I went to see in San Francisco this past February. He greeted me at the front door of his new home, which he shares with a childhood friend—he and Laura Albert separated last fall—in a blue-collar neighborhood by the beach; most of his things were still at his old apartment downtown on Russian Hill, from which he says Laura had locked him out. According to Geoff, they are in the midst of a legal wrangle over their communal property, a dispute complicated by the fact that the couple, though Geoff says they functioned as married, never bothered with the civic niceties of matrimony—that and the dawning realization that J.T.’s business and legal affairs are, to be gentle, muddled. (On the advice of their lawyers, they only speak regarding their 8-year-old son, whom they share custody of.)
Geoff had a complicated mix of motivations for talking to me. On the one hand, he seemed to want genuinely to come clean, to atone for deceptions he had helped visit upon people he admired and in some cases was close to. On the other hand, he was also angry that his contributions to J.T.’s art and life had often been overlooked, that he is unfairly seen as the enterprise’s Zeppo or Gummo. He insisted he had been a “vice president” equivalent in the J.T. enterprise with Laura, about whom he seemed similarly conflicted, his emotions fluctuating between tenderness, respect, and resentment. There was, perhaps predictably, a third motive for talking: he is hoping to cut book and movie deals.
If J. T. LeRoy often seemed interested more in name-dropping and expense-account meals than in the spartan but—people say—soul-nourishing rewards of the traditional literary life, it may have been because Laura and Geoff had for years been getting by on economic fumes. Laura, born in 1965, grew up in Brooklyn Heights. Her parents, both educators, split when she was young; she would often intimate to friends that hers had been a difficult childhood. She left her mother’s care as a teenager, spent time in a group home for troubled kids, and took fiction classes at the New School in Manhattan. She also became part of the early-80s punk scene in the East Village. With abundant drugs and sometimes ugly sex, it was a scene that would contribute ingredients to J.T.’s biography. “A lot of homeless kids in the New York scene turned tricks,” she would later tell the writer Steven Blush for his oral history of punk, American Hardcore. “Most were abused children. Some weren’t even sexually abused—it was emotional abuse. If you come from a dysfunctional family and a man comes along, you realize that you have something that somebody wants intensely; it’s a huge sense of power.” (Laura declined to be interviewed for this article.)
Geoff’s parents, restless midwestern bohemians, had moved to San Francisco in 1965. Geoff was born there in 1966 when the family was living in a rough neighborhood on the far edge of the Haight-Ashbury district; he remembers hanging out with Hells Angels, and that someone killed the family’s cat. His parents split when Geoff was two. For a time, the family went on welfare. A passionate guitarist, he got involved in San Francisco’s punk scene as a teenager. A band he was in earned a studio tryout with I.R.S. Records in 1983, when he was only 17, but, in the way of these things, the group fell apart before anything jelled. That remained his biggest break for nearly two decades.
Geoff and Laura met in San Francisco in 1989 when both were 23. To his eyes she was eccentric and high-strung—“She didn’t have a lot of filters” is how he puts it—but she was also sweet and, despite a weight problem, beautiful. Laura told him she’d been writing song lyrics, and the two began collaborating on songs—10 in a single afternoon on their first try. In truth, he was impressed as much by her musical talent, which was raw, as by her energy and fearlessness; she seemed like someone who could make things happen. They began performing together as an acoustic duo, though she felt uncomfortable onstage, self-conscious about her weight. In less pressured settings she could shine: friends remember a woman with a theatrical flair and a gift for storytelling; she was also a fabulous mimic, making people laugh with imitations of acquaintances.
Eventually Geoff and Laura moved in together, sharing a small studio apartment. For fun, they would sometimes call up local bands they admired and, pretending to be reporters, arrange to meet them. Eventually they formed their own band, naming it Daddy Don’t Go, in tribute to their parallel childhood experiences with broken homes. Laura, despite her unease in the limelight, was the lead singer, her voice reminiscent of Deborah Harry’s, though more brittle. According to Geoff, she would starve herself for weeks before concerts but still felt self-conscious onstage. “She couldn’t be the diva she wanted to be,” says a friend. “She was always apologizing for her weight.” Offstage, she demonstrated greater talent and resourcefulness in handling the band’s bookings and publicity, fearlessly cold-calling radio stations and newspapers, generating more ink and airtime than Daddy Don’t Go’s meager following probably merited. As Geoff says, “We looked like a huge success just because of our press.”
Laura polished her cold-calling skills by way of her day job working for a phone-sex service. Aided by her gift for mimicry, she would become whomever clients wanted her to be—a Japanese girl named Yokiko, a black woman named Keisha, a dominatrix. The money was good, and Geoff quit his own day job delivering pizzas and began “doing calls,” too, specializing in she-males.
Daddy Don’t Go, meanwhile, had split up after what seemed like its big break—placing a song on a CD of aural erotica entitled The Edge of the Bed: Cyborgasm 2—proved not to be the case. (Geoff and Laura also contributed a spoken-word vignette about cross-dressing. Laura: “I’ll make you wear my panties every single day. I’ll make you into a nice little fucking cunt … ” Geoff: “Please don’t.”) But the couple didn’t get discouraged. According to Geoff, they kept their eyes firmly on the prize. She would think, If I could just be skinny I’d be fine. He would think, If I could just be a successful musician I’d be happy.
J.T. LeRoy’s biography begins in the mid-90s when Laura began reviewing pornographic Web sites for a local online magazine. The fact that she was once again flexing her writing muscles, Geoff says, led her back to fiction. At the New School, she had sometimes written in the voice of a young southern boy, and she tapped into that voice again. Late at night, she and Geoff would lie in bed and she would read her latest work. She was exhilarated to be writing fiction again, and the boy’s stories, told in the first person, multiplied. In one, the narrator was raped by a stepfather after both were abandoned by the boy’s mother. In another, the mother fed the boy methamphetamine.
Laura herself sometimes seemed surprised by what ended up on the page. After reading aloud a particularly brutal passage she would turn to Geoff and laugh, wondering, “Where did that come from?” (Later, after the early J.T. stories were collected in 2001 as The Heart Is Deceitful Above All Things, the couple would joke that, as Geoff says, “The faster somebody would read The Heart, the sicker they were. People would be like, ‘Yeah, I took The Heart to the beach and I couldn’t stop reading it, finished the whole thing in a couple of days, got a really bad sunburn.’ We’d be, Wow—you’re sick.”)
When she read to him Laura would use her normal voice, but from time to time Geoff would come into the apartment and discover that she was talking to herself in the voice of a southern boy. He found this unnerving until he finally put two and two together when she began calling writers pretending to be the teenager. According to Geoff, there was a precedent for this too: when Laura had moved to San Francisco from New York, she called a hotline for abused teenagers, pretending to be a young boy who needed to get away from a bad home situation. The woman on the other end of the line ended up inviting the “boy” to stay with her until he found a permanent place to live; somehow—Geoff is fuzzy on the details—this led to Laura finding her first place to live in San Francisco.
In Geoff’s memory, the first J.T. call, late one evening, was to Dennis Cooper. Laura had become obsessed with his novel Try, which featured a teenage male protagonist who, like J.T., was a kind of sexual pincushion. On the phone, she initially said her name was Terminator, which was supposedly J.T.’s nickname on the streets—an ironic reference to his slight stature, though also, perhaps, a less ironic and less innocent reference to his talents as a prostitute. In a boyishly breathless voice, Terminator told Cooper he was a huge, huge fan and wanted to interview him for a music magazine. The questions never really materialized—“He seemed to mostly want to talk about himself,” Cooper says—but the two struck up a phone relationship, and Terminator began showing Cooper his work.
According to Geoff, there was no aha! moment when Laura decided she was going to perpetrate a grand and elaborate literary hoax. In both their eyes the Terminator calls were only extensions of what they had been doing for years—pretending to be reporters, role-playing for phone-sex clients, making cold calls to promote the band. What’s the harm?, Geoff thought when Laura first called Cooper. It’s not like they’re ever going to meet …
They didn’t, until years later at a reading in Los Angeles. (Cooper would be surprised at how “strangely indifferent” J.T., now in the person of Savannah Knoop, proved to be during a stilted conversation between two supposed old friends. “Clearly,” he says, “Savannah was just trying to get rid of me.”) But if J.T. had been born into the real world as something of a lark, Laura was soon breathing as much life into her creation as she could. Cooper had passed Terminator on to the similarly edgy novelist Bruce Benderson, who in turn put him in touch with Joel Rose. Rose, a co-founder of the East Village literary magazine Between C & D, hooked up Terminator with his agent, Henry Dunow, and his editor, Karen Rinaldi, then at Crown. The young writer also struck up relationships with the poet Sharon Olds and the novelist and short-story writer Mary Gaitskill. Soon, everyone who was anyone in the literary world seemed to at least be acquainted with J.T.—Dave Eggers, Michael Chabon, Mary Karr, Rick Moody, Tobias Wolff. (J.T. boasted in the New York Press in 1999 that he had even spurned the amorous attentions of “Burroughs and Ginsberg and those guys.”) As someone noted at the time of the increasingly well-connected urchin, “He sure knows how to turn up on the right doorsteps.
Another person J.T. had reached out to was Dr. Terrence Owens, a San Francisco psychologist who works with abused and drug-addicted kids. J.T. would talk to Owens on the phone, sometimes patching in friends for three-way conversations. Other times, he would play people tapes of his therapy sessions with Owens—perhaps the ultimate test of friendship. In the public J.T. mythology, it was Owens who had convinced the scarred youngster to try his hand at writing. (Citing patient-therapist confidentiality—still—Owens declined to be interviewed.)
Given that the voice on the other end of the line was ostensibly a homeless teenager calling from, say, a pay phone in front of a shooting gallery, most writers were only too happy to extend themselves. But Terminator, who early on also went by Jeremy and Jeremiah, could be an exhausting and demanding phone friend. He would call three or four times a day, often late at night. There would be crises—he’d be threatening suicide, he’d be calling from a hospital where he was having his stomach pumped after a herculean overdose. He’d leave messages like, “If you don’t call me back, I’m going to kill myself. If you don’t call me back, I’m going to cut myself.” He was nakedly careerist. “I’d get 40 minutes of ‘I love you. I’d be dead if it wasn’t for you,’ ” says Cooper. “And then”—abrupt segue—“ ‘Would you mind talking to this reporter for me?’ It was clear I was being used to legitimize this project. But I felt like, how can I begrudge this kid?… I thought he was going to die any minute.”
“He had an incredibly filthy mouth,” says Panio Gianopoulos, an editor who worked on both Sarah and The Heart Is Deceitful Above All Things. “He’d say all these really sexual things. Not many in a come-on way, more in a juvenile, loved-to-provoke way. Kind of like testing boundaries.” Gianopoulos remembers J.T. bragging that he had a “sex slave” who typed his manuscripts for him. “You never really knew what was true and what was not.” There was, in fact, a kernel of truth in the sex-slave story: according to Geoff, Laura had a submissive phone-sex client who handled typing and other office chores for her; it was a barter arrangement.
As Terminator’s world grew ever more elaborate—“The more you lie or make things up, the more complicated things become,” concedes Geoff—he and Laura became characters themselves. As Emily, or Speedie, Laura would speak in an English accent, both to mask her own voice and to distance Emily’s from Terminator’s. In inspired moments she would go back and forth on the phone between Emily and J.T., rubbing the phone on her sleeve to simulate the handoff as if she were a character in a sitcom farce. The name Astor she made up off the top of her head one day when she needed to refer to Geoff; he has no idea where it came from, though at the time he thought the name was pretty cool. When the couple’s son was born, in 1997, he became Thor. (As a condition for our interview, Geoff asked that I not reveal Thor’s real name.)
Terminator had a canny ability to tweak his personality in ways he thought would be appealing to specific listeners, a testament, perhaps, to Laura’s phone-sex skills. With his first agent, Henry Dunow, who has two young children and who wrote a memoir about coaching his son’s Little League team, Jeremy, as Dunow knew him, would talk a lot about family. He would ask after Dunow’s kids and occasionally send them little presents. “I felt like, oh, he wants me to be his dad,” Dunow recalls. “He’s looking for a father figure, which made perfect sense. I am a father figure.
Cooper, whose work is comfortably nestled in the “transgressive” wing of contemporary American letters—Try’s subject matter includes necrophilia and child pornography—saw another side of the young writer, who at times acted as if he had stepped out of one of Cooper’s own literary fantasies. Their conversations were charged. If Cooper suggested meeting, Terminator would balk and say that if Cooper wasn’t sexually attracted to him—“He was supposedly cut and abused so much he looked like a monster”—he would be so distraught he’d have to kill himself. He also claimed to have an erotic obsession with wanting to be murdered that, Cooper says, “I think Laura thought I would be into.” One night Terminator called and left a message saying he was in a limo with a john who wanted to kill him and that he was giving serious thought to acquiescing. Cooper, obviously concerned, wasn’t able to reach Terminator until the following morning; the voice on the line acted as if nothing had happened. Over time, the older writer, like many of J.T.’s early phone pals, threw up his hands: “At one point I said to a friend, ‘I can’t do this anymore. If this kid ends up dead, he ends up dead.’ ”
Laura’s initial expectations for her writing were so low that, Geoff says, when she learned Dr. Owens had been distributing J.T.’s stories to a class he taught for troubled kids and that they had liked them she was thrilled—an audience! J.T. to this point in his career existed only as a voice on the phone or a faxed manuscript, but, whether as Terminator or Jeremy or Jeremiah or J. T. LeRoy (the name Laura eventually settled on, the J for Jeremy, the T for Terminator, and LeRoy a friend’s name she thought sounded southern), he was generating buzz across the country in Manhattan. “It was so clear that he had raw, virtuosic talent, not really ready for publication, but it had some elemental power that you look for in writing and you don’t see too often,” says Karen Rinaldi, then a senior editor at Crown, now the publisher of Bloomsbury USA.
One day, Laura turned to Geoff and said, “I need to substantiate J.T. to a couple of people to make this fly. I think I can get a book deal, but people are wondering if there really is a J.T.” This was true: almost from the day J.T. dipped a toe in public waters there were rumors that he was an invention of Dennis Cooper’s or Mary Gaitskill’s or, later, Gus Van Sant’s.
The first person Laura wanted to “substantiate” J.T. with was Dr. Owens. According to Geoff, she sprang this on him at the last minute, on a Sunday morning not long before the scheduled meeting with Dr. Owens, set for 9:30. The couple jumped into their Tercel and began cruising up and down Polk Street, one of the city’s seedier drags, looking for an authentic teenage hustler to play Laura’s pretend one.
With only minutes to spare, they spotted someone blond, skinny, and strung-out: just the J.T. type. Laura chatted him up while Geoff stayed in the car. At first the kid was wary—what exactly was this couple interested in?—but Laura talked him into the Tercel with a promise of a few 20s and gave him his brief: “I need you to meet this guy. All you have to do is say, ‘Hi, I’m J.T.,’ and then get nervous and run away.” According to Geoff, the kid was “totally out of it—he was probably doing heroin—but he’s like, ‘O.K, O.K. No problem.’ ”
They drove to St. Mary’s Medical Center, the hospital where Dr. Owens worked; he was waiting for them in the parking lot. As Geoff remembers it, “The kid walks right up to Dr. Owens, shakes his hand, and then forgets the one thing he’s supposed to be doing—he tells him his real name. ‘Hi, I’m Richard.’ And Laura is standing right up against him, purposely, and like gives him a little elbow. Realizing he’s blown it, he goes, ‘Oh, I’ve had too much coffee!’ and runs off.” Geoff chased after Richard while Laura stayed behind and, presumably in the role of Emily, somehow explained J.T.’s behavior to the evidently broad-minded therapist.
Several months later, Laura decided J.T. also needed to meet Mary Gaitskill, who lived in San Francisco. The rendezvous was set for a coffee shop, where Gaitskill would be waiting at a table. The hapless Richard, mustered with great effort, was again given his instructions: “All you have to do—you don’t even need to say anything. Just walk toward the table, start to sit down, look at her nervously for a second, freak out, and leave.” This time, Richard, flanked by Geoff and Laura, played his role to perfection. Laura dashed out after him, pretended to comfort him on the street, and then returned to chat with Gaitskill, apologizing for J.T.’s “skittishness.” According to Geoff, it was a pivotal moment: “That was her first taste of getting to vicariously have the pleasure of meeting somebody she admired and interacting with them as Laura. Or, at least, as Emily.”
Geoff had his own taste of disconnect, a bittersweet one, when Karen Rinaldi, visiting San Francisco from New York, showed up unexpectedly at the door of his and Laura’s apartment with a care package of food. Geoff kept his cool and said J.T. wasn’t around, wouldn’t be around, and Rinaldi, though skeptical, eventually left. But a deep impression had been made: “She was really sexy, and she had groceries. And a limo. I was like, I’ll go for a ride in the limo. This was rock-star treatment for J.T.—that was the first time I saw something like that. And I just remember wishing like, God, I wish we were real.”
Clearly this was no ordinary literary hoax, but what, then, was it? Certainly there was calculation. According to Geoff, Laura had versed herself in the case of Anthony Godby Johnson, another sexually abused boy with AIDS who was rescued by a social worker; who published a best-selling memoir in 1993, A Rock and a Hard Place; and who was later exposed as the likely invention of the supposed social worker. “I think Laura learned a lot from that,” Geoff says. “How to do it better.” According to Geoff, Laura was acutely aware that editors, critics, and booksellers would be more interested in the autobiographical tales of a spectacularly abused teenage hustler than in the novice fictions, however accomplished, of a woman in her early 30s whose only previous literary endeavors were her lyrics for a failed rock band.
But masquerading as J.T. seemed to meet other needs as well. Geoff thinks that because of her self-consciousness about her appearance, Laura welcomed a way to venture into the world cloaked, present but hidden. In interviews, as J.T., Laura seemed to wrestle with this issue. “One thing I’m really working on in therapy is the way I crave attention,” J.T. told Interview magazine. “I can’t get enough of it, and at the same time it terrifies me.”
But J.T. seemed on occasion to be in the grip of forces beyond his—or possibly Laura’s—control. “If it was just a scam,” says Panio Gianopoulos, J.T.’s editor, “it just seems remarkable that someone would take the time to call me up on, like, a Sunday and pretend to be suicidal. He’d gotten the edits already. He’d had the attention. Why would you bother with this?”
On the phone, J.T. could fly into sudden, inexplicable rages or babble incoherently in what Henry Dunow describes as “some sort of dissociative state.” (Dunow was so concerned by one such conversation that he contacted Dr. Owens, who assured the agent that J.T.’s behavior was under control.) A number of people I spoke to said J.T. would sometimes exhibit evidence of multiple personalities. Dennis Cooper remembers “a series of calls where he’d be having all these personalities. There’d be a really innocent little girl, and a mean guy, and a mean little girl. There were four or five different personalities.” The mean guy had a name: Roy.
The Italian actress Asia Argento wrote, directed, and starred in (not altogether triumphantly) the film adaptation of The Heart Is Deceitful Above All Things.She would consult J.T. while she was writing the screenplay. In order to give her notes, she says, he would become Roy, “this mean, more masculine person”; it was the only way, she says, that J.T., or Laura, could be “firm” and “judgmental.”
Were these other characters just a bonus layer of deception—filigree from a master hoaxster? Or were they evidence of something more fundamental in Laura’s personality? Was J.T. himself some kind of psychic eruption? Though Geoff, probably wisely, declined to play armchair psychoanalyst for me, he did offer this: “Laura feels like J.T. is a part of who she is. I mean, the fact that she’s been writing in that voice all her life, and maybe telling stories in that voice all her life … ” Of course, a lot of writers believe their characters are a part of them. As Flaubert famously said, “Madame Bovary, c’est moi.” On the other hand, history has no record of Virginia Woolf ever pretending to be Mrs. Dalloway on the phone.
Laura herself may have revealed more than she intended when speaking as J.T. to the London Observer Magazine last year: “If people want to say that I don’t fucking exist then they can do that. Because in a way I don’t. I have a different name that I use in the world, and maybe J. T. LeRoy doesn’t really exist. But I’ll tell you one thing: I’m not a hoax. I’m not a fucking hoax.”
Karen Rinaldi eventually offered J.T. a book contract with an advance of what one person familiar with the deal calls a “ballpark figure” of $24,000—a very respectable sum for a first book of uncertain commercial prospects. But there was another hurdle to overcome: how does a nonexistent writer, and a minor to boot, sign an enforceable contract? Brainstorm: Laura enlisted a close friend to play J.T.’s “Uncle Bruce,” who was supposedly counseling J.T. and would speak to Dunow and Rinaldi on the phone. Conveniently, Uncle Bruce had his own good reasons for remaining as elusive as J.T.: he was a super-top-secret government agent who couldn’t reveal too much without compromising his cover. “This is bad-novel, bad-movie time, these kinds of constructions,” admits Dunow with a sigh and the benefit of hindsight.
Uncle Bruce co-signed J.T.’s contract. Payments were directed to the writer’s “cousin” JoAnna Albert, in reality Laura’s sister. A corporation, Underdogs Inc., was set up to handle J.T.’s financial affairs; its president was Laura’s mother, Carolyn Albert, who had long given Laura and Geoff financial advice. The first check from Crown—Geoff remembers it as being around $12,000—was cause for celebration, more money than Laura had made in a year, Geoff says. But the couple was cautious not to get too excited; they were still licking their wounds from Cyborgasm 2.
That first book became Sarah, a kind of fantasia on the theme of truck-stop prostitution, which Laura had written in a six-month spurt shortly after their son’s birth, in 1997. “She was in an odd state of sleep deprivation and breast-feeding, eating lots of chocolate late at night,” says Geoff. “I didn’t even know she was writing it.” Published in 2000, the book took the supposed details of J.T.’s life—Sarah was the name of J.T.’s “real” mother as well as the mother character in the book—and spun them through a fanciful blender, creating a trashy but myth-infused world where young hookers are venerated as saints and a shrine with a stuffed jackalope head serves as a kind of Lourdes; it was as if C. S. Lewis had decided to rewrite Tobacco Road and had also developed a slightly campy sense of humor. Anchoring all this is the young narrator’s genuinely painful longing for love, and for his mostly absent mother, but it is probably safe to say that Sarah is one of the more palatable novels about child prostitution ever published. By any measure, it is an impressive first novel, though maybe not to your or my taste. (The stories that would be collected in The Heart Is Deceitful Above All Things are more visceral and horrifying, though their power is undercut by sloppier writing and occasional descents into poor-little-waif kitsch.)
Publishers Weekly dismissed Sarah as a “curiosity,” but most critics were generous. Geoff and Laura were thrilled when they first saw a positive notice of the book, in Spin. “We were just starstruck. Wow! A glossy magazine!” This, Geoff says, was even better than being read in Dr. Owens’s teen-junkie class. They were more thrilled when, after years of having to dragoon friends to come see their band, 30 strangers turned up spontaneously for the first reading of J.T.’s work in San Francisco, even if, as Geoff puts it, the fans were mostly “misfits.”
Part Two: The J.T. Show
Sitting on a couch in his new living room, late-afternoon sun slanting in through a parlor window, Geoff was showing me a stack of photos, a visual record of J.T.’s progress through the world of comparative fame and fortune: “There’s Zwan, Billy Corgan’s band. We went to see them backstage at Saturday Night Live.… This is from a photo shoot we did for The New York Times, with Third Eye Blind up in Sonoma or Napa at Danielle Steele’s kid’s house.… That’s Eddie Vedder. He’d read the books.… There’s Winona [Ryder]—she was a bit tipsy or something—hosting the reading at the Public Theater.… That’s in Italy, on the book tour.… This is the party Courtney Love threw in our hotel room, and it was so Courtney—you know, blasto.”
And so on. (Geoff wasn’t name-dropping. I had asked to see the pictures.)
This was phase two of J.T.’s career. Shortly after Sarah came out, the young writer had told an interviewer, “I wrote Sarah from this really pure, honest place, from deep inside. Just feeling, like Braille. I hope it is a book people will feel. I guess my biggest fear is that no one will give a shit.” That last part was certainly true. Having already plowed through the literary world, and now with an actual product to sell, Laura moved on to more publicity-fertile fields. “There were always packages of J.T.’s books going out to celebrities,” says Geoff, who makes the work of collecting rock stars and actresses sound like the easiest thing in the world, and maybe it was: “Contact the assistant, get ahold of the publicist—whatever. Send the stuff. Keep calling. It just snowballs. Once you’re in with a few people—Bono, Madonna—of course Winona’s going to want to be at your reading.”
With participants such as Ryder and Tatum O’Neal and Lou Reed—actors and musicians responded to J.T. for the same reasons novelists and poets did—the readings became pressworthy events, even attracting corporate sponsors: Index magazine and Motorola for a 2003 evening at the Public Theater in New York City. There were readings in London with Samantha Morton and Marianne Faithfull, and in Los Angeles with Lisa Marie and Susan Dey. (Geoff laughed when I asked about J.T.’s connection to Dey; the Partridge Family and L.A. Law actress didn’t necessarily seem like the first person a transgressive novelist would network with. “Laura just went after anyone,” he said. “I don’t even know what the motivation was sometimes.” As proof of this, perhaps, he showed me a snapshot of Nancy Sinatra at a J.T. event.)
The missing piece in the charade had been an actual, physical J. T. LeRoy. Though with two mostly well-received books under his belt in as many years, he was doing better than 98 percent of the MacDowell Colony, Laura felt she needed a real J.T. to take his career to the next level. Richard was long since out of the picture, and Laura had approached at least one other person to play J.T. “Then, one day,” Geoff says, “it just sort of dawned on her that Savannah would be perfect. And Savannah was like, ‘Sure. Why not?’ ”
This was Geoff’s half-sister Savannah Knoop, then 21. She was attractive in a boyish way, vaguely resembling Jean Seberg in Breathless, which had obviously sparked Laura’s imagination; according to Geoff and others who know her, Savannah had an untutored charisma that was just waiting to be harnessed. “Basically, she can charm the pants off of anybody,” says Geoff. But as with many twists in the J.T. saga, Savannah’s part began as much as a shrug or a hunch as a long-term plan. The occasion for Laura’s brainstorm was an interview request by German television in the fall of 2001. Again, Geoff thought, what’s the harm? “Even though it was television,” he says, “it was Germany, so who cared? Nobody was going to know or see it.”
This was not impeccable, Mission: Impossible–style subterfuge. Geoff and Laura bought a cheap wig in a store on Mission Street, then did some test shots with Savannah in a photo booth. Laura primed Savannah with a few details about J.T.’s life. The German crew shot Savannah walking around Polk Street and ducking into bookstores. “J.T.” didn’t say much. It all went off without a hitch.
The impersonation was such a success that Laura decided to keep it going. Savannah’s initial marching orders were to be shy and awkward in public—to more or less keep her mouth shut. When she did talk, people who had phone relationships with J.T. were surprised that his voice in person didn’t match the one they were familiar with, and that he often seemed to have no idea who they were. (So sad: one more debilitating effect of all that abuse.) But, overall, Savannah’s effect was galvanizing. Through a mix of luck and design, Laura had created a genuine icon. As tremulous as a broken-winged fledgling, this J.T. broke down crying at a reading in New York and hid under a table when grilled by aggressive Italian reporters at a press conference in Milan. With slight stature, androgynous good looks, and floppy blond hair, he bore a striking resemblance to the cute, sexy, but non-threatening boy singers who paper the walls of pre-teen girls’ bedrooms—an Aaron Carter with a whiff of rough trade. To help explain away Savannah’s evident femininity, J.T. began telling people he was undergoing a sex change, which only added to his aura of being both not of this world and one of its more palpable victims. No one seemed to notice that the scars they had heard so much about had disappeared.
I didn’t have an iota of doubt,” says Ira Silverberg. “I totally believed that this was my client, that this was someone who was abused, had gender-identity issues. It made total sense—Laura set this whole thing up brilliantly. When you meet this genderless thing, hiding behind a wig and sunglasses, you accept that as the damaged person who somehow is only able to communicate by phone.”
“In my business,” says Kelly Cutrone, a New York fashion publicist who was befriended by J.T. and worked with the writer informally on events, “it’s not the first time there’s a possibility that a man is actually more like a woman.”
“I was always sort of rationalizing. I thought, well, maybe I had underestimated his phobias,” says Panio Gianopoulos, who was surprised when Savannah, as J.T., didn’t seem to know who he was when they met at a party. (The forthcoming DVD of The Heart Is Deceitful Above All Things includes footage of Savannah as J.T. at a reading last year in London looking so anxious she appears ready to throw up.)
This new J.T. held a somewhat different appeal from the J.T. Dennis Cooper had known. “My secrets I can share with him. I trust him and feel safe with him. I tell him things I probably don’t tell anybody else. He pours his heart out to me. So warm and understanding,” Liv Tyler told Vanity Fair’s U.K. edition in 2003. Winona Ryder gushed: “He’s one of those guys you can lay in bed with and watch movies with and cuddle with and feel safe doing that. He is so true, such a poet.”
Hollywood actresses weren’t the only ones to melt in J.T.’s presence. Italians, too: “We were very touched by whoever that person was,” says Thomas Fazi, the Rome-based publisher who hosted J.T. in 2002 and again last year. “It was a magnetic, very powerful, charismatic person, even if he didn’t say much, or even do much. It was like being next to a fallen angel, someone who had obviously been through a lot but retained something pure. I felt like I wanted to cuddle with him.”
Non-famous people who had themselves been abused or were H.I.V.-positive or transgendered or were just moved by his story—or morbidly fascinated—began flocking to J.T.’s events. “Laura understood the kind of prurient part of the American psyche that wants to know, ‘Oh, this boy really did get fucked in the butt, he really did bleed,’ ” says Patti Sullivan, a screenwriter who adapted Sarah for Gus Van Sant and worked closely, she thought, with J.T. “People looked at him—and I was at his readings—like some kind of fucking stigmata. It was astonishing. You had these really damaged people, and it was like these fundamentalists going to church to hear the word. These people were probably victims of child abuse, and all kinds of things growing up. And Laura was telling their story on some level. These hundreds and hundreds of people would just be swooning, almost. It was like they were hearing something being told back to them that, on some level, rang true.”
For Geoff and Laura, life had become bifurcated. At home, they were still holed up in a cramped, messy apartment that was becoming increasingly crowded with J.T.-related detritus. The advance for The Heart Is Deceitful Above All Things was “modest,” according to a source, not much more than the one for Sarah. Though both of J.T.’s books had been sold to the movies, the option on Sarah was bringing in only $15,000 a year, and The Heart Is Deceitful Above All Things, shot in Knoxville in 2003, was strictly a low-budget affair. Still cadging favors and gifts, J.T. would complain to friends about his bad book contracts and the burden of having to support a family of four. “I got the feeling they didn’t have any money. They were hungry,” says the photographer Mary Ellen Mark, who shot J.T. for Vanity Fair in 2001 and then took the quartet out for dinner. “They ordered all this stuff and took it home with them.”
But life on the road, drafting in celebrity’s tailwinds as producers and publishers flew “the circus LeRoy”—Ira Silverberg’s phrase—back and forth across the country and the Atlantic, was altogether different. Years of experience living the D.I.Y. punk life collided with promotional budgets, expense accounts, and credulous publicists to spectacular and, at least from a remove, sometimes amusing effect. There were riders demanding that hotel rooms be stocked with high-grade organic chocolates and ice cream. There were expensive clothes from photo shoots and premieres which filled Geoff and Laura’s closets. Ira Silverberg remembers a dinner held by Viking in New York in 2002 to celebrate the house’s signing of J.T.’s as-yet-unfinished second novel, The Pants: “What was meant to be dinner for, I think, 4, maybe 5, turned into a dinner for about 12. Because anytime anyone was available to pick up the tab for dinner, Laura would invite twice as many people to somehow show to her friends or whoever these people were—usually hangers-on of no renown, you know, some stylists, some hairdresser, some freelance fashion person, or something—‘Look, we’re getting taken out by the publisher,’ and Viking would get stuck with the tab. I remember actually at that meal, Laura taking the tab and looking at it and giving me this kind of look of approval, like, ‘Oh good, it’s over a thousand dollars. That’s appropriate.’ ”
For the premiere of The Heart Is Deceitful Above All Things at Cannes, Laura, Geoff, Savannah, and Thor were put up at La Colombe d’Or, the inn and restaurant in Saint-Paul-de-Vence, up in the hills behind Cannes, which is famous for its paintings by Matisse and Léger. “They were great grifters,” says Roberta Hanley, the producer. “Costume National was very generous and offered them clothes for the premiere. There was all this back-and-forth because they were getting clothes for girls and boys—they couldn’t decide which way they were going to dress J.T. In the end, they decided they needed everything they saw. They found no reason not to accept two steamer trunks full of clothes. Then they turned to this nice Italian boy who had brought the clothes up to the Colombe d’Or and said, ‘Those leather pants would be very nice.’ They tried to take the pants straight off his ass! I turned to Speedie and said, ‘You’re good.’ ”
Laura now found herself in the odd position of having to share her baby, as it were. Savannah, who for her troubles was being paid a small but livable salary by J.T.’s corporation, had initially been of two minds about becoming J.T., even quitting on a couple of occasions, but as she grew into the role and began talking more in public—she and Laura, who still played J.T. on the phone, eventually synchronized their voices—she felt at times as if she too were channeling J.T. “Every time she’d come back and do it,” Geoff says, “she’d feel more deeply like it was part of her.”
Like any skilled actress, or at least one with leverage, she began making the role her own. “I was starting to observe that J.T. was looking prettier, wearing make-up, lipstick,” says Chris Hanley, Roberta’s husband, another of the many producers of The Heart Is Deceitful Above All Things. “It was Savannah coming out. She was bursting at the seams.”
Charlie Wessler—who is straight—found himself uncomfortably smitten when he met J.T. at Carrie Fisher’s house: “I remember thinking, That J.T. is really cute. And I remember feeling really screwed up for thinking that, but it was true.” One evening, the producer recalls, Fisher and her houseguests were watching a movie. The actress brought up a topic that was on a lot of minds. “You’re having a sex change?” she asked J.T. “Yes,” Savannah said, “I’ve started hormone treatments.” Fisher then observed, “Well, it looks like you’ve got some tits going there.” Savannah lifted up her shirt and showed them off—an odd instance of natural passing for man-made.
In Laura’s formulation, J.T.’s sexuality had always been ill-defined, neither here nor there but definitely somewhere. He had once claimed to Dennis Cooper that abuse had left him so hormonally stunted that he had the genitals of a two-year-old, and though he could be seductive on the phone, he often said he was no longer sexually active.
Savannah’s J.T. was less conflicted. She launched into a series of flings and make-out sessions, including at least one with a young male movie star who thought he was taking a walk on a wilder side than was the case in genetic fact. Savannah struck up a more involved relationship with Asia Argento during the course of collaborating with the actress-director, including a visit to the film’s set, in Knoxville. “We kissed, we made out,” Argento told me. “She had breasts, very small breasts, so it felt womanly, her body, but, you know, I still thought that it was a boy that did an operation. I didn’t have sex so much that I could see that actually the sex was real female.” (A few hours after we spoke, Argento, now brimming with loose-lipped joie de vivre, further warmed to the subject in front of 200 or so audience members at the New York premiere of her film: “I slept with J.T. in the same bed and I was like, ‘Wow, they make really good pussies these days.… I touch, I look. It was dark. You never know how they make pussies these days.”)
At parties and readings, Laura enjoyed watching from the sidelines while celebrities fawned over her increasingly confident stand-in. “It was always ironic,” Geoff says, “because Laura would be sitting nearby, the true genius.” The sadder irony was that many of J.T.’s fans and professional associates actively disliked the woman who had created him. They found Speedie/Emily pushy and abrasive, grasping, even trashy. Laura had finally gotten her weight problem under control, becoming more assertive in public, but behind her back people laughed about her patently phony British accent and made fun of her appearance. She wore odd Victorian clothes and obvious wigs, usually a severe red one with bangs, which made her look like a Halloween reveler. People assumed she was a parasite. There were epithets: starfucker, vampire. Roberta Hanley, the producer, thought of her as a female Fagin.
“She was loud and faking this accent,” says Panio Gianopoulos. “She just seemed completely superficial and like, ‘Pay attention to me,’ in a kind of juvenile way.”
“It’s hard to believe she wrote the books,” says Thomas Fazi. “Speedie didn’t seem like someone who could write such warm, tender, moving books. She was a good agent, but she was cold. The person in the blond wig had the aura of a writer. Speedie didn’t.” If there was a sense that this was a Cyrano de Bergerac story, it was one that seemed headed for a sadder ending.
As Savannah had become central to the enterprise, Geoff was feeling more and more like a fifth wheel. He stayed behind in San Francisco taking care of Thor when Laura and Savannah went to Europe for a six-week book tour in 2002; he and Thor had been scheduled to go too, but at the last minute the couple decided it would be too stressful to bring the boy. Geoff fumed one night when he was stuck cooling his heels in a parking lot with Thor, who had fallen asleep in the car, while Laura and Savannah went to a post-concert party for U2. More and more, Geoff says, he was stuck in the role of househusband or nanny.
Laura was still supportive of Geoff’s music. As J.T., she wrote in an e-mail to a friend: “He is house husband, doin soccer stuff, and he should should be doin music, it might not look the way we dreamed, but he should be. He should be a rockstar.… I know what happened, is happening with me and my writing is a grace, a gift, but it should be for him too. It fuckin should.” The band Thistle, which was formed in 2001, had its fans and had made some promising contacts in the music business, working with the former Talking Head Jerry Harrison and Dennis Herring, a producer who has recorded the likes of Elvis Costello and Sparklehorse; but the group could never quite gain commercial traction. Just as, Geoff says, Laura knew her work was far more marketable as J.T.’s, he was aware that J.T.’s lyrical contributions drove interest in Thistle. Worse, he resented having to tell his own mother to be sure to call him Astor when she turned up at shows.
By 2004 the constant pressure of maintaining the ruse was taking a toll on both Geoff and Laura. He had begun urging her to “retire” J.T., to turn the writer into a recluse in the manner of J. D. Salinger or Harper Lee and do her own writing. She angrily refused. He gave her a copy of Writing Children’s Books for Dummies, hoping she might do something for kids under her own name. She took the gesture as an insult. Something in the couple’s dynamic had shifted: he felt he was losing her.
Geoff’s close friends and family—between 20 and 30 people were now in on the secret—were also pressuring Laura to give J.T. up. Like Geoff, many were especially concerned about the effect of the deception on Thor (who once wondered aloud why J.T. got to be famous when everyone else was doing all the work). Geoff’s older sister confronted Laura at a family gathering: “Someday the shit is going to hit the fan. What are you going to do? You have a kid. What’s your plan?” Laura turned defensive, then flew into a rage. “It’s me,” she screamed. “It’s part of me. It’s not a hoax.”
Geoff began suffering anxiety attacks, afraid he would be blacklisted as a musician if and when the truth about J.T. came out. By last year, Laura herself may have finally begun to weary of the charade. As J.T. she e-mailed Charlie Wessler, the producer, “I wanted to just be the best writer I could be, and be who I want. And I might wanna go off and be a dress maker or go to school and be a cook, I don’t want to be pinned to being that gay street hustler boy … none of which is me at this point. And they wanna secure me the fuck down, and thrust me out and say, this is who you are … I will play their game best I can, whilst sticking to mine. But Charlie it is hard.”
Another e-mail to another friend: “Just wondering why all this fame hasn’t fixed me cause it don’t.”
The end game was quick, though not half as quick as it might have been. After all, if you had cared to look closely, there were so many holes in J.T.’s story: as the writer Stephen Beachy pointed out in a well-reported article in New York magazine last October, how had J.T., back in his street days, managed to find public bathrooms with phone jacks for his fax machine? And, come to think of it, who ever heard of a pathologically shy hustler?
Beachy, a Bay Area novelist who attended the first J.T. reading in San Francisco, had become increasingly intrigued by gaps in J.T.’s story and the unlikeliness of much that was supposedly accounted for. Running down numerous leads over the course of a year, he put together a strong circumstantial case that Laura was in fact the author of J.T.’s books, but he had no smoking gun, and while some of J.T.’s friends and fans began wondering if they’d been conned, others found ways to dismiss the claim. Says Gretchen Koss, a publicist at Viking who had befriended J.T. and had helped buy the as-yet-unfinished second novel, “J.T. had e-mailed a mutual friend of ours a perfect reply about that New Yorkarticle, saying that the writer was jealous, that there was some competition between him and Astor or some such nonsense, and then went on to outline how ridiculous the whole article was. And so I just thought, Oh well, it is a ridiculous article then—they don’t know, they just don’t know.”
In January, however, Warren St. John, a New York Times reporter who had also been chasing the story for more than a year after writing a straightforward profile of J.T. in the paper’s Sunday Styles section, outed Savannah as J.T.’s public face in the Times. J.T. issued a Hail Mary statement claiming, “As a transgendered human, subject to attacks, I use stand-ins to protect my identity.” But even for those most invested in believing, this, finally, was the Emperor’s New Clothes moment. In a follow-up article St. John persuaded Geoff, who by that point had split from Laura, to confess to the deception’s broadest outlines.
The reactions of J.T.’s friends and associates have since ping-ponged back and forth between hurt and puzzlement, embarrassment and anger, and even amused admiration for what some see as a kind of extended performance-art piece. “It was like someone tapping you on the shoulder and saying, ‘By the way, you’re adopted,’ ” recalls Silverberg, who was not amused; he is especially angry that Laura invoked AIDS to gain his and other’s sympathy. Tipped off to the article about Savannah in the Times the night before it ran, he screamed at Laura, or whoever answered J.T.’s phone, demanding an apology—which he didn’t get, although he did receive a follow-up e-mail suggesting that Richard Gere should play him in the inevitable film. It was signed, “with love, us all … ” Silverberg no longer represents J. T. LeRoy.
“I try not to see myself as a victim of a hoax because you just don’t want to feel like you’re an idiot, and I think, well it was my job to edit him,” says Panio Gianopoulos. “I feel bad for people who took tons and tons of time out of their lives and got emotionally involved. But I don’t know, I guess writers have a lot of time to kill anyway.”
Since Geoff and Laura have been instructed by their lawyers to speak to each other only about child-care matters, he doesn’t know what Laura’s reaction to his confession was. It didn’t go over well, he suspects. He is mostly relieved to have unburdened himself, though uncertain about his future. He is currently working on his own music and producing songs for a local band, French Disco.
In February, shortly before Geoff and I first spoke, Laura and Savannah had asked to be flown to New York for the premiere of The Heart Is Deceitful Above All Things, but when the distributor, Palm Pictures, insisted it would foot the bill for a week-long trip only if the pair spoke to the media and acknowledged their deception, the two balked. (And anyway, says a person who worked on the film, “They were asking for stuff Tom Cruise would ask for, and from someone who doesn’t even exist, that’s a bit much.”)
“There’s a reluctance of both Savannah and Laura to discard this creation,” says Chris Hanley. “It really felt like the death of a child. Speedie said to me, ‘Why do I have to let my boy-child, my J.T., die?’ ” It took a month or so after the exposé for Laura’s representatives in Hollywood to begin acknowledging her authorship of the books; they avoid the word “hoax,” instead referring to “the controversy”—a smudgy locution also favored by intelligent-design advocates. According to Judi Farkas, formerly J.T.’s manager, now Laura’s, “Laura is not denying that she is J.T., but she hasn’t made any public statements. At some point she will absolutely tell her story, and it’s a story that’s so complex, subtle, layered, and incredible that there’s no way for other people to tell it. The real heart of this story is how Laura will explain herself herself.” She spent part of last fall writing for the upcoming season of Deadwood, but whether as J.T. or herself—or both—remains to be seen.
Like Laura, Savannah turned down my request for an interview, as she has other press entreaties. She did, however, e-mail me the following statement: “I started out being J.T. to help Geoff and Laura get their music and writing out there. But eventually it evolved into this exploration of gender, and it gave me permission to play with my identity. I read in Audre Lorde’s ‘biomythography,’ Zami: A New Spelling of My Name,that in the fifties it was rumored that crossdressing women could be arrested for wearing less than three pieces of their sexes’ clothing. Today we all have the right to don whatever hat or wig or undergarments we choose, as well as make as many different kinds of art as we please. I am grateful for all of these surreal adventures that Laura and Geoff and I had together. I look forward to giving voice to them.” She is currently working as a waitress to help support her small clothing company, Tinc; her designs reportedly “explore gender” as well.
In the end, does it matter who wrote the books? Can the work be separated from the author, or non-author? As a philosophical question, it’s up to the individual reader to work that out for him- or herself. (Personally, having come to the books late, I think I find them more impressive as works of imagination than I would have as thinly veiled autobiography.) As a commercial proposition, it’s a wash: sales of J.T.’s books have apparently been unaffected by his “outing.”
Karen Rinaldi hasn’t spoken to J.T., or Jeremy, as she calls him, in a few years. She claims she always kept the writer at an emotional distance, but her kiss-off is as resonant as any: “I said, ‘Jeremy, I don’t know who you are. I don’t know what part of your story is true. I don’t think you’re H.I.V.-positive. I think you’re full of shit. But here’s what I know: you’re a brilliant writer. You’re really good, and that’s what I care about. The rest of it doesn’t really mean that much to me.’ ” J.T.’s response? “He just giggled, and that was the last conversation I had with him.”
- The Boy Who Cried Author, Vanity Fair, 29 April 2008, by Bruce Handy https://www.vanityfair.com/style/2006/04/jtleroy200604