JT Leroy and Other Literary Phantoms

Celebrated novelist JT Leroy, known for gritty novels that drew on his life as a prostitute and drug addict, doesn't really exist. Madeleine Brand talks about the hoax with literary critic Stephen Beachy, who wrote about Leroy for New York magazine last October. They also discuss new allegations that A Million Little Pieces, the best-selling memoir by James Frey, is a fraud.

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MADELEINE BRAND, host:

This is DAY TO DAY. I'm Madeleine Brand.

In a few minutes, how home heating oil from Venezuela made it to a Bronx apartment building.

But first, we turn our attention to a grand literary hoax. Writer J.T. LeRoy has been a literary `it' boy for the last decade. He's published three critically acclaimed books and has written for The New York Times, Spin, Nerve and other publications. His stark tales of child abuse, prostitution and drug addiction made him a minor celebrity, and LeRoy was embraced by such stars as Winona Ryder and Courtney Love, along with the writers Mary Gaitskill, Mary Karr and Dennis Cooper. But it turns out `he' may not be a he and may not even exist. Yesterday's New York Times reveals LeRoy is actually a woman or really two women, one in public and another in private, the writer.

Here with more on this bizarre story is Stephen Beachy. He recently wrote an extensive story on J.T. LeRoy for New York Magazine. And, Stephen Beachy, welcome to the show.

Mr. STEPHEN BEACHY (Writer): Thanks, Madeleine.

BRAND: First, tell us how J.T. LeRoy first became known in the publishing world.

Mr. BEACHY: Well, J.T. first contacted the writer, Dennis Cooper, back in 1994, and he would fax Dennis his stories. Dennis connected him to other writers and agents and editors who eventually helped him get published in anthologies and helped him get his first book deal when he was 17. His first book "Sarah" came out in 2000.

BRAND: And it was critically acclaimed.

Mr. BEACHY: Yes. I think a lot of people treated it as if it was really the best thing ever.

BRAND: And why is that?

Mr. BEACHY: He was supposed to be authentic. He was the real thing. Here was this kid who had lived through this incredible childhood, and just the fact that he was writing anything was supposed to amaze us. And the work was always marketed along with the biography.

BRAND: And no one actually saw him in person at first, not his editor or his agent or any of these authors he cultivated as friends. Was anyone suspicious?

Mr. BEACHY: I think many people were suspicious. Many people in the literary world and especially the literary world that J.T. was sort of making his way in, sort of queer, edgy fiction.

BRAND: So he started appearing in public, and I'm wondering, did that quiet the rumors or the suspicions that he wasn't who he said he was?

Mr. BEACHY: Well, it didn't entirely quiet the rumors, because the person who showed up as J.T. LeRoy in public was always in disguise, was always wearing wigs and sunglasses or he was photographed without his face showing or in shadow or with lots of makeup.

BRAND: So you did your own detective work, because you were not convinced that J.T. LeRoy was, in fact, J.T. LeRoy, and you did some sleuthing in San Francisco. What did you find?

Mr. BEACHY: This all began this spring when I heard a story told by an old friend of a woman named Laura Albert and a man named Geoffrey Knoop, that they were, in fact, behind the whole J.T. LeRoy hoax. It sounded plausible to me, and I began investigating it. I began looking into whether anybody named J.T. LeRoy had actually existed. I couldn't find any record of him in West Virginia. I spoke to hustlers on Polk Street in San Francisco and other long-term denizens of the neighborhood, and nobody had any memory of him. I checked birth records and started talking to people who had known J.T. from the beginning and couldn't find anybody who hadn't met him before 2002 and couldn't find any evidence that he actually existed.

BRAND: So who is J.T. LeRoy?

Mr. BEACHY: My belief--and I think it's pretty much proven at this point--is that Laura Albert is the person who's really behind this. She's a 40-year-old woman who was born in Brooklyn and she used to do phone sex work in the '90s and those were the skills that she used in perpetuating the J.T. LeRoy hoax. She would have endless telephone conversations with writers and agents and editors, getting them to sort of have sympathy for her as this young kid with a West Virginia accent, who'd been horribly abused and to do favors for her and to help her sort of make it in the world.

BRAND: And did you ever speak to him/her?

Mr. BEACHY: Yes, I spoke to J.T. LeRoy twice, and I was convinced that I was speaking to Laura at that time.

BRAND: And what was that phone conversation like?

Mr. BEACHY: It was a very strange and disturbing conversation. But there's a real intelligence behind all of that.

BRAND: And yesterday's New York Times revealed that the public person of LeRoy was actually played by someone else, and that was Laura's husband's sister?

Mr. BEACHY: Yes, half-sister, I believe, Savannah Knoop.

BRAND: It seems like a lot of work to do this. Why do you think Laura Albert did it?

Mr. BEACHY: I think Laura is a very ambitious person and there has to be more than just ambition going on to sort of live out this alternative life as an abused 14-year-old kid for a decade. And she really did live it out for hours and hours over the telephone with endless sort of performances and this was really about ambition and self-promotion.

BRAND: Stephen Beachy is a writer. His story, Who is the Real J.T. LeRoy?, appeared in New York Magazine last October. Stephen Beachy, thank you.

Mr. BEACHY: Thanks, Madeleine.

BRAND: More coming up on DAY TO DAY from NPR News.

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