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The morbidly shy young writer JT LeRoy, a teenage drifter and recovering drug addict from West Virginia, courted (mostly by phone, mail and fax) the sympathetic attention of Hollywood celebrities such as Winona Ryder and Drew Barrymore, and prominent authors including Marry Karr and Dennis Cooper. Another fan of his work, Madonna, once sent LeRoy some books on kabbalah as a gift. No one actually met him.
He maintained an enigmatic allure, and it wasn’t long before rumours circulated that there was no JT LeRoy. (Chloë Sevigny said that he was definitely real because ‘he’s left several messages on my answering machine.’) When the writer Mary Gaitskill wanted to meet him in person, the ‘real’ LeRoy – Laura Albert (1965), a former phone-sex operator from Brooklyn – paid a nineteen-year-old boy she’d met on the street (‘You want to make fifty bucks, no sex?’) to meet Gaitskill quickly at a San Francisco café, ‘get freaked out’, and leave. Later, other ‘stunt doubles’ – always wearing sunglasses and a blond wig – were hired to embody LeRoy for public appearances.
Following publication of the cult favourite books ‘Sarah’ and ‘The Heart Is Deceitful Above All Things’, Le Roy was praised as a wunderkind and his work described as a ‘revelation’. Although both were works of fiction, LeRoy’s marketability (and his many celebrity friendships) depended on his image as a wounded kid with a hardscrabble background. The director Gus Van Sant spoke to LeRoy by phone for hours every day, and give him an associate-producer credit on the 2003 film ‘Elephant’. Dave Eggers edited (and wrote the foreword to) LeRoy’s 2005 novella, ‘Harold’s End’, which appeared first in ‘McSweetney’s‘. Eggers wrote that LeRoy’s book would prove to be ‘among the most influential American books in the last ten years’.
Several months later, a journalist revealed LeRoy’s true identity, and the fallout was immediate and severe. A company that had optioned the film rights to ‘Sarah’ successfully sued Albert for fraud. Still, in the wake of the ignominious scandal, the middle-aged author was unapologetic: ‘I went through a minefield and I put on camouflage in order to tell the truth.’ Albert felt victimized by the media and insisted that she could not have written LeRoy’s works under her own name. She denied that she had perpetrated a hoax. ‘It really felt like he was another human being’, she told the ‘Paris Review’ in a 2006 interview. ‘He’d tell the story and I was the secretary who would take it down and say, OK, thank you, now I’m going to try to turn it into craft. But while I wouldn’t sit there and think of myself as JT, as long as I was writing I didn’t have to be Laura either.’
Ciuraru, C. (2011), ‘Introduction’, Nome de Plume, A (Secret) History of Pseudonyms, pp.XXIV–XXV
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