IS AMY PASCAL REALLY AMY PASCAL?
I supposed I should take note of the whole JT Leroy thing. I’m referring, of course, to the recent piece by Warren St. John in the New York Times revealing that the shy, diminuitive figure with a floppy hat, black sunglasses, and a smear of red lipstick appearing in public as author JT Petty is actually a woman named Savannah Knoop, the half sister of Geoffrey Knoop, husband of Laura Albert. Albert is the 40-year-old Brooklyn woman who, in a New York magazine piece a few months ago, Steven Beachy asserted was the person behind JT Leroy’s fiction and rapidly expanding cult.
The Savannah Koop revelation has broken over the last few days, but JT’s blog entries haven’t caught up with it yet. In the latest, he frets over the Christmas season, raves Narnia and Deadwood, and promotes his upcoming appearance as a guest DJ at a Starbucks-sponsored Sundance event. But already, the New York Times article has prompted not-quite-equal parts outrage, self-examination and amusement on the internet. Although in a piece titled “Lying Writers and the Readers who Love Them,” Meghan O’Rourke in Slate notes that confusion over JT’s authorial identity was part of his initial mystique (“The fact is, doubts were raised about the accuracy of Frey’s memoir from the start, both in reviews and in cocktail party chatter. And people have long believed that LeRoy was, in some fashion, the invention of another writer”), those writers and editors who helped JT refine his voice are, for the most part, a bit angry. Perhaps, as writer Susie Bright points out, it wasn’t the literary quality of JT’s literary hoax but its hoax-like quality that has enraged some of his early supporters:
“…JT wrote and asked me to help fundraise for his son’s private French immersion school, Lycee Francaise La Perouse — the most prestigious and expensive secondary school in San Francisco…. I had just come from a Hurricane Katrina fundraiser before I opened my mail. JT’s plea to support his dream of higher education seemed… just plain high. In the years since I first knew him, JT had made film and book deals galore, with celebrities fawning at every gesture. Would he like to donate to my gas bill? It happens to be suffering more than Lycee Francaise’s current endowment fund.”
Writer Dennis Cooper is one who was, at one point, rumored to be the hand behind JT’s fiction. Of course, that wasn’t the case, but Cooper is someone who spent a lot of time on the phone with JT helping guide the early artistic course of his work. In his blog today, Cooper posts his own response to the news and begs those few diehards convinced that it’s all a big Establishment smear to hang it up. He concludes:
“It’ll be fascinating to find out how and precisely why Laura did it, if she wrote the books by herself or in collaboration with others, and learn all the little details that might turn this currently ugly, sadistic, greedy game into something worth wasting brain cells and conversation on. But for now I just hope that the people who’ve been taken will swallow their pride and begin to entertain the fact that that they were fooled, and that it’s okay to have been fooled. No one was more fooled than me, and it blows my mind that I bought the whole story for so many years, but accepting that I was really gullible for what I believed was a good cause is really okay and kind of interesting when I’m not angry at Laura for fucking me over.”
There’s a lively discussion on both Cooper and Bright’s blogs about the whole thing, conversations that veer from discussions of George Eliot and the history of literary scams to the following trenchant question on Cooper’s site by poster Benjamin Russack: “Do you think Luara’s books would have made it to press had they not come with her elaborate story? And, would you have read her stuff and given it the same attention had she been Laura Albert instead of JT LeRoy? Yeah, that’s a mean question, but I only ask it because I STILL don’t know if I would have read his books had I known the truth. It makes me worry about the my own perceptions, like I can’t see things for what they are.”
Finally, there’s a good piece up on The Book Standard that bundles the JT Leroy story with the other authorial identity tale of this week, the charge that James Frey did not lead nearly the hardscrabble life he claims to in his book A Million Little Pieces. In this piece, writers Tatiana Siegel and Borys Kit find out what’s going on with the various JT Leroy film projects. Producer Jeff Levy-Hinte has the option on Sarah, and here’s from the article:
“‘The project has been profoundly upset. We’re just trying to determine what’s the next step,’ Levy-Hinte said. ‘Now we’re evaluating two things: one, how we feel about the project, and two, how the marketplace is going to feel about it.’
The book, which centers on an androgynous 12-year-old boy who idolizes his truck-stop prostitute mother and adopts her identity, was originally optioned by director Gus Van Sant, who allowed the option to lapse. Levy-Hinte paid $15,000 a year to option the book and hired Jeffrey Hatcher (Casanova) to pen the screenplay. Steven Shainberg agreed to direct once he wraps the Nicole Kidman starrer Fur. The producer estimates that he has spent more than $100,000 in developing the now-questionable project.
‘The question of third-party financiers and their desire to become engaged with this project could very well be diminished,’ Levy-Hinte added. ‘It definitely gives me hesitation.'”
On the other hand, Andy Robbins, head of marketing at Palm Pictures, thinks that the controversy might actually help the company’s upcoming distribution of Asia Argento’s adaptation of The Heart is Deceitful Above All Things.
Gus Van Sant, who worked with Leroy a bit on Elephant and who, at one point, tried to get Sarah off the ground, is one who appreciates the Warholian ironies behind the whole Leroy affair. From the same piece:
‘Van Sant said he believes the person he dined with was indeed LeRoy but admits the possibility of being hoodwinked. He turned philosophical: ‘But is anyone who they say they are? Is Amy Pascal really Amy Pascal? Am I really me? How do you know you’re talking to Gus Van Sant? I think people are a little light on information right now.'”
As for me, well, my interactions with Leroy were pretty minor. I seemed to be on his speed dial for a week a few years ago. A couple of people told him I could help guide him through the maze of getting his book adapted for film. He especially wondered if I could introduce his work to a well-known friend. I did, and the phone calls stopped shortly thereafter, although I was surprised to find my help thanked in a New York Press article a couple of years later. I don’t remember much about our conversations, except that he’d call around 2:00AM my time, and that the conversations were interesting at first but then rather tedious. The one thing I do remember talking about, which seems kind of ironic given this week’s news, was JT’s stress over becoming some kind of icon for kids who were abused or in emotional distress. He said that he had posted his email address and that his inbox would fill up with emails from readers who responded strongly and emotionally to his work and who looked to him for some kind of advice or guidance. He told me he that he felt pressured by this and wasn’t sure he should be in that position. I can’t quite remember what I said, except I think I probably mumbled something about how he should just focus on the work and not try to assume the role of anyone’s therapist. Later, JT contributed a few pieces to Filmmaker, like this interview with director Paul Devlin. It was cool to have him in the book for a while, but at some point, his submissions to us dwindled off, and that was fine with me because his interviews were becoming a bit too fan-ish for our style.
In a program entitled “Friends of JT Read from the Heart”, unnamed folks, presumably celebs, will read from his work at the Starbucks Salon at Sundance on January 25. It will be interesting to see who shows up.