When Geoffrey Knoop confessed to the New York Times in February that his partner of 16 years, Laura Albert, was the one who wrote as JT LeRoy, the jig was up. For over 10 years, Albert, now 40, had fooled the literary world with her invented character, who wrote a confessional novel and stories based on his tempestuous life. The concept was tailor-made for the tragedy-redemption media racket -- LeRoy was a male cross-dressing prostitute whose mother pimped him at truck stops in West Virginia. He ended up a street urchin in San Francisco, turning tricks in the Tenderloin for heroin money, before learning to become a writer.
His books quickly became hipster samizdat. Celebrities like Lou Reed, Courtney Love and Tatum O'Neal gobbled the stories like candy and eagerly volunteered to perform his works at public readings. Movie producers smelled opportunity and bought film rights to his books. The indie film "The Heart Is Deceitful Above All Things," based on LeRoy's collection of stories, starring Asia Argento and featuring cameos by Peter Fonda, Winona Ryder and Marilyn Manson, opens this Friday in New York and Los Angeles. And Albert and Knoop's rock band Thistle toured the United States and Italy, thanks to lyrics by LeRoy.
As his fame grew, so did demand for public appearances. And so Knoop's half-sister, an aspiring model and actress, was recruited to play LeRoy in public, wearing a stringy blond wig and sunglasses. With the recent admission by Knoop, persistent rumors of the gigantic ruse were finally confirmed, and the LeRoy saga quickly collapsed and disintegrated into a mist of anger and recrimination.
Albert and Knoop are now split up. The stress of keeping up the JT LeRoy charade was a source of their separation. While battling for custody of their young son, he pursues a movie deal, and she sits in her San Francisco apartment, where the phone rings, the e-mails pour in, and the JT LeRoy empire slowly melts away.
LeRoy's fiction is in many ways Albert's life. Both were fond of aliases. JT LeRoy was known as Terminator and Jeremy; Albert has used many names, including Speedie, Laura Victoria and Emily Frasier. Both engaged in long, late-night phone conversations. Both emerged from desperate lives spent on the streets -- Albert in New York, LeRoy in San Francisco.
The heart of the LeRoy saga beats in San Francisco, the streets where young people roll up on shore and pick up the pieces of a scarred life. "San Francisco flotsam," a friend of Albert's describes the milieu. People don't move to San Francisco to climb the corporate ladder of Manhattan or hitch onto the fast train of Hollywood. They come to choose a new name, take drugs and get freaky with sex, start bands, zines and Web sites. Salvation doesn't come through success and career. It's gained by getting out of your head, having a laugh, pissing off the uptight and knowing you got away with something. And if you happen to make a living at it, hey, that's good too.
If you traversed through San Francisco's underground art and music scenes in the late '80s and '90s, you would have crossed paths with Albert and Knoop. Both of them circled in and out of my own life for over a decade, until last September, when Albert, posing as LeRoy, agreed once more to have "his" work read at an event for Litquake, the San Francisco literary festival of which I'm co-director.
While I was writing this story, Albert and her family did not respond to my calls. Knoop remembered me from the early '90s when I was editor of the San Francisco magazine the Nose, and was initially excited about doing an interview, but said he had to run it past his publicist and entertainment lawyer. He later begged off after his attorney told him the interview could damage his custody case.
A number of the couple's friends and acquaintances agreed to talk to me on the condition that I not use their names. They said they wanted to remain friends with Albert and Knoop. They were also embarrassed. "If you're somebody who's a prominent person, you don't want to be seen with egg on your face," says renowned sex author Susie Bright, who met the couple when Albert was struggling to make a name for herself as a sex writer.
However you choose to view the whole affair -- cruel, obvious, protracted, selfish -- even those who are the angriest will admit that, yes, the whole thing was ingenious. Posing as a bruised young gay man with a lilting Southern accent, 10 years' worth of phone calls, sending hundreds of e-mails and faxes -- it took a lot of courage to pull off such a brazen stunt. Everyone I contacted said Albert was exactly the person who could do it, and when they discovered that she was indeed JT LeRoy, they said they weren't surprised at all. It was an incredible show, and most of the credit goes to a punk-rock mom in San Francisco who wrote porn and did phone sex for a living.
I first heard of Albert and Knoop sometime around 1993 or 1994, when my then girlfriend, Holly MacArthur, was puttering around her studio apartment in San Francisco's Mission District. Her chain-smoking, elderly landlady rapped on the door, wanting to show the apartment to some tenants. MacArthur opened the door and greeted the landlady and a young couple in their 20s.
The young woman was named Laura and her boyfriend was Geoff. They were looking for a cheap place to live and $500 a month for a San Francisco studio, at least during this time, was a decent price. They discovered MacArthur was a journalist, said they knew other journalists in town and started telling her about their rock band, Daddy Don't Go. Laura wrote the lyrics, Geoff did the music. The band's name came about, they said, because both had had lousy experiences with their fathers. Many of the lyrics were about abused childhood. They could use some press, and hey, how about your boyfriend, Jack, and his magazine?
The three chatted for much longer than your average tour of a studio apartment. "Laura could just ramble forever about anything, but not in a Chatty Cathy way," says MacArthur, who now lives in Portland, Ore., and works as an editor at Tin House, a literary quarterly. "You felt you could talk to her for a long time. She experienced a lot, she was bright, and there was an edge to her. But she did seem a little on the make. It was one of the first times I felt someone was being nice to me to get something."
Friends remember Albert as legally estranged from her family at a young age. Her childhood in Brooklyn, N.Y., was not pleasant. She lived for a time in a house on Fulton Street, adjacent to Brooklyn Bridge Boulevard, a few blocks from the piers. Her mother, Carolyn, a playwright and drama critic, raised Laura and her sister, Joanna, mostly on her own. Laura told people her parents divorced when she was young, that she had lived in a halfway house, was locked up in juvy, and at age 15 was living by herself on the streets of New York. "She told me she basically accelerated her life," says MacArthur. "And the court allowed her to make her own decisions when she was 16. She said she was doing phone sex in New York -- working in a boiler room situation. She was a Scorpio and said all the girls who worked there were Scorpios."
In the mid-'90s, Steven Blush interviewed Albert about her early life as a street kid for his punk-rock history, "American Hardcore." (A documentary film of the book premiered at Sundance in January but did not feature Albert.) "She just fell into the punk-rock thing," says Blush. "She was a Jewish kid and basically became a skinhead. She lived on Avenue A with the skinheads. They squatted, spare-changed. And those were the days of the fucked-up East Village. You said 'Avenue A' and people got scared."
"There was a cadre of 100 to 200 kids in every city in the early '80s and she was one of them," he continues. "She had pen pals and they would trade fliers and information. It was like this social network for all these fucked-up kids of various types to find themselves. Rich-kid misfits, poor misfits, queer, straight, all found themselves, this mishmosh of alienated youth finding power in this music and this network."
In this milieu of New York punk's second wave, led by tough thugs like Jimmy Gestapo and Vinnie Stigma, Albert collected punk-rock fliers and fanzines. Her archive of punk memorabilia provided Blush with a quarter of the material for his book. "She was an archivist, she was a networker, she was an active scene participant," says Blush. "It was as important as being in a band. It was kind of like this youth culture setting the tone. The impossible could happen because there was nobody to tell you you couldn't do it."
Blush spent hours on the phone with Albert, discussing her frustration with the gender issue in punk rock. The scene was dominated by males. It was all about male power. Girls couldn't be intuitive or emotional; they had to be hard-ass just to keep up. Being a girl attracted to the music, but seen as only sexual, stuck in Albert's brain.
"I was always aware of this very male sexual energy going on," Albert told Blush. "And since I wasn't a boy, I couldn't be part of it. I wanted something from these people, but I knew I didn't want to actually have sex with them. I had this feeling that I could have gotten more if I was a boy."
Albert continued: "The role of the women in the scene was as the sexual outlet, or as something that hung on the arm and stood on the side," she said. "Women weren't welcome in the mosh pit. Girls who did mosh, that was some weird tomboy thing. You were not welcome in bands. Girls didn't welcome each other, either. There was no camaraderie. The only thing you really could offer was sex. It pissed me off that I had to do it, but I was also grateful for it 'cause I got in there in a good way. I wanted that power too, so I learned to play the game. I did what I had to do."
At the time, Albert was working as a phone sex operator, creating aural characters and fantasies for her customers, telling them what they wanted to hear, bartering favors in exchange for an erotic conversation. She was also frequently on the phone talking with bands. At some point, she realized it was easier to talk to musicians if she wasn't a girl.
"If she pretended to be an English boy, they would talk to her," Blush says. "All these bands knew her as a fictitious character. Her British voice is down pat; it's really good. She had all these multiple identities that she was working. She was really good as both an English guy and a British woman."
Despite her identity as a hardcore New York skinhead, Blush says, Albert grew genuinely frightened after interviewing Ian Stuart, lead singer of a pro-Nazi band from England called Skrewdriver, whose lyrics were proudly racist and all about white power. The Jewish Board of Deputies had labeled Stuart "the most anti-Semitic man in Britain." During the interview, Albert told Stuart she was Jewish. Stuart snarled, "I wouldn't say that if I were you." Not long after, in the mid-'80s, Albert moved to San Francisco.
Beginning in the late '70s, San Francisco produced a spate of notorious punk bands, including the Dead Kennedys, Flipper, the Avengers and the Nuns. As they did during the beatnik '50s, hippie '60s and gay '70s, young people from around the country made their pilgrimage to San Francisco, hoping to plug into the street scene. Kids squatted at an abandoned high school in the Haight and at a former Falstaff brewery in the Potrero District, where they were known as "vat rats." They thumbed local punk publications Search & Destroy and Maximum Rock & Roll. By the time Albert arrived, the male-dominated punk scene was already branching out into more female-oriented bands like Frightwig and Tragic Mulatto.
San Francisco's '80s punk demimonde coalesced at a few different scenes. In North Beach, it centered around the Mabuhay Gardens, a Filipino restaurant that hosted mostly local bands. The Farm, a community center in the outer Mission District, turned over evenings to punk-rock bands, while freeway traffic whizzed overhead. A third was a South of Market hangout called the A-Hole, located across the street from what became ground zero of Wired magazine and the dot-com boom.
The A-Hole was open all night long and attracted a zooworthy menagerie of punk rockers, fans, art students, squatters, weirdos and runaways. After the clubs closed, people streamed to the A-Hole, climbing a winding stairwell to enter an epicenter of debauchery -- great recorded music, copious alcohol and drugs, an art gallery, the occasional live performance. A who's who of punk rock played and slept at the A-hole, including the Sex Pistols.
This is the San Francisco that Albert adopted when she moved to the city. She also had adopted a few more names. In addition to the aliases she used for phone sex, she went by the name Speedie. San Francisco artist Bruce Pollack, who ran the A-Hole from 1979 to 1990, is not certain Albert is the Speedie who was often seen circulating among the bands, fans and freaks at the club. What he does know, he says, is "there was a punk rocker named Speedie who lived there a short while and did a lot of drugs."
Not long after moving to San Francisco, Albert met Knoop. He was a guitarist, born and raised in San Francisco, who discovered punk rock at age 14 and a year later formed his first band. She was a cool punk chick from Brooklyn who had done phone sex for a living. They were about the same age and shared mutual interests in music -- punk rock, of course -- and also the Cocteau Twins, Scotland's ethereal duo that featured a female lyricist and lead singer, her male partner on guitar.
By 1993, Daddy Don't Go, Knoop and Albert's band, was performing gigs at San Francisco clubs, sometimes opening up for the gay guy band Pansy Division. Daddy Don't Go struggled for a unique sound. Knoop's chord-based electric guitar progressions weren't breaking any new ground and Albert's vocals were high, thin and soft, sounding very similar from song to song. Her lyrics were earnest and mostly in third person, as though she were being careful to keep an emotional distance.
Daddy Don't Go was also a dud live. "Laura was always a little apprehensive in the limelight," recalls a friend. "I don't think she found it easy to be onstage. She was definitely a little unsure of herself."
But both Albert and Knoop were confident about the band. Like every other starving musician, they lusted for a record deal. While Knoop handled the music production, Albert did administration. Because they didn't have a publicist or manager, Albert made the calls herself, pretending to be each one at various times. It was no different from phone sex, which she continued to do for money. Just tell them what they want to hear.
"I remember Laura calling up journalists and playing the publicist's role," the friend adds. "She would play games with them and Geoff would say, 'Oh Laura, don't go that far!'"
Friends from this period also noticed other differences in the two. Knoop was friendly and laid-back, into health food and being healthy. Albert had the hustle and energy of a New Yorker. She was friendly but also shy and insecure; she didn't seem to have a lot of friends, preferring to spend most of her time at home. Some remember a nurturing earth-mother quality in her. She donated time as an activist, doing outreach on behalf of sex workers. "She's a little dark and a little sad," recalls another friend from this time. "Not depressed. Just that sadness that some people have. She was a little emotionally fractured."
She came alive most when interacting with people over the phone. She didn't just talk on the phone, she worked it. Her role-playing skills made her a natural in the sex world.
In the early '90s, San Francisco was the G spot of the nation's sex scene. When I was editing the Nose, I shared an office with a magazine called Future Sex, which received boxes of pornography and sex toys every day -- strange gizmos and gadgets that attached to genitalia, with virtual-reality helmets and masturbatory mittens.
The founding editor of Future Sex, cyberpunk novelist John Shirley, lasted just one issue. The publishers replaced him with Lisa Palac, a young erotica writer who was a good Catholic girl from Chicago. And very photogenic. At least once a week I would enter what I thought was my office and be shushed by a camera crew from Italian television, interviewing Lisa about sex. Or the New York Times dutifully gathering sound bites on "teledildonics." Or a photographer from Leg Show, setting up a tripod to shoot Lisa wearing pantyhose. What was really irritating was that none of these people were interested in the Nose or me. How can you compete with teledildonics?
Anyone and everyone in the sex and porn and publishing industries knew of Future Sex. It epitomized creative, offbeat, kinky, goofy, pro-sex San Francisco. The magazine paid freelancers well and everyone wanted to write for it. And that included Albert. Sometime in 1994, she and Knoop cozied up to Palac and her fiancé, Ron Gompertz, a record producer who ran a small label called Heyday Records. "They wanted to get a deal for Daddy Don't Go with Heyday," writes Gompertz in an e-mail from Montana, where he now lives. "And they were also very interested in eroticism. So Lisa and I thought they would be perfect for Cyborgasm."
Palac and Gompertz had recently started a new audio venture called Cyborgasm, an erotic anthology of stories and music produced with a 3-D technology they called Virtual Audio. I'm not sure how it worked exactly, but apparently it was better with headphones. Given that the first Cyborgasm sold well, they considered doing a sequel. Palac and Gompertz were intrigued that Albert was doing phone sex and agreed to include her and Knoop in the new recording.
Albert's friends say she saw the Cyborgasm project as an opportunity to promote Daddy Don't Go and her storytelling skills. They recall that Albert and Knoop invited friends over to their apartment for recording sessions. Albert was writing porn lyrics, Knoop was doing music and sound effects, and guests would do the voices. Nobody really knew where it was going.
As it turned out, Albert and Knoop were the only ones who contributed two tracks to Cyborgasm 2. (It featured 10 other artists.) Daddy Don't Go recorded a song called "Down" with the producer from Los Angeles mope rockers Mazzy Star. Knoop and Albert also contributed a spoken-word piece called "Vicious Panties."
Recorded at San Francisco's legendary Hyde Street studios (Grateful Dead, Creedence Clearwater Revival), "Vicious Panties" was a completely improvised scene done in one take. Basically, a closeted, cross-dressing guy gets caught by his girlfriend putting on her stockings, and she decides to turn him into a little-girl slut and humiliate him. With vicious panty-related consequences, of course. It was hot, the role-playing seemed very realistic, and the Cyborgasm staff loved how it turned out.
The Cyorgasm 2 recording was released through Time Warner in 1995. Daddy Don't Go performed, along with other contributors at the launch party at Slim's nightclub. The show was sold out. After that, everyone involved with the project hoped that Albert and Knoop's song would hit it big, get some airplay and sell copies of Cyborgasm, and that everyone would become rich. But there was no radio interest. The band was still unknown and had no live-audience following. "We tried to hook up Daddy Don't Go with Warner Bros.," Gompertz says. "But it didn't stick."
Sadly, the general public tends not to go crazy over obscure musicians who are 30 years old. It was too late for them to be considered the next big thing. Aging is never easy for anyone to accept, especially rock musicians. Daddy Don't Go was finished.
Cole Valley is a leafy Victorian district just up a hill from Haight Street. In early 1996, editor and business writer Eric Wilinski bumped into his Cole Valley neighbor Terrence Owens, a psychiatrist at St. Mary's Medical Center, who ran a therapy clinic for adolescents.
"He came to me one day with a sheet of paper, a one-page typewritten essay," remembers Wilinski. "He told me, 'I've got this kid who's really damaged. This is the first thing he wrote. I don't trust my judgment.' It was a piece about the terrible beauty of heroin balloons. It was an instant hit into an addict's psyche." The psychiatrist told Wilinski he had never met Jeremy, only spoken to him over the phone.
In interviews, Albert, posing as LeRoy, said an outreach worker named Emily Frasier first found Jeremy at age 13, fresh from a childhood of abuse and neglect, wandering around in San Francisco traffic in a haze. Albert said Frasier rescued him and brought him to Owens. (Owens did not return my messages.)
Wilinski was fascinated that a 15-year-old kid could have written something so mature. It was rough but showed some real talent. "I wrote a paragraph basically encouraging the kid to keep writing," Wilinski says. "The next week or so I got a phone call from this soft voice, hemming and hawing. It was a kid, I thought. We ended up having a relationship that was almost exclusively over the phone. He called me a lot. He would call me at 11 p.m. and read me things. My editorial input was just to encourage him to keep writing. 'Oh, that's interesting,' I would say. 'Why don't you tell me more about that?'"
The troubled teenager, however, pushed the conversations beyond books and movies and writing. Wilinski found himself, as so many other JT LeRoy friends would later discover, something of a confessor and life coach.
Says Wilinski: "It wasn't just about writing. It was, 'I think I'm going to kill myself. I'm going to start using again.' Those sorts of things. He got me on the phone with [author] Dennis Cooper once. I don't know what the hell he was doing. 'Hey Dennis, Hey Eric. So, you're friends with Jeremy. OK, gotta go.' The thing for me is, I was handed this kid by somebody, an intelligent person who I trusted. I had no reason to doubt the legitimacy that Jeremy existed."
The two continued their phone relationship for the next few years until LeRoy's first published story, "Baby Doll," appeared under the byline "Terminator" in a September 1997 anthology edited by Laurie Stone, "Close to the Bone: Memoirs of Hurt, Rage, and Desire." Then the calls from Jeremy tapered off. "I just figured he'd moved onto other people," says Wilinski. "It didn't bum me out that he stopped calling as much."
There were a few reasons Jeremy didn't call. His literary career was taking off and he was working with agents and editors. His ghostwriter Albert was trying to carve out a new career as a porn writer and sexpert. And she was busy with a baby. There are only so many hours in a day.
By the mid-'90s, as the Internet bubble loomed over San Francisco, the city was swarming with khakis-and-blue-shirted dot-commers. One venture among the hundreds was the Web magazine, launched by technology publisher International Data Group in late 1996. The magazine lasted only a year and is remembered primarily for launching the annual Webby Awards.
Journalist Steve Fox was tapped to be editor of the Web. Early on, he received a query letter from a young freelance writer named Laura Victoria, the romance-novelist pseudonym that Albert was now using.
"I've been doing this since 1979, and it may have been the best cover letter I ever received," Fox says. "It was so wonderfully written. She seemed to really get what we were trying to do with the magazine. So I gave her a call. She was very funny. She's definitely got some style. So we started chatting and I gave her a couple of things to work on. Sex was obviously a big part of the magazine and she was definitely interested in working on the sex beat. We had a regular sex columnist, Lily Burana, so Laura ended up writing our reviews."
Now editor in chief for InfoWorld Media Group, Fox recalls meeting Albert only once, when she had green-streaked hair. He always dealt with her over the phone. Albert continued to do phone sex on the side and contribute to Rolling Stone's Web site, but the gig with the Web seemed to be her primary source of income. Fox remembers that she was extremely good at cranking out short reviews of sex sites and products.
"Her stuff was on time and high quality," Fox says. "She had an ability to inhabit the intended audience of the sites she was reviewing. It would be impossible to tell what her sexuality was from reading her reviews." She could also be cheeky. In a review of a site called Russian Rendezvous, she wrote: "Tired of American women? Be the first on your block to have a Russian mail-order bride We suggest you tell 'em how easily toilet paper can be procured here, and love will soon follow."
Her reputation began to grow. The Los Angeles Times interviewed her in 1997 about the downside of the Internet's growing porn industry. Owners treated video phone sex performers like "stripper cattle," Albert said, forcing them to work eight-hour shifts with little or no employee benefits.
The Web magazine folded in early 1998, leaving Albert to strike out on her own as a freelance sexpert. She continued to write a column for Rollingstone.com called "Frank Talk With Laura Victoria." She hustled writing gigs for various publications, from Adult Video News to Playboy.com to Bayinsider, a portal affiliated with a regional TV station. She also contributed live audio sex stories for adult Web sites.
Simultaneously, another voice inside her was growing -- the voice of a young boy, fragile and scattered, a survivor of an unimaginably tough childhood. She was becoming more comfortable with the voice. Phone calls were easier to make as him. It was getting easier to ask other writers for advice while posing as Terminator. His writing began to echo her own life on the streets, with tales of shoplifting, meth labs and molestation. She now had an outlet for the things she had seen and known. Writing as Terminator had an organic momentum and it was building.
In 1997, John Strausbaugh, then the editor of New York Press, received a phone call from author Bruce Benderson, who told Strausbaugh to check out some writing by a kid in San Francisco named Terminator, whose stories were attracting a stable of high-profile supporters like writer Mary Gaitskill and agent Ira Silverberg. Benderson passed along a few of Terminator's pieces, and Strausbaugh began a phone and e-mail relationship with the kid.
"Very charming, funny, sweet -- everybody at the paper who dealt with him on the phone -- receptionist, copy editor -- really liked him," Strausbaugh recalls. "We ran a couple of the stories and Terminator wanted to start doing phone interviews with writers and rockers, and I said sure, go for it. It totally fit our Carnival of Souls masthead. We had such an odd roster of writers -- this one was a Satanist, that one a dominatrix. We had Claus von Bulow writing theater reviews from London. So what was one more wacky persona? Just as long as the writing was good, and I thought his was."
The first few Terminator columns varied widely, from a version of the short story "Coal," about a junkie mother and her son on the run, which later appeared in "The Heart Is Deceitful Above All Things," to a rambling description of a Cheap Trick concert at a dot-com party. "OK, so our latest was a private party," wrote Terminator. "Astor's old trick hooks us up It's the folks who do Real Audio for the Internet, their private computer party. We've done some porn for the Internet using Real Audio so we feel part of the family."
Throughout 1998 and 1999, Albert maintained an exhausting schedule. She continued as a phone sex operator. She hustled for gigs as a sexpert. But now emerging fiction writer JT (short for Jeremy Terminator) LeRoy was consuming most of her time. He was busy writing for New York Press, Spin and Nerve, calling up people and reading his writing to them over the phone, and trying to fulfill a contract to finish a novel about his life among prostitutes who picked up johns at truck stops. (Knoop later told the Times he helped with some of the administration and paperwork for LeRoy. But the writing and the phone calls were all Laura.)
In October 1999, Albert suddenly popped back into my life via an e-mail. I had received a few e-mails from her list now and then, mostly Internet jokes and links to weird videos. This time she introduced herself as Laura Albert, reminding me that we had known each other. She wanted me to write an article about a mass orgy to be held in a month, somewhere in Mexico. Apparently a woman named Cleopatra would have intercourse with 1,000 guys, all of it broadcast live on the Internet. Laura included a press release about the Cleo 1000 event and, as credibility for herself, also a link to a recent story she had done for Playboy about adult publicly traded stocks.
"Wanted to ask you if you might be interested in covering the below in any way," she wrote. "Pays great! If you are, please gimme a ring."
A few years earlier, I had published a book about the sexual revolution in the '60s and '70s and I wasn't exactly anxious to plunge back into the speed-crazed world of contemporary sex and porn. I had spent three years there and it was mentally fatiguing and soulless. I couldn't imagine spending time in Mexico with these people. Of course, if it was $2 a word, I would immediately reevaluate the offer more closely. So I e-mailed her back and asked her what publication this would be for.
Albert quickly replied back: "I am up most nights till 3 or 4 a.m. If we're sleeping, we turn off the phone so you don't gotta worry about waking us up. Look forward to chatting with ya." She never mentioned a publication. I thought about this: Was she working for the orgy people? The date of the big event was rescheduled to the following February. I never heard from her again about the Cleo 1000.
Still curious, I followed a link in her e-mail to her personal Web site. This was her online résumé, the billboard of who she said she was, and what type of services she advertised. There were some professionally shot black-and-white portraits of her wearing jewelry and vintage-type clothing, looking mysterious and coy. An eyebrow and lip were pierced. She was sucking her thumb in one shot. Her eyes looked intense, troubled, a bit sad.
I couldn't help noting that she showed absolutely no cleavage or partial nudity. This was unheard of in the sexpert game. No matter the age or level of attractiveness, every sexpert always sauced up her image with an overtly sexual photo, smiling, laughing, perhaps bleached-out hair, tight clothing, tattoos, a corset or a whip or, at the very least, boobs pushed out for maximum appeal. What Albert's images seemed to say were, "Here I am, keep your distance and I'll keep mine."
A short biography listed some writing credits and links to her reviews of porn Web sites. At the bottom of the page sat a gleaming, trophy-shaped icon called the Laura Victoria Gold Award. She bestowed this award upon the best of the best adult Web sites, although it was entirely a vanity project, and as far as I could tell, no site ever received a Laura Victoria Gold Award, or at least publicized that it had. Most of San Francisco's sexpert stars -- Susie Bright, Lisa Palac, Lily Burana, Carol Queen -- had leveraged their media exposure into book and movie deals, lectures and TV appearances. Albert's Web site spoke of a sex-writing career going nowhere.
"Being a sex writer is a slippery slope," says sex author and journalist Susannah Breslin. "To a certain degree, sex writers aren't taken seriously, no matter how seriously they take themselves. Any sex writer knows that." Breslin says the unspoken appeal of sex writing is seducing readers. "All writers, in a way, are whores -- for attention, for fame, for money, for art, for love. Sex writers take this phenomenon to the extreme. One way to seduce readers is to create a persona -- an individual who is sexier and more titillating than the writer herself."
For the past five years, Albert had been doing exactly that -- creating a persona that would be irresistible to listeners. With her sexpert and singing careers having crashed to the ground, she concentrated on being JT LeRoy. She showed friends a copy of the unpublished manuscript of the novel "Sarah," and said it was written by a boy she knew from doing sex outreach. But with certain friends, she bragged that she wrote it.
When the literary publishing house Bloomsbury released "Sarah" by JT LeRoy in April 2000, it detonated in the publishing world like a secret bomb. The lurid tale, told in teenage slang, had the whiff of autobiography. An androgynous 12-year-old narrator, nicknamed Cherry Vanilla, competes with his mother, Sarah, for tricks at truck stops in the South.
An elaborate back story quickly unfolded in reviews and articles. This was the life the author had lived as a young boy. He eventually ended up wandering the streets of San Francisco, and was rescued by a doctor and sympathetic writers and editors, who encouraged him to put down his hellish life on the page. Although Albert didn't initially publicize LeRoy as being HIV-positive, at some point in the media swirl, the young prostitute was mentioned as having the virus, and Albert never discouraged the rumor, which continued to disseminate through articles and blogs.
As she had done with her rock band, Albert donned the mask of a publicist to promote herself. "Dear friends," she wrote in an e-mail spam, "I am writing to plug a book, one that I'm fairly certain will be unlike any other you have ever read. It just debuted on the LA Times Best Seller List at #10! It's by a new writer, JT LeRoy and the book is titled, 'Sarah.' The reviews and the word of mouth is phenomenal." As were, apparently, the helpful e-mails from friends.
"For a first novelist, JT LeRoy is astonishingly confident," wrote Catherine Texier in the New York Times Book Review. "His language turns the tawdriness of hustling into a world of lyrical and grotesque beauty, without losing any of its authenticity." Piped in Suzanne Vega for a cover blurb: "JT LeRoy has a gift, to be able to articulate his world so clearly and astringently, with grace and humor, but without glossing over the pain and brutality of it."
A San Francisco friend recalls Albert's joy and excitement at being published. She was no longer a sex hack, churning out reviews. She had given birth to her very own literary baby, complete with a chilling back story and telephone persona. Like mother and son, Albert and JT were connected at the DNA. His experiences were based on hers. He had lived through hard times, just as she had. Together, they fooled the entire publishing community. It was a thing of beauty.
One afternoon in 2001 my phone rang and on the other line was a hesitant, tiny voice with a Southern drawl. I was unlisted, but JT/Albert had found my number somehow. We talked for three hours, and as others can attest, the experience of talking to a young boy who had worked as a truck stop hooker was eerie, fascinating and addictive. He recounted his crazy life and adventures, mentioning that everything he wrote was autobiographical, and furiously dropped names of celebrities. He said he had just gone to San Francisco's swanky Charles Nob Hill restaurant with Gus Van Sant, where they got drunk and threw food around. Albert gave great phone.
Not long after, JT e-mailed me, asking if he could interview me for his column in New York Press. I had just published an unorthodox guide to oddball San Francisco called "San Francisco Bizarro," which JT said he loved. He was very chirpy and flirty and becoming a big shot. The book could use some exposure. So of course I agreed.
JT sent over a list of questions, and I answered them, blathering on, sharing my adult wisdom with a genuinely curious kid. I could feel my ego swell. I was now one of the groovy insiders in JT's universe. He had interviewed Suzanne Vega, Nina Hagen, Mick Rock, Mary Karr, Jerry Stahl, Joe Strummer, Gus Van Sant, Dorothy Allison, Penelope Spheeris, Rancid, Silverchair and me. I feel a little sick thinking about it today, but back then it was pretty cool.
After the release of "Sarah," Laura Albert the sex writer disappeared. Her Web site shut down, she stopped doing porn reviews. Playing JT became a full-time gig. She now had to do JT interviews for newspapers and magazines, and National Public Radio with Terry Gross. Celebrities started calling and she developed a major-player list of JT phone friends.
She and Knoop formed another band, Thistle, and solicited producers like Jerry Harrison of the Talking Heads. Bay Area drummer Prairie Prince (notably of the Tubes) even filled in on a recording session. Thistle quickly eclipsed Daddy Don't Go in popularity. The gigs were now at high-profile clubs in San Francisco, Los Angeles, New York, Rome. Not because the music was much better than Daddy Don't Go. But this time, the lyrics were written by JT LeRoy, literary wunderkind.
After a few gigs, Albert stopped performing with Thistle and was replaced with Jennifer Hall, a young actress who came via a referral from Drew Barrymore. But Albert was still involved behind the scenes. "She was at the shows," remembers former Thistle drummer Stephen Heath. "She was totally supportive; she was always up front, rocking out, getting the crowd moving."
When JT's second book was published in June 2001, "The Heart Is Deceitful Above All Things," Albert sent out an e-mail as JT, inviting people to a night of readings at Manhattan's FEZ club. "Why are they reading?" she asked. "Because they all love JT!" The list of celeb readers was impressive. It included actor Matthew Modine; writers Sharon Olds, Mary Karr and Arthur Bradford; and musicians Rufus Wainright and Theo Kogan from the Lunachicks.
As JT's star kept rising, Albert worked the phones and e-mail far more than necessary to sustain the ruse. She was obviously caught up in the excitement. Part of it was so punk rock, messing with people's heads. And it was also a chance to demonstrate that her own writing, her own version of an emotionally damaged character, was as valid as anyone else's. To let the whole opportunity slip away would be a big mistake.
Only Albert really knows why JT began acting out more in interviews and e-mails. This behavior was believable in the sense that success and celebrity power often do go to someone's head. And certainly writers are no exception. The combination of working for so many hours in solitary confinement, added to the adulation and money and endless invitations to parties and events and sex, can turn anyone into an asshole.
But there was a neediness to JT's tone that made you want to push him away. You imagined him stamping his feet like a spoiled child. His celebrity name-dropping became really annoying. In July 2001, after being featured in Vanity Fair, he told one reporter, "I was interviewed by the amazing Tom Waits and photographed by the righteous Mary Ellen Mark. It was amazing, too, because I have always loved the documentary film 'Streetwise,' which was filmed and directed by Mary Ellen Mark's husband, Martin Bell, based on the work she did for Life magazine."
His suicidal phone calls were the most disturbing. Susie Bright, who received her share of calls from Albert as JT, recalls, "This really breathy, tearful, high-pitched voice would say, 'I just don't believe in myself.' Being desperate, being like, 'I hate myself.' It wasn't comical. You felt like you really had to get into therapist mode and give him reason to hope."
Along with acting suicidal, JT acted moody or stoned out of his gourd. Albert's friends are baffled why her fictional character, who worked so hard to endear himself to others, would let himself act in such a way, often to those who helped him. Was Albert adding texture to the character? Was it supposed to seem more real? Did she feel these thoughts herself?
Jacob Brown worked on the JT LeRoy Web site for two years without remuneration. He had joined the JT e-mail list and was recruited to work on the site while still in college at Cornell University. Albert clearly saw him as an easy mark. He posted clips of JT's books, reviews and diary entries, and talked with JT at least once a week. Albert also asked him to do the Web site and logo for Thistle. He says he never suspected Albert was LeRoy.
Brown, who now works at Paper magazine, admits, "I was definitely doing a lot of fucking drudgery." When Albert was writing the JT story, "Harold's End," later published as a novella, she called Brown and read it to him over the phone. "It's really weird," he says. "Long before it came out, I was like, great, whatever. Same as the other stuff. At that point, I was getting tired of it."
The moment that really creeped out Brown was when gay novelist Henry Flesh passed away from non-Hodgkin's lymphoma. JT was close to him, and when he died, Brown called up JT and told him the news. "I sat there on the phone while he cried," he says. "He was really emotional about it." The memory of this is still vivid. Brown makes a noise of disgust. That was the last time he spoke with JT.
As JT's career kept rising, rumors started to fly about his real identity. San Francisco writer Stephen Beachy began researching the facts of LeRoy's life, discovering that much of it didn't check out. His ensuing article was originally intended for the San Francisco Bay Guardian, an alternative weekly, but according to Ron Turner of Last Gasp, which published "Harold's End," the story was delayed because Bay Guardian editors and Last Gasp staff attempted to arrange a meeting with Beachy and LeRoy to sort out the facts and details. Turner says he always suspected something was up because "the first time I hugged JT, I felt a bra strap."
As the Bay Guardian and Last Gasp dallied, Beachy took his story to the more prestigious New York magazine, where it did a lot of damage in a hurry. After the New York Times exposed Knoop's half-sister Savannah as the actress who played JT in public, it became apparent that the photos of JT at readings and clubs were phony. They look just like what they are: a young woman in a bad wig. But at the time, Savannah was good enough for Carrie Fisher and Shirley Manson.
Now that Albert has been exposed, it's likely that in a few years, nobody will care about JT LeRoy, as we all move on to discussing other things. His books will sell out their print runs, maybe even be reprinted for novelty appeal. His fictional life is already immortalized in Asia Argento's film. Knoop's potential film version of the hoax, or one produced by the Weinstein brothers, are likely to be pop culture's final fling with JT LeRoy.
Albert's future is less solid. She is guaranteed a footnote in history as the author of a literary hoax. She can take her place alongside the 25 staff members of New York Newsday, who in 1969 penned "Naked Came the Stranger," an erotic memoir by "Penelope Ashe." In fact, her JT books are more like, and were probably inspired by, the 1993 memoir, "A Rock and a Hard Place," by Anthony Godby Johnson, a supposed 14-year-old HIV-positive survivor who turned out to be a creation of Vicki Fraginals, who masqueraded as his foster mother. The story was later fictionalized in "The Night Listener" by Armistead Maupin.
Today, Albert sits in her San Francisco apartment surrounded by ghosts, the papers and books and galleys and manuscripts, remnants of a career that punk'd us all. Producing these books was a collaborative effort involving many authors and editors. Does she have a writing future under her own name? Will anyone care if she puts out a book besides the tell-all story about the hoax?
"I see JT as an elaborate nom de plume," says former New York Press editor Strausbaugh. "Sort of a 21st century George Sand. Here's this middle-aged woman who's not getting anywhere as a writer. She reinvents herself as a girly boy and becomes a huge success. On whom does that reflect more poorly, her or all the rest of us?"
Many of her friends, like Blush, are proud of what she did. "It's very hard to pull off a prank these days," he says. Wilinski, who witnessed the hoax from the beginning, sees some positive aspect to all of it. "The runaway kids that I ran into on Haight Street were humanized for me because of the JT books," he says. "My friends felt the same way."
A few months ago, an old friend of Albert's got back in touch with her after several years. Rumors and news stories were circulating that JT was a hoax. Albert told the friend it wasn't true. Regardless, the friend continued, JT LeRoy was in a way pure genius. Albert replied, "You know, I just like to get good work out there."