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Who is JT LeRoy? A bookish mystery solved

Lawyer asserts that elusive, popular author was hoax by S.F. woman
/ Source: The Associated Press

One of publishing’s most bizarre mysteries appears to finally have been solved.

The writer penning the novels of “JT LeRoy,” a purported 25-year-old former male prostitute and drug addict, has been unmasked as a 40-year-old woman who allegedly undertook the ruse to get her work recognized.

LeRoy never existed and Laura Albert authored the books, according to a lawyer for her estranged partner, Geoffrey Knoop.

Knoop, 39, who apologized for playing a role in the hoax, said the stress of keeping it secret had become too much to bear. The couple split in December after 16 years and were trying to work out custody of their young son.

“He’s wanted to come clean and let JT fade away,” attorney Eric Feig said of Knoop late Monday. “He wanted to take the high road.”

He’s also secured a movie deal to tell his side of the story, Feig said.

The unveiling of LeRoy comes at a time when the literary world is questioning the work and identities of other authors with hard luck stories. Nasdijj, an award-winning Navajo author, is now believed to be a white writer named Timothy Patrick Barrus. James Frey acknowledged fabricating or embellishing parts of his memoir, “A Million Little Pieces.” St. Martin’s Press recently added a disclaimer to an upcoming book by Augusten Burroughs, another memoirist who has been challenged.

Loyal followingThe LeRoy mystery began unraveling during the past few months with articles in New York Magazine and The New York Times pointing toward Albert, who claimed to have rescued LeRoy from the streets and started him on his literary career.

Last month, The Times identified the person who often appeared in public as LeRoy as Knoop’s half sister, Savannah Knoop, 25. On Monday, The Times published a story on its Web site in which Geoffrey Knoop acknowledged the long-running deception.

In a recent interview with The Associated Press, a person claiming to be LeRoy insisted Albert was not the writer, but refused to meet in person.

“Laura is not me. I am not Laura,” the person said by telephone in a conference call with his lawyer.

Albert and Knoop, who live in San Francisco, did not return repeated phone calls from the AP over the past month. LeRoy’s lawyer, Peter Cane, had no comment Monday.

Among other books, LeRoy’s works include “Sarah” and “The Heart is Deceitful Above All Things,” a short story collection that is supposed to come out as a film this spring. None were best sellers, but LeRoy gained a following that included celebrities such as Winona Ryder, Courtney Love, Carrie Fisher and Madonna.

With Knoop’s account, however, the legend of LeRoy appears to end where it began a decade ago: with Albert.

As the story has been recounted in dozens of interviews by a person claiming to be LeRoy, Albert was a social worker who took the trick-turning teen off the streets of San Francisco’s Tenderloin district around 1993. She guided him to Dr. Terrence Owens, a psychologist specializing in treating adolescents.

Owens encouraged him to write and LeRoy took up the pen — some say, brilliantly. Owens reportedly passed along an early manuscript to his editor-neighbor and by 2000 a literary icon was born.

Owens said patient confidentiality prevented him from confirming whether LeRoy was a patient. Feig said Owens counseled LeRoy by phone and met a stand-in — a young hustler Albert and Knoop recruited off the streets — only once in the late 1990s.

But several people, including one-time close friend and filmmaker Gus Van Sant, said LeRoy involved them in conference calls with Owens, further supporting LeRoy’s story.

LeRoy’s gritty novels were purported to be based on his own experiences — drug addiction, prostitution and life on the streets. His latest, “Harold’s End,” includes an introduction by writer Dave Eggers.

“He was already friends with 15 well-known writers,” explained Van Sant who logged hundreds of hours on the phone with him over six years. “There was a real solid year when I was talking to him every day for at least an hour, sometimes five hours. We never ran out of things to talk about.”

Without bookstore readings or in-person interviews, speculation about LeRoy’s true identity ran rampant. Some said he was Van Sant, other said he was author Dennis Cooper.

'An incredible performance'Knoop said the ruse began in 1996, when Albert first got in touch with Cooper. Afraid he wouldn’t be interested in talking to a 30-something woman, she decided to approach him as a teenage boy.

Cooper and others said they felt betrayed by the deception.

“The most astonishing thing to me is the amount of time and effort that (Albert) put into this,” Cooper said in a recent telephone interview from Paris where he’s working on a play. “It was an incredible performance.”

In 2001, a person claiming to be LeRoy began appearing in public, usually wearing wigs, sunglasses and hats. That person began hobnobbing with celebrities, but never without Albert doing most of the talking.

In conversations with the AP, the person purporting to be LeRoy did not deny last month that Savannah Knoop was his stand-in. Savannah Knoop didn’t return phone calls or answer her door recently when a reporter showed up.

LeRoy’s latest project was writing an episode of the current season of HBO’s “Deadwood.”

A spokeswoman for the network said “there has been no decision as to when the script will be delivered or produced.”