Thursday, January 12, 2006 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Don't believe everything you read? Wigged-out potential literary hoaxes

The Associated Press

By now you've probably heard about Mockery Monday. Yep, Jan. 9, 2006, will go down in history as the day that two — count 'em, TWO — literary figures were potentially unmasked as frauds by the time people sat down at their computers to start their work week.

First, the person who masquerades in public as former truckstop hustler J.T. Leroy was unmasked by The New York Times as a woman named Savannah Knoop.

Second, alleged reformed bad boy James Frey, the Oprah-approved "memoirist" who penned "A Million Little Pieces," was slammed to the mat by Internet gumshoes The Smoking Gun ( for allegedly not having the history to back up his published claims. Both cases are complex yet intriguing. If you don't have a few extra hours in your day to slog through all the testimony, here's a handy Literary Day of Infamy cheat-sheet to help you speak eloquently on the topic at cocktail parties, hair salons and bus stops.

The subjects

J.T. Leroy: His fabled back story included stints as a teen cross-dressing hustler whored out by his mother in West Virginia and as a homeless junkie in San Francisco. His debut novel, "Sarah," was allegedly based on his experiences trolling for Johns at truck stops. He kept a mysteriously absent public persona. He started appearing in public a few years ago wearing a wig and glasses.

James Frey: This 36-year-old claims he went from being an outsider at his suburban Michigan high school to being a drug abuser and criminal as a young adult. According to his memoir, "A Million Little Pieces," he struggled with the death of a friend, went through rehab and found the strength inside himself to overcome his weaknesses and leave the bad behind. Oprah picked his book for her on-air reading group, making "A Million Little Pieces" a multimillion-dollar seller.

The charges

Leroy: In October, New York magazine first posited that a woman named Laura Albert who presented herself as Leroy's guardian might actually have written all works under Leroy's name. On Monday, The Times claimed that the person under the wig and glasses was actually Savannah Knoop, half sister of Albert's husband, Geoffrey Knoop.

Frey: In a story posted Sunday, The Smoking Gun counters Frey's literary claims of extended jail terms and outlaw behavior. They also accuse Frey of making up relationships with people in high school and placing himself at scenes he wasn't present for. The Web site suggests that interactions, such as fights with police and drug busts, were wholly made up.

The evidence

Leroy: The Times found photos of Savannah Knoop on the Internet and had sources who knew her identify her as Knoop. Writer Warren St. John showed the same photos to people who had worked with Leroy and they positively identified the person in the photograph as the person who presented himself as Leroy.

Frey: Oy, where to start?

The Smoking Gun investigators talked to people Frey went to high school with who counter his claim of being an outsider; a yearbook photo makes him look like a normal suburban dude. They talked to the parents of a girl who died in high school who said he had nothing to do with the incident and wasn't close to their daughter.

Though Frey claimed to have been in endless trouble with the law, the Web site found only a few small infractions. One was being stopped for drunken driving, for which he pleaded guilty and was fined $305. The other was for a traffic infraction. According to the county sheriff where Frey's crimes supposedly took place, he never spent time in the jail. The county prosecuting attorney said that some of the charges that Frey had written were placed against him didn't exist. The sheriff disputed Frey's descriptions of the jail and how inmates dressed.

No you didn't!

Leroy: If these charges are true, "Leroy" used people's sympathy about child abuse and transgenderism to gain access and support. He also claimed to be afflicted with HIV.

Frey: If The Smoking Gun's accusations are accurate, Frey used the very real death of two classmates in a tragic accident to his own benefit by retelling the incident featuring himself as a player.

In their own defense

Leroy: Issued a statement through his lawyer to The New York Times: "As a transgendered human, subject to attacks, I use stand-ins to protect my identity."

Frey: Wrote on his Web site "So let the haters hate, let the doubters doubt, I stand by my book. ... "

Publisher's response

Leroy: Carolyn Cleburne at Viking told The New York Times, "We stand by our authors."

Frey: His publishers issued this statement: "We stand in support of our author, James Frey, and his book which has touched the lives of millions of readers."

Copyright © 2006 The Seattle Times Company


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