DEADWOOD PIECE KILLED: In the oddest footnote yet to The New York Times’ post-Jayson Blair/Judith Miller credibility saga, editors at the Times Magazine recently scrapped a piece by author J.T. LeRoy over concerns he may not exist.
LeRoy was first commissioned by the Times to write about Disneyland Paris for the Sept. 25 edition of T: Travel Magazine. After the story was published, his editors encouraged him to keep writing for the section. LeRoy proposed a piece on “Deadwood,” the gritty HBO western, and what he called the “Deadwood” state of mind. He pointed to Vera Wang’s spring collection — which was inspired by the series — and increased tourism travel to Deadwood, S.D.
Since LeRoy was also working with the show’s creators to write an episode for the third season, he had unique access and perspective. The Times accepted the pitch, and agreed to pay him $2,700 for the story, plus expenses. To illustrate the story, models were photographed in “Deadwood” costumes on the show’s set. LeRoy turned in a draft and subsequent revisions requested by his editor.
As LeRoy, or the person playing him, told WWD by phone from the “Deadwood” set earlier this week, “Everything was as agreed.”
Then came Stephen Beachy‘s article in New York magazine, which revived an old debate about whether LeRoy is an actual person — a 24-year-old former truck-stop hustler from West Virginia — or a fictional identity created by an eccentric woman named Laura Albert, who also goes by Emily Frasier and Speedie.
While Beachy allowed for the possibility that there is an actual J.T. LeRoy, The Washington Post’s David Segal picked up on the story and wrote, “[LeRoy] appears to be one of the great literary hoaxes of our day, and it fooled a whole lot of people as well as the media, including The New York Times, which last year ran a lengthy profile of LeRoy.” Segal went on to say, “Getting through this might take more than novocaine over at [the Times]. Not only did the newspaper profile LeRoy, the travel magazine also recently ran a story by LeRoy about a trip to Euro Disney.”
The Post’s piece, even more than New York’s story, evidently made Times editors skittish about continuing to give him a byline without proof of his existence. “They asked me for my passport, my social security card,” LeRoy said. He declined to hand them over. “I’ve always played with identity and gender. I understand what [the Times is] saying, but they entered into working with me knowing that … Just because the Washington Post came after them, why should I be forced to prove who I am? They knew exactly what they were getting when they dealt with me.”
He was told by one of his editors he would no longer be able to write for the Times. “It was like I was blacklisted,” he said, adding his agent thought other publications would follow suit.
Even though LeRoy turned in his story and the requested revisions, and even though it was the Times’ decision to scrap it, the paper did not offer him a kill fee. “There’s been no e-mails, no work on their part to pay me … I was very much counting on the income for this. I took these people’s time for interviews,” he said, referring to conversations conducted for the piece.
What’s more, it appears as if the Times will still benefit from LeRoy’s original idea. According to him, and to a publicist for HBO, the Times was still considering running some of the photographs taken on the “Deadwood” set in the Nov. 20 edition of T. The accompanying story is expected to be similar to the one LeRoy conceived and pitched, albeit by a different writer. A Times spokesman said it was not the paper’s policy to discuss internal editorial matters.
Warren St. John, who profiled LeRoy for the Times’ Sunday Styles section in November 2004, is said to be looking into LeRoy’s identity once again, for a possible follow-up piece.
As for LeRoy’s freelance prospects at other publications, Ingrid Sischy, the editor in chief of Interview, said her magazine would continue to work with him. “It’s very San Francisco this whole thing, isn’t it?” she said, obviously amused by the LeRoy persona. “Clearly there’s this notion of J.T. the character. The Times is in a very specific position right now, where their credibility is being questioned. So maybe they’re sensitive to that.”
The director Gus Van Sant, who spent nearly a year talking to LeRoy on the phone every day but who has only met him in person on three or four occasions, always with Albert, said of the Times’ decision to stop working with him, “It’s kind of a valid response.” He added, “I wouldn’t put anything past anyone’s writing. If someone said Tennessee Williams wasn’t really writing and made a case for it, I would listen. But I seriously doubt Emily wrote those books.”
LeRoy still hopes to place his “Deadwood” piece with another publication. The draft WWD viewed opens with a reference to, of all things, “Mrs. Doubtfire.”
Meanwhile, at least one division of the Times doesn’t seem to have gotten the memo about the J.T. LeRoy ban yet. On Oct. 21, after the “Deadwood” story was killed, LeRoy received an e-mail from The New York Times Syndicate asking if the company could sell his Disneyland Paris piece to other publications internationally. At a profit to the Times, of course.
— Sara James