Because sometimes truth really is stranger than fiction.
In this era of ‘fake news’, we’ve become quite used to finding out that something we thought was true isn’t actually the case. But before you get jaded by the plethora of hoaxes out there, read all about the best – and seriously shocking – cases of deception in the literary world. Here are eight cases of fraud that we can’t get enough of. Sometimes the story behind the author is actually more interesting than the book they’ve written.
The book A Million Little Pieces was released in April 2003 to mixed reviews. It was promoted as a shocking memoir about addiction, and tells the story of a 23-year-old man hooked on alcohol and drugs and the inspirational journey of recovery that he goes through. Oprah Winfrey was a fan of this harrowing tale and picked it as must-read as part of Oprah’s Book Club in September 2005 – she even had the American author as a guest on her talk show soon after. Not surprisingly, sales of the book skyrocketed, selling more than 3.5 million copies and it topped the New York Times Best Seller list for 15 consecutive weeks too.
However, in January 2006, investigative website The Smoking Gun exposed Jame Frey’s book (and its sequel, My Friend Leonard) as a lot more fiction and a little less autobiographical. Their six-week investigation concluded that James “wholly fabricated or wildly embellished details of his purported criminal career, jail terms, and status as an outlaw”. For example, he had only spent a few hours in jail, not nearly three months as he had written. Never one to back down from exposing the truth, Oprah confronted him in an episode of her talk show, where he confessed that he lied. James had admitted in the past that, when he was first shopping for a publisher, he offered A Million Little Pieces as a novel but then changed it to being a memoir. The 49-year-old has released more books since – Bright Shiny Morning (2009), The Final Testament of the Holy Bible (2011) and Katerina (2018). He has also written for the Endgame and Lorien Legacies series.
Writing under the pseudonym A.J. Finn, Daniel Mallory unleashed The Woman In The Window onto the world in early 2018 and it was so good that it debuted at number one on the New York Times Best Seller list – the first time in twelve years that a début novel had done so. The book, which is about an agoraphobic woman who witnesses some shocking scenes (yes, from her window) relating to the family that lives across the road, has been adapted into a film starring Amy Adams, Julianne Moore and Gary Oldman, and will be released in late 2019. But the reason the American author got so much media attention was because it was discovered early this year that he had lied extensively about his past. A profile in The New Yorker magazine exposed his list of deceptions – he said he had brain cancer, he claimed to have two doctorates from an American and a British university, he repeatedly told acquaintances that his mother was dead or dying (she’s still alive), and he pretended to be his brother Jake and emailed colleagues to say how kind he was to children at the hospital while he was there for surgery on his brain tumour.
It turns out that he’s a con artist who had been scamming his way to the top. Talk had, in fact, been swirling before his deception was exposed — his colleagues had questioned why he never showed any evidence of being ill and were sceptical about his miraculous recovery. And some people in the publishing industry were already aware of this – when bidding began on The Woman In The Window in 2016, most of the publishing houses involved dropped out of the auction once his real name was revealed. He has since apologised, claiming to have been “afflicted with severe bipolar II disorder” and had “experienced crushing depressions, delusional thoughts, morbid obsessions, and memory problems”.
Herman Rosenblat was a Polish Jew who enjoyed telling family and friends the story of how he met his wife, Roma. When he was in a Nazi concentration camp in Germany as an 11-year-old, a girl came over each day and threw him apples over the fence. Twelve years after the war ended, Herman was living in New York and was set up on a blind date. In an astonishing twist of fate, this woman turned out to be the girl who ‘saved’ him all those years ago, which he realised when she recounted her version of the story to him! He proposed to his ‘angel at the fence’ — also the title of his planned memoir, which didn’t get published in the end — on the spot and they later married, had two children and lived happily ever after.
In 1995, he entered his story in a newspaper competition to find the best Valentine’s Day-themed love story. He won, of course, and a media frenzy ensued as everyone wanted to get to know this lovely couple. The story was also featured in Chicken Soup for the Soul and he scored both a book and film deal. Oprah Winfrey had the couple on her show and lauded it as “the single greatest love story we’ve ever told on the air”. After all, who could resist the charm of such a romantic story, especially one that was borne out of the appalling tragedy that was the Nazi internment of Jews?
Unfortunately, none of it was true. While Herman was, indeed, incarcerated in a concentration camp during WWII, there was no ‘angel at the fence’. For reasons that remain unknown, Roma agreed to go along with the ruse. The hoax was revealed after historians realised that certain details of his story didn’t add up (Going to the fence was prohibited and the only public road by the camp was closed to civilians from 1943). Herman later issued a statement, in which he said: “I wanted to bring happiness to people, to remind them not to hate, but to love and tolerate all people. In my dreams, Roma will always throw me an apple, but I now know it is only a dream.” He died in February 2015, at age 85.
The story of JT LeRoy is perhaps the most shocking literary hoax – and definitely the most daring. In the late-1990s, an author named JT LeRoy published books that were touted as semi-autobiographical accounts about a transgender HIV-positive teen who was faced with a whole lot of issues such as sexual abuse, poverty and drug use. JT initially only communicated with others via phone and email – even doing media interviews this way – but ‘he’ later started making public appearances, always appearing in a peroxide wig and sunglasses.
A middle-aged woman, Laura Albert (who isn’t transgender or HIV-positive), was exposed in 2005 by New York Magazine as the writer of these books. It turns out she got her sister-in-law, Savannah Knoop, to pretend to be LeRoy during public appearances. Laura was always with her, pretending to be JT’s assistant. The duo travelled the world together on book tours, hung out with celebrities, and even appeared on the red carpet when the film adaptation of LeRoy’s novel, The Heart is Deceitful Above All Things, was screened at Cannes in 2004. Knoop later published a memoir, Girl Boy Girl: How I Became JT LeRoy, in 2008, which chronicled her career as the literary character. JT LeRoy, a film based on this book, was released this year, with Kristen Stewart and Laura Dern taking on the roles of Knoop and Albert, respectively. In recent years, Laura has written articles for various magazines, has been involved in film festivals and starred in the documentary Author: The JT LeRoy Story, in 2016.
In 2006, the young adult novel How Opal Mehta Got Kissed, Got Wild, and Got a Life written by 19-year-old Kaavya Viswanathan was released. She was a student at Harvard University at the time and the book tells the story of a girl who is trying to get into that university. The first print run of 100,000 copies were sold to positive reviews amidst a huge publicity blitz but this ended up being the peak of her career. Author Megan McCafferty was alerted by a fan about the similarities between passages in Opal Mehta’s story and two of Megan’s books, Sloppy Firsts and Second Helpings.
It was later discovered that Kaavya’s novel bore similarities to books by other authors too, including Meg Cabot, Sophie Kinsella and Salman Rushdie. Her publisher pulled all copies of the book from the shelves and destroyed them, and also cancelled her contract for a second book. Kaavya later landed a spot in a 2006 fiction workshop taught by famed novelist Jamaica Kincaid, graduating in 2008 with an English degree and entering law school at Georgetown.
Love and Consequences: A Memoir of Hope and Survival by Jones detailed the experiences of the author who was half white and half Native American and moved from one foster home to another as a child. Growing up in gang-infested South-Central Los Angeles, she was also a drug runner for a gang. Published in 2008, the book became a bestseller but her older sister recognised her in a photograph in a newspaper article and contacted the book’s publishers, exposing her story as fake. It turns out Jones was actually Margaret Seltzer, a thirty-something white woman who was brought up by her biological parents in a prosperous neighbourhood in Los Angeles and attended an exclusive religious private school. She admitted that she made up the tale but said many of the details in her book were based on the experiences of people she met while trying to turn youngsters away from crime in Los Angeles. The book’s publisher recalled all unsold copies of the book and offered refunds to anyone who had purchased it.
It has been referred to as “the greatest literary hoax of the 20th century” and Time magazine proclaimed Clifford Irving as “con man of the year” in a cover story. The con? Claiming he was writing the autobiography of reclusive billionaire Howard Hughes. Clifford contacted publisher McGraw-Hill in 1971, saying that he had Howard’s permission to write a tell-all biography. This was certainly interesting to the literary community as Howard had withdrawn from public life for more than 10 years. Clifford received a US$750,000 advance from the publisher, as well as a payment from Life magazine, which wanted to publish excerpts from the upcoming book. He researched Howard together with co-author Richard Suskind, and the duo even ‘interviewed’ each other, pretending to be Howard. Clifford went on trips to ‘meet’ with Howard but it turns out these were actually covert trysts with his mistress. He forged letters by Howard which encouraged publication of the book and even appeared on the TV show 60 Minutes to vouch for the book’s authenticity.
However, less than a year later, Howard came out of hiding to announce that the book was fake. Clifford was sentenced to two-and-a-half years in prison, and his wife was sent to jail in Switzerland, for her role in opening a Swiss bank account with a fake passport, in oder to deposit the fees they received. Clifford released The Hoax in 1981, which gave his account of these events and, in 2006, the book was turned into a movie starring Richard Gere. Clifford died in December 2017 at 87.
If you watched 2018’s Can You Ever Forgive Me?, you’ll know the story of Lee Israel. Based on Lee’s confessional autobiography of the same name, the movie starred Melissa McCarthy and Richard E. Grant and was nominated for three Oscars. Lee had a fairly successful career as a biographer but when her career came to a standstill, she struggled to make ends meet. Surviving on welfare, she turned to a life of crime, with forgery as her chosen transgression. She fabricated around 400 letters, claiming to be written by the likes of Ernest Hemingway and Dorothy Parker. When her crimes were eventually discovered, Israel pleaded guilty and was sentenced to six months house arrest with five years probation. She died in December 2014 at 75.
By Balvinder Sandhu, July 2019
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