The actress Winona Ryder stood onstage at the Public Theater on April 17, wringing her hands and squealing with adoration.
“The first time I met J.T. was during my first heartbreak,” she said of the author J.T. LeRoy, whose work had just been read by a group of performers including musicians Debbie Harry and Shirley Manson, and actors Rosario Dawson and Tatum O’Neal.
“It had been my first love,” she went on, namelessly invoking the image of former fiancé Johnny Depp, with whom she broke up in 1993. She said that she and her ex had had opera tickets, and as part of her recovery process, she had decided to use them by herself.
“I saw this boy leaning up against the opera house, listening to them tune up,” she said. “I said to him, ‘Do you want to go in with me?’ And that’s how I met J.T.”
A soft, Appalachian-accented voice yelled from backstage something that sounded like “I love you, Winona!” But some cocked their heads. Ms. Ryder’s tale of her invitation to a 13-year-old who by his own account would have been a heroin-addicted transvestite prostitute at the time, seemed unlikely.
That a piece of the canon surrounding the world of Mr. LeRoy raised suspicion was not surprising. For five years, the 23-year-old author of Sarah and The Heart Is Deceitful Above All Things has cultivated a mystique of half-truths and clever apocrypha about his own life that seems to chafe at investigation. It recalls the life-as-a-work-of-art trappings of Andy Warhol and his Factory.
Mr. LeRoy’s story, which he chronicled in his autobiographical debut, is of following his mother, Sarah, into a life of prostitution, becoming a preteen “lot lizard” who assumed his mother’s identity while turning tricks for truckers.
Since Sarah ‘s publication, Mr. LeRoy has remained tucked away in San Francisco, allowing himself to be photographed only in wigs, sunglasses and-for Vanity Fair -a dress.
An unlikely item on the New York Post ‘s Page Six on Dec. 3, 2002, quoted both Mr. LeRoy and Italian actress Asia Argento, who is adapting his second book into a film, as saying that they were having a child together. A week later, Mr. LeRoy told Village Voice columnist Michael Musto that Zwan singer Billy Corgan, Third Eye Blind’s Stephan Jenkins and actress Tatum O’Neal would be the baby’s godparents.
When Ms. Argento appeared at the Thursday-night reading, she was very obviously not pregnant, but in an April 21 item about the event, the Daily News ‘ Rush and Molloy referred to Mr. LeRoy as “the gay transvestite father of Asia Argento’s child.”
When asked by The Transom about Ms. Argento’s pregnancy, Mr. LeRoy snorted. “She is, but it’s a metaphor,” he said by phone several days after the reading. As if the misunderstanding were the most natural thing in the world, Mr. LeRoy explained that the two had grown close while working on the Heart script, and that when they finished, Ms. Argento had told him, “It’s kind of like you knocked me up!”
Less metaphorical, Mr. LeRoy said, is his home life with Astor, a man, and Speedy, a woman, and their child, Thor; the three of them are raising the child.
“Getting pregnant [with Thor] really concretized us,” he said. “At that point, we figured either we’re going to be brought up on charges or we’re going to make this work.”
Though it has been reported that Speedy is his girlfriend, and that Astor is his boyfriend, Mr. LeRoy told The Transom that he and Astor had never been together. He said that Astor and Speedy are a couple.
“Billy [Corgan] and Speedy are really connected,” he added. “But it’s easy for us to go out and play around because we love each other so much.”
Rumors persist that Mr. LeRoy is the fictional creation of his mentor, novelist Dennis Cooper. Mr. LeRoy said that he has also heard that he is the collaborative invention of novelist Mary Gaitskill and director Gus Van Sant.
“We started a lot of rumors, me and Dennis,” Mr. LeRoy said, gleefully adding, “Actually, I’m Flannery O’Connor. She’s recovered!”
About Ms. Ryder’s improbable opera story, Mr. LeRoy said vaguely, “Yeah, that was a long time ago.”
But he could elaborate: “Well, I was afraid. I didn’t usually do these things for free. And she was babbling some shit about Timothy Leary, and I was thinking, ‘Great, now I have to go fuck Timothy Leary.’”
Mr. LeRoy said that at the time, he had no idea who Winona Ryder or Timothy Leary was. Later, when The Transom again brought up the story, Mr. LeRoy seemed to break cover.
“Well,” he said, “Winona can get away with that because she’s an actress.”
At the reading’s intermission, fans stood in the lobby of the Public, talking breathlessly about Mr. LeRoy’s rare appearance onstage, with Ms. Argento by his side. Raccoon-penis bones signed by Mr. LeRoy were going for 15 bucks a pop. There was the sensation that someone might soon pass out Kool-Aid and distribute identical muu-muus. Or that the whole thing was a hoax-the kind of thing cooked up by the kids at McSweeney’s , with whom Mr. LeRoy just published an individually bound story, “Harold’s End.”
Mr. LeRoy’s work-the thing that has ostensibly drawn the wide-eyed masses with their penis-bone necklaces-is very good. His horrific sexual confessionals feel somehow fresh, clean. It’s as though he has surgically removed bits of his painful past, described them in honest, eloquent detail, and in doing so, healed them.
“He’s like a Christ figure to some of these people,” said Patti Sullivan, who wrote a screenplay version of Sarah for Mr. Van Sant.
On Easter morning, Mr. LeRoy spoke to The Transom by phone from Pittsburgh, where he had done another reading at the Andy Warhol Museum. His voice was a hesitant whisper, nearly inaudible during the first moments of conversation. But within 10 minutes, he was chugging away loudly, holding forth on Ms. Sullivan’s comments about his Christ-like stature.
“I feel more Jewish now anyway,” he said, adding: “Madonna sent me a whole box of Kabbalah books.”
The next day, he had given the matter more thought.
“When people think about Jesus, they think about the crucifixion and the rising,” he said. “But if you think about who he was, he was a guy who hung out with a bunch of freaky people, a bunch of outcasts. He was probably a little psychotic himself, but he hung out with street people and prostitutes. I’d like to think I’m a little healthier than Jesus, because I’ve had more therapy than he did. And I’m not into pain like he was.”
In the span of several hours, Mr. LeRoy seamlessly moved from Madonna and Jesus to other high-wattage names. He mentioned an argument he’d had with musician Liz Phair about the dental-health benefits of dark chocolate. He told of a Calvin Klein party last year where he’d said he had met one woman “who was real.” After chatting with her about her charity work, he felt comfortable enough to slip under her legs to get to the men’s room.
“It turns out she was Bianca Jagger,” he said.
He was appealingly childlike when he described meeting Mr. Corgan (“It’s nice when they turn out not to be buttheads”), but considerably more adult recounting the way Bono helped to set his band with Speedy and Astor, Thistle, in motion: “[So] we were working with U2′s management, but they were so slammed that they gave us their lawyers, and I just didn’t feel that they were steering us in a direction we wanted to go.”
At the reading, when Secretary director Steven Shainberg announced that Mr. LeRoy had called to ask him to make Sarah into a movie, there was a ripple in the crowd. For several years, Mr. Van Sant has owned the rights to the book.
Mr. LeRoy later explained that he had had artistic differences with Mr. Van Sant and that the option was expiring.
“I know how things can look from the outside,” said Mr. LeRoy, reflecting on the business of being J.T. LeRoy, and the celebrities that populate his life and his conversation.
“But all these people, the ones that are kind of close to me, these are not cult people. Billy Corgan-you wouldn’t think of him as somebody who was going to join or buy something to be part of a clique.”
He explained that he saw Mr. Warhol’s Factory as a model: a group of talented outcasts who huddled together for warmth, simultaneously manipulating and rebelling against the traditional systems.
“Andy fucked with the art world, and I think the literary world needs to be fucked with,” said Mr. LeRoy.
The idea that to take these stories at face value is to be fucked with-like the White Stripes claiming to be brother and sister when they are ex-spouses-is hard to resist: Ms. Phair, who made an album called White Chocolate Space Egg , chiding him over dark chocolate; Mr. LeRoy, an admirer of Mr. Warhol, crawling under Factory doyenne Bianca Jagger.
Asked about the improbability of these tiny details, Mr. LeRoy said that he hadn’t even considered the title of Ms. Phair’s album.
“That just seemed like a good story,” he said. He paused, then continued: “Maybe it’s like Jackson Pollock-they found a lot of his spatterings mirrored patterns found in nature. Is it because it’s an accident, or a universal unconsciousness?”
“It’s about family and connectedness …. I feel like I’m weaving a web that feels strong, a web that will support me, like a family. A web I can lean back into,” he said.
When asked about the real Sarah, his mother, Mr. LeRoy grew silent.
“She is gone-not on this earth,” said Mr. LeRoy, breathing heavily into the phone. He added that he still sees her, “depending on what kind of drugs” he’s on, and that she is “enraged” by the terms of his literary success.
Mr. LeRoy said that he received $24,000 advances for both Sarah and The Heart Is Deceitful Above All Things . He is not allowed to comment on how much he got for the film rights, but said: “We still drive a car from the early 90′s.”
Then Mr. LeRoy conferred with Astor about a piece of clothing.
“Is that Costume Nationale?” he asked. Remembering the reporter on the phone, he laughed and said, “When I used to be worrying about what kind of bed I was going to sleep in, Mary Karr told me, ‘Wait till you can’t live without Prada.’ And it’s happened.”
“Everybody thinks I’m retired. I’m not retired. I’m working all the time. I’m younger than I’ve ever been,” said Bobby Zarem, the 66-year-old legendary New York flack turned muse, seated in the MGM screening room on Monday night.
A small crowd was awaiting the New York premiere of People I Know , the new Dan Algrant flick based loosely on Mr. Zarem’s life.
The wild-haired Mr. Zarem slung one arm over the empty seat beside him.
“I was just down in Savannah working on the new David Gordon Green picture,” he said. “Do you know him? His first picture, George Washington , got great reviews in The Times . Did you see it? It’s a shame-it went straight to video.”
Mr. Zarem then turned to look at the smartly clad man sitting alone, one seat to his right.
“Are you going to sit there?” asked Mr. Zarem, glaring at him. “Because if you are, you’re breaking up two pairs. Did you mean to do that? Did you mean to break up two twos?”
“Uhh, no,” the man sulked, and slid into the aisle seat.
The interruption did not distract Mr. Zarem from his pitch.
“But this new one, it’s got bigger names; the boy from Billy Elliot ‘s in it,” he said as he shook his head. “I’m not working on it, but I sent them to Savannah to shoot it. I said, ‘You’ve got to shoot this in Savannah.’”
Originally scheduled for release in the fall of 2001, People I Know was held for eight months. “It was a victim of 9/11,” said Miramax head Harvey Weinstein.
But Mr. Zarem thinks differently.
“The most powerful people in New York-not me, but the politicians and Senators-were portrayed in such an ugly way that Harvey didn’t think that it was right for the rest of the country to see New Yorkers portrayed that way,” said Mr. Zarem, his Southern drawl booming above the noise of the crowd. I don’t think it should’ve been held, but it’s fine now. I don’t know if there were other reasons; I was just taking Harvey at his word.”
At the after-party at Osteria del Circo on West 55th Street, The Transom caught up with the director, Mr. Algrant, whose credits include Sex and the City and who, with thick-framed glasses and a square face, looks the part of a Williamsburg theater buff.
Teaming up with writer Jon Robin Baitz ( The West Wing ), Mr. Algrant set to work on the story of Eli Wurman. Played by Al Pacino, Wurman is a washed-up publicist whom the film follows through 24 hours on the job as he haphazardly witnesses the murder of a has-been model and TV personality, Jilli Hopper (Téa Leoni).
“The character is based on me,” said Mr. Zarem, “but I’ve never been involved with a murder.”
After promising Jennifer Holiner, the bubbly brunette publicist for Mr. Pacino, not to talk about anything but the film, the actor took a few minutes out to talk to The Transom.
“Everybody who’s in this business knows about Bobby Zarem; he’s got that Southern charm,” said Mr. Pacino, his hair rumpled and disheveled. Seated in the back of the restaurant, Mr. Pacino leaned over the table.
“With all due respect to Bobby,” he said, “it’s not an autobiographical thing-it’s loosely based on where he comes from.
“There’s something about our culture now. We’ve changed,” Mr. Pacino continued, reflecting on his character in the movie. “Eli, in the old days, would’ve met with more cooperation. He’s not heard as much now. His rap isn’t as effective as it used to be. But he still can turn a phrase and attract people.”
“The public’s taste level has dropped considerably,” said Mr. Zarem. “I built toward the long run, and the stars had their eye on the long run. The kids today make so much so soon, they don’t have to think about the long run. I built up the people so if they got caught with a hooker, the public would say, ‘That’s boy’s play.’ They wouldn’t care. I love the kids today-don’t get me wrong-but I’d rather be their friend than work for them.”
“I don’t think publicists have changed at all. It’s the same job,” said Mr. Pacino. When asked what the world would be like without publicists, he turned on the charm as Ms. Holiner tapped his shoulder.
“We’d be talking for four days, not 10 minutes,” he said.
Mistah Dillon, He Dead
In his film-directing debut, Matt Dillon, 39, set out to eradicate his frat-boy image by writing, directing and starring in City of Ghosts , about a con man who travels through Cambodia in search of his boss. “There were certain perceptions that people had of me, you know. ‘He’s dumb,’ or ‘He’s just got a pretty face,’ or ‘He’s a thug,’ or ‘He can only do one thing,’” Mr. Dillon has said before. “I’m not so concerned with that now. Longevity’s what it’s about.”
At the movie’s premiere at the Chelsea West Cinema on April 21, the house was packed with an unlikely group for a Hollywood event: members of the U.N. and Refugees International. Aside from Mr. Dillon himself, former ambassador to the U.N. Richard Holbrooke drew the most attention when he walked into the theater, and even Kevin Bacon-one of the few token Hollywood heartthrobs in the audience-was left sitting between two excited Refugees International staffers.
Mr. Dillon’s opening speech paid homage to the organization, especially a now-deceased volunteer named Yvette who inspired him. “I like to think she’s here tonight with us,” he said somberly.
He was in lighter spirits later on, at the crowded after-party at Man Ray. Even though the restaurant was filled with younger faces-Fisher Stevens, Mark Feuerstein and Federico Castelluccio-Mr. Dillon, dressed in a dignified black suit, was still ringing in his new image. While the scenes of bloody Cambodian prostitutes in City of Ghosts made a striking contrast to the image of Cameron Diaz’s semen-enhanced hairdo, Mr. Dillon isn’t expecting his audience to change. “I don’t really think so much about the audience when I’m making the film,” he said. “I think of the audience as observers of the film, but I don’t think of them as-I don’t know. That’s a marketing question, it seems like.”
Now, Mr. Dillon is “more interested in storytelling.” The only changes that concern him with his new venture are changes in the actual production. “It changes all the time,” he said of his movie, which took half a decade to conceive, create and produce. “You’re working on things, and it goes through different incarnations; it just changes as it goes along. I think that’s really a valuable part of making the movie-changes. When you see things that need changes to be made, then you do it.”
As a writer, director and actor, Mr. Dillon “had a real hand in it,” and a plan. “My game plan was to be really prepared as a director in pre-production, so when I was stepping on the set, I could be more focused as an actor,” he said. “If I hadn’t written it, it might have been more difficult. I think the thing that was really important was the preparation, so that made it easier.”
Now, after all his preparation-and with only days to go before the release of his movie, on April 25-he referred to his past roles as “other things … jobs that I was taking as an actor.” Before Mr. Dillon was swallowed up by a mob of adoring actresses and ambassadors, he mused on his nascent directorial experiences-which include having directed an episode of the HBO series Oz . “People say it’s like wearing two hats,” he said, “but I think it was like wearing one big hat.”