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A woman who used the alter ego of a nonexistent male prostitute to pen an autobiographical novel defrauded a production company that wanted to make a film about her life, a jury decided today.
The Manhattan federal jury awarded the production company $116,500 after deliberating for several hours in the case against San Francisco writer Laura Albert. Antidote International Films Inc. had sued Albert, who went to strange lengths to hide her identity behind her alter ego, a male prostitute named JT LeRoy.
LeRoy was identified as the author of "Sarah," the tale of a truck-stop hooker that was marketed as being based on his life. The jury ordered the $110,000 paid to Antidote, along with $6,500 in punitive damages.
U.S. District Court Judge Jed Rakoff said he would rule later on Antidote's motion to recover its legal fees in the case.
To extend the ruse, Albert's friends donned wigs and posed as the fictitious LeRoy at book signings. They duped journalists with the phony back story about a past as an underage male prostitute. Albert even made phone calls to a psychiatrist while posing as the troubled teen, and grabbed the attention of such authors as Tobias Wolff and Dave Eggers, and filmmaker Gus Van Sant.
Although Albert stared straight ahead when the verdict was read, and said she expected the decision, she was quick to condemn it.
"This goes beyond me," Albert said. "Say an artist wants to use a pseudonym for political reasons, for performance art. This is a new, dangerous brave new world we are in." She said that Antidote had succeeded in exposing more of her life story during the trial, and will try to make more money off of it.
"They made my life public domain. It's about commerce," she said. "They're going to try to hijack my copyrights, which is like stealing my child."
Antidote and its president, Jeffrey Levy-Hinte, said they spent $110,000 working on a film based on the book. The company, which still holds a one-year option on the book, has no plans to use the rights now, but "they might be valuable to somebody else, who knows," said Antidote's attorney, Gregory Curtner.
"I think we would have preferred that we never had to get here," Curtner said after the verdict. "We have sympathy for Laura Albert."
Albert, between tears and laughter, testified that she had been assuming male identities for decades as a coping mechanism for psychological problems brought on by her sexual abuse as a child. To her, she said, LeRoy was real.
But Curtner said Albert stepped over a line by signing contracts and obtaining copyrights under the phony name.
Albert's attorney, Eric Weinstein, said his client was disappointed by the verdict but didn't question the jury's decision.
"We had a very smart judge and a very smart jury, and we can't change the outcome," he said.
Movie company defrauded by author
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