Mary Ann Evans Sued For Impersonating George Eliot

I’m with Ron Hogan on this one. I find a federal court’s decision to award a film production company a fraud settlement against writer Laura Albert inexplicable and bizarre. So Laura Albert impersonated a man named J. T. Leroy. It was a work of fiction. There is a long, long history of pseudonymous literature. Was nobody on Albert’s defense team aware that some of the greatest novelists of all time were women who impersonated men to increase their chances of commercial success, including Mary Ann Evans (George Eliot), Charlotte, Emily and Anne Bronte (Currer, Ellis and Acton Bell) and George Sand (Aurore Dupin)?

It’s simply amazing that Laura Albert’s legal team, headed by Eric Weinstein, could not win this case, and since I know a bit about how the law works I can only conclude that this lawyer did not have the skills to meet this challenge. If Doubleday or Random House’s legal teams had defended this case, they would have wiped the floor with the plaintiff’s argument. According to most accounts, the film company’s strongest case for fraud is based on the fact that Albert signed the name “J. T. Leroy” on contracts, and if that’s their best case they should have been laughed out of the courtroom. Did Bob Dylan never sign the name “Bob Dylan”? Did Mark Twain never sign the name “Mark Twain”? Did John Wayne never sign the name “John Wayne”? The law does not require our artists to reveal their identitities to creative partners, especially since doing so would puncture the pretenses the artists want to uphold.

But here’s the key point: regardless of whether Albert signed her name or Leroy’s, she signed the contract in good faith and upheld it in good faith. No financial damages can be traced to her signature on that contract, and this is one of many reasons I feel quite sad at the thought that this writer has actually lost her case, and is now expected to hand over a hundred thousand dollars that she does not have.

Ridiculous. It’s clear that she could not afford the type of professional legal representation she needed, because this case should have been shut down before it even reached a jury.

In the end, here’s the irony: never has Laura Albert resembled the tragic and skeleton-unlucky J. T. Leroy more than she does now, in these Daily News photos, a wan writer, lost, abandoned by the publishing industry, financially destroyed. I hope she writes a book about this, and I hope she publishes it as J. T. Leroy.

And, I pray that she gets herself some better lawyers.

All they had to do was talk about Mary Ann Evans.

16 Responses

  1. George EliotGeorge Eliot did
    George Eliot

    George Eliot did not create a fake persona to give interviews, get another person to pretend to be Mr. Eliot at various events, and constantly telephone people and lie to them about her/his activities.

    She also did not say or imply that the events in The Mill on the Floss or Middlemarch were based on her own lurid past. When speculation about the author of Adam Bede reached a certain point, Mary Ann Evans stepped forward and revealed George Eliot’s true identity.

    Most importantly, Mary Ann Evans/George Eliot never sold raccoon penises on a website.

  2. More on AlbertAlso, don’t you
    More on Albert

    Also, don’t you think your analogies about Dylan, Twain and Wayne signing contracts is inapt?

    Wayne legally changed his name, and while I don’t know about Dylan, everyone always knew these personalities’ birth names. They were not secrets.

    Twain did in fact sign all his contracts as Clemens. In all of these cases, there was a known and recognizable human being with the new name. That wasn’t the case with “JT Leroy.” There was a clear intent to defraud the public, if no one else, that such a human entity existed.

    A contract signed by a nonentity is unenforceable and void simply because that nonperson doesn’t have the capacity to make or accept an offer, give consideration, etc. Had Albert wanted to get out of what she considered an onerous or unprofitable contract, her lawyers probably would have made the argument that a contract signed by “JT Leroy” was invalid.

    Albert could have obviated this problem by turning over the Leroy copyrights to a corporate entity, such as Ann Beattie’s Irony & Pity Inc., and had the agent for that corporation sign the contract.

    The reason the movie company sued was that what they were getting in exchange for their money was no longer as valuable without the implied promise that the material was based on real-life events that happened to “Leroy” and that “Leroy” would publicize the film as such. The company faced a financial loss. Now perhaps you could argue that given some of the publicity surrounding “Leroy’s” identity, a reasonable person would have been wary.

    But clearly, this suit cost them a good deal of money and it was not undertaken simply for spite or to achieve an unearned financial windfall. The financial damages were, in fact, real, and they could be attributed directly to Albert’s fraud.

  3. Richard — do you know for
    Richard — do you know for sure that Mary Ann Evans did not “pretend to be Mr. Eliot”? And what exactly do you mean when you say she “did not create a fake persona to give interviews”?

    I don’t think “interviewing” was all the rage in the 19th century literary scene as it is now, but it does seem clear to me that Mary Ann Evans created a “fake” literary persona in every sense. I really don’t know what you’re referring to when you say she didn’t.

    The fact that she eventually revealed her identity just proves that at one point she tried hard to conceal this identity. Just as Laura Albert did — and Laura Albert eventually revealed her identity as well. I don’t think you’ve articulated a single clear difference here between what Mary Ann Evans did and what Laura Albert did.

  4. Riachard, you said bascially
    Riachard, you said bascially what I was thinking. Levi, you call the book a “work of fiction”, but my understanding is that it was supposed to be autobiographical. Also, I thought the movie company was asking for money back, which they had already paid. When you say that Laura Albert has “is now expected to hand over a hundred thousand dollars that she does not have” it carries a different implication. Did the movie company pay her a hundred thousand dollars? I’m not clear on that point, but if I were Laura Albert, I would put the money in someone else’s name and then slowly pay it back over a long time. That might be bogus of me, but damn! A hundred grand.

  5. Richard, I’m sorry but I must
    Richard, I’m sorry but I must disagree. I’m no expert on the career of John Wayne, but I know that Robert Zimmerman put a lot of effort into being “Bob Dylan”, and his true identity leaked out against his wishes. He eventually changed his name legally, but this was years after he had made his name. I’m quite sure that he would have signed many contracts as “Bob Dylan”.

    And about this “Twain did in fact sign all his contracts as Clemens” — I assume you have more knowledge than me about this, but can I ask you to please tell me your source for this info? I am not a Twain expert so I am not doubting your word, but I’d love to know why you are sure that this is true.

  6. Bill, absolutely not —
    Bill, absolutely not — “Sarah” was clearly marked as fiction. It was marketed as a “debut novel”.

  7. Going to have to to with
    Going to have to to with Richard on this one — I don’t think this is about the long history of pseudonymous literature, although thinking about it in that way would lead to some wrong assumptions. I think there is a fine, but distinct, line between portraying yourself in a certain way and fraud — and in this case I believe JT AlbertRoy crossed over it many times. While I can understand the fretting of some over the appearance of this case, I’m finding it pretty hard to feel sorry for her (or him).

  8. “Fretting” is a derisive
    “Fretting” is a derisive word. Anyway, of course everybody is entitled to their opinion, and I don’t want to monopolize the discussion on my own site. So, I’ll mainly say “thanks” for the alternative viewpoints.

    But I’ll also say one last time that I really hope Laura Albert finds a way to appeal this judgement. Based on the summaries I’ve read of the proceedings, the defense seems to have attempted some strange and rather soft “psychological defenses” but I think they should have instead focused on the connection between the alleged fraud and the alleged damages (it seems to me that a fraudulent signature can only be tied to damages if the signer attempted to gain some advantage from the assumed identity, which did not happen here), on the question of who assumes risk when a film production company buys a property (I think it’s the film company that assumes the risk, not the seller of the property), and on the question of whether or not a successful film could not still have been made from this property (again, “Sarah” was a popular work of fiction, and if the film producers had a good screenplay and good actors and a good director they should have been able to craft a film that audiences would have liked).

    I still say that a competent legal team could have destroyed the plaintiff’s case.

  9. Oh, come off it, Richard. We
    Oh, come off it, Richard. We know you’re really Delmore Schwartz.

  10. Levi, I believe I recall the
    Levi, I believe I recall the info about Twain from Justin Kaplan’s biography. I also once saw, at the Berg Collection, a contract signed by Clemens, though of course that’s no guarantee that he always did that. On the other hand, if there ever was a writer who would have liked to use an assumed name to be able to escape his creditors, it would be Clemens!

    If Albert, as you say, does not have the money, then you know as well as I do that she’s “judgment proof.” I assume the plaintiff made an investigation of Albert’s financial situation because otherwise it would not be worth it to undertake what probably was extensive legal fees. (I don’t believe they awarded legal fees yet, if at all.)

    It also troubles me that you can so easily disparage Albert’s counsel based on mainstream media accounts of the trial. You come very close to accusing the lawyer of being incompetent or neglectful.

    Well, if that is the case, Albert can turn around and sue him for legal malpractice. But there’s no evidence that Albert’s counsel did not do due diligence and present the best defense he could.

    Also, attorneys are not always the ones making decisions about trial strategy. Although they’re supposed to be their client’s zealous advocate, they also have to be cognizant of their client’s wishes.

    I wonder if Albert, a publicity seeker if there ever was one, directed counsel to pursue the defense talking about her sad past (which involved the kind of sexual abuse that made “JT Leroy” a celebrity) as not so much a legal strategy but as a way of keeping her value as a media figure alive.

    Indeed, I expect after the trial and the publictiy it garnered, Laura Albert can easily get a lucrative book contract from a major publisher and achieve the fame as herself that she once thought impossible.

    Therefore, even if she doesn’t have the money now, she may now — given all the publicity of the trial and the sympathy engendered by intelligent, sensitive people such as yourself.

    I feel such sympathy would be better directed toward the many poor Americans who have no access to mainstream media, whose stories will not be told on the front page of the New York Times nor on numerous blogs, people who have no access to civil legal services and who are at the mercy of rapacious landlords, cheating employers, dishonest merchants and corrupt bureaucrats.

    If Albert was, as you say, a victim, then surely she was also a victimizer. She has written some worthy books and she tried to pursue a dream…

    but as I’ve always said, in dreams begin responsibilities.

  11. Thanks for the response,
    Thanks for the response, Richard.

    The reason I asked about whether or not Twain ever signed his name as “Mark Twain” (and I don’t have any idea if he did or not) is that I know the logistics of using a pseudonym — when people don’t know you are using a pseudonym — are very difficult. How can a pseudonymous writer sign a contract with their born name without revealing that they are using a pseudonym? It’s not as simple as it seems. Signing your pseudonym (when you do so in good faith, with every intent on fulfilling your role in the contract) does not really seem to me a dishonest act at all.

    Two other points: if Laura Albert has no money and no possessions and no valuable intellectual property then yes, she is judgement proof. More likely, though, she has SOME money and some possessions, but she doesn’t have $100,000 ready to hand over. In this case, the jury’s decision will have a terrible impact on her life. I’m not sure where I read this, but one article quoted the plaintiff (the film producer) as saying that he expected to take ownership of Albert’s intellectual property — all her published writings — as part of the payoff, and saying that he felt this was fair. As a writer who would hate to lose control over rights to my texts, I find this idea upsetting and undeserved.

    Finally, yes, I am calling her lawyers incompetent because I read summaries of the trial and it seems to me they did not deliver an aggressive and comprehensive attack on all aspects of the plaintiff’s case. I spelled out what I mean by this in one of my comments above. For instance, how far did the defense go in the examination of the film production company’s claim that they could not possibly make a successful movie of this book because of the authorship scandal? Unless they devoted considerable attention to this specific question, I do not believe they covered their bases.

    Whether the problem is that the legal team did not have the brains or skill to put together a powerful defense, or whether or not they were simply not paid enough to do so, I don’t know. Honestly, I have to say I sadly suspect the latter.

    Anyway, Richard, this is a hot-tempered topic but I do appreciate your comments and even though I know we disagree, I’m glad you posted them. Thanks.

  12. Oh, one more question for
    Oh, one more question for everybody — why is there so much vitriol directed at a fiction writer? Everybody seemed to like J T Leroy a whole lot a few years ago.

  13. Thanks, Levi, and I hope I
    Thanks, Levi, and I hope I haven’t been too harsh toward Laura Albert, who seems to be a somewhat disturbed individual.

    My own problems with JT Leroy are that soon after I heard about him, I learned that a lot of people were pretty sure he was a fraud. Writer friends told me so about six years ago.

    I’ll give you the information privately if you want, but all this time I watched “Leroy” get publicity, have bylines in places like the New York Times, knowing that there was no person with his background — which, despite whatever virtues Albert’s novels had on their own — was clearly being exploited to the maximum effect.

    There are writers with backgrounds very similar to that invented by Albert for Leroy who have chosen not to exploit their own lives. In the real world, for ordinary people, there are a lot of unpleasant consequences to admitting to past activities like Leroy’s.

    I’ll call it quits here, but I do have two more comments. As I said before, “JT Leroy” didn’t have to sign the contract. An agent for a corporate entity that owned the Leroy contracts could have.

    Second, for the past few years, publishers have had to report to the IRS (via Form 1099)payments made to writers, which means that they must have your social security number and your real name. I assume the same is true of movie companies? Who paid the taxes on the money JT Leroy earned?

  14. Having used aliases and
    Having used aliases and having made money with them in the past, I’m staying mum on the Albert subject, though I never signed a contract as anyone other than myself. I can, however, offer some input on the payment issue. In the past year I have written or worked with/for several production companies and a few publishers. Not all are the same. Some treat authors as independent contractors and pay a lump sum accordingly. It is then up to the writer to pay the taxes. On the other hand, some companies, the larger ones usually, require an SSN or FIN before they will pay you anything. If it is a deal involving royalties, in every instance I have encountered, an ID number has been required.

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