My Three Favourite… Literary Hoaxes

2nd Apr 2012


Yesterday was April Fool’s Day, and the internet was abuzz with talk of techno pranks like Google’s 8-bit maps. But what about the literary hoaxes that took far longer to be unmasked for what they were? The books believed to be autobiographical; factual instead of fiction?

From fiction masked as memoir to imaginary authors, here’s three of the boldest and bizarrest books-based scams:

The Cradle of the Deep by Joan Lowell

California screen queen Joan Lowell acted in several silent films during the swinging 1920s, but she’s best remembered for her sensational bestselling book, The Cradle of the Deep.

First published in 1929 as a supposedly autobiographical account of Joan’s childhood and adolescence, it includes all sorts of claims about her epic adventures during this time.

She describes living aboard the Minnie A. Caine trading ship with her father and an all-male crew from the age of three months until turning seventeen.

She slept in a hammock, traded treasures with islanders, helped amputate a sailor’s arm at the age of sixteen, played strip poker with her shipmates and saw a man being eaten by a shark.

When the ship caught fire and sank off the coast of Australia, she was forced to swim three miles to safety, with a family of kittens clinging by their claws to her bare back. Or so she said.

The book sold over 100,00 copies, but a month after it was published, it was exposed as almost entirely invention, after an newspaper interview with her neighbours where they revealed she’d been at home almost the entire time.

She later admit that the details had been fudged and fictionalised:

“My four-masted cradle that rocked on the deep is truthfully mine, and it depicts honestly hunks, or cross-sections of me and my years at sea. I put the whole story on the schooner Minnie A. Caine because that was the last ship I sailed on and I loved her the most.”

The book was even adapted into a film, Adventure Girl. And despite being far from true, the seafaring shenanigans depicted in The Cradle of the Deep are inventive, funny and frank.

Intrigued? You can find secondhand copies on Amazon, or download the Kindle edition.

Satan’s Underground by Lauren Stratford

Published for the first time in 1988, Satan’s Underground tells a disturbing and supposedly true story, of the author’s time in a Satanic cult.

Claiming to have been a baby breeder forced to have children later used in snuff films and ritual sacrifices, Lauren Stratford (real name Laurel Rose Wilson) invented an in-depth catalogue of abuse, including being tortured by cult leaders.

Christian magazine Cornerstone investigated her claims, and in 1989 they published their findings in an expose which revealed Satan’s Underground as a work of fiction, and found that Laurel had a long history of lying and false allegations of abuse.

Not content with one discredited and made-up memoir, Laurel went on to invent another identity, this time as Laura Grabowski. Claiming to be a Holocaust survivor, she scammed thousands of dollars in donations before being unmasked.

Laura Albert, Savannah Knoop and JT LeRoy

Credited by none other than The Washington Post as “one of the great literary hoaxes of our day” there was all sorts of fallout when it was revealed that the JT LeRoy books had actually been written by Laura Albert.

JT LeRoy was an alter ego invented by Albert, a child sex abuse survior turned hustler turned writer, telling his story in supposedly autobiographical novel Sarah and short story collection The Heart is Deceitful Above All Things.

The books soon became international cult classics, with hordes of adoring fans. ‘JT’ became a media darling, featured in magazines across the globe and with a bevy of celebrity BFFs queuing up to collaborate with him.

This meant that a real person was needed to perform JT’s media duties, and Savannah Knoop, the half-sister of Laura Albert’s partner Geoff, was drafted in, donning JT’s soon-to-be-trademark blonde wig, sunglasses and hat.

The trio went all over the world, charming the likes of Courtney Love, Billy Corgan, Carrie Fisher and Shirley Manson. Savannah even had a doomed love affair with Asia Argento while pretending to be JT.

The hoax was unravelled in a New York Magazine exposé  in 2005, in which Albert was outed as the real author of the books. The subsequent media frenzy left readers the world over feeling that they’d been betrayed.

A star-studded film adaptation of The Heart is Deceitful… (featuring Asia Argento, Michael Pitt and Marilyn Manson, among others) was hit hard by these revelations, and the production company later filed a lawsuit against Albert.

Savannah Knoop has since penned her own autobiographical account of that time, Girl Boy Girl: How I Became JT LeRoy.

Have you ever been hoodwinked by a literary hoax? Which others deserve a dishonourable mention here? What about Norma Khouri’s Forbidden Love, or Love and Consequences by Margaret Seltzer pretending to be Margaret B. Jones? Or the anonymous diary Go Ask Alice, now accepted to be the work of Beatrice Sparks? Which ones would make your top three?

Jane Bradley

(Image via lele)


  • GinaKershaw says:

    My personal favourite is The Castle of Otranto by Horace Walpole. Walpole claimed that it was a translation from an Italian account of real life horror to have supposedly occured in the thirteenth century. He revealed it to be a hoax in the second edition of the novel. I love that the Hollywood Horror trend of sticking “based on true events” before every film these days dates back to the original gothic hoax of the eighteenth century.