Remember that moment on Oprah in early 2006 when author James Frey was basically interrogated by Oprah Winfrey, America’s most powerful and influential television host? We watched the 36-year old author squirm uncomfortably on the couch as Oprah grilled him and stated, “That’s a lie. It’s not an idea, James. That’s a lie.” Only a matter of months prior, Oprah had endorsed his memoir-turned-novel, A Million Little Pieces, in her book club.
It was hailed as the book that “kept Oprah awake at night,” so no one expected it to turn into the scandal of the year. If you don’t recall, Frey’s “memoir” was proven to be majorly fabricated. So, what’s it like to go from being a mega-selling memoir author to a “liar”? Well, the ex-junkie has his own side of the story to tell. And it might make you reconsider the whole thing…
Thanks to Oprah and her book club, Frey’s book sales lifted from mere thousands into the millions. And Oprah wasn’t the only one. Many praised his book, and it seemed as though Frey was on his way to literary stardom. In 2005, his book sold more copies in the country than any other book (other than Harry Potter). But once the truth came out, everything came crashing down around him.
At the beginning of 2006, the website Smoking Gun website published a takedown of all of Frey’s wild claims. It started with the words: “Oprah Winfrey’s been had.” Uh oh. The publication exposed his lies, including his false claim of being in a train accident that took the lives of two female schoolmates, and called him out as a fraud.
Frey wrote about his constant stints in jail, but it was revealed that the closest he ever came to prison were a few hours spent in police headquarters in Ohio, where he was waiting for a friend to post bail for some minor offences. In contrast to his wild “memoir,” Frey was painted as a mild-mannered, generally law-abiding man who seemed to have gone somewhat insane.
The Smoking Gun’s report mocked all the reviewers and publicists who praised his “fearless honesty,” and detailed a series of embarrassing retractions, revolving around how Frey and his publisher Random House were forced to offer any dissatisfied readers a refund.
The book was originally sold with a preface stating its largely fictional contents. Frey was then dropped by Random House and had to hold his head in his hands when an episode of South Park called A Million Little Fibers aired. Frey embarrassed the publishing world, and he was shunned for a matter of time (he later signed new book deals).
His editor, Sean McDonald, stated that he “made sure that everything actually happened…certainly when we were editing the book, we would talk about what was true and what was not.” Well, that’s what he said at first. But then it got to be too much, and he threw his author under the bus, so to speak.
McDonald said that he learned of all the lies “the same way and at the same time as everybody else.” This came from a man whom Frey had described as “a friend who’s giving me good advice, as opposed to a boss who’s giving me an order.” But McDonald didn’t suffer in his career – he went on to do just fine for himself.
As for Frey, well, normally, a scandal of this magnitude would mean the end for a fraudulent author. But, the literary world is built on good stories, and this was one of the decade’s best. His publisher Nan Talese was with him through it all, even when he was “ambushed” by the “holier-than-thou” Oprah. And there you have it, the following year, Oprah called Frey.
She told him, “I feel I owe you an apology.” She invited him back on the show. But Frey, who was then mourning the death of his 11-day old son Leo, declined her offer. He told her he needed to get past the “surreal and difficult and at times, uncomfortable and at times terrible” previous three years.
You see, Frey may have been called out on the lies that he spun as truths, but that doesn’t mean the man didn’t have a hard life. James Christopher Frey was born in Cleveland, Ohio, on September 12, 1969. The son of an upper-middle-class family, he craved both adventure and attention. He later described himself as “the child you pray you never have to raise.”
He claimed that he was arrested 11 times before he turned 19. when he was 12, his family moved to St. Joseph, Michigan, and he was the unpopular kid whose peers hated him “with a f***ing vengeance.” By the time he started college, he was taking so many drugs that he would black out nearly-continuously. He would bleed heavily from his nose and lose control of his bodily functions.
After, he became addicted to a nightmarish combination of drugs (including glue). He said he served time in jail and fled to Paris as a wanted man. It was there that he apparently assaulted a priest who made a pass at him in a confessional box.
He wrote, “Lying became part of my life. I lied if I needed to lie to get something or get out of something.” He described being sent to county jail for three-to-six months, rather than the eight-year stretch he anticipated. Frey hit bottom, and without a job or the kind of resume that would enable him to get one, the only thing he had going for him was a knack for recording all the unbelievable events that were occurring to and around him.
That’s when he began to write; A Million Little Pieces was the result. Frey’s story read like a true American saga – with the protagonist going through hell and back and returning stronger and more confident than before to tell his tale.
The story of what really happened with his scandalous tale hasn’t been told in its full complexity, though. Due to a non-disclosure agreement between Frey and Random House, neither one can really speak about it. Vanity Fair investigated, and it looks like the story is more complicated than a simple “man cons the world” type of story.
After all, it’s not like there were any fake websites or anyone pretending to be a spokesman for a phony corporation. The thing about memoirs is that, on the one hand, they have poetic license to stray from absolute truth in the name of storytelling. On the other, though, they seem to be totally real. The market was basically screaming, “Give us more drama and tell us it’s all true!”
It was only a matter of time before the mixture would blow up in someone’s face. That someone just happened to be James Frey – a man with the right story to tell, the talent and ambition to be heard, and the publishing companies hungry for a hit. By the time Vanity Fair spoke to him in 2008, he was fearful of the media and traumatized by the whole Oprah ordeal.
“Frankly, I don’t even care… if somebody calls [A Million Little Pieces] a memoir, or a novel, or a fictionalized memoir, or what. I could care less what they call it,” Frey said. “It’s just a book that was written with the intention to break a lot of rules in writing. I’ve broken a lot of rules in a lot of ways. So be it.”
After all, Frey has been attracted to breaking the rules for as long as he’s been alive. On some levels, it makes him more human. At the age of 38, he was still making prank calls, and he’s shown up to a Halloween party wearing nothing but a Speedo. Breaking the rules is just part of the rich fantasy life Frey has constructed since he was a child.
His heroes — literary, artistic, or fictional — were all rebels. As a teenager, he was obsessed with the work of Henry Miller, Jack Kerouac, and Charles Bukowski, three icons of male sin and bohemianism. By the age of 14, he was drinking and smoking pot regularly; the hard drugs came a bit later.
All three of his go-to authors played with fact and fiction – sometimes they wrote about their actual lives, and sometimes they wrote the more fantastical versions of their lives. “That’s what I always thought I would do,” Frey admitted to Vanity Fair, “write about my own life in some way that… would constitute art or literature.”
He also said flat-out that “I’ve never had any interest at all in being a journalist or writing some sort of historically accurate autobiography.” His first piece of real writing – a small chunk of a novel – came in 1994, after graduating from Denison College and completing rehab, when he was living in Chicago.
That early piece included an author’s note that was eerily prophetic. He wrote that the events described did occur in some shape or form but that his literary interests might well end in “an expensive and terrifying web of litigation.” Whether he sensed a future scandal or not, Frey dismisses his first piece of writing as “a lot of nonsense.”
He moved to Los Angeles and, like many frustrated novelists, dipped his feet in screenwriting. He wrote the screenplay for the 1998 romantic comedy Kissing a Fool, which starred David Schwimmer, but it was called “pea-brained” and “moronic” by Roger Ebert. Frey then tried his hand at directing with a small-budget film called Sugar: The Fall of the West, again to a disappointing turnout.
He was just starting out, which is a time for failures and lessons, but it was “crushing” for the author. He was also newly sober and determined to make something of his life. When he wasn’t sweating it out in front of the computer, he was staying true to his edgier side. He invited both friends and homeless people to come over to his place and watch boxing matches on TV.
Frey has a heart, which he exhibited during his spare time when he volunteered as a mentor. “While we were all living in L.A., surfing and playing tennis,” his friend Michael Craven recalled, “he was hanging out with a kid who didn’t have a family.”
He was nowhere near being a successful writer at that point, but, nonetheless, assignments continued to come in. By 2000, Frey decided that being a “hack screenwriter” wasn’t his future – he was going to return to his serious literary ambitions. And so, he took out a second mortgage on his house and threw himself into what would become his scandalous memoir.
He had actually started writing it a few years earlier, basing it on his addiction and recovery. His friends and girlfriend (his neighbor Maya who would soon become his wife) thought he was crazy for blowing a perfectly fine career on something they considered so indulgent. But, for Frey, it just came pouring out.
He was back in the writer’s chair, pounding away at the keyboard in the rapid-paced, carefree style that would become his trademark. His book has no quotation marks, no paragraph indentations, hardly any commas, and frequent run-on sentences. He took pride in it. Early in the process, Frey showed it to someone with an M.F.A. in writing.
Frey recalled the note that was sent back to him: “This is unpublishable. This would get destroyed in my workshop.” After about a year, he had 525 pages and felt ready to shop it around to literary agents. It landed in the hands of Kassie Evashevski, then at Brillstein-Grey, who worked with books and films.
The way he tells it today, he followed in the footsteps of his literary heroes and sought to publish the work as fiction. He stated that he sent the book to Evashevski “as a novel… I was pretty clear. It’s a novel. I didn’t tell her it was a memoir.” Evashevski refused to comment when Vanity Fair approached her.
She did say, however, that Frey told her it was the true story of his addiction and recovery. “James raised the issue of whether he could publish it as an autobiographical novel — only, he said, to spare his family undue embarrassment, not because it wasn’t true.” Regardless, she sent the book to 18 publishers – no one wanted it.
Only when she said it was a true story did the industry say, “Well, let’s talk.” After all, memoirs were becoming cash cows for publishing companies (think of Angela’s Ashes and Running with Scissors, for example). Novels, on the other hand, were declining in sales. Indeed, once Evashevski pitched the book as a memoir, “The response was unanimous,” she recalled.
“If the book is true, it should be published as a memoir.” One interested party was Sean McDonald, who showed it to his boss Nan Talese, who was ready to offer this first-time writer $50,000 for the “memoir.” Evashevski then went back to Frey with the good news – a conversation he remembers well.
“We talked about what the rules of memoir were or were not,” Frey recalled. According to him, he walked away from that conversation believing his book was within the bounds of what the publishing world called a “memoir.” So, even if there were facts were off, it was fine. Also, there’s the fact that he initially submitted it as a novel, meaning it was clear (to him at least) that he changed more than minor details.
In fact, he said he changed “a bunch of stuff.” Frey and McDonald started working together – in a professional turned friendly relationship. McDonald later claimed that he was deceived by Frey, but it’s possible the editor even enabled him.
Two sources say McDonald’s editing intentionally heightened the drama, without questioning the accuracy of the text. To give Frey credit, he was vocal about his misgivings regarding labeling the book as a memoir. On an “author’s questionnaire,” a marketing and publicity memo that authors fill out a few months before publication, Frey wrote, “I think of this book more a work of art or literature than I do a work of memoir or autobiography.”
Still, in April 2003, A Million Little Pieces came out as a “memoir,” and the praise was pretty much unanimous: “electrifying,” “mesmerizing,” “unflinchingly honest.” Frey was hailed as a new, unique voice on the scene, with a “screw-the-rules” kind of take on language and storytelling.
The sales went from 10,000 to 70,000 copies quickly. Frey, tasting fame for the first time, was even playing up his rebel side for the media. Most of his quotes involved the F-bomb. But one article in Minneapolis Star Tribune, by Deborah Caulfield Rybak, went unnoticed. In it, she raised questions about the plausibility of his book.
When she asked Talese why there wasn’t an author’s note, she responded, “It’s a total slipup that we didn’t have a disclaimer page. I’m embarrassed.” Two years later, by the time of his Vanity Fair interview, there was still no disclaimer in the book. It would have provided at least a little bit of wiggle room and could have prevented Frey from getting into all the trouble he did.
But these comments flew under the radar, as Frey’s memoir was already in its seventh printing. He was soaring to a level that most writers and booksellers can only dream of. Then, boom, the call was made: Oprah had just selected A Million Little Pieces for her book club. And just like that, the books began flying off the shelves.
All over the world, everyone – addicts and nonaddicts alike – wanted to read it. It was being published in 28 languages by 30 different publishers. Frey was getting hundreds of e-mails each day, with people thanking him for helping them kick their or their child’s addiction. Frey was getting requests for interview after interview. Anyways, you get the point: He was a star.
Okay, so the world was listening to this new, fresh, edgy author. Now the publisher had to make sure that the book was being sold as Frey’s life story. Frey himself started standing by his book as straight non-fiction, and people clearly believed it, but playing along didn’t feel good. At that point, Frey admitted to seeking psychiatric help.
“I didn’t enjoy the pedestal that I was put on,” he stated. His book, written with other intentions altogether, was becoming something else. Two months after being on Oprah in 2005, he was getting calls from the investigative website The Smoking Gun, which was looking for his mug shots. When the mug shots proved hard to find, the site started digging further.
Panicked by their calls, Frey hired Martin Singer, an A-list L.A. attorney, whose clients include the likes of Jennifer Aniston and Britney Spears. By January 2006, the nightmare was growing darker. The Smoking Gun was working on their exposé and even sent Frey their findings beforehand. He showed the report to his friend and writer Josh Kilmer-Purcell, asking him what he should do.
Sure, some of the “facts” were little white lies, but some were much bigger. There were three months in jail that not only never happened, but the crime behind had also been falsified. The Smoking Gun story went viral almost as fast as Frey became a superstar.
Frey faced the music, writing on his website, “So let the haters hate, let the doubters doubt. I stand by my book and my life, and I won’t dignify this bullshit with any sort of further response.” Three nights later, Larry King invited him to come to defend himself on his show. At that point, Oprah was still on his side and even defended him.
She called in to Larry King’s show and said: “The underlying message of redemption in James Frey’s memoir still resonates with me, and I know it resonates with millions of people who have read this book.… To me, it seems to be much ado about nothing.” But it took about two weeks for her to change her mind.
Now, the only thing resonating with Oprah was what her fans were saying: “How can you stand by this liar?” She wanted to get Frey back on her show – in the name of “the truth matters.” But according to Talese, nothing was truthful about the way the show was presented. At first, The Oprah Winfrey Show invited her and Frey together.
When Talese resisted, the show came back with a new pitch. The topic: “Truth in America,” with Talese on a panel with columnists from The New York Times and The Washington Post. It was this scenario that convinced Talese to come on the show. But once she and Frey arrived at Harpo Studios, they were blindsided.
In the end, the show wasn’t going to be about Truth in America; it was going to be about the James Frey controversy. Winfrey told Frey it would be rough but that there would be redemption in the end. But from beginning to end, Oprah, who had stood by his story just two weeks before, now pounced on his every word, while the audience sat there and booed him.
“I feel like I came here, and I have been honest with you,” he said on the show. “I have, you know, essentially admitted to…” and then Oprah broke in, “lying.” According to Talese, Frey felt “trapped and cornered.” Talese was disgusted at the spectacle Oprah created and especially at what she allegedly told Frey after the show: “I know it was rough, but it’s just business.”
Oprah, however, denies making such a comment. By the time Frey got to the Chicago airport, it seemed as though everyone knew who he was and what he had done. When Frey left his apartment in NYC the next day, reporters were waiting at the front of his building, so he slipped out the back. Eventually, the back door was bombarded too.
That’s when “pretty much everybody I knew in publishing, with the exception of, I think, two people, cut contact off,” Frey said. First, it was Evashevski, then McDonald, and then he was getting lawsuits thrown at him from unhappy readers. One came from a social worker seeking $10 million who said he had recommended his book to patients with substance-abuse problems.
Random House reportedly stopped paying him, citing breach of contract, so Frey’s lawyers threatened to sue the publishing house. There wasn’t a day that went by when Frey wasn’t ridiculed by the press. Flattery and praise turned into curses and condemnation. Two other literary scandals were occurring at the time (Augusten Burroughs was being sued for Running with Scissors and J. T. LeRoy for Sarah), yet neither got the attention Frey was got.
Once Frey heard about Dick Cheney shooting his hunting friend in the face, he thought the torture might just be over. He thought, “At least there’s something in the news that’s going to take it away… It didn’t.” He received cruel emails from many ex-fans telling him they hoped he would die or become an addict again. Ouch.
Frey was worried about the impact all of this might have on his family and his daughter. “I was worried she wouldn’t get into pre-school anywhere because of me.” Drugs and drinking became a constant temptation. “It would be great to just not feel anything,” he said. But when the urge was especially critical, he reached out to friends.
In the end, Frey didn’t give in to the temptation: “I wasn’t going to give anybody the pleasure of that.” It should also be said that he did, in fact, get his share of support from both friends and fans. Still, the public hate was torturous. The previously talked-about movie deal for A Million Little Pieces fell through in the wake of the scandal.
However, director Tony Scott, who hired Frey to write a screenplay about the Hells Angels, wasn’t backing out of their deal. Frey, at least, had an assignment to distract him. So, he flew to the South of France with his family to work on the screenplay and find some temporary respite. “It was nice to be James Frey, husband, father, guy writing a movie, instead of James Frey, notorious author.”
Two months later, Frey returned to New York only to see that nothing there had changed. Multiple lawsuits were still hanging over his head (most were compiled into a class-action suit that was eventually settled by Frey and Random House in 2007 for $2.35 million).
As his world was continuing to crash down around him, the only place he found control was at his computer. “When my world was collapsing around me in so many ways, the machine was a great comfort.” He focused on the Los Angeles novel he had been mulling over for a year.
Like a true addict, who has to live through recovery moment to moment, he wrote “one word at a time, one sentence at a time, one paragraph at a time.” By the summer of 2006, Frey met Glenn Horowitz, a 52-year-old rare-book dealer who was social and well connected. “You could just see this was someone who could use a new friend,” Horowitz said.
And then he met Norman Mailer, who, to Frey, was the leader of the rebel-genius tradition. A year before Mailer passed away, Horowitz took Frey to meet Mailer. Frey’s hands were shaking as Mailer introduced himself: “So, you’re the guy that caused all these problems. I wish I’d known you at the time that the problems began. If you would have called me, I would have explained to you how to get through all this mess!”
They spoke about the genre of memoirs and the fact that, in Mailer’s opinion, they are by definition corrupt. In essence, Mailer welcomed Frey into the small and elite circle of bad boys. Of course, it was an unforgettable afternoon for Frey. “It made me feel like, yeah, I’m going to be fine. I can deal with this.”
Then, nine months later, he finished his next book, Bright Shiny Morning. It was proof of his ability to triumph over adversity, once again. His fairy godfather Horowitz introduced Frey to an agent named Eric Simonoff, of Janklow & Nesbit, who wanted to take him on as a writer. Frey warned him: “I’m a f***ing pariah.”
But according to Simonoff, Frey deserved a second chance. In the end, the whole thing turned into some sort of open secret that the industry was actually complicit in the Frey scandal. Many in and out of the literary world say the scandal was overblown. But, then again, who can ignore the word of the one and only Oprah Winfrey?