As Mike Sager tells it, the letter arrived 18 months ago, written by Janet Cooke in her choolteacher hand. The proposal: that he, as her former boyfriend and Washington Post colleague, tell her story at last.
Before the 12,000-word piece even surfaced in the June issue of GQ, Hollywood jumped in head-first. In a May 16 bidding war, TriStar Pictures committed a whopping $1.6 million for the movie rights, payable in full when principal photography begins. That Cooke, whose 1981 Pulitzer Prize-winning story proved to be a hoax, is sharing in the windfall added to the buzz.
For 15 years, Cooke had been sidestepping a press obsessed with the details of her demise. What led her to fabricate a story about Jimmy, the 8-year-old heroin addict? And what became of her after the award was returned? Only by confronting these questions, she realized, could she get her life and career back on track.
"[I wanted] to create a forum in which to confess my sins, to explain myself, to ask for forgiveness," said Cooke, 41, who responded to The Times' questions by fax rather than submit to a live interview. "The most miserable part of my exile has been the lack of a forum, the lack of a voice."
Though Sager declined previous offers to document the episode, this time he went along.
"Last year, Hugh Grant winked and bowed, said three Hail Marys, hit three stations of the media cross and was back on the set," said Sager, a writer-at-large for GQ. "But there was no prescribed route to salvation for Janet in those days. When she left for Paris in 1985, she wasn't familiar with the media confessional--pleading guilty through extenuating circumstances. Janet felt that telling her own story would seem self-serving so I agreed to do it."
The story quickly created a media stir. On the "Today Show," Bryant Gumbel played hardball with Cooke, until recently a $6-an-hour clerk in the Liz Claiborne department of a Kalamazoo, Mich., department store. Ben Bradlee, Washington Post executive editor at the time of the deception, declined to join her on "Nightline" a few days before. (He has yet to receive an apology from her, he told a convention of newspaper ombudsmen.)
In Hollywood, three studios did battle over a 12-hour stretch. Turner Pictures wanted the project for producer Denise Di Novi ("Little Women") while Fox 2000 had Lynda Obst ("Sleepless in Seattle") in mind. TriStar Pictures also dug in and ultimately won out.
James L. Brooks' Gracie Films had been discussing the project with TriStar, while Doug Wick's Red Wagon Productions was conferring with Columbia Pictures. To avoid competition between two Sony siblings, the producers decided to team up. Brooks, who tackled journalism once before in the critically acclaimed "Broadcast News," may direct.
In a deal cut by Philip Raskind of the Endeavor Agency, a 30,000-word author's draft of the story fetched $750,000--with the promise of $850,000 more if the movie gets made. Forty-five percent of the sum--minus agent fees--goes to Sager, who will get a producing credit. Cooke, virtually indigent after a divorce from an American lawyer-turned-diplomat posted in Paris ("If it hadn't been for my mother, I might have been homeless"), signed on as a consultant and will get 55%.
In his best-case scenario, Sager hoped for a TV movie, while Cooke was counting on $5,000 or so to help jump-start her freelance career. Though media attention was never the goal, she said, in retrospect the frenzy makes sense.
"The mistakes, my hardships, the infamy: All of it, from a third-person perspective, makes for a great story," Cooke said. "The worse it is, the better it is, that's what we always said in daily journalism. That's true for every kind of drama . . . unless, of course, you're the one living through it. Cereal for dinner is cinematic, but not so satisfying."
Movie executives said that $100,000 to $250,000 is the average price paid for rights to a high-profile magazine piece. In this case, buying Cooke's life story--as well as keen competition--drove up the price.
"I'm astonished by the numbers--you can buy a best-seller for that," said Joe Roth, chairman of the Walt Disney Studios. "But three major players were interested in it and it was a case of supply and demand."
TriStar production chief Stacey Snider called it an "expensive acquisition" but insisted the studio did not overpay. This was a thoroughly researched tale with a beginning, middle and end, she said, adding that since Sager and Cooke did the "perspiration"--living it and recording it--only minor "fiddling" remains.
"I was fascinated by the relationship between a young editorial puppy and a temptress finding her way in a really sexy world," Snider said. "Cooke's character is fascinating, charming, tragic--all that good stuff."
When Endeavor sent out the draft, however, certain filmmakers refused to bite. "Some of the producers had a bit of a moral dilemma," one insider said. "They were reluctant to reward someone who had committed a wrong. Others felt Cooke had been punished enough--and since the story was so compelling, didn't want to pass judgment."
Snider scoffs at such a "sanctimonious" approach, calling "political correctness" the greater threat. "We don't just tell stories about heroes," she said. "People who have fallen are often more interesting. Not every black woman in a movie has to be a role model, and Cooke, in any case, is no Son of Sam."
Sager, 39, has his own theory of her downfall, documented in depth in his remarkably frank piece. Their relationship, he now realizes, was a mix of "chemistry and Pygmalion." Personally and professionally, she was needy, he recalled.
"Janet was a woman on the verge of a nervous breakdown--raised by a father who tried to live a colorblind existence," he said. "Like him, she was tortured by it. . . . No matter how many Peter Pan collars she wore, she'd never fit in. It was never her intent to denigrate the 1st Amendment or win an award. But when she promised more than she could deliver, Janet--for whom lying had become a way of life--lost it and did the wrong thing."
That Hollywood gets the message is encouraging, Sager added. "In Washington, it was cut and dry--plagiarism was committed by one of their own," he said. "But the movie world saw the story on a human and symbolic plane. Brooks approached it as an encapsulated piece of Americana--journalism at its height, race, woman and power, upbringing and abuse. Still, until the check arrives, I'm taking my father's cautious approach. Neither Janet nor I ran out to lease a Porsche--though she did invest in a writing chair."
Cooke, for her part, is less interested in reliving her transgressions in a tell-all book than in forging ahead in the periodical realm. She's a few pages into a story titled "What I've Learned," which she'd like to sell to the New Yorker, GQ or Vanity Fair.
"Five years from now, I hope to be sitting at a keyboard, running off at the fingers, rushing to make a magazine deadline," Cooke said. "If the keyboard was in Paris and the magazine was Vogue or Ms., I certainly wouldn't be at all unhappy. I understand that there are people who will always think ill of me. But I needed to face up to what I did in order to put it to rest. I was looking for closure--and I think I've found that."