James Frey, the disgraced author whose literary career was supplanted by turns as a reality TV star, ad pitchman, and philanthropist, was found dead of a heart attack in his Los Angeles mansion. He was 61 years old.
Frey became a household name in 2005, when his best-selling memoir of addiction and recovery, A Million Little Pieces, was debunked as fiction. A second volume, My Friend Leonard, was later discredited.
Oprah Winfrey, who selected Pieces for her influential book club, excoriated Frey for his deception, and he quickly became a whipping boy within the publishing world. A lucrative two-book contract evaporated, along with a Hollywood deal.
Frey did later produce a film version of Pieces, using his personal fortune. But the movie, starring former child star Corey Feldman, never saw theatrical release.
A short time later, ReganBooks published Frey’s debut novel, Destiny’s Homeboy, which press materials described as “an effort to recast War & Peace in the hip-hop milieu.”
Critics were less generous. Jonathan Yardley dubbed the 756-page saga, “a homoerotic blaxploitation fantasia that is spellbinding only as a testament to the author’s racial naiveté.”
REALITY TO THE RESCUE
Demoralized by disappointing sales, Mr. Frey faded from view. Rumors of his fate circulated among his loyal fans. He was variously said to have been disfigured in a car crash, to have overdosed on Percocet, or to have faked his own death and joined a Buddhist monastery. It was with a certain inevitable hoopla, therefore, that the author reemerged, five years later, in a new role: as the star of the hit series James Frey: Suicide Watch.
The program, produced by reality TV wunderkind Mark Burnett, documented Frey’s struggle over whether to take his own life. It featured angry confrontations with family members, former fans, and several women who claimed to have given birth to children by Frey.
Mental health advocates complained that the show was a crass exploitation of Frey, who appeared disoriented during many of the segments. But viewers turned out in droves. Suicide Watch replaced Mafia Gladiator as the most watched series in America. The highlight of each episode was the so-called Moment of Truth, during which Frey was sequestered alone in a room and provided the means to stage his own death.
The show was pulled after accusations surfaced that Frey was not in fact suicidal, and that producers had staged the bloody episode in which Frey slashed his wrists before tearfully hitting the Choose Life button and submitting to medical attention.
Five weeks later, Frey made news by attempting to impale himself on a piece of rebar a few blocks from his Tribeca loft. He suffered a hairline fracture of his breastbone, and lacerations.
“I hope this puts to rest the idea that I ain’t ready to die,” Frey told onlookers. “I’m so ready to die I could drink my own motherf***ing blood.”
NOTHING TO HIDE
Frey later referred to the era that followed as his “Brando years.” He separated from his first wife, Maya, married and divorced a second, and took up with a Native American mother of three who called herself Four Feathers.
He and Feathers moved to Aruba, where they lived in a small bungalow near the Hilton hotel. Frey gained a significant amount of weight, tried his hand at landscape painting, and assailed visiting journalists with cryptic denunciations of “the white man’s culture.”
His only brush with the law was a 2016 arrest for operating an unlicensed moped rental service. He did not spend time in jail.
Frey occasionally surfaced in Los Angeles for film meetings. He became a staple of the tabloid press, spending time with a cadre of B-list celebrities, including Courtney Love, Ryan Seacrest, and the rapper Flavor Flav.
“Jimmy was really sweet,” Love recalled. “He was like this big, lost kid who always wanted us to do Beatles sing-alongs.”
He swore off such fast company after an altercation with the actor Andy Dick left him with a ruptured eardrum.
Devastated by the death of his mother, Frey moved back to his hometown of Cleveland in 2018. He continued writing screenplays but found no takers. Faced with child support and alimony payments, he briefly took a job at Home Depot.
Around this time, he wrote to the national chapter of his fraternity, Sigma Alpha Epsilon, offering his services as “copywriter, editor, or fact checker.” The letter was later published online.
Just as Frey appeared destined to become a pop culture footnote, the magazine Shameless published a controversial cover story entitled “Why I Love James Frey,” written by Bret Easton Ellis. Ellis argued that Frey was “a protean figure, arisen from the raw narcissistic clay of modern consciousness, given breath by our collective fame worship, and shaped by the fingers of literary desperation.”
The cover image was equally controversial: a nude, full-frontal photo of Frey, now morbidly obese, under a banner reading NOTHING TO HIDE.
A MILLION LITTLE PITCHES
The article provoked a firestorm of criticism—particularly for its assertion that Frey “is already far more influential than Twain”—but it also managed to land Frey back in the spotlight. He was hired by the weight-loss program GutBusters, for whom he quickly and quite publicly shed more than a hundred pounds.
Madison Avenue took notice.
Overnight, Frey became one the nation’s leading celebrity pitchmen.
His best-known ad, for the antidepressant Wellbutrin, featured Frey staring into the camera and telling viewers, “This is one pill I’m proud to pop.”
Other campaigns traded, more playfully, on his troubled history. A spot for the diet cola Glitz showed Frey moonwalking across a flashing disco floor, surrounded by adoring young women. The tagline: Make the right choices now, and you’ll never have to lie about your past again.
“James was this ruined guy in terms of critical reputation, but his name recognition was through the roof,” said Will Shreve, an ad consultant at Ogilvy & Mather. “The bottom line is that people trusted him.”
“The fact that he’d been vilified actually counted in his favor,” noted Michelle Parks, author of The Frey Phenomenon. “He was seen as a guy who screwed up, then came clean. Americans are a very forgiving people.”
His success in commercials led to a brief foray into acting. His most prominent role was as Uncle Julius, the lecherous guardian of the Lohan triplets on the situation comedy Three for the Money.
An effort to jump-start his literary career followed. The magazine Publishers Weekly printed an exclusive excerpt of his autobiographical novel, Good Man, Bad Touch. A bestseller in France, the book sold fewer than 10,000 copies in the States.
Columnist Maureen Dowd chalked up the failure to Frey Fatigue, a syndrome she described as “the inevitable decline of a public figure who has maxed out the credit card of his talent.”
THE KID STAYS IN THE PICTURE
Frey parlayed this famous jab into a lucrative stint endorsing the Discover credit card (“It’s the plastic that’s fantastic!”). But his overexposure caught up with him.
His last national product endorsement, for Velveeta, ended in disaster after he told an interviewer that the processed cheese spread tasted “like Brit Hume’s ass.”
By the twenties, Frey was shilling for local car dealerships and spray-on hair products.
The author, who had long hoped to make his mark in Hollywood, had to settle for a live Vegas act. Book ’Em, Jimmy! featured Frey as the ringmaster of a literary circus, in which exotic dancers and trained animals enacted passages from classic novels. It closed after less than a month.
In 2028, Frey’s eldest son, Malcolm X Frey, published a searing memoir that detailed his life “as the son of America’s most notorious liar.” The younger Frey portrayed his father as a laxative-popping sexual predator who routinely made his children watch him do squats and who ate entire roasted turkeys in one sitting. Freyed at the Edges was an instant bestseller.
His other children and two of his ex-wives condemned the account. Frey himself filed a defamation suit seeking to halt publication. The case was settled out of court after his son agreed to include a disclaimer in future editions, noting that portions of the book were fictionalized.
Writing in Vanity Fair, journalist Christopher Hitchens accused the entire Frey clan of staging “an elaborate and deeply cynical publicity stunt.” A suit against Hitchens was filed and later dropped.
After spending decades on the fringes of Tinseltown, Frey finally landed a film role; it was a memorable one. Quentin Tarantino shocked insiders by casting him in the controversial Iraq War epic Apocalypse . . . Huh?
Frey played Father Dirty Sanchez, a defrocked, renegade priest who presides over Abu Ghraib prison. His profane, largely incoherent performance was critically panned but quickly became a cult favorite.
“Being on the big screen meant a lot to him,” said his costar, Emilio Estevez. “He felt he’d made it to some extent, and he could relax a little bit.”
A SWOLLEN HEART
In his final years, Frey became an avowed philanthropist.
He made a number of corporate appearances, opening for the motivational speaker Tony Robbins, and urged executives to “cleanse their spirits by making real the tenets of charity.”
He raised millions of dollars for researchers to study colon cancer, the disease that claimed his mother. Two years ago, Frey married his personal assistant, Deirdre Strohacker, and announced the formation of The Frey Foundation for Progress, dedicated to the advocacy of literacy for the disenfranchised.
The nonprofit received an unexpected boost when Ms. Winfrey accompanied Frey on a visit to an inner-city school in Chicago in May. The resulting segment showed Winfrey and a tearful Frey embracing.
“It’s not where we’ve been on the journey that matters, but where the journey ends,” Winfrey said. “The spirit of giving was moved within James, and I felt it.”
Frey also contributed hundreds of thousands of dollars to the drug and alcohol recovery programs he once scorned.
“He was a giver,” his wife explained. “That’s what people never understood about him. He gave so much to his fans, there really wasn’t that much left over for himself.”
Frey was briefly hospitalized for exhaustion last year, but was otherwise healthy, according to his personal physician, Anthony Gomes.
The sudden news of his death was greeted, rather predictably, by tabloid reports that Frey had overdosed on drugs. In fact, an autopsy revealed that Frey suffered from heart failure, most likely brought on by an increased workload.
“The medical term would be hypertrophic cardiomyopathy,” Gomes said. “To put it in layman’s terms, he died of a swollen heart.”
MISTAH FREY? HE DEAD!
Reactions to his passing were immediate and varied.
Fans in several cities held candlelight vigils in his honor and staged all-night readings from his memoirs.
“You can see the love he elicited,” said Cindy Hadhazy, president of the International James Frey Fan Club. “That’s not something you can measure with a lie detector.”
Several hundred mourners attended his funeral. The mayor of Cleveland, Madeline Booker, delivered an address in which she called Frey “a native son who never shied from controversy and never flagged in his duties to mankind.”
Several Hollywood luminaries attended the service, including Tarantino. “I think he found an odd sort of peace at the end,” the director said. “He knew some people thought he was a joke, but he had a hell of an interesting ride, and that’s more than most of us can say.”
His former editor, Sean McDonald, released a brief statement. “James made a record of his life that was highly public. This record was an embarrassment to some but an inspiration to far more.”
“The American cycle of celebrity just sort of chewed him up and spat him out,” noted Arianna Huffington, a family friend. “His worst impulses were indulged, and his best intentions ignored.”
Writing in the New York Review of Books, Rick Moody paid tribute to the author as “a totem of his age. He was a child in an era of childish self-regard, the last gasp of American delusion. . . . Yet for all the mockery he absorbed, James Frey refused to wear the sackcloth. He exuded a stubborn vitality.”
David Foster Wallace called Frey “a fascinating symptom of our national disease, a disposable prophet whose ears remained pricked for the faintest echo of his own acclaim. He may not have been a good American, but he was a true one.”
Frey himself left behind a considerable cache of unpublished writings. Most appear to have been scripts, including, surprisingly, several fully scored musicals.
A typed manuscript, found in the top drawer of his desk, was thought to be a self-eulogy. An excerpt published on his Web site reads in part:
I am a Writer and a Drug Addict and a Criminal and I came into this world Alone and will leave it Alone and if I have touched some of you then please trust that you have touched me too and let this be the final gift I carry with me as I drift toward the damnation that awaits every Man when his time is Come. Believe me when I tell you that I have fought the pain and that I fight the pain and will fight the pain and the love inside me is white and blinding and I feel myself choking and I limp to the bathroom to vomit and my head is cool against the White Porcelain but I do not vomit because it is Love that I am choking on and Love that fills my throat like a hot liquid and I fight the pain with Love and fight the pain and the pain fights me and Love fills everything and I am no More.
James Frey is survived by his wife, Deirdre, and five children, Maren Joseph, Malcolm X Frey, Miles Davis Frey, Billie Holliday Weeks, and Ben Vereen Frey.