Now living in Kalamazoo, Mich., and working as a clerk in a clothing store, Miss Cooke wants back in. As part of an obvious campaign to reopen the doors that slammed shut behind her, she gave an extended interview to former Post colleague (and former lover) Mike Sager - which was published in GQ magazine. She put in an appearance on "Nightline." And she even got a piece (about her, not by her) in The Post's Style section.
Cooke, 26 years old at the time of "Jimmy's World," has disappeared from public view. She spoke for the first time about her saga in a 1996 interview with GQ reporter Mike Sager, a former boyfriend and Washington Post metro reporter. They sold the rights to the story to Tri-Star Pictures for $1.6 million, with Cooke getting 55 percent and Sager 45 percent, according to reports at the time.
A usable script was never produced, but Sager, now a writer at large for Esquire magazine, says Cooke hasn't completely vanished. "I’ve never lost touch with janet I don’t think, tho I’m not at liberty to divulge her whereabouts. I haven’t seen her since 96," he wrote Journal-isms by e-mail. "No movie alas." He said he gets an e-mail now and then.
In 1980, Cooke joined the "Weeklies" section staff of the Washington Post under editor Vivian Aplin-Brownlee. Cooke falsely claimed she had a degree from Vassar College, a master's degree from the University of Toledo, and had received a journalism award while at the Toledo Blade. While Cooke had attended Vassar for a year, she had only received a bachelor's degree from Toledo.
A year later Cooke appeared on the Phil Donahue show to offer her take on what happened. She blamed her decision to invent Jimmy on the high-pressure environment of the Washington Post, which was still riding high from the journalistic coup it had scored in the early seventies with the Watergate story. She claimed that numerous street sources had hinted to her about the existence of a boy such as Jimmy, but unable to find him, she eventually created a story about him in order to satisfy her editors at the Post who were pressuring her to produce something.
AKA Janet Leslie Cooke
Race or Ethnicity: Black
Sexual orientation: Straight
Occupation: Journalist, Hoaxer
Nationality: United States
Executive summary: Caught writing fake news
"Jimmy's World" was in essence a fabrication. I never encountered or interviewed an 8-year-old heroin addict. The Sept. 28, 1980 article in the Washington Post was a serious misrepresentation which I deeply regret. I apologize to my newspaper, my profession, the Pulitzer Board and all seekers of the truth. Today, in facing up to the truth, I have submitted my resignation.
Father: Stratman Cooke
Mother: Loretta Cooke
Sister: Nancy (younger)
Boyfriend: Mike Sager (ex)
Husband: Joe Phillips (div.)
High School: Maumee Valley Country Day School, Toledo, OH (1972)
University: Vassar College
University: BA, University of Toledo
The Washington Post 1979-81
The Toledo Blade
Bloomingdale's counter clerk
Pulitzer Prize for Feature Writing for "Jimmy's World" (1981), voluntarily returned
Risk Factors: Asthma, Dyslexia
As for Cooke, the last time the public heard from her, 14 years ago, she was working in a department store for $6 an hour. That was also the first time she spoke publicly about the scandal, giving an interview to her former boyfriend, writer Mike Sager, who published it in GQ. In that piece, she tried to explain her lifelong compulsion to lie as a product of her upbringing at the hands of a stern father who kept such tight control of the family pursestrings that his wife and children would buy things behind his back. "The conclusion I've come to is that lying, from a very early age, was the best survival mechanism available," Cooke told Sager.
She also said what drove her to fabricate Jimmy was not some grand desire to win prizes, but a far more banal one. She wanted to get away from a boss she didn't like and hoped the story would be her ticket to another spot in the newsroom.
"Miss Cooke said, essentially, that the information in her official biography was correct. At this point, it was quite clear that something was wrong, and so we pressed our efforts on the story," Boccardi said.
The "official" biography released by the Pulitzer committee and carried on the AP wire came from a standard Post biographical form that had been attached to her nomination for the prize.
Cooke filled it out. Nobody on The Post checked it, yet it differed significantly from the resume she had filed for the Post when she applied for a job.
The new resume claimed that she spoke or read French, Spanish, Portuguese and Italian. Her original resume claimed only French and Spanish. The new form claimed she had won six awards from the Ohio Newspaper Women's Association and another from the Ohio AP. Her first resume claimed only a single award from the Ohio Newspaper Women's Association. The new form also showed that she graduated magna cum laude from Vassar in 1976, attended the Sorbonne in 1975 and received a master's degree from the University of Toledo in 1977. The original made no reference to the Sorbonne.
Vassar records show that she attended classes there for one year. She was graduated from the University of Toledo, but received no master's degree.
The piece outlined a world in which Jimmy was the product of a brutal rape, lived with his mother in a house overrun by heroin, where death and addiction occupied every room and haunted the boy's life.
"Her description of this, of this child was, was so vivid and the, and the description of the child's mother and the mother's boyfriend, you know, they had names," Bradlee remembered more than a quarter century later. "They were described. There was an illustration to that story that I can still see today, a very haunting drawing of this child."
The story went off like a bomb in Washington, D.C. Police officials said they wanted to find Jimmy and his mother, but the newspaper fought their threat of a subpoena. Mayor Marion Barry publicly questioned whether Jimmy might be a composite of several stories and demanded to know more about the child so he could receive help.
Cooke's story earned rave reviews and in April 1981 was awarded the Pulitzer Prize for feature writing.
After months of speculation about a boy who was never found, all it took was was a circumspect Toledo Blade editor for the truth to come out: The story and the boy were fabricated.
The article that appeared in the Washington Post on September 29, 1980 told a heartwrenching tale. It detailed the life of 'Jimmy,' a young boy who had apparently become a victim of the thriving heroin trade that was devestating the low-income neighborhoods of Washington D.C. Caught in a cycle of addiction, violence, and despair, Jimmy had become a heroin addict after being introduced to the drug by his mother's live-in boyfriend. As Janet Cooke, the author of the article, described him, "Jimmy is 8 years old and a third-generation heroin addict, a precocious little boy with sandy hair, velvety brown eyes and needle marks freckling the baby-smooth skin of his thin brown arms." She noted that Jimmy aspired to be a heroin dealer when he grew up.
The former Washington Post reporter who had to return a Pulitzer Prize in 1981 because she fabricated the story of an 8-year-old heroin addict named "Jimmy" was last heard from in 1996 when she told all to writer Mike Sager for an article in GQ magazine. After the appearance of the article, Cooke and Sager sold movie rights to the story for $1.5 million.