She Talked Like a Millionaire, Slept in a Parking Garage and Fooled Nearly Everybody

From The Wall Street Journal:

University of Florida officials went back and forth with documentary filmmaker Jo Franklin over details for a planned gala in Franklin’s honor at the Four Seasons Hotel in Washington, D.C.

Franklin had pledged $2 million to her alma mater, and requested her guest list for the party include the entire staff of the PBS NewsHour. A day before the gala, school officials learned her seven-figure check had bounced. They boarded their flight to Washington, hoping to straighten everything out.

The next day, they found out Franklin hadn’t arrived at the Four Seasons, and the credit card number she gave the hotel wasn’t working. A person who identified as Franklin’s assistant emailed to say Franklin had broken her foot and couldn’t make it to Washington. University workers began phoning guests to say the gala was canceled.

The school’s esteemed graduate, once a journalist and documentary filmmaker specializing in the Middle East, emerged as a troubled and gifted fabulist. The $2 million gift was an illusion, one in a yearslong string of fantasies concocted by Franklin, who tumbled from a life of apparent success to homelessness. For years, she persuaded many around her that she was living the high life. Her family knew better.

“She is very ill and we need to have her put into a medical treatment facility of some type before she harms other people and herself,” her younger brother, George Franklin, wrote to family members days after they learned of the 2014 gala fiasco. Jo Franklin was 68 years old at the time and estranged from her daughter and siblings. 

In the years that followed, Franklin sometimes spent nights in a South Florida hotel parking garage. She was arrested a few times, once for allegedly stealing $11.98 worth of wine. Franklin also befriended a group of regulars at a local Starbucks who were impressed with her professional background and insights. “She was on point when it came to the political world, what’s going on in the world,” said Stephen Sussman, a Starbucks friend. Franklin made a point of her success. She mentioned having a driver and a home on affluent Jupiter Island, Fla. She said she stayed at a local hotel only to be closer to her job, which included working with government officials regarding the Saudis.

Over time, her image dissolved. Franklin’s friends noticed that she wore the same clothes. Her sandals had holes. She said she didn’t carry a cellphone because the Saudis were tracking her.

Lost in a surge of mental illness cases and a record-high homeless population are a growing number of Americans who can’t fully care for themselves but aren’t easily diverted into treatment, either on their own or involuntarily. Masses of homeless people around the U.S. have fueled aggressive efforts to push more of the mentally ill into care.

Franklin’s family worried for years about her mental stability and, like many others, were frustrated because they saw no easy path to getting her help. They didn’t know if she had ever been diagnosed or treated.

“My hope is just there was a way, even if she didn’t want it, to be forced to sit down with a mental health professional and figure out, ‘What is there to do here?’ ” said Franklin’s 38-year-old son, Hugh Trout, who last saw his mother nearly a decade ago.

George Franklin said his sister “wasn’t ever going to admit she had a problem.” He and the Starbucks friends had a plan to get Jo Franklin off the streets. It, too, involved a tall tale.

This account of Jo Franklin’s life is based on public records, emails and interviews with family, friends, former colleagues and associates familiar with her professional highs as well as her steep, slow-motion fall.

Josephine Anne Franklin was born in Chicago on July 31, 1946, the second oldest of four children in an upper middle-class family. The family moved to Tampa in the mid-1960s, and Jo graduated from the University of Florida in 1968. Her semester abroad in Lebanon kindled a lifelong fascination with the Middle East. She married a surgeon and had two children, Ashley Trout in 1981 and Hugh Trout four years later.

Franklin’s résumé included work as a producer for the MacNeil/Lehrer Report on PBS. She later made a series of documentaries for PBS on Saudi Arabia and the Middle East, as well as a series on the international space race. She often appeared on location in her films and was known professionally by her married name, Jo Franklin-Trout.

Her 1989 documentary “Days of Rage: The Young Palestinians,” aired on PBS and drew barbs from critics who saw a pro-Palestinian slant and lack of Israeli viewpoints. She said at the time that she wanted to showcase a rarely seen perspective.

Franklin spent the early part of the 1990s writing a novel, “The Wing of the Falcon,” billed as a love story and thriller set during the Persian Gulf War. The self-published novel sold poorly after its 1995 release, said Alan Gadney, whose company Franklin hired to produce and market the book, which Franklin had hoped would be made into a movie. A New York Times review acknowledged her Middle East expertise but said, “what she cannot do is write.”

Gadney said he later sued Franklin for roughly $25,000 she owed the company. “We went after her but she disappeared,” he said.

Franklin moved to California, and her family said they didn’t know how she supported herself during the roughly two decades she lived there. She split from her husband and, in 1996, a judge in their divorce case noted that Franklin had little taxable income from 1990 through 1992 and hadn’t filed a personal tax return since then. Yet she leased a Jaguar XJ6, the judge said, and had accumulated more than $150,000 in debt. 

He denied Franklin’s alimony request and awarded custody of her two children to Franklin’s ex-husband who lived in Washington. “Ms. Franklin is a person with many highly marketable skills,” the judge wrote.

Jerome Parks, an East Coast friend, kept in touch after she moved to California. “She was always talking about good things that were going to happen,” he said, “but they just never seemed to happen.”

Franklin’s family believed she became lost in her fantasies around the time of her divorce. Her daughter, Ashley Trout, who was sent to spend summers with her mother in California as a teenager, said Franklin lived beyond her means, focusing more on her image than productive work. Ashley said they had a combative relationship and that she often challenged her mother about lying and overspending.

When confronted, “she would just monologue for 30 minutes,” said Ashley, now 42. “Just a torrent, a firehose.” Her brother, Hugh, said, “When anyone started to tamper with that fantasyland, it would get very, very dark.”

In 2004, Ashley was taken to the hospital after a rock-climbing fall in Japan. Franklin called the hospital and said she was flying there on Colin Powell’s jet. “I get my mom on the phone and I tell her, listen, here’s the deal, there’s no jet,” Ashley said. “You don’t have access to Colin Powell’s jet.” 

Link to the rest at The Wall Street Journal (Sorry if you encounter a paywall)