May 21, 2001 12:00 PM

In her heyday, Mineko Iwasaki’s beauty and artistry were so renowned that the Japanese government hired her to entertain the likes of Queen Elizabeth and President Gerald Ford. But it was her stories that enthralled writer Arthur Golden. In 1992, after weeks of listening to Iwasaki’s tales, Golden threw out the draft of a novel he had been writing about geisha life. In the book he wrote instead, 1997’s Memoirs of a Geisha, he bowed to her in the acknowledgements: “I am indebted to one individual above all others. Mineko Iwasaki.”

Today that statement makes Iwasaki seethe. The retired geisha, 51, says she was shocked to see her name in galleys of the American edition and that Golden refused her request to remove it. (He says it was too late.) And once she read the Japanese translation in late 1999, she recalls, “I thought about committing suicide.” Instead she began airing her grievances in the press.

Still not satisfied, on April 24 Iwasaki filed suit against Golden in U.S. district court in Manhattan, demanding a cut of the bestseller’s $10 million earnings. The author, she claims, had breached an unwritten contract not to reveal her identity and “unjustly enriched” himself with a novel that has sold more than 4 million copies and is to be made into a movie by Steven Spielberg. She says Golden tarnished her reputation and that of her profession and that he lied when he told interviewers that certain scenes—most notably the one in which his heroine, Sayuri, sells her virginity to the highest bidder—came from her life. She denies ever having traded sex for money.

For his part Golden, 44, denies promising Iwasaki anonymity. He insists that Sayuri “is not based on any specific geisha” and adds, “Speaking with Mineko can be like chasing a leaf. I have no idea why she is so angry.” In fact, Iwasaki says, her ire stems from a loss of face—the embarrassment of being associated with a book that, she complains, is “all about sex.”

And face, both literal and figurative, has been Iwasaki’s fortune from an early age. She was born Masako Tanakaminamoto, the youngest of 11 children of Kyoto kimono decorators Shigezo and Chie Tanakaminamoto, both deceased. When she was 3, she was spotted by Ima Iwasaki, a geisha-house manager who had already taken in one of Masako’s sisters as an apprentice. Two years later, when the sister left to marry, the manager asked the family for Masako as a replacement. Moving into the geisha house, she got her new name and began training in dance, etiquette and shamisen, a Japanese stringed instrument. At 21, she became a full-fledged geisha.

Golden has said that Iwasaki participated in a tradition called mizuage, in which an apprentice’s virginity is sold at auction. He said Iwasaki told him she drew a record bid of $850,000; she denies it, adding that she actually lost her virginity at 21 to a man she cared for on a trip to Manhattan.

Iwasaki, who considers herself an artist rather than a courtesan, earned as much as $4 million a year entertaining customers who would pay up to $1,000 an hour to watch her dance and to bask in her company. She retired in 1978, at 29, and two years later married artist Jinichiro Sato, 48, who took her surname. The couple have a 17-year-old daughter.

Iwasaki met Golden in 1992 through Akio Morita, cofounder of the Sony Corporation and one of her former clients. She invited the American into her elegant Kyoto home and offered to help him with his research. She says Golden promised her complete anonymity, even offering to sign a confidentiality agreement. She refused, she says, thinking that as a member of the family that owns The New York Times (his great-grandfather Adolph Ochs bought the paper in 1896), “he must have a high code of honor.” She adds, “Arthur said he wanted to create, with my help, a novel that depicts the life [of geishas] without prejudice or sensationalism.”

Golden believes he has done just that. “I am saddened and confused by all this,” he says. It could take months for the court to sort out the dispute. Meanwhile the writer—who lives in Brookline, Mass., with his wife, Trudy, and their teenage son and daughter—is laboring over his next novel, which, he stresses, “has nothing to do with Japan.” Iwasaki is writing a book of her own. The working title? The Real Memoirs of a Geisha.

Christina Cheakalos

Nobuko Matsushita in Kyoto, Danielle Anderson in New York City and Ron Arias in Los Angeles

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