Leo is an aesthete hypochondriac and hack writer who, through his crafty agent, Sylvia, makes a lot of money doing Hollywood and television rewrites and penning novelizations of popular movies. But when he becomes interested in Norton the First, Leo is inspired to write a serious biography of the man. Joshua Norton was an eccentric businessman in 19th-century San Francisco who went bankrupt and then went crazy. In 1856, he declared himself Norton the First, Emperor of North America, started donning a uniform, sent out declarations to the press and insisted on free meals in restaurants and other services. He wrote letters to Abraham Lincoln, Queen Victoria and other world figures, and some even responded in a friendly manner. San Francisco laughed at Norton but humored him, catered to him and was quite sad when he died in 1880. As Leo works on the autobiography, Norton appears onstage to make his proclamations. Then he starts showing up in Leo's house, and the writer questions his own sanity. Sylvia wants Leo to write a novelization of a new movie version of Tolstoy's War and Peace, but Leo, who is a literary snob, thinks writing a novelization of a story that is already a great novel is ludicrous. Characters from War and Peace start to appear to Leo as he reads the screenplay, and this causes him to further question his sanity. Leo's long-time lover, Rita, is patient with his temperament and snobbery because she loves him. Leo's grown daughter, Molly, who moved in with her divorced father after finishing college, also loves him even though they have been strangers most of their lives. Leo's father, who also sees long-dead people, is in a nursing home, on the edge of sanity himself, and starts to resemble Norton in uncomfortable ways. It looks like the only alternative to insanity is for Leo to assassinate the emperor.
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