Somehow or another I missed all the headlines about the man who posed as a Rockefeller for over a decade, so when I came across a non-fiction book on the subject, I decided to read it. After all, it taps into my crime fetish, and I was curious to see just how a penniless German teenager managed to pretend he was a Rockefeller while he mingled with the upper-crusty set in America.
For those who know nothing about this case, Christian Kark Gerhartsreiter, a 17-year-old German came to America in 1978 on a tourist visa and stayed. How he morphed into Clark Rockefeller, and more importantly how he convinced everyone in his social orbit that he was one of the members of this famous family, is at the heart of this incredible tale. As author Mark Seal notes, Gerhartsreiter’s story is “more bizarre that any gifted writer of fiction could possibly invent.”
Seal painstakingly tracked down people who knew ‘Rockefeller’ in all of his many manifestations and various personas, and he also actually went to the places that Gerhartsreiter lived. The book begins with the July 2008 parental kidnapping of Rockefeller’s daughter, and then tracks how the FBI got involved, and how the FBI discovered that Clark Rockefeller did not exist. From this point, the author goes back in time covering Gerhartsreiter’s life in Germany, his relocation to America in 1978, and just how his identities began shifting once he arrived. This really is an amazing story, and for anyone remotely interested in this particular story or shapeshifters in general, I can heartily recommend this well-researched, highly-readable book.
One of the points that the author makes repeatedly is that the fake ‘Rockefeller’ (and I’m going to refer to Gerhartsreiter as that) was like a “human sponge.” From the moment he arrived in America and started being obnoxious with his “host” family (he pretended to be a student), he soaked up everything he saw or watched on television. It wasn’t long before this shapeshifter moved onto California which makes perfect sense as he was thrilled with film. In California, Gerhartsreiter developed what was to become his MO. Given Gerhartsreiter’s intelligence, it can’t be a coincidence that he picked San Marino for his hunting ground. It’s a wealthy community and here from 1981-1985 with the new name “Christopher Chichester” he hung out at the churches of the rich and lied, smarmed, and name-dropped his way into everyone’s homes:
It made sense that Chichester had chosen to live in a city with one of the foremost libraries in America, since libraries were a key part of his existence wherever he went. He spent much of his time in them, studying how to become someone else.
Seal painstakingly tracked Chichester/Gerhartsreiter/Rockefeller’s adventures in America and the various aliases and personas he adopted as “he tried on various names for size,” and there’s a very long list: Dr. Christopher Rider, Chris Crowe, Charles Smith, Chip Smith, Christopher Chichester, Christopher Chichester XIIIth baronet, Christopher Mountbatten Chichester (my personal favourite), and of course, the biggie–Clark Rockefeller. The fake names were accompanied by the most fantastic stories of his background; he was “passing himself off as a computer expert, film producer and stockbroker,” related to British Royalty, the son of a silent film star, blah, blah. These are just some of the creative and fictional details added to the tall tales he told. And the crazy thing is that some of his stories didn’t even make sense; at one point for example, he claimed to have inherited a medieval cathedral and that he wanted to relocate it to San Marino. The preposterousness of this plan didn’t even raise any eyebrows!
At one point, Gerhartsreiter/Crowe was bragging about the Ferraris, the Alfa Romeos, and the Lamborghinis he owned, but then he showed up with a ’65 chevy that was “belching more smoke than Mount St Helen’s.” He certainly wasn’t short on audacity. The author emphasizes Rockefeller’s “customary uniform,” the particular outfits he wore: “he dressed exclusively in the uniform of the Wasp aristocracy,“ and the props he used that convinced the people he met that he was a stray yachtsman:
Well-worn khakis, a sky blue Lacoste shirt with the crocodile embroidered over the heart, Top-sider shoes (as always without socks), and a red baseball cap emblazoned with the word Yale. He adjusted his heavy black-framed glasses, which some people thought brought Nelson Rockefeller to mind.
Chichester/Gerhartsreiter moved on from San Marino rather suddenly, and as the book reveals, in 2011, he was charged with an 1985 murder that occurred in a house in which he lived. In 1985, leaving San Marino behind, Gerhartsreiter headed back east, and then became Christopher Chichester Crowe who’d managed the mythical Battenberg-Crowe-von Wettin Family Foundation. Apparently just hanging out at the Indian Harbor Yacht Club in Greenwich, showing off photos of the fantastic houses he claimed he owned, our man pretended to be a bond trader/ TV producer and landed a $125,000 a year job (not counting “perks and bonuses.”). Apparently no one checked to see if Christopher Chichester Crowe (also known as CCC) was who he claimed to be or if his credentials were legit. He was eventually fired BTW. And in 1988, CCC disappeared….
But no matter, because CCC now morphed into Clark Rockefeller, and what a succesful deception that turned out to be. As Clark Rockefeller he wooed and in 1993, he married a talented, ambitious woman who was soon earning millions a year. My favourite part of the book takes place when the author travels to Cornish, New Hampshire where the “Rockefellers” settled. Big mistake–the Cornish natives didn’t exactly take to Rockefeller’s notion of being landed gentry. The people of Cornish seem to operate on the principal that it doesn’t matter how much money you have, or what your last name is, you still can’t go around acting like a dickhead.
In spite of all the tall tales Rockefeller eagerly told, NO ONE checked him out or tried to substantiate the wild fantasies that spewed forth regarding his background. He was invited into people’s lives, their homes, their businesses and was handed high-paying jobs, free meals, you name it.
Ultimately The Man in the Rockefeller Suit tells us a lot about America, and the attitudes and protections afforded to those who claim the so-called great names and/or wealth (Not that it’s much different anywhere else, but there’s this myth that America is supposed to be a classless society). As the author interviews those duped by Rockefeller while he operated under various aliases, he reinforces the idea that “Rockefeller had the kind of peculiarities” that were expected from the very rich, so people accepted Rockefeller’s at-times bizarre behaviour as the sort of normal eccentricity of the filthy rich. Here’s one example: Rockefeller invited people to lunch at expensive restaurants but then they had to pay as he didn’t carry cash!!!
In many ways, the story of this serial imposter reminds me very much of the man who impersonated Stanley Kubrick. There are some glaring similarities in the two cases when it comes the imposter’s ability to wedge himself in and exploit people, and also the fact that in both situations, people really wanted to believe that they were rubbing shoulders with Kubrick and Rockefeller. It’s important to keep in mind that the many, many people fooled by Rockefeller and then interviewed for this book operate in hindsight. A few people noted that his accent wasn’t quite right, but it’s rare that anyone interviewed says something along the lines of ‘I was an idiot,’ or ‘the clues were staring me in the face.’ Instead for the most part, those who knew this faker state that he was very credible, “brilliant” and carried himself like a blue-blooded New Englander. Author Seal is very generous to those who granted him interviews, and he doesn’t ask some of the hard questions that I found myself asking.
The fake Rockefeller comes across as a terrible snob, and he deliberately mingled with the sort of people who went all gooey about the Rockefeller name. You can almost hear those he fooled falling over themselves, and if I had to carry away just one thing from this incredible story it’s that if you can convince people that you’re a Vanderbilt, a Getty, or a Rockefeller, doors will open wide for you, and you will be able to get away, quite literally, with murder.
Review copy courtesy of netgalley and read on my kindle.