Friday, June 22, 2012

Book review: "The Man in the Rockefeller Suit"

A chameleon. A shape-shifter. A serial imposter.

This was the man many people knew as Clark Rockefeller, a con artist who cozied up to America's old money rich and became accepted as one of them through an audacious web of lies.

In "The Man in the Rockefeller Suit," Mark Seal tells the fascinating story of a man who changed identities as often as many people change jobs. It is, in Seal's words, a "10,000-piece puzzle" and if you're looking for a well-written page-turner, this is it.

The man who eventually became Clark Rockefeller began life in Germany as Christian Karl Gerhartsreiter. As a teenager, he came to the United States and soon adopted the first of many new identities. At the University of Wisconsin, he became Chris Gerhart, took a green-card wife, then disappeared.

In wealthy San Marino, California, he became Christopher Chichester, a young man who charmed the elderly matrons of the community while quietly putting his hand out for "loans." His craving to get his hands on the money of one alcoholic divorcee is linked to the disappearance of two people and a later charge of murder which is pending as of this writing.

In Greenwich, Conn., he became Christopher Crowe, a TV producer. In New York City, he passed himself off as a bond trader, and astonishingly rose to a vice president position largely through bluster and self-promotion.

Then, in his greatest transformation, he became a Rockefeller, part of one of America's most storied families ¬ and people bought it. He SEEMED to have money, and carried the aristocratic airs of wealth. Even his wife, for 12 years, did not doubt that her husband was Clark Rockefeller.

How did he do it? By all accounts, he was brilliant. Those who encountered him recalled his ability to talk on any subject, his mastery of trivia and computers. Moreover he played the role of wealthy aristocrat to perfection.

"He's talking to you as if he's smarter than you, more wealthy than you, more connected, more everything than you - no matter who you are," said one woman who was taken in by the imposter.

Seal leaves open the question of why the imposter did what he did. The obvious answer is that he did it for money, but there has to be more. He certainly enjoyed being the center of attention among the upper class. I believe he actually he got a thrill out of deceiving people. He seemed to relish telling ever more outlandish stories, almost as if he was testing how far he could go before someone would doubt him (surprisingly far, he discovered).

One of Clark Rockefeller's friends recalled, "At one point, some people were questioning his identity and being derogatory about it. I said, `Clark, I wouldn't pay that any mind. You are your last great story, your most recent trenchant analysis, the witticism you let float in the air. That's who you are.'"

Many of us are fascinated with these sort of stories in part because we wonder what it would be like to disappear and become someone else. What if we just shed our history and adopted a entirely new persona? This is impossible for most of us, but an intriguing thought nonetheless

And this story takes it to another level - not only did this man take on a new identity, he became "super-rich" with little or no money of his own. We wonder: How hard would it be?


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