Reviewed by Anne Saker
Rebaking his 2009 Vanity Fair story about the immigrant who changed his name and fooled New York society, Mark Seal has produced a tasty souffle of deceit. The Man in the Rockefeller Suit: The Astonishing Rise and Fall of a Serial Imposter is a terrific read, well-reported and well-structured.
Christian Karl Gerhartsreiter yearns to leave his hick town in Germany for the golden streets of America. But he is no lucky, plucky Horatio Alger hero. No -- this immigrant holds a prodigious interest in his own advancement, and he has not a single scruple, a super-size combo in a young man seeking his fortune by fakery.
Throw in a genius ear for mimicry and a faultless gauge for what he needs to say to anyone, and with ridiculous ease, the charming, witty young fellow, knowledgeable on darn near every subject, revels in money, influence and attention without a day's honest labor.
He marries for a green card, then splits for the deluxe L.A. suburb of San Marino. He tosses the Germanic surname for the Angliphilic Chichester, which he pronounces as a twee CHEE-chester. He opens an impressive early career of beguiling wealthy, ever-so-generous church matrons, saying he's an English baronet. His new friends discount his odd habits, like crashing weddings, as a nobleman's eccentricities.
But then -- foul play! A local San Marino couple mysteriously disappears. Then so does CHEE-chester, and he eludes authorities for four years. In the 1980s, such a mission did not daunt our talented immigrant.
He resurfaces in East Coast society in full dress uniform: khakis, pink Lacoste polo shirt, blue jacket, a Yale cap above, mouth set at lockjaw, Topsiders with no socks afoot. He modestly presents at a wealthy church as Clark Rockefeller, a mere outer twig on the tree that sprouted from John D. of Standard Oil. My, my, society is impressed, and high jinks ensue, even though a phone call would have quickly revealed that the Rockefellers do not have a Clark among them.
All this is hilarious, wonderful stuff. Yet I closed The Man in the Rockefeller Suit feeling disappointed. I had hoped Seal would put his man into the context of the glorious human history of tricksters -- if only with an allusion to the guy who mooched off the rich claiming to be Sidney Poitier's son, the story captured in the classic play "Six Degrees of Separation."
But Seal's book reads as if Clark Rockefeller is the first person Seal has ever come across with the audacity to pretend to be someone else for pecuniary gain. Perhaps the point of view is deliberate, but it seems weird for a journalist.
I also didn't get fresh thinking on the personality type of the con artist. They're hard to study, of course -- they're con artists -- but it's not impossible to crack 'em open; psychologists and cops do it all the time. But not only does Seal leave the mental science unexplored, he kisses off what little psychology does intrude on his narrative.
Finally, I decided, this is all relative. So far, Seal's lead character has avoided much in the way of punishment, although he was recently charged with the murders of the San Marino couple. But the arc of Seal's plot focuses on a fraud's skilled use of a fancy name to cadge a few million dollars from a handful of people in the upper one-tenth of 1 percent of income earners. Yet Bernie Madoff, with his real name, conned the same tax bracket for billions of dollars, and the economy is still trying to pull the knife from its back.
In the end, though, Seal does hit upon one insight that even in this context has a universal ring.
The con artist succeeds by making people happy to associate with someone they think is better than they are.
Books mentioned in this post