Photo credit: Doralba Picerno
The pockets of Chief White Elk’s buckskin outfit were stuffed with Italian banknotes. His favored get-up included moccasins, beaded pants, and a feathered headdress, all of which were guaranteed to render him conspicuous as he crossed the lobby of the Grand Hotel Baglioni on the morning of Monday, September 1, 1924. Tall, lean, and ruggedly handsome, the melancholy depths of his dark eyes suggestive of the suffering endured by Native Americans, 36-year-old White Elk exuded charisma, intensified by a powerful aura of celebrity. Since the previous day, when he’d arrived in Florence and checked into the hotel, a procession of flunkies had trooped up to his top floor suite to deliver flowers, welcome messages, invitations, and gifts. Prompted by publicity about his wealth, he’d received a lot of begging letters, too.
As White Elk walked out of the Baglioni that morning, he found the main entrance screened by a police cordon. It held back a large crowd, desperate not only to glimpse the man labeled by the Italian press as “the Canadian prince," but also to pocket some of the cash he made a widely publicized habit of dispensing with such regal largesse.
Immediately, White Elk was surrounded as he passed through the police cordon and headed toward his waiting car. Over the past few months, he’d grown accustomed to this. He had, what’s more, picked up enough Italian to communicate with the crowd and deliver charming, mellifluously voiced witticisms, his utterances often cut with snatches of English and French. Not European French, but its idiosyncratic French-Canadian counterpart.
Were Laplante a character in a novel, readers would regard him as wildly implausible.
Still, some way short of his destination, he began dipping into his pockets and handing out bundles of banknotes to the people nearest him. When he’d emptied his pockets, he ducked into his car. It then nosed through the crowd and across the beautiful Piazza dell’Unità Italiana, the giant obelisk at the center soon receding from view.
In keeping with his status as a visiting foreign dignitary, he was driven around the city and presented to prominent figures within Benito Mussolini’s governing fascist party, which had been currying favor with him ever since he started touring Italy, his avowed intention being to expand awareness of the plight of his people. Yet he was no more Cherokee than Mussolini. Truth be told, he was a Rhode Island-born former medicine show performer, snake oil salesman, Coney Island ballyhoo man, vaudeville star, and small-time grifter by the name of Edgar Laplante. And — surprise, surprise — he wasn’t giving away his own money. It belonged to the aging, lovestruck, and fabulously rich Austrian aristocrat, Countess Melania Khevenhüller-Metsch, who was captivated by Chief White Elk. She’d met this self-styled war hero and leader of the Cherokee that summer on the French Riviera, synonymous in the 1920s with sun-bathed luxury and patrician privilege. Laplante was there because Paramount Pictures had hired him to promote a big budget Hollywood western called The Covered Wagon
. But the countess bought the story that “His Royal Highness” had only taken the job as a stopgap, his income from his Canadian oil fields having been temporarily withheld by the British colonial bureaucracy. She even fell for his tales of how he was — via his mother — related to the Bourbon dynasty that had once occupied multiple European thrones. On the strength of his fictitious oil money, he’d pulled off the forerunner of numerous Internet scams: he’d conned the countess into loaning him vast sums of cash and bankrolling what was portrayed as his royal tour of Italy, a tour that attracted crowds of adoring people at every stop.
Almost two years had elapsed since Laplante — in the persona of Chief White Elk — had disembarked from a transatlantic ocean liner and posed for a dockside scrum of press photographers. He’d traveled to Britain to meet King George V, ostensibly to plead for better educational opportunities for Cherokee youth. Laplante’s extraordinary adventures in England, Belgium, and France, where he sampled the decadent cabaret scene and rubbed elbows with the cream of the Parisian art world, served as the prelude to his ascent to the elite level of conmen. He was no ordinary grifter, though. In search of the acclaim he craved, Laplante rapidly doled out most of the proceeds from his trans-European jaunt — equivalent to as much as $58.9 million in present-day currency.
Like numerous unfortunate people who fell for his well-practiced patter, I experienced something akin to love at first sight back in 2015 when I came across his file summary in the digital catalog of the U.K. National Archives. The summary was headed, “Raymond or Raj Tawanna alias Edgar La Plante alias Chief White Elk, American international swindler.” I wasted no time in arranging to view the file itself. Though it was far more modest in scale than the lies Laplante told about himself, the file didn’t disappoint. I knew I’d found the subject for what would become King Con
That feeling was only intensified by the fruits of my initial phase of research, which alerted me to many of the colorful and often preposterous episodes in his life. One of my favorites is the time he used the countess’s money to throw a lavish party at a swank seafront hotel on what was then the Italian island of Brioni. His guests were dancing when he made his belated entry, dressed in his Cherokee outfit and riding a horse. Shades of Bianca Jagger decades later at Studio 54… As White Elk dismounted in the hotel lounge, the dancing couples applauded. He then strode out of the hotel and down to the ocean, where he boarded a seaplane and flew off.
Were Laplante a character in a novel, readers would regard him as wildly implausible. He reminds me of a cross between Jay Gatsby and Tom Ripley, supplemented by more than a dash of David Bowie’s sexual ambiguity and shapeshifting theatricality. Given Laplante’s beguiling flamboyance, together with the dramatic nature of his escapades and the worldwide fame his Italian tour earned him, I’m astonished that he’s never previously been the subject of a full-length book — just a hastily cobbled together little volume, published more than 90 years ago by an obscure Italian press. Of course, this says a lot about the transience of fame. And the story itself says as much about our collective obsession with celebrity.
Far from being the modern phenomenon it’s often branded, the worship of celebrities has been a longstanding feature of Western society, a feature that Laplante so cannily exploited. While he may seem quintessentially Jazz Age in his excesses, there’s something strangely topical about his antics. It reminds us how susceptible we are to the trappings of fame and to flamboyant personalities endowed with theatrical flair — not to mention a glamorous partner named Melania.
÷ ÷ ÷
U.K.-based Paul Willetts
is the author of King Con: The Bizarre Adventures of the Jazz Age’s Greatest Impostor
(Crown). Paul has previously published four other nonfiction titles in his home country, all of them widely praised. Members Only
, his last but one book, was adapted into a movie starring Steve Coogan. For further information about Paul and his work, please visit www.paulwilletts.com.