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The Man in the Rockefeller Suit: The Astonishing Rise and Spectacular Fall of a Serial Imposter Hardcover – June 2, 2011
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“Has all the pace and drive of a suspense novel.” — Michiko Kakutani, New York Times
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“Fascinating.” — People (four stars)
About the Author
Mark Seal is a contributing editor at Vanity Fair, where his piece on Gerhartsreiter was a finalist for a 2010 National Magazine Award. He is also the author of Wildflower. He lives in Aspen, Colorado.
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Top Customer Reviews
Mark Seals prose lacks that certain something that Truman Capote had, but whose prose matches Capote? What Seal does in this book is hit what are to me the 3 Cs of true crime writing. He is Clear, Concise and Chronological. Clear is self-explanatory: he writes well and simply. He is concise in that he knows what NOT to tell. No whole page descriptions of unimportant props or places, no unnecessary background info on minor characters. No wasted information. Chronological in that he leads you through the story in an easy to follow trajectory, keeping you aprised of details as need be to keep you from getting lost in this complex maze of a story. No small trick in a tale of a 30 year con career involving multiple identity changes. But he does it and does it well.
The man called Christian Karl Gerhartsreider fascinates and repels. We are interested in him because we think how could these upper-crust people be fooled? How could they think he was one of them? We forget how such a con works, how tightly controlled the picture is that the fooled person sees. For if allowed to see the whole picture, if the curtain is pulled from the wizard's control booth, the con is over. The target has had a moment of clarity. So a con artist like Gerhartsreider can never slip, he can never stop working for a moment.
It takes genius to pull something like that off. And genius Gerhartsreider certainly has. Evil genius. And this may be the scariest part of it all.
His false identities didn't begin with being a Rockefeller. In San Marino, CA, a kind of eastside Beverly Hills near Pasadena, he went by the name Christopher Chichester, claiming to be related to Lord Mountbatten. He ingratiated himself with the elite of the town who all believed he was a member of British royalty, and they all liked him for it. Through his act, he finagled his way into a guest house for free on an old lady's property. At the end of his stay, the mother's son and daughter-in-law disappeared, and Chichester was gone as well. A few years later, a character shows up in New York wearing monogrammed suits (RC) and claiming he's a Rockefeller. People invited him to dinner, offered him opportunities, and let him into exclusive social clubs. He was married to a woman for over 10 years who believed he was a Rockefeller, even though she never met any of the other Rockefellers, he never showed his private jet, and never seemed to have any money. Strangely, she was the one supporting to the two of them. Later they divorced, and Clark kidnapped their daughter. When news of the kidnapping hit the mainstream press, the Rockefeller family spokesperson announced they had never heard of this "gentleman", and he definitely was not part of their family.
Eventually everyone learned he was in fact a German provincial from Bavaria, name of Christian Gerhartsreiter, who had longed to and did emigrate to America, the land of opportunity, to reinvent himself. If his changes of identify, credit fraud, and the kidnapping had been his only crimes, he might have had a relatively small sentence. But when his identity was revealed, authorities linked him to the murder of the old woman's son whose body was dug up as a result of a swimming pool installation back on the property in San Marino, CA. Strangely, although he was supposedly worth multi-millions, no one saw him pay for anything and never verified any of his claims. The only piece of the puzzle was a modern art collection supposedly worth millions, but later proved to be fakes.
How did he do it? How did he fool so many people? Mark Seal's book reveals one of the greatest con artists of the last few decades who played on people's vanities and trust by convincing them by using superficial means, predominantly dress and speech, that he was an aristocrat. Strangely, almost none of the many people he fooled ever once checked on the internet or spoke to the Rockefeller family to see if there really was a Clark Rockefeller. Interestingly, the few who did believe he was a phony were often ridiculed by others, in other words the very people he conned were the first to defend him, until his identity was revealed once and for all. He pulled the veil over people's eyes for almost 15 years, and he might have continued to do so if he hadn't been as arrogant in his own ingenuity as he became.
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