• Email
  • Print

A Killer Con Man on the Loose

rich_1-050814.jpg
Boston Globe/Getty Images
Christian Karl Gerhartsreiter in an immigration photograph from 1978 (left); as Christopher Chichester in the 1980s, when he is believed to have committed murder (right); and as Clark Rockefeller in 2008, during his arraignment in Boston on kidnapping charges and shortly before the discovery of his true identity (center)

Blood Will Out is an intimate portrait of a professional confidence man. Our hero thinks nothing of assuming false identities, lying strategically, and risking close relationships in order to sustain a life devoted to the art of fabrication. Like Patricia Highsmith’s Tom Ripley, he comes from a humble background but has high social aspirations. He is motivated by a great “yearning,” a desire to become someone grander than himself. As is true of any successful con artist, he is a scrupulous observer, a careful listener, and a determined flatterer. When he finally does achieve his goals—financial success, esteem, access to worlds formerly closed off to him—he feels vindicated, triumphant, even ecstatic. He is his own creator. He is the personification of the American Dream.

Blood Will Out is the true story of the relationship between this man—Walter Kirn—and a second con man, Christian Karl Gerhartsreiter, whom Kirn calls “the most prodigious serial impostor in recent history.” Gerhartsreiter shares all of the above traits with Kirn, but has one more besides: Gerhartsreiter is a murderer. He was convicted, last year, for the 1985 murder of a twenty-seven-year-old computer programmer in Los Angeles. If that wasn’t bad enough, Kirn suspects that Gerhartsreiter also ran over two of his pet dogs. Kirn admits having run over a dog himself, but not on purpose, and unlike Gerhartsreiter, he feels sorry about it.

Billed as a story about Kirn “being duped by a real-life Mr. Ripley,” Blood Will Out has two big surprises. The first is how little we learn about this real-life Ripley; the second is the extent to which Kirn out-Ripleys Gerhartsreiter. Kirn has created a fascinating, expertly paced, strikingly written ouroboros tale of two con artists circling each other—a lower-stakes replay of a trope familiar from film noir (Two of a Kind, Night and the City, The Usual Suspects, The Spanish Prisoner, and the recent American Hustle) and even screwball comedy (Ernst Lubitsch’s Trouble in Paradise remains the gold standard). Blood Will Out, like all of these stories, keeps the reader guessing. Who, really, is being conned here? Is it Kirn? Gerhartsreiter? By the end of the book, having learned a thing or two from Kirn about confidence games, a thoroughly cynicized reader might propose a third candidate: the reader.

Kirn’s shaggy dog story is redolent of doggie fur and doggie breath and begins with a doggie road trip. In the summer of 1998 Kirn volunteers to drive a decrepit Gordon setter from Livingston, Montana, to the Upper East Side apartment of a wealthy eccentric named Clark Rockefeller. Kirn is then thirty-seven. He has a successful career as a novelist, essayist, and journalist; a ranch home that he’d bought for half a million dollars near Livingston; and a twenty-two-year-old wife of three years, Maggie McGuane—the daughter of the writer Thomas McGuane and the actress Margot Kidder—who is pregnant with their first child.

Why would a man in Kirn’s position, juggling assignments and novels and a pregnant wife, decide to run a cross-country errand for a rich dog lover? Halfheartedly Kirn proposes several reasons: he’s doing it as a favor to his wife, the president of the local Humane Society; as a favor to a kindly elderly couple who had rescued the dog after it was run over by a car; to assuage his own guilt for running over a different dog from his wife’s shelter with his pickup truck a few months earlier. But only one justification sticks: “I was a writer, even more importantly, a writer between books, and I had a hunch I was going to meet a character.” Any novelist who passed up such an opportunity would be “guilty of professional malpractice.” It didn’t hurt that Rockefeller promised a “handsome stipend.”

Upon arriving in New York, Kirn’s authorial instinct is handsomely rewarded, for Clark Rockefeller is a character out of a novel—or at least out of The Official Preppy Handbook, the satirical best-selling reference guide to acting, speaking, and dressing like the type of people who send their children to Hotchkiss and use “summer” as a verb. In their initial conversations, Kirn learns that Rockefeller never went to high school, but was accepted to Yale at fourteen, and earned a second degree from Harvard; that he works as a “freelance central banker,” supervising the economies of various foreign nations, including Thailand; owns paintings by Rothko, Mondrian, Pollock, and Motherwell, even though he thinks that modern art is “pure puke on canvas”; serves his dog three-course meals prepared from fresh ingredients by his private chef; has never tasted Coca-Cola or dined in a “public restaurant”; and owns a “master key” to Rockefeller Center, which he refers to as “the family’s place.” He wears pink polo shirts and khaki trousers and eschews socks. He speaks with a phony accent that Kirn describes as “clipped and international, and occasionally tossed in a word, like ‘erstwhile’ or ‘improprietous,’ that seemed to tie a bow on the sentence that included it.”

What does Walter Kirn, the intrepid reporter, the skeptical literary critic, the exquisitely perceptive novelist—what does he do with this information? If we are to take him at his word, he swallows it whole. He not only trusts Rockefeller, but strikes up a friendship, which unfolds in e-mails, phone conversations, and restaurant meals at which Kirn, to his consternation, always finds himself picking up the tab (no mention is made again of Rockefeller’s refusal to eat in a “public restaurant”).

Never does Kirn make an inquiry to anybody who might be in a position to confirm Rockefeller’s claims. Kirn does not, for instance, call the offices of the Rockefeller Family Fund, the Rockefeller Foundation, the David Rockefeller Fund, or any of the family’s other various organizations, all of which might have confirmed the existence of a family member who was presiding over the economies of foreign countries. When asked recently by Terry Gross, the host of Fresh Air, why he didn’t just google “Clark Rockefeller,” Kirn replied that Google didn’t exist in 1998 (it did) and when later he did conduct a fruitless search, he concluded that “anybody that rich and powerful [would] have obscured their identity on the Internet.”

The only thing we can conclude for certain is that Kirn didn’t want to find out whether Rockefeller was lying. Kirn, in fairness, wasn’t the only one. The list of people duped by Rockefeller includes his employers at various Wall Street firms, the gatekeepers of private gentlemen’s clubs like the Metropolitan and Lotos clubs that granted him membership, and his wife of twelve years, Sandra Boss, a graduate of Harvard Business School and a senior partner at McKinsey & Company.*

Kirn laments having been “beguiled by [Rockefeller’s] magic show,” but Rockefeller is a sloppy magician. He shows his hand too much. It often seems that, like the serial killers in Hollywood movies, he wants to be found out. When Kirn asks about his job as a freelance central banker, Rockefeller employs a suggestive metaphor:

“Think of a country’s money supply,” he said, “as a lake or a river behind a dam. Think of me as the keeper of that dam. I decide how much water flows over its turbines at what velocity, and for what duration. The trick is to let through sufficient water to nourish and sustain a country’s crops but not so much that it floods the fields and drowns them.”

As it turns out, the water is not a nation’s money supply, but Rockefeller’s lies. Over the course of their relationship, Rockefeller lets through enough whoppers to nourish Kirn’s interest, but never so many that Kirn questions Rockefeller’s identity—even though the reader can plainly see that Rockefeller is drowning Kirn in a flood of bullshit.

It seems that even Rockefeller is astounded by the depth of Kirn’s gullibility, for his stories become increasingly brazen and outlandish. Four years into their relationship, he invites Kirn to his home in Cornish, New Hampshire, promising to make an introduction to his friend and neighbor, J.D. Salinger. “Britney Spears was out last week,” he tells Kirn. “You missed her. And it’s a shame you can’t stay longer. Chancellor Kohl is driving up.” When Kirn complains about tax trouble, Rockefeller hands him a phone number. “Call George,” says Rockefeller, meaning the sitting president of the United States. “It’s his private line. He’ll answer personally.” (Kirn never calls.)

Soon Rockefeller is bending the rules of physics, making Kirn see things that don’t exist. He points to a tree on his property: “See my hive? In the hole there, in the crotch? I’ve been harvesting wild honey.” Kirn climbs up a ladder and peers into the hole, but sees only darkness. Rockefeller points out a rare songbird in a thicket, but Kirn can’t see it, or hear its song. As if desperate to get a rise, Rockefeller next explains that he has abandoned his career as a central banker in order to oversee a “highly classified propulsion lab,” located “across the border,” where he is overseeing the development of spacecraft that will travel faster than the speed of light. Though this is about as plausible as Janet Yellen quitting the Fed in order to build time machines, Kirn takes the news in stride. While dining at a local restaurant (Kirn pays), Rockefeller produces a photograph of the lab:

The shot appeared to be taken from a plane and featured a dense, unbroken canopy of green deciduous treetops. I picked it up to get a closer look. All I saw was foliage, no laboratory. I squinted. “It’s there. Right there,” Clark said. “You’re looking at it. It’s under all those trees.”

Readers might wonder why Kirn didn’t write about Rockefeller until now, some twelve years after the encounter in Cornish. Part of the reason, I suspect, is that Kirn understood Rockefeller’s limitations as a character. Even if he were duped by Rockefeller’s stories, the novelist in Kirn understood that Rockefeller wouldn’t hold up on the page. Rockefeller might’ve passed in real life, but in a novel he’d be exposed as a fraud. In every detail he adhered to the most clownish stereotypes about the upper class. With his “preppy blue blazer,” “pink billed cap,” and effete, “swan-like bearing,” he was a walking collection of clichés. “He never diverged from my fantasies about him,” writes Kirn. “[That] should have been a sign.”

Kirn lards his book with literary references—not just Highsmith but Dostoevsky, Fitzgerald, Melville, Twain, Poe, Coleridge, and Joseph Heller—and goes so far as to call Gerhartsreiter a “literary psychopath” who “had killed for literature.” But the evidence suggests that Gerhartsreiter favored more demotic source material. Many of his lies were lifted wholesale from episodes of Knight Rider, Frasier, and Star Trek. The main inspiration for his Rockefeller persona, it was revealed at his trial, was Thurston Howell III, “the Millionaire” of Gilligan’s Island.

rich_2-050814.jpg
Alaska Reid
Walter Kirn, Livingston, Montana, 2012

If Blood Will Out were a novel, Kirn would be an unreliable narrator. It’s difficult to believe that he was as credulous as he claims he was. Is it really possible that, over the course of their decade-long friendship, no friend or family member, who might have had the critical distance that Kirn lacked, ever seriously questioned his loyalty to Rockefeller? He mentions that his wife, after a dinner with Rockefeller, says, “He puts on quite a show,” but he “didn’t press her to say more”; when he regales his editors at The New Republic with Rockefeller’s stories, they just laugh:

We were all journalists, professional truth-seekers, but one thing we knew about the truth that laymen were prone to disregard was that it need not be literal or factual; the unpredictable human personality was itself a fact.

It’s possible Kirn expects readers to consider his own book in this light—as not entirely literal or factual, but true nevertheless. The book certainly succeeds on this level. What’s to lose from saying so openly? The suspense of a true crime story, perhaps. Kirn seems to anticipate the reader’s skepticism, because he holds back some of Rockefeller’s most outlandish stunts, such as the photograph of the jet propulsion lab, until the final chapters.

A likelier explanation: Kirn knew that he might be able to write about Rockefeller one day, but he also realized that Rockefeller’s lies didn’t add up to a story. The stakes weren’t high enough. The two men were never close friends, so Kirn couldn’t have been hurt too deeply by Rockefeller’s dishonesty. And the inventions of a pathological liar, even a rich pathological liar descended from John D. Rockefeller, don’t merit a magazine feature, let alone a book.

The calculus changed in 2008, however, when Rockefeller was arrested for abducting his daughter, and was quickly revealed to be Christian Karl Gerhartsreiter, born in rural Bavaria, the son of a housepainter and a part-time seamstress. Clark Rockefeller was only one of his many incarnations; previously he had been a baronet named Christopher Chichester; Christopher Crowe, a Wall Street bond trader in the late 1980s who was the brother of the director Cameron Crowe; a British royal named C. Crowe Mountbatten; and an anonymous resident of Baltimore named Charles “Chip” Smith.

Gerhartsreiter had moved to the States as a teenager when, responding to a local newspaper advertisement, he found a family in Connecticut that was willing to host an exchange student. He told people that his father was a wealthy industrialist, changed his name, and arranged a sham marriage. Green card in hand, there was only one place for him to go: Los Angeles. (“As if our client were the first person in this city to try to reinvent himself,” said his lawyer.) “Germany was too small for him,” his younger brother later testified. “He wanted to live in the big country and maybe get famous.”

A few weeks after Gerhartsreiter’s arrest on kidnapping charges, investigators connected him to a 1985 murder in Los Angeles. The victim was John Sohus, the adopted son of a woman who was at the time Gerhartsreiter’s landlady. Sohus’s remains were discovered buried in his mother’s backyard; Sohus’s wife, Linda, disappeared at the same time, and was never found. Rockefeller was promoted overnight from a liar to a murderer on the lam, a figure of much greater literary interest. Where there is blood, there’s a story. There’s no evidence that Gerhartstreiter ever killed again, but in one particularly far-fetched flight of fantasy, Kirn imagines that he had come close to becoming Rockefeller’s next victim:

If walloping Dickie Greenleaf with an oar could turn Tom Ripley into a man of leisure…then maybe Clark could find some way, some night…to turn himself, at a stroke, into a writer. He knew a perfect victim when he saw one, and I’d sacrificed myself for him before.

If it is difficult to trust Kirn it’s only because he has written so candidly about his own talent for preying upon the vanity of others. His previous memoir, Lost in the Meritocracy (2009), is the story of a long con: how a teenager from one of Minnesota’s lowest-ranked high schools, “a born con man” who had only read three serious novels in his life (Moby-Dick, Frankenstein, and The Great Gatsby), managed to gain admittance to Princeton, graduate with highest honors and a degree in English, and win a scholarship to Oxford, largely by relying on his “gift for mimicking authority figures and playing back to them their own ideas as though they were conclusions I’d reached myself.”

While that book is a powerful indictment of an educational system, and even a national culture, that values sycophancy over original thought, it is also an unflinching portrait of Kirn’s own duplicity. “My fraudulence,” writes Kirn, “was in a way the truest thing about me. It represented ambition, longing, need. It sprung from the deepest chambers of my soul.”

Lost in the Meritocracy ends with Kirn leaving for Oxford. Blood Will Out picks up a dozen years later, with his outlook on life and success largely unchanged. If anything his writing career has honed his hustle. Apart from an inability to laugh at unfunny jokes, he cannot identify “one incorruptible, honest trait” in himself. He has moved to Montana from Manhattan, where his old Princeton friends wore clothes that “came from shops that I felt unworthy to enter” and hired for their wedding receptions “bands that made real records, records that reached the charts.” Rockefeller, therefore, is more than an amusing character; he offers to Kirn, “the fawning aspirant,” a second chance to join the same clique that had rejected him for not having enough money or the right friends. The terms of their relationship are set even before they meet in person:

He would delight me with comic songs and dog menus and access to a circle I’d thought closed to me, and I would repay him with the indulgent loyalty that writers reserve for their favorite characters, the ones, it’s said, we can’t make up.

When Kirn writes of his own fraudulence, he is really writing of the fraudulence of all writers. What journalist doesn’t flatter his subjects in order to encourage them to reveal their private thoughts? What novelist doesn’t steal from his loved ones in order to clothe his characters? To Janet Malcolm’s warning about the moral indefensibility of journalism, Kirn adds a barbed corollary:

A writer is someone who tells you one thing so someday he can tell his readers another thing: what he was thinking but declined to say, or what he would have thought had he been wiser. A writer turns his life into material, and if you’re in his life, he uses yours, too.

Gerhartsreiter did the opposite. He turned fictional material—sitcoms, movies, and literature—into his life. But he also consumed other people’s lives. After he killed Sohus, for instance, Gerhartsreiter vampirishly adopted his victim’s interests in Star Trek and jet propulsion technology; after meeting Kirn, he began writing book reviews and novels. “Worse than a murderer,” says Kirn, “he was a cannibal of souls.”

As unsettling as it is to imagine Gerhartsreiter tending “a flourishing secret garden grown from cloned bits of people he’d gained some knowledge of,” the same description could be applied to Kirn, or, for that matter, to any novelist. There is even evidence of this kind of cannibalism within the pages of Blood Will Out. Early in the book Kirn makes fun of Rockefeller’s canned sense of humor: “He observed the outward forms of wit, as though speaking humorously came down to algebra (it’s not the X of Y that bothers me, it’s the Y of X).” Later, writing about Rockefeller, Kirn channels his subject’s grammar: “He didn’t live by writing, he wrote by living.”

There is a final wicked irony to the story of the two men’s relationship, an irony of which Kirn must be aware but leaves to the reader to discover. When Kirn attends Gerhartsreiter’s trial, he finds that his old friend is unhappy to see him. “He viewed my presence as a betrayal of our relationship,” writes Kirn. “I viewed things differently, of course. To me our relationship was the betrayal.” Kirn wrote this book, he suggests, to even the score. (Also because money was tight and “I needed a book idea.”) The schadenfreude is cathartic, for both writer and reader:

Sorry, Clark. You asked for it, old sport. You knew who I was, and deep down I knew who you were, even if I played dumb there for a time—so dumb that I didn’t realize I was playing, which, looking back, was a fairly cunning strategy. You were material. Surprise, surprise. Look in your wallet; it’s empty. Now look in mine.

And yet, by the end of the book, it’s hard not to wonder whether Clark might have won their battle of wits after all. Kirn is convinced that Gerhartsreiter “understood his literary provenance and took great pride in it” and even that he “had killed for literature. To be a part of it. To live inside it.” If so, then isn’t Blood Will Out the perfect realization of Gerhartsreiter’s ambition? He knew that Kirn was a distinguished, talented writer. Might he have been courting Kirn in the hope of one day becoming the hero of one of Kirn’s books?

Kirn, for his part, has fulfilled his end of the bargain. In his rendering, Gerhartsreiter has grown into something much greater than a common psychopath. He has become a perverse literary genius, a latter-day Dostoevsky or Poe or Highsmith, who maneuvered the people in his life as a novelist does his characters.

Kirn has not merely granted his friend “literary immunity.” He has granted him literary immortality. I can see Gerhartsreiter now, lying in his cell, reading Kirn’s book, and giggling maniacally at the triumph of this final trick. “Writers exist to exploit such figures, not to save them,” writes Kirn. “Our duty is to the page, not the person.” But by exploiting Rockefeller, Kirn has also rewarded him with a kind of salvation—albeit one not recognized by the American criminal justice system.

At his murder trial, as Gerhartsreiter is publicly defrocked of his various personas, he undergoes a pathetic diminution. No naked, honest self is revealed, no cunning mastermind or tortured deviant. We are left instead with a cipher. Having spent his life impersonating many other people, Gerhartsreiter is finally nobody. The only time he seems to express genuine emotion is when Kirn tells him that he’s “a fascinating human being.”

“I absolutely am not,” says Gerhartsreiter.

“Not human?” Kirn wonders. “For a moment, that’s what it had sounded like to me.”

We never understand exactly why Gerhartsreiter did what he did, why he couldn’t stop, and what he hoped to achieve with all of his gratuitous fabrications. To the end he remains distant—not only to the reader, but to Kirn: “His face looked rubbed away somehow, tired and indistinct, like a document that had been photocopied a few too many times…. There were blanks in him.” Kirn has filled in many of those blanks, but he has also created new ones. Blanks in his own character, in Gerhartsreiter’s, and in his narrative.

That you don’t fully trust Kirn is, counterintuitively, a credit to his honesty as a writer. That it doesn’t ultimately matter whether he’s telling the “literal or factual” truth is evidence of his power as a storyteller, which in Blood Will Out has found its greatest expression.

Letters

Who’s the Con Artist? June 5, 2014

  1. *

    Mark Seal’s The Man in the Rockefeller Suit: The Astonishing Rise and Spectacular Fall of a Serial Impostor (Viking, 2011) is a gripping, book-length account of Gerhartsreiter’s exploits. 

  • Email
  • Print