Wednesday, May 16, 2012

The Man In The Rockefeller Suit - Mark Seal


The Man In The Rockefeller Suit
The Astonishing Rise And Spectacular Fall Of A Serial Impostor
Mark Seal
Plume

True Crime/Biography
 
If an author presented this story as fiction, I would write a review saying that the story is utterly unbelievable; that no one person, let alone whole groups of people – would fall for this con.  But this story is absolutely true, and “astonishing” doesn’t begin to describe it.
 
In 1978, at the age of seventeen, Christian Karl Gerhartsreiter arrived in the United States, on a student visa, from Germany.  His first con started before he even left his hometown.  He met two American tourists, a married couple, spent the evening with them, and exchanged contact information.  He then used their names, without their knowledge, as his sponsors in the U.S.  After arriving here, he enrolled as a senior in high school, even though he’d already finished school in Germany.  Apparently, no one bothered to translate his records.   
 
These cons, comparatively small as they were, most likely fueled his belief that he could simply move from place to place, reinventing himself as he went.  And that’s exactly what he did, for decades.  Operating on the theory that, the bigger the lie, the more people believe it, he spent time in California under a couple of different names, claiming to be a distant Mountbatten or Chichester relative.  At the apex of his con, during the early 2000s, he landed in New York City, using the name Clark Rockefeller.  It’s shocking that so many believed him, or were too polite to question him, but they did.  He even married an otherwise very intelligent, very capable businesswoman who gave him a daughter and ended up supporting this “Rockefeller” financially for years. 
 
As I read the book, I was truly amazed that so many clever, educated people fell for his outlandish stories.  Then again, when he started, in the late 70s and early 80s, you couldn’t just type someone’s name into a search engine and find their life story.  So it might have been easier for him to dupe people, at the outset.  He also ingratiated himself to a new community by becoming active in a church – always full of wealthy members – where people are trusting and welcoming by nature.  But by the end of his nearly thirty years of lies, it seems incredible that only a few people openly questioned him along the way. 
 
To be fair, none of these people had the benefit of this book and seeing the story laid out, from the beginning.  The people in New York City had no idea about the people in California who were cheated out of money, trust, and sometimes more.  This is a compelling and fascinating read.  This edition contains an Afterword full of updates that is well worth reading.  After the publication of the hardcover edition, many people contacted the author, filling in blanks here and there.  The story of “Clark Rockefeller” is far from over; one trial is behind him, another still looms.  If this doesn’t make you take a second look at some people in your life, I don’t know what would.
 
Rating: 9 ½
May 2012
ISBN# 978-0-452-29803-3 (trade paperback)

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