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The Man in the Rockefeller Suit: The Astonishing Rise and Spectacular Fall of a Serial Impostor

The Man in the Rockefeller Suit: The Astonishing Rise and Spectacular Fall of a Serial Impostor - Mark Seal

Not only did I read (well, technically listen to) this in one day, but practically in one sitting. It's the story of an absurdly audacious man – a criminal without conscience for whom I have no respect, but whose life/long con (one in the same, in many respects) intrigued me nonetheless. What can I say? I'm a sucker for true crime, and this one's a whopper.

 

Né (or should I say geboren?) Christian Karl Gerhartsreiter, the young German made his first American "contacts" while thumbing rides on the autobahn in hopes of escaping the perceived doldrums of his life in Bavaria. In 1978, the seventeen-year-old (photos below) made his way to the U.S. by writing in the name and address of a family he had hitched a ride with once, and set off for Berlin, Connecticut where he stayed with a family and enrolled as an exchange student at the local high school. 

Christian Karl Gerhartsreiter in 1978

And let the lying begin! Christian, ever the chameleon, soon was affecting the absurd aristocratic accent of Thurston Howell III from Gilligan's Island, and voicing his distaste for the déclassé lifestyle of his host family as compared to his (completely fictional) charmed life in Germany as the son of a top-level "industrialist" at various impressive-sounding companies. He knew how to ingratiate himself well enough to get in the door, but also had a knack for wearing out his welcome.

 

His stint as a student in Wisconsin, "Chris Gerhart" nabbed himself a green card by way of a shotgun wedding, before he was on to bigger and better things. By the time he made his way to California (the wealthy community of San Marino, to be precise), Christopher Mountbatten Chichester (his pseudonym evolved with his persona) had taken his pedigree from coming from "money" to straight up royalty. He knew how to schmooze with the best of them, how to say the right things to the right people, how to get introduced around, all the while leveraging the credibility of newfound friends as his own. 

 

Christian Gerhartsreiter as Christopher Mountbatten Chichester, 1984

 

He was also smart. Smart enough to be able to "talk shop" on a variety of subjects, and smart enough to give his stories the veneer of truth necessary to establish basic trust. His cover in California, however, got tricky when the son and daughter-in-law of the woman with whom he was staying (Jonathan and Linda Sohus) went MIA – though, for more on that you'll have to do some reading of your own. 

 

The Man in the Rockefeller Suit Vanity Fair Montage

 

Another move meant another name, so Christopher Chichester became Chris Crowe (third from the left, above) for his new life in Greenwich, CT. Of course there were signs (and certainly many that people can think of retrospect). Using the social security number of a David Berkowitz (aka the Son of Sam) probably sent up some red flags. His inability to actually do anything when he landed himself a job at a Wall Street firm raised enough concern to get him fired. 

 

Here's the thing though: we (humans) do not like feeling that we've been duped. We justify bad decisions and misplaced trust more often than not. Mistakes Were Made (But Not By Me) illustrates some great examples, small and large, of how deeply ingrained this tendency is in all of us. And Clark Rockefeller (his given name circa 1994) capitalized on this in his courtship of and marriage to high-powered McKinsey exec Sandra Boss most of all.  

 

"Rockefeller" made some serious miscalculations when it came to his treatment of new neighbors when he and Boss made a move to Cornish, New Hampshire. His finicky paranoia around security, his grand plans for home renovations that never seemed to come to fruition – these were things that seemed like quirky "he's a Rockefeller" attributes to some.

 

Clark Rockefeller aka Christian Karl Gerhartsreiter 540

 

But a slight change in perspective can make a huge difference. People who he had crossed (e.g. a woman he refused to allow to photograph his house's garden for historical archives, a man whose building donation to the town Clark hijacked) thought it all too appropriate when he played the Roman God of War, Mars, in a local production.

 

Of course, to me, at this point I couldn't un-see the uncanny similarity between Rockefeller as Mars and  Buster Bluth in The Creation of Adam

 

Buster Bluth as Adam, Clark Rockefeller as Mars

 

When Boss finally decided it was time for a divorce, Rockefeller went for that ever-useful solution to all marriage problems – having a baby (note my sarcasm). This part of the story is complicated. Rockefeller was basically using his wife as a cash cow, and pushing her to work more and more. The pregnancy was not planned. Boss' heavy travel schedule wasn't ideal for new motherhood. Both, of course, were happy when their daughter Reigh aka "Snooks" was born, but Clark continued to strong arm his wife onto the road and out of their daughter's life.

 

Reigh Snooks Boss

 

The move to Boston (a minor concession to keep the marriage afloat) didn't change much. And, long of the short, if you recognize the girl above, it's probably due to the Amber Alert that went out when Rockefeller absconded with her in 2008.  Though, as mug and courtroom photos (below) would suggest, he was captured days later. 

Faux Clark Rockefeller 2008 mug shots and court photos

My biggest criticism of this book was that it was a bit light on trial material. I, for one, did not finish this book feeling confused as to whether Christian Karl Gerhartsreiter was a delusional victim of mental illness, or a master manipulator. The conclusion wasn't forced upon me per se, but I'm pretty sure author Mark Seal would agree.

 

3.5/5 stars!

 

Three or four pages worth of interested in the story? Mark Seal's “The Man Who Played Rockefeller” adaptation for the Wall Street Journal is the place to go.