June 2011

Lives of the rich and fake

By Mark Seal
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Millions of immigrants have found success in America through hard work, pluck and a little ingenuity. Christian Gerhartsreiter took a more duplicitous approach. In 1978, the 17-year-old German schemed his way into the United States and didn’t stop. He worked himself into affluent environments by claiming to be anything from a TV producer to a baronet.

In 1992, Gerhartsreiter unveiled his greatest creation: Clark Rockefeller, a scion of the famed wealthy family. Amazingly, nobody discovered this elaborate lie until—divorced, cut off from money and desperate—he kidnapped his young daughter in July 2008. The incident, involving a fake Rockefeller no less, was national news.

Mark Seal, a contributing editor at Vanity Fair who previously wrote about the Rockefeller saga for the magazine, chronicles the con man’s brazen odyssey in The Man in the Rockefeller Suit. Relying on loads of research and nearly 200 interviews, Seal captures the essence of a man whose soul was buried underneath countless façades. Seriously, it’s next to impossible to tally all the lies and shifty identities. Even when he was brought down, Gerhartsreiter was still delivering falsities with a smile on his face.

How did he remain out of trouble for 30 years? Regardless of his alias, Gerhartsreiter was charismatic, told well-researched, convincing lies and immersed himself in American culture. He was unbeatable at Trivial Pursuit, and Gilligan’s Island’s Thurston Howell III provided patrician inspiration. “For Clark, things that are imaginary were very, very real,” explains Patrick Hickox, who befriended Clark Rockefeller in Boston. The only real thing in Rockefeller’s life, he adds, may have been his daughter.

Seal’s first-person approach can be distracting at times, but he brings color and depth to this most unusual immigrant story—one that is brave, bizarre and utterly enthralling.

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