Even seasoned reporters have admitted that "Clark Rockefeller" spooks them. For over thirty years, the man born in Germany as Christian Karl Gerhartsreiter has been reinventing himself with ever more elaborate ruses, eventually reemerging in New York City in the early nineties as a counterfeit Rockefeller heir. By then, he was quite possibly a double murderer: In 1985, his San Marino, California landlord and wife disappeared; ten years later, a skeleton, believed to be one of the pair, was dug up in their backyard. In March, "Rockefeller," already serving for another crime, was formally charged with murder. Mark Seal's new book takes us as close into the mind of this strange man as we can ever hope (or wish) to be. The shocking odyssey of a human chameleon.
Hiding behind one of America’s wealthiest names, a German immigrant duped the world in a decades-long charade that Vanity Fair contributing editor Seal unravels in this fascinating account. Born Christian Gerhartsreiter in Germany in 1961 , he left home at age 17, landing with an acquaintance in Connecticut. Over the next 14 years, he carefully honed his impersonation skills. He shed his German accent and began acquiring aliases, first in wealthy San Marino, Calif., and then, in 1992, in Manhattan society, where he made a calculatedly low-key entrance as James Frederick Mills Clark Rockefeller. He soon married Sandra Boss, a financial executive, whose money Rockefeller spent with abandon. Only when she filed for divorce after 12 rocky years of marriage did his carefully constructed facade crumble, and he went on the run with their young daughter, sparking an FBI chase and a prison sentence for kidnapping and assault and battery with a dangerous weapon. Seal (Wildflower: An Extraordinary Life and Mysterious Death in Africa) brilliantly reconstructs and dissects Gerhartsreiter’s strange life, weaving in interviews with those who knew—or thought they knew—one of the men he pretended to be along the way. (Earlier this month, the L.A. Times reported that prosecutors have brought an indictment against Gerhartsreiter in a 1980s murder in San Marino.) (June)
When the story of a parental kidnapping in Boston went out over the newswires in 2008, it seemed initially like a routine family tragedy. But it took strange twists as time passed. The father, wealthy businessman Clark Rockefeller, was not who he seemed to be. In fact, no one at all knew who he was. This episode ended the long career of professional imposter and con man Christian Karl Gerhartsreiter, originally from the tiny German village of Bergen. His ambition to emigrate to America and become a filmmaker took him from Boston to California and back. Charm, arrogance, and a wickedly sharp mind helped him create his personae but also enabled him to maintain his lifestyle by stealing, swindling…and maybe worse. In 1985, John and Linda Sohus, Gerhartsreiter's roommates, disappeared, and Gerhartsreiter was charged with murdering John on March 15, 2011, 26 years after the crime. While the subject's aloofness and arrogance keep the reader from rooting for him, one almost has to admire the chutzpah. VERDICT The talented Mr. Rockefeller could have come right out of a Hitchcock film. For crime buffs and fans of flimflam.—Deirdre Root, Middletown P.L., OH
Vanity Fair contributing editor Seal (Wildflower: An Extraordinary Life and Untimely Death in Africa, 2009) unravels the complex case of "Clark Rockefeller," a fiendishly clever con man who, over the course of three decades, insinuated himself into the highest echelons of American society using only his wits and a borrowed name.
Christian Karl Gerhartsreiter, a precocious teenager hailing from an obscure Bavarian village, felt he was destined for greatness, and such humble beginnings would not do. Consequently, he made his way to the United States, where he adopted a series of identities more in line with his self-image: patrician, wealthy, well-educated and possessed of impeccable social standing. In privileged enclaves nestled in exclusive pockets of California, Connecticut, New York and Boston, Gerhartsreiter spun wild stories of his family's prominence and wealth (and invented an ever-changing professional resume, at various points claiming to be a Hollywood producer, Defense Department contractor and international financial advisor), charming their blue-blooded denizens with his erudition, sponge-like appropriation of manners and appearance and, most crucially, the magic name Rockefeller.Seal delineates his endless schemes in an irresistibly lucid and propulsive manner, and his characterizations of his many victims are richly observed. Readers will marvel at Gerhartsreiter's ability to bamboozle his way into tony social clubs, jobs at eminent financial institutions (he had no qualifications or experience) and, most crucially, into the affections of wife Sandra Boss, a savvy financial wunderkind who nonetheless funded "Rockefeller's" lavish lifestyle in complete ignorance of his true identity. The narrative occasionally takes some dark turns. Seal makes a strong case naming Gerhartsreiter as the likely murderer of a young couple who fell under his sway early in his career, and the impostor's kidnapping of his own daughter once his façade began to crumble is uncomfortably gripping material.
Impossible to put down—Patricia Highsmith couldn't have written a more compelling thriller.
Mr. Seal…fashions a brisk narrative that has all the pace and drive of a suspense novel.
The New York Times
The Christian Science Monitor
“No mystery writer would script this—it’s too unbelievable.
Los Angeles Times
People (four stars)
From the Publisher
“Has all the pace and drive of a suspense novel.” — Michiko Kakutani, New York Times
“No mystery writer would script this—it’s too unbelievable. — The Christian Science Monitor
“Impeccably reported.” — Los Angeles Times
“Fascinating.” — People (four stars)
Read an Excerpt
When the fingerprints came back from the lab, one thing was finally clear: the kidnapper was definitely not a Rockefeller. He was Christian Karl Gerhartsreiter, a forty-seven-year-old German immigrant who had come to America as a student in 1978. Shortly after his arrival, he disappeared into what the Boston district attorney would call “the longest con I've seen in my professional career.” The elaborate, labyrinthine nature of Gerhartsreiter's shapeshifting adventures, from the time he set foot in this country as a seventeen-year-old student right up to his disappearance, makes his story more bizarre than any gifted writer of fiction could possibly invent.