Amazing story but fails to hit right tone
The Man in the Rockefeller Suit: The Astonishing Rise and Spectacular Fall of a Serial Imposter'
Published by Viking
Published 09/06/2011 | 05:00
IN 'The Man in the Rockefeller Suit', Mark Seal recounts the deeply creepy story of the con artist who for 16 years passed himself off as a Rockefeller among a wealthy set in Manhattan and on Boston's Beacon Hill.
He's now doing time in Massachusetts for kidnapping and assault. Seal strongly suggests that he may someday be doing more for one or two murders in California that are still being investigated.
The prisoner was born Christian Karl Gerhartsreiter in 1961, in a small Bavarian town. Arriving in the US in 1978, he quickly began remaking himself. He moved to wealthy San Marino, California, calling himself Christopher Mountbatten Chichester.
The whiff of British nobility (clearly he was adept with accents) sprung open his neighbours' doors. He found various ways into their wallets, scammed an alcoholic widow and very possibly murdered her son and his wife.
In 1985 he turned up in Greenwich, Connecticut, as Christopher Crowe. Somehow he talked his way into a vice presidency at the New York branch of Nikko Securities, the Japanese brokerage firm. When the California police caught the scent of his trail, in 1988, he vanished again.
James Frederick Mills Clark Rockefeller appeared in Manhattan in 1992. All it took to convince people he was the real deal was that magical surname ("Are you one of the Rockefeller cousins?" "No, I'm one of the cousins' cousins") and a fake collection of Mondrians, Rothkos and Motherwells that fooled even dealers. He also wooed Sandra Boss, a young financier.
After they married in 1995, her high salary allowed him to keep bankrolling his charade, which lasted until 2007.
Then she filed for divorce. A private investigator she hired informed her that her husband was a fraud. But his real undoing was their daughter.
Cornered, he gave up custody in exchange for $800,000. Then he came up with the kidnapping scheme.
You can't fault the author's energy. He's tracked down everybody who might talk to him, and the group that agreed to was surprisingly large. Yet the book feels thin.
Seal contents himself with nailing down the facts, but, bizarre as they are, they're not enough. He makes only a few weak stabs at psychologising. He shows no awareness at all of the cultural reverberations in a story that has strong echoes of 'The Great Gatsby'.
Worst of all, he never manages to hit the right tone. He could use some of his subject's savoir-faire. Without it, he comes across as a voyeur in the world of wealth that his subject sailed into with all the entitlement of a blue-blood.