The Talented Mr. Rockefeller

As celebrity criminals go, Christian Karl Gerhartsreiter isn’t a household name. But one of his aliases—Clark Rockefeller—has fueled outsize fascination ever since his tenure as a phony scion of the well-heeled clan ran out six years ago, when he was arrested for kidnapping his daughter. Books both gritty (Mark Seal’s The Man in the Rockefeller Suit) and literary (Amity Gaige’s novel Schroder) trailed along in the publishing-world wake, as did TV and big-screen flicksand a new kind of spectral figure of the popular imagination, “the fake Rockefeller.” So beguiling and audacious was the German-born Gerhartsreiter’s grifter-creation—the blue-blazered patrician with a closet of chinos, a wall of Rothkos, and a standing gin-and-tonic order at the Lotos Club—that his caper captivated producers and booksellers before the other Top-Sider dropped: the revelation that he had murdered a California man in the 1980s, when he claimed to be one Christopher Chichester, erstwhile movie mogul and a distant relative of Lord Mountbatten.

Whether anyone knew the real Gerhartsreiter is a matter of philosophical debate into the nature of self and authenticity, and much of what powers novelist and critic Walter Kirn’s Blood Will Out swirls around the problem of “confusing con artistry and actual artistry, duplicity with creativity,” which is one version of the live-versus-Memorex paradox. Bracketing that, Kirn can lay claim to being closer to the con man than most. He first encountered “Clark” (let’s call him that for the sake of simplicity) in 1998, when he agreed to ferry a crippled Gordon setter across the country into the hands of the snaky impostor, who had adopted the dog after reading its sad story on the Internet; Kirn bids Clark—somewhere short of a friend, but more than a distant acquaintance—farewell in the summer of 2013, after sitting through his trial for murder in the same Los Angeles courtroom where Phil Spector and O. J. Simpson were tried. Clark had wormed his way into Kirn’s world because the writer needed the dough and was taken by the character (in both senses of the word, I guess). In his imagination he rubbed his palms together and vowed to write about him some day. In the folksy way that Kirn sometimes adopts when he wants to dish the philosophical dirt about his odd “friendship,” he opines, “A writer is someone who tells you one thing so someday he can tell his readers another thing: what he was thinking but declined to say, or what he would have thought had he been wiser. A writer turns his life into material and if you’re in his life, he uses yours, too.”

Christian Karl Gerhartsreiter, aka Clark Rockefeller (right), 2000.
Christian Karl Gerhartsreiter, aka Clark Rockefeller (right), 2000.

I’m not sure how much I buy the so-there, exercise-in-superior-marksmanship angle (and Kirn later pulls back on it), but it isn’t completely unconvincing in a writer with a large appetite for bigger-than-life personalities like Clark’s. For fifteen years, Kirn and Clark remained in intermittent contact, forming the closest relationship of a writer to a soon-to-be-well-known criminal since Norman Mailer got Jack Abbott a book contract. At least immediately after the kidnapping arrest, Kirn still defended Clark to others as a real Rockefeller. Throughout Blood Will Out, we keep putting ourselves in Kirn’s shoes, asking whether we too could get rooked into believing that the fraudster with a connoisseur’s affinity for Gilligan’s Island and Frasier and a surprisingly frequent penchant for slipping up on the facts of his life (e.g., whether he had siblings, the death of his parents) was who he said he was (first, something called a freelance central banker, then a proprietor of a defense-contracting business working, of course, clandestinely in Canada). Kirn compares him to the title character in Patricia Highsmith’s The Talented Mr. Ripley, but Clark, with his strange diction and stranger use of the vernacular, sounds closer to the decadent lady-killer Bruno in Highsmith’s Strangers on a Train, at least as that character was reimagined by Hitchcock. (Combined with his slavish devotion to The Official Preppy Handbook as a user’s guide for how to pass as a member of the Rockefeller set, Clark’s manner of speaking should have made him stick out rather than blend in, which seems to violate the first rule of impostordom.)

Still, the shame of gullibility—Kirn’s or anyone else’s—is only part of what Blood Will Out is here to ask about. We put our faith in all kinds of things, and if it were always rewarded, it wouldn’t be called faith, now would it? Part of the bargain with faith is that it allows us to go unrewarded, which makes it both that much more precious and a giant drag. When Clark’s duplicity is first revealed, the blow to Kirn is crushing: “What I didn’t find credible anymore was me. When I’d learned that Clark might be a murderer and instinctively found the notion plausible, the effect on me was Galilean. . . . It revealed to me the size and power of my ignorance and vanity.” If some of the soul-searching seems an odd bedfellow with Clark’s creepy, almost soulless backstory, it nevertheless feels sincere.

Along the way, Kirn provides a subtle syllabus on faith—its nature, those who give it, and those who take it—as a literary form. Though the scarlet Didoni typeface on the cover promises that Blood Will Out will reprise Truman Capote’s cool hybrid of fiction and nonfiction in In Cold Blood, woven instead through the book is a nod to a different canon of con men and tricksters: the protagonist of Melville’s The Confidence-Man, the prep-school clones of Leopold and Loeb of Hitchcock’s Rope, and Highsmith’s highbrow hucksters—all crossed with the shadows of film noir. When Clark speaks of “Constance Garnett rewrites” in an e-mail, Kirn catches the reference to the Dostoyevsky translator at once and gets the larger meaning of promising “a little touch up of Crime and Punishment”—his man has clearly spent his time thinking about Raskolnikov. Could he be dropping a hint? Clark is indeed one of the most strangely literary (if not literate) of criminals. “Some people kill for love and some for money,” Kirn notes, “but Clark, I’d grown convinced, had killed for literature. To be a part of it. To live inside it. To test it in the most direct ways possible.” No wonder then that Clark would find Kirn such a mark—and no wonder Kirn would return the compliment.

Eric Banks, the former editor in chief of Bookforum, is the director of the New York Institute for the Humanities.