FEATURE

Professor Plum, with a Candlestick

The Man in the Rockefeller Suit: The Astonishing Rise and Spectacular Fall of a Serial Impostor BY Mark Seal. Plume. Paperback, 368 pages. $16.
Blood Will Out: The True Story of a Murder, a Mystery, and a Masquerade BY Walter Kirn. Liveright. Paperback, 272 pages. $15.

VIOLENT AND VIOLATING, plagiarism, the term we now use to describe stealing another’s language, is haunted by further crimes. The meaning of plagiary, as the act was first known, originally included theft not just of words but bodies: Taken from the Latin, plagium meant, and still means in civil law, “the crime of kidnapping,” especially children; plagiary added the idea of stealing a slave, and of seduction, as well as of being “a literary thief.” This final meaning is the one we are most familiar with today, and provides the basis for plagiarism’s biggest defense: What’s the harm? “No, it isn’t murder,” starts Thomas Mallon’s classic study of plagiarism, Stolen Words. He’s discussing plagiary, but however we name it, plagiarism isn’t merely victimless: “Think how often, after all, a writer’s books are called his or her children,” Mallon continues. “To see the writer’s words kidnapped, to find them imprisoned, like changelings, on someone else’s equally permanent page, is to become vicariously absorbed by violation.”

The case of hoaxer “Clark Rockefeller” brings the connections between these different meanings of plagiarism into a sharp and bizarre focus. His crimes included not just the illegal forgery of artworks and the theft of an entire family’s identity and name, but also literal kidnapping—plagiary in its oldest form. Really a German immigrant named Christian Gerhartsreiter, “Clark” adopted the name Rockefeller after years of overstaying a student visa in California, a state he left under a cloud of suspicion. He had, since coming to the US as an exchange student and getting a quickie marriage to help cement his American residency, adopted the names Chris Gerhart, Christopher Mountbatten Chichester, Christopher Crowe, and, for good measure, Christopher Chichester Crowe Mountbatten. Moving in the 1980s to tony Greenwich, Connecticut, he claimed he worked as a producer of Alfred Hitchcock Presents—a nod, perhaps, to his Vertigo-like doubling—before talking his way into a job at a New York firm famous for selling junk bonds. His fake names and pretend old-money attitude would pave his way to Wall Street, where he was made vice president of a corporate bond department—as if he meant to mimic the double crosses, malfeasance, and inflations of our time’s would-be tycoons.

Those interviewed in The Man in the Rockefeller Suit, Mark Seal’s 2011 tell-all about the case, constantly return to the idea of the putative Rockefeller’s accent. Either it was highfalutin or nonexistent, which may mean the same thing: “He spoke the most perfect English I can imagine,” one of his ex-friends says. This is the ultimate privilege, to have one’s accent be so dominant as to be invisible. It also brings to mind the “successful” plagiarist, whose theft goes unnoticed. At least for a time. Rockefeller’s accent wasn’t so much meant to capture a high-Boston accent as to provide a stereotypical version of it; the more eccentric his behavior or unlikely his talk, the more people both believed and tolerated him: He was a Rockefeller, after all. His parroting of privilege points out how much privilege is tolerated, its eccentricities expected, by those around the person with presumed power. Plagiarism, too, is a sign of power. All Rockefeller needed to convince people he went to Yale—or Harvard, Clark’s story ever changing—was a hat with the school’s insignia.

Some of these questions of privilege and put-on come up in Blood Will Out (2014), Walter Kirn’s sharp account of knowing “Clark.”Even from their first phone call, Kirn thought Rockefeller terribly bizarre and beseeching: Clark said he could sing “any song that I might name to the tune of the theme from Gilligan’s Island.” Later, in person, Kirn watched as the supposed heir allowed his dogs to lick his Abstract Expressionist masterpieces in his Manhattan apartment. The paintings, of course, turned out to be forgeries—fakes used to convince people he was genuine. Not only did well-regarded museum curators trust that the works were real, Kirn chose to believe in their authenticity, as well as their owner’s. The two men actually grew somewhat close in the aftermath of their divorces and custody cases, sharing, as the Midwestern-raised-yet-Princeton-educated Kirn makes clear, a kind of Ivy League affectation. Clearly modeled on In Cold Blood (down to the front-cover font), Kirn’s book explores what it means to know, and kowtow to, someone who pretends to be somebody and then turns out to be no one.

GERHARTSREITER SOUGHT AN EXTREME VERSION of whiteness—a carte blanche, a check as blank as the one he claimed he gave his banker to buy art with. It was almost out of a novel, at least a plagiarized one. Someone who knew him describes Rockefeller as an embodiment of literary chicanery, “something out of the novel Tom Jones,or a book by Joseph Conrad,” or maybe the work of Truman Capote himself. Clark’s former friend continues, “There is a phrase of Truman Capote’s: ‘a genuine fraud.’ . . . It’s a person who actually may be genuine but built upon a fictional armature. I think all Americans are our own inventions. That’s part of the allure of this country. And in some ways one has to see Clark as an archetypal immigrant who constructs a new life and a new persona, free of the constraints of the country he left behind.” Then there’s his first name, which smacks of Clark Kent, the alter ego of the ultimate immigrant: Superman. For Gerhartsreiter, fictional armature was a form of armor that he maintained for years, at least until he moved to Boston, got married, and had a child, an adored daughter he nicknamed “Snooks.” His wife soon grew disenchanted with his controlling nature and spending, and after learning through private detectives that he wasn’t who she thought he was—“They couldn’t tell me who I was married to”—she divorced him and moved to England with their child at the end of 2007.

It was during his first scheduled, supervised visitation in Boston in late July 2008 that Rockefeller kidnapped his own daughter—plagiary, indeed. Knocking down the court-appointed monitor, he jumped into a chauffeured car with Snooks and drove away, setting off Amber Alerts across the region. He was arrested days later, posing as “Chip Smith” in Baltimore, after having purchased a boat, presumably to set sail on with his daughter. In the search for him, federal investigators also determined that he wasn’t who he said he was. And after his arrest, suspicions arose that Gerhartsreiter may have also killed a couple from California during his time there. He, or rather one of his other personae, had long been a person of interest in their disappearance, having ended up with the missing couple’s truck back East.

From immigrant to impostor, Gerhartsreiter is an American story of reinvention—one worthy of Gatsby, murder and all. In an invisible, invented accent, his case speaks of race and class, revealing how pretending the latter can erase the former (and nationality, too). Both the limo driver who inadvertently drove the getaway car and the realtor who sold him, while he was on the lam, a condo in Baltimore compared his newfound accent to that of Thurston Howell III from Gilligan’s Island. Kirn and his reporter buddy who sat daily at Gerhartsreiter’s murder trial would call him “Hannibal Mitty”; “Gatsby the Ripper was our second choice.” Rockefeller was as much a fiction as whiteness is: Being white let him act far whiter, richer, entitled, his pretentiousness a cover for outright pretending, any ostentation a way of avoiding suspicion.

What whiteness means for him is innocence—not just presumed but permanent. We remember James Baldwin’s The Fire Next Time, in which he’s thinking of broader malfeasance: “It is not permissible that the authors of devastation should also be innocent. It is the innocence which constitutes the crime.”

THE IMPOSTOR NOT ONLY REMAINS unknowable but reassures you there’s nothing to know. In FBI custody at last in Baltimore in August 2008, after being on the lam for nearly a week, Rockefeller seemed unaware of the irony of the story of how he met his future (now former) wife: He’d thrown a party where guests came dressed like characters from the board game Clue. She came as Miss Scarlet, he as Professor Plum; the point of the popular game is to solve a pretend murder. For Clark Rockefeller, it would all seem a game, not just Clue but Trivial Pursuit. It is that late-’80s parlor-room staple that then–Christopher Chichester invited folks over to play near a mound of dirt—which, it has become clear, was the newly dug grave of the son of the house’s owner. “Clark was worse than a murderer and dismemberer and graveside board-game player,” Kirn writes. “He was a cannibal of souls.”

This does not mean Clark acted alone—at least in the sense that, like all plagiarists, he sees others as mere texts, sources for borrowing. Unaware of how others create, or why they might bother, the plagiarist, whether of words or identities, sees others as collaborators, or at the very least as complicit. “What a perfect mark I’d been,” Kirn writes, pointing to another kind of troubling collaboration. “Rationalizing, justifying, imagining, I’d worked as hard at being conned by him as he had at conning me. I wasn’t a victim; I was a collaborator. I’d been taught when I was young, and had learned for myself as I grew older, that deception creates a chain reaction: two lies protecting the one that came before, and on and on and on. Now I was learning something new; how being deceived, and not wishing to admit it, could proliferate into a kind of madness too.” In its serial nature, being plagiarized surely feels both personal and despairingly impersonal, which tends to be the way serial killers feel about their victims. Obviously, the would-be Clark Rockefeller is a sociopath, but such impulses also sit behind more ordinary plagiarism and other related hoaxes.

When the erstwhile Rockefeller is at last in jail, Kirn asks after the mysterious paintings. “Fakes,” he answers. “All fakes, Walter. But very good ones.” It isn’t just that the front of the painting was convincing: the back was meant to be beyond belief. One Rothko he had turned over and shown to Kirn, claiming that stains on the back were blood from the artist’s suicide. The shlock of that fake blood from an actual artist and his very real suicide should give us pause. The plagiarist isn’t just plagiarizing another artist’s achievement, but also his pain.

That a revealed hoax devolves quickly into kitsch shows just how precarious the hoaxer’s privilege is. The unmasked charmer—whether impostor, forger, or ordinary plagiarist—becomes reviled, and the performance that once seemed sublime turns to instant shlock. Not that this necessarily stops the inveterate plagiarist from continuing to push his craft. Or his luck. In Rockefeller’s case, even after he was caught, he continued to try to make others complicit: From jail, he asks Kirn one last favor, or is it a further collaboration? Would Walter go to Baltimore and retrieve some of his things from storage? He could also sell the forgeries, if he wishes? Kirn reports, “They were worthless in themselves, Gerhartsreiter said, but perhaps their status as ‘Clark Rockefellers’ (he spoke the words flatly, without irony) would lend them appeal for a certain type of buyer.” Buying, selling, collaboration, favors: The forger and con artist, impostor and hoaxer, are always doing one and calling it the other.

The hoaxer is just another huckster, but where the con man is content with cold cash and the dealers of three-card monte have the decency to fold up their card tables and flee from those they’ve fleeced, figures like Rockefeller seek not just an audience but a co-conspirator. To the impostor, plagiarist, or forger, pain isn’t a side effect but the exact point. In the end, Kirn grows convinced that Clark “had killed for literature. To be a part of it. To live inside it. To test it in the most direct ways possible.” This must be the plagiarist’s wish—to belong—even as they confuse this wish with another’s belongings. Clark, after all, claimed he was a writer, but “even Snooks, his daughter’s pet name, was borrowed, lifted from the child of a family he’d known back in Connecticut.” Even the plagiarist’s few pleasures are pilfered.

Kevin Young, the author of Blue Laws: Selected & Uncollected Poems 1995–2015 (Knopf, 2016), is finishing Unoriginal Sin, a nonfiction book about hoaxes, to be published by Graywolf.