In a new book, the journalist Walter Kirn writes of his friendship with the murderer Clark Rockefeller. In the end, the killer's con says more about his victims than himself
Crime can be funny. I swear. Readers and viewers may struggle to come by those laughs, thanks to the dominant, hackneyed style of crime storytelling that has soaked through cable television and discount-book racks like a liter of fresh blood. But somewhere in many of the darkest outcomes lie brilliant, cutting bits of whimsy in need only of a good polish. And their presence in a larger saga can whip a plodding, didactic tale into something rich and vivid.
Take the story of 53-year-old German-born grifter Christian Karl Gerhartsreiter, whose U.S. aliases included Christopher Chichester, Christopher Rider, Christopher Crowe, Chip Smith, and, most memorably, Clark Rockefeller. Gerhartsreiter, then hastily posing as Chip Smith, was arrested in 2008 after a weeklong FBI hunt for him and his daughter, whom he had abducted during a scheduled custody visit. Within days of his arrest, news of Rockefeller’s true identity emerged, and with it word that he (then Chichester) was the primary suspect in an unsolved 1985 murder in California. By August 2013, Gerhartsreiter had been convicted of both the kidnapping and the murder and sentenced to 27 years to life for the latter offense. If California governors and parole boards of the future behave as California governors and parole boards have long behaved, Gerhartsreiter will never again see the light of day. This seems like an appropriately serious response to a set of serious crimes.
And yet seriousness is an odd choice for a default register when chronicling the life of a fine-art-forging phony aristocrat, one who learned his comportment from Gilligan’s Island’s foppish Thurston Howell III and ate Boston Cream Pie daily to prove he truly came from there. Unstinting bleakness does not quite fit when the man and his marks shared profoundly goofy traits.
The Gerhartsreiter-Chichester-Rockefeller case has found its way back into the news in recent weeks, owing to the publication of Blood Will Out: The True Story of a Murder, a Mystery, and a Masquerade, Walter Kirn’s recounting of his friendship with the man he knew as Clark Rockefeller. A terrific elevator pitch for publishers: A well-known author knew a killer well—where to sign? But Kirn’s book makes the mistake of rendering Rockefeller as an unforgivable terror, history’s greatest monster. For all the sociopathic acts now forever on his criminal record—what might, broadly, be called evil—the legacy of Rockefeller’s social conduct, the context in which Kirn knew him, is substantially bigger than all that.
The man who would become Clark Rockefeller was born in Bavaria in 1961 to Simon and Irmengard Gerhartsreiter, a carpenter and a housewife. As a child he was smart, a troublemaker, determined to make it out of his gloomy and small hometown. Before his 18th birthday, he had fashioned himself a ticket to Connecticut as an exchange student. He had told his parents that a New York radio station had hired him as a DJ. In Connecticut, he hopped from host family to host family, along the way ingratiating himself with his good looks and worldly charm but irritating each with his arrogance and quirks.
He next lit out for Wisconsin, where a satellite campus of the state university had offered him enrollment. There he anglicized his name, becoming Chris Gerhart, and convinced a local woman to marry him for a green card. Gerhart married her on Feb. 20, 1981, with a college acquaintance enlisted as his best man. And that was it for the couple. He would not see his first wife again until his kidnapping trial in 2009.
It was in Gerhart’s next haunt, San Marino, Calif., where he began aiming higher with his deceptions. He slapped himself with new identities, first becoming cardiologist Dr. Christopher Rider, then becoming movie producer and aristocrat Christopher Mountbatten Chichester. Chichester would ride through town in a beat-up Plymouth, when he had a car at all. He was also moonlighting as a student at USC’s prestigious film school. He had fine (if a little tattered) clothes and an upright manner, and he had no trouble charming the wealthy older women who filled the churches and social clubs of San Marino. He was routinely written up in the local papers as a man about town. He would invent family members or connections to renowned nobles. He would often talk of improbable financial transactions—he once suggested uprooting a Medieval church, because he owned it, of course, and transporting it to San Marino—but he would never pick up a check. The eccentricities of the truly wealthy. Chichester no longer wanted a home within America’s mass culture. He wanted to belong to its ruling class.
San Marino was the kind of place that might ache for a Thirteenth Baronet, as Chichester’s business cards put it then. According to the most recent American Community Survey data from 2012, San Marino has a median household income of nearly $140,000, more than double California’s statewide figure. The town has long been home to retired actors and entertainers, and an even more elevated old-money caste. General George S. Patton’s father had once been the town’s mayor. But in Chichester’s days, working-class Asian Americans had recently begin moving in from neighboring communities—the city is now more than half Asian-American. The town’s wealthy longtime residents evidently cast their lot with the paler interloper. Chichester soon found a rent-free dwelling with Ruth “Didi” Sohus, a widow with a drinking problem and a guest house.
He mentioned a visit from Britney Spears. He said he was friends with J.D. Salinger.He soon found, too, the first obstacle to his climb, in the form of John Sohus, Didi’s son. John and his wife, Linda, went missing in 1985, more than two years after Chichester had moved into their guest house. They had told their friends and Didi that they had been dispatched to New York on top-secret government work. A few postcards sent from overseas to friends and family at first seemed to confirm that they were alive. But the postcards stopped, and Didi, now worried, called the police to report her son and daughter-in-law missing. She told the police that they had been doing top-secret government work, but that her go-between at the federal level—one Christopher Chichester—had vanished, too. By her lights, he really had disappeared. But he had by that point headed back to Connecticut, this time to its ritzier southwestern coast, and taken on a new name, Christopher Crowe.
As Christopher Crowe, a film producer switching careers, he went about plying his old con in an even more fertile atmosphere. (This stage of the con is chronicled most ably in Mark Seal’s The Man in the Rockefeller Suit, which is essential reading on the case.) The cash spigot in Greenwich, Conn., had not begun to dry up like San Marino’s, and Crowe was able to take advantage of not only its preppy parties and welcoming guest houses but its residents’ connections in the banking world. Despite having no verifiable qualifications, he landed no fewer than three jobs in the securities field. He’d wear ascots; he’d talk of his massive Mountbatten family foundation (it didn’t exist); he’d pretend to trade bonds. At one gig, he gave as his Social Security number one that belonged to David Berkowitz, New York’s legendary Son of Sam killer. The joke was dark, but what a joke nonetheless.
But while in Connecticut, Crowe had made the mistake of trying to sell a 1985 Nissan pickup that belonged to John and Linda Sohus. In late 1988, a Greenwich detective went to find him at his workplace for questioning, but he had vanished again. He wouldn’t resurface until 1992—by which point he had become Clark Rockefeller.
His method as Rockefeller looked a lot like his method as Crowe. But he took the trappings of wealth even further. He didn’t bother trying to hold a job this time around; he told the people he met that he was a freelance central banker focused on Third World debt and living off family money. He had an apartment filled with fine modern art (all forgeries, we would later learn) he had apparently inherited, but he made a show of disdaining his Pollocks, Mondrians and Rothkos. He had entered Yale at 14, despite having been mute for most of his childhood. The flaw in his prior plan, he seemed to have reasoned, was its adherence to some kind of familiar reality. Dada was the solution.
Rockefeller’s big mark was Sandra Boss, a 26-year-old Harvard business student he met in the summer of 1993. Rockefeller had made himself a presence around old-guard Episcopal churches as Chichester and Crowe had before him, and through Saint Thomas Church, he befriended Boss’s sister. Soon she landed gigs at Merrill Lynch and later McKinsey and Company. He landed her steady income. They married on Nantucket in 1995.
Earlier that year, the NBC show Unsolved Mysteries, which averaged nine million viewers per week, had aired a segment on the discovery of the bones of John Sohus underground on his late mother’s former property. The segment told of Didi’s delusions, and John’s mysterious job offer, and the strange boarder who lived in the guest house. It closed with a photo of Christopher Chichester, noting that he happened also to be Christopher Crowe, the man who tried to hawk John’s truck, Christopher Mountbatten, and “Christian Gerhartsreiter, a native of Germany.” The manhunt was on, but police had no idea how far up the social ladder they’d have to climb.
Kirn’s book picks up in 1998, five years into Gerhartsreiter’s Clark Rockefeller phase. His wife’s McKinsey career was waxing, and while she worked, he walked the dog, Yates, and made friends. He’d go sockless, with a worn-out Yale ball cap atop his head. He’d dine with acquaintances at tweedy New York clubs, flaunting whatever he pretended to have. Sometimes he’d mention “the family building” (Rockefeller Center, you see), and would gesture toward it, with the supposed master key in hand. Later he presented Kirn, who was fretting over unpaid federal taxes, with a private line belonging to “George.” (W. Bush, you know.) He told many stories about investments in Mexican aerospace technology, and he suggested to Kirn that he had some interest in purchasing one of the magazines that employed him, even though Rockefeller had registered a blank look when he first heard the words, “The Atlantic Monthly.” He mentioned visits to his New Hampshire country home from Britney Spears and German chancellor Helmut Kohl; he said he was friends with J.D. Salinger. He still refused to pick up checks. And yet none of this spooked anyone in his retinue, not even the journalist. Worse, none of this horsepucky seemed to prompt the guffaws it deserved.
The author (in 1998, a contributor to TIME) first met the grifter through a strange canine errand. Rockefeller had set his sights on adopting Shelby, a wheelchair-bound Gordon Setter, from a couple in Montana, where Kirn lived. Kirn and Rockefeller spoke over the phone, and Rockefeller eventually implored Kirn to chauffeur the dog himself cross-country. The book’s opening chapters, which chronicle this journey, read as doggie-lit for masochists.
While confined along with Shelby to a motel in Forsyth, Mont., Kirn cracked open John Steinbeck’s Travels With Charley, because, he writes, “Preserving a sense of literary purpose was crucial to my self-respect tonight.” It’d be a laugh line in a different book, the neurotic author worrying about the aesthetic futility of his prose while sitting in a Montana motel with a dog who can’t use her hind legs or control her bowels. But in a book of modest length where the author nevertheless finds the space to mention his two alma maters, Princeton and Oxford, a combined 25 times, it reads just as pretense. (The active reader cannot help but count.) And what pretense! It’s fitting—if impossibly annoying to this devoted viewer—that Kirn’s book mentions the Unsolved Mysteries segment while confusing Robert Stack, the show’s host, with the actual Robert Culp. (Culp was on I Spy, paired with Bill Cosby. Stack was Eliot Ness, paired with no one.) Blood Will Out has plenty of cultural references, but all trade firmly above middlebrow. Kirn likes Hitchcock films and Dostoevsky.
He doesn’t care much for pulp. Forget true-crime: Kirn seems to orient himself above even Frasier, the witty NBC sitcom about two psychiatrists. But it pops into the story because Rockefeller tells Kirn of his resemblance to David Hyde Pierce, one of its leads. And then: “The first time my mother made me watch the show with her, my impression was that Niles was gay because the script portrayed him as an opera buff, but later in the program he mentioned a girlfriend. Because I’d been called gay at Princeton for writing poetry, and at Oxford for writing plays, I abhorred any stirrings of bigotry in myself, but when Clark compared himself to Niles, his tone of voice conspicuously pleased, I’d wondered if he were testing me sexually as other gay men whom I’d known had when I met them.” Being made by his mother, a humble nurse, to watch television? Princeton? Oxford? His irresistability to members of both sexes? Congratulations, you’ve hit Walter Kirn bingo!
Kirn later goes on to fashion himself a potential murder victim of Rockefeller’s, imagining in hindsight that his onetime friend may have been a little too desirous of Kirn’s Montana acreage and pickup truck. But this too is a bit of self-flattery, shoehorning his own circumstances into some modus operandi of a killer with just one victim to his ledger, nearly 30 years ago. (Not to mention: John Sohus was not a mark of Gerhartsreiter’s—he simply stood between the con man and an old woman’s estate.)
Powerful people fell for a man who said he had a master key to Rockefeller Center.Kirn was targeted for something else. At certain moments of lucidity, Kirn self-flagellates over his phony pal, and the reader feels a little sorry for him. (Yeah, yeah, but first: “In 1975, when I was twelve, my family packed a U-Haul van, snapped a Yale padlock on its rear loading door, and left predictable rural Minnesota for burgeoning, anarchic Phoenix.” Even Walter Kirn’s hardware is pedigreed.) Kirn writes, “Maybe my egotism was a homing beacon. Maybe it made me a more attractive mark.”
This was the central characteristic of Rockefeller’s frauds—and Crowe’s, and Chichester’s, if not Gerhart’s: their puffed-up prey. The prey who needed some insecurity polished by having nobility, American or otherwise, within their lives. There were the wealthy old ladies threatened by the middle-class-ification of their town. There were the Wall Street men who wanted to employ a broker who was to-the-manor-born and had connections in Hollywood. Then there was the management consultant who wound up leading her firm’s work for Michael Bloomberg and Charles Schumer; her Rockefeller connection could not have hurt her there. And of course there was the educated, snobby journalist on the make, looking for a story and an entrée into society. The people who accepted Gerhartsreiter in his various grandiose guises had hustles of their own. Powerful people within a nation ostensibly impervious to aristocracy fell for a man who said he had a master key to Rockefeller Center. Gerhartsreiter’s joke was on them.
That’s the funny thing about grifters. When their schemes work, they always say more about the targets than the perpetrators. In a jailhouse interview, Kirn asks Gerhartsreiter what he looked for in the people he manipulated. “Vanity, vanity, vanity,” he replies. What did the murderer do, according to Kirn, before he answered the question? “He almost laughed.”