I love stories about fakes, from the stylish likes of Catch Me if You Can, recent documentary The Imposter, or this story about pretending to suffer a terminal illness. The Man in the Rockefeller Suit: The Astonishing Rise and Spectacular Fall of a Serial Imposter is about Christopher Gerhartsreiter, a German immigrant to the states who discovered the key to the long con – the bigger the lie, the easier it is for people to believe it. It’s a cracking story that’s still unfolding. Right this minute, Gerhartsreiter is going to trial on a murder charge. This is the culmination of thirty years of telling big pork pies about who he was. Most spectacularly, he managed to convince New York and Boston high society that he was Clark Rockefeller, art collector and bon vivant heir to a slice of the Rockefeller fortune.
It’s an impossibly juicy story, with jaw-dropping facts about his brazen deeds from one side of the country to the other. But instead of hoovering the shamelessness up contentedly, the author kept throwing me out of the narrative.
I was irked by the hacky writing, and unnecessary inclusion of the journalist into the book. The attempts at humour are leaden, and he’s weirdly class-sensitive for someone exposing the vulnerable underbelly of high society. There’s a couple of newlyweds who are poor and socially awkward, who Seal characterises as if they were hideous grotesques, and then when it comes to describing Rockefeller’s unfortunate wife Sandra Boss his complimentary hyperbole is awkwardly over-the-top. There are heaps of details about the tony neighbourhoods that Rockefeller infiltrated, right down to gushing property listings. But he barely spares a sentence on describing the high-art, high finance world of NYC in the late eighties. There’s not even an American Psycho reference, the one time it would seem appropriate. Instead, the reader gets told several times how Rockefeller loved film noir, and then he went on and acted like he was in a film noir. Gosh almightly, what dazzling insight. Every reference is spelled out as if the reader were a bit slow, but then there are puzzling ellipses in the way Seal doles out information. Early on, he’s handed a dossier on the conman by a mysterious source. This dossier gives him a shortcut into understanding Rockefeller, but we don’t know where the hell it came from or why it gets a mention (to show off that he has real grown-up sources, like Bob Woodward?) We hear about what hotel he stayed in while investigating, and how his social contacts ‘aren’t shabby’, which as content goes is not nearly as interesting as the bit where the conman changed $400,000 into gold coins to orchestrate a kidnapping.
Seal states that he was obsessed with uncovering the truth behind Rockefeller’s identity, trying to summon the sense of a journalist doggedly pursuing object of his obsession. But it just reads like a journalist doggedly pursuing lucrative movie rights. Which is a fine a noble goal, but why am I being distracted from my true crime potboiler by this sub-Capote nonsense? At one point he hustles his way into a private members club, only to chat with waiters and eat cheese. It’s not exactly Seymour Hersh, and adds basically nothing to the story.
Along with useful tips about getting married without paperwork (Quakers!) and convincing people you’ve been hanging out with world leaders, there are some revealing tidbits about the social milieus that the faux-heir hung out in for nigh-on decades. There’s a hilariously self-important art historian who is still seething after being insulted by Rockefeller over the phone, and a presumably un-self-aware Seal goes on a bender with a bloviating Boston architect who defends the conman on the grounds of his exquisite taste. It includes a flashback to competitive show-tune whistling.
It’s the stuff like this which makes this worth a read, as well as all the fun of working out who’ll play who in the movie. I’m currently leaning towards Cillian Murphy.