Clark Rockefeller doesn’t exist. The pressed Lacoste shirts and fancy shoes might be his, but the name, the title and everything else are fake.
In a Vanity Fair piece that reads like fiction, Mark Seal tells the story of a man who conned his way to the top of American society, while trying to answer this question: How could one man, born in Germany, an immigrant to America in the late 1970s, be so many people—and none of them?
Seal drops us into the life of the man born Christian Karl Gerhartsreiter near the end of his time as “Clark Rockefeller,” then takes us on a suspenseful journey through all of Gerhartsreiter’s many identities, spinning the reader into the personas of a professional faker.
It’s long—well over 10,000 words—but Seal does such a remarkable job seamlessly moving from false identity to false identity, weaving us deeper into the con story, that it never felt like a task to plow through the story. He couldn’t have found a more interesting or complicated story to tell, but he easily navigates the twisted and complex details.
Seal helps us get to know Gerhartsreiter and all his many identities without ever talking to the man himself. He interviews a hairdresser who knew “Christopher Chichester” as a charmer who swept through the well-off community of San Marino, California. Rich socialites on the east coast who knew “Clark Rockefeller” as a loving father. Former coworkers of “Christopher Crowe” who knew he was a fraud but unsure to what degree.
As Seal guides us through each of Gerhartsreiter’s identities, he makes us believe that anyone could’ve been duped by this master of disguise — and simultaneously makes the master a sympathetic character.
Seal makes his best decision in crafting the story by slipping from one Gerhartsreiter identity to the next without a hiccup. He notes the morphing of identities by introducing a new persona as “Aka Clark Rockefeller,” and from there, the story shifts to encapsulate the next carefully crafted identity. It’s a smart choice on Seal’s part because it puts the reader in Gerhartsreiter’s timeline.
Mark Seal tells the story of a man who conned his way to the top of American society, while trying to answer this question: How could one man, born in Germany, an immigrant to America in the late 1970s, be so many people—and none of them?
Gerhartsreiter’s most famous identity, Clark Rockefeller, ultimately was his undoing. It was when he was Clark Rockefeller that he met his ex-wife, Sandra Boss.
By the time Seal introduces Boss, we have such a good sense of Gerhartsreiter that their coming-together makes perfect sense. When Rockefeller met Boss, he threw her a “Clue” party, after the board game that tries to have the players guess who killed Mr. Boddy. Rockefeller was Professor Plum, and Boss was Miss Scarlett.
“Immediately, Professor Plum and Miss Scarlett were attracted to each other, initially through their mutual love of business and their admiration of each other’s intelligence. In addition, friends say, Sandra fell in love with Clark because he made her laugh. Like Rockefeller, Sandra Boss was on her own journey of re-invention. Her father was a Boeing engineer, and she had grown up upper-middle-class in Seattle, “in a nice two-story Cape Cod house with a finished basement,” says a friend. There, she started to develop what would become her defining trait.”
Boss acts as a guide through the last quarter of the story, leading to the scene that opens the piece: Gerhartsreiter kidnapping his own daughter, whom he calls “Snooks.”
Seal introduces scenes that are centered on Boss and give context to the kidnapping scene, showing how worried she is about her missing daughter. In an especially effective tactic, Seal contrasts Boss’ sanity with Gerhartsreiter’s downward spiral.
Seal finishes the tale by looping back to the beginning, after Snooks is kidnapped. But this time he leads the story to its end, after the FBI catches the imposter. Seal slowly shifts the focus away from Gerhartsreiter to the woman and child who are left to deal with all his secret identities.
“As for Sandra Boss, is she an innocent victim or a simple enabler? She insists through her spokesman that she is the former, the ultimate dupe in an elaborate web of lies, living for 12 years with a man she knew only as Clark Rockefeller. How could this high-powered Stanford graduate and Harvard M.B.A. not have known? How could she marry, and remain married to, a Rockefeller who had no identification, employment history, or visible means of support?”
Even though we don’t know the fate that awaits Gerhartsreiter (at the time the story was published, he hadn’t yet been convicted of murder in a case from an earlier identity) Seal ends the larger-than-life tale with an ending that seems a bit more like reality: with Boss, and the damage Gerhartsreiter left in his wake.
“She’s doing her best to forget all that. She has a new life in London, and she wants to leave her former life behind, just as her ex-husband so often did.”