Mark Seal on ‘The Man in the Rockefeller Suit’
June 16, 2011
ASPEN – Yes, Clark Rockefeller was a liar and a cheat, a prima donna, and very possibly a murderer. And let’s not forget, an impostor – he was not, as he claimed for some 15 years, Clark Rockefeller, an heir to one of America’s biggest fortunes, but a German-born immigrant, Christian Karl Gerhartsreiter, from Bergen, a small village in the Bavarian Alps.
Still, Mark Seal has some genuine appreciation for the way Gerhartsreiter conducted himself over his decades as Clark Rockefeller – and before that as the Wisconsin student Chris Gerhart, the Californian aristocrat Christopher Mountbatten Chichester, the Wall Street exec Christopher Crowe; and later on, as the ship captain Chip Smith. Whatever the alias, Gerhartsreiter tended to insinuate himself with interesting, well-to-do, accomplished people. So when Seal began conducting research for what would become the book “The Man in the Rockefeller Suit,” he found himself in the company of pleasant people who were articulate in their stories about the diminutive oddball in khakis, polo shirts, boat shoes – no socks, ever – and a prep school accent.
“Great people, really nice, educated, fun to be around,” said Seal, a 58-year-old Aspenite and Vanity Fair contributing editor, of the approximately 200 people he interviewed for the 320-page book, published June 2 by Viking. “It was one of those ideal research projects. You never got bored of these people. From the beginning, Clark picked people – or maybe they were thrown in his path – that were educators, politicians, law enforcement officials, Wall Street figures, social people.”
From the perspective of a researcher and writer, Seal also appreciates just how flagrant his subject was in his invented reality. Aside from a period spanning the late ’80s and early ’90s that remains unaccounted for, Gerhartsreiter didn’t just live open lies – he flaunted his personae. From the idyllic Southern California town of San Marino to Boston’s Beacon Hill to the artsy New Hampshire village of Cornish, Gerhartsreiter announced his presence as a philanthropist, a churchgoer, a talker, a part of the social fabric of the neighborhood. This was no strange hermit who kept to himself, leaving behind a bunch of befuddled neighbors without much to say. This was a guy who left behind stories and witnesses.
“If you’re going to say you’re a Rockefeller, and do it in New York City, and in a church on Fifth Avenue – that’s brazen. That takes a lot,” marveled Seal, who will appear in a book event at 5:30 p.m. on Monday, June 20, at Explore Booksellers. “And then go to Cornish, New Hampshire, where a lot of educated artist types live, and he’s driving down Main Street in his Yale hat, that’s brazen. It’s not like he went into hiding.
“The minute I stepped foot into Beacon Hill, I realized it was a story. Because everyone knew him, all the shopkeepers. I was going in cold, and met people walking their dogs, went into Starbucks, and everyone said, ‘Sit down, we’ll tell you all about him.’ They weren’t saying, ‘Oh we barely knew him.’ Everybody had a story to tell.”
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Seal, who still carries the friendly manner and accent of the South – he was born in Alabama, grew up all over Texas, and graduated from the University of Tennessee – wasn’t certain he had much of a story at the beginning. In January 2008, Seal, a former police reporter for a series of Texas newspapers, was sitting outside, working on his first book, “Wildflower,” about the murder of the prominent conservationist Joan Root, in Kenya. An old friend, an oil heiress, called, wanting to know what Seal thought of the breaking story.
“She was literally screaming over the phone: Have you heard about Rockefeller? She had met him in New York, at a gallery opening. And that night, he’s all over the evening news,” Seal recalled. “She had all these text messages, and thought I’d want to do a story.”
As Seal tuned into the news about Rockefeller, his interest grew. “All these stories came out – not only that he wasn’t a Rockefeller, but that he’d been all these other characters in all these other places. All these other identities started pouring out. And I was hooked.”
Seal found the story to be like the proverbial onion – peel back one skin, and find another one beneath. Although where one onion layer is pretty much the same as the next, the story of Gerhartsreiter revealed surprise after surprise.
Back in Germany, as a teenager, Gerhartsreiter was already known as precocious, and as someone whose persona dwelled more in the realm of imagination than of historical fact. In California, he persuaded a woman he barely knew to marry him, entitling him to a green card. He convinced the wealthy residents of San Marino that he was a member of the British aristocracy. He became acquainted with a couple, John and Linda Sohus, who disappeared under inexplicable circumstances – and then Gerhartsreiter himself disappeared. (In March, 26 years after the disappearances of the Sohuses, Gerhartsreiter was charged with the murder of John. Los Angeles County officials are currently seeking extradition for a trial in California.)
Gerhartsreiter resurfaced in another wealthy enclave, Greenwich, Conn., where he managed to land a series of jobs in the finance industry. In 1992, he appeared in Manhattan as Clark Rockefeller, a charming heir with connections and a magnificent art collection (which were always kept, oddly, rolled up, rarely installed on the walls). When he got married, he picked an ideal mate – Sandy Boss, a brainy consultant who was as naive in social situations as she was savvy in business. After wearing out his welcome in New Hampshire, the family relocated to Boston. Though Gerhartsreiter and Boss drifted further apart, Gerhartsreiter took on yet another persona – as the devoted father to their daughter, Snooks, who was as bright and odd as her father.
“I was fascinated by this man,” said Seal, who earned a National Magazine Award nomination for his Rockefeller article in the January, 2009 issue of Vanity Fair. (Seal also earned a nomination for a series of three stories surrounding the Bernie Madoff scandal.) “If you create a character once, that’s a serious feat. You do it as many times as this guy did, that’s about miraculous. And each new character was more grandiose. You couldn’t have invented him.”
Gerhartsreiter, amazingly, has never broken character. He has given just two interviews (Seal’s request for one was turned down), and in both, he never gave up his true identity. Seal finds himself hoping for a murder trial, which he says he will be sure to attend.
It would be the second trial Seal would attend. In May 2009, he sat through the month-long trial in which Gerhartsreiter was convicted of parental abduction and assault with a deadly weapon. Unlike most trials, which get bogged down in slow-moving procedural details, this one Seal found fascinating.
“Everybody testified, and we sat there with our mouths open the whole time,” he said. “They’d say things that he told them – one story went that his daughter was born on a special California egg farm – and we’d think, What’s going to happen next? This one had so much drama.
“It was one of those stories with so many different eras and epochs and twists and turns and characters and craziness. You live to find these kinds of stories.”
While pondering the ultimate mystery – how did Gerhartsreiter get away with this for so long? – Seal gained some insight into human nature.
“I think we’re just trusting by nature. I don’t think people dig that deep. They want to believe,” he said. “They took him at his word. Google didn’t really come along till the end of this. He moved a lot, and people just forgot. I don’t know what I would have thought.”