Thursday, May 26, 2011

Journalist Mark Seal on The Notorious Clark Rockefeller, The American Dream, and The Notion of Having It All

Mark Seal was kind enough to answer some of my questions about his new book, THE MAN IN THE ROCKEFELLER SUIT.

Your publisher compares Clark Rockefeller to Patricia Highsmith’s Mr. Ripley, and a person in the book compares him to Swift’s Tom Jones, but he reminded me of another fictional character: F. Scott Fitzgerald’s Jay Gatsby, who changed his name (from James Gatz) as a mere boy:

“I suppose he’d had the name ready for a long time . . . His parents were shiftless and unsuccessful farm people—his imagination had never really accepted them as his parents at all . . . . So he invented just the sort of Jay Gatsby that a seventeen-year-old boy would be likely to invent, and to this conception he was faithful to the end,” in pursuit of “a vast, vulgar, and meretricious beauty.”

I thought of this every time I read accounts of people who felt Rockefeller was an egotist, or that he seemed desperate to appear not just like them, but better than them. Did the parallel ever occur to you in the years that you did this research?

Yes, you are absolutely on target. Gatsby, like Rockefeller, is about a man nobody truly knew, who hid behind façade of wealth and taste that really wasn’t really real. As you note, Gatsby was a boy named Jimmy Gatz from North Dakota without connections, money, or education. He invented himself as Gatsby, much the way Christian Gerhartsreiter did as Clark Rockefeller.

Throughout all of his identities, “Rockefeller” never seemed to do actual work, other than the task of manipulating other people, their homes and their money. So where did he get his impressive art collection—or, if it was fake, how did the art itself fool so many people?

It’s one of the big mysteries of the book, and everyone seems to have a different answer. Some say the art was loaned to him by a friend, others insist that he had the copies done by some unidentified copyist somewhere, someone else insisted that he possibly painted them himself (which I found difficult to believe, considering the quality of the paintings). His attorney told me the paintings were derivatives, worthless, really. But they were indeed done so well they fooled artists, art experts and galley owners.

How do you account for the fact that some very smart people were utterly bamboozled by Rockefeller, while others (including one notable woman who compared the story to “The Emperor’s New Clothes”) said they never for a moment believed in him or his ridiculous persona. What might have accounted for the difference?

Of course, many who say that they knew now may not have been as vocal back then. So it’s difficult to say who really knew and who didn’t. He was extremely believable, at least in the beginning, and people are willing to believe things when they are said by some one who is seemingly educated, erudite and, most importantly, has a famous name.

To a certain extent, Rockefeller’s wife seemed to buy into his fiction because he filled a requirement in terms of her own aspirations. Do you think her ambition was the major reason that she never seemed to question all of the inconsistencies in her husband’s life?

She is a very smart, educated woman. I believe she was taken in for the same reasons as everyone else, and she insisted in the trial that she didn’t use his name for career advancement.

You met Clark Rockefeller. What was your own feeling after your meetings? Did you feel his charisma, or did he seem pathetic?

I was not able to interview him. The book is built on interviews I conducted with those who knew him, police reports, court transcripts, television and other media documents. And, of course, I was able to observe him day after day in the month-long trial.

Ah. If we viewed Rockefeller in terms of the Tragic Greek Hero, what do you think would have been the primary flaw that led to his downfall? After all, he managed to live his false lives for a very long time. Was it Clark Rockefeller who brought down Clark Rockefeller?

The flaw that led to his downfall is that he wanted it all: the $800,000 divorce settlement from his ex-wife and his daughter, even though his ex-wife was granted custody. He brought himself down by kidnapping his daughter.

Does Rockefeller embody a twisted version of The American Dream?

Yes, in the sense that he was like so many immigrants who came to this country: reinventing himself for the new world. However, in Clark’s case, somewhere along the line he forgot about facts and embraced a life of fiction.

Do any of Rockefeller’s friends visit him in prison?

Yes, several of them have said they visited him in prison.

Interesting! Were there people who testified on his behalf in court?

There were psychologists and psychiatrists who testified on his behalf.

Now that Christian Gerhartsreiter has been charged with murder, do you anticipate that he will be in jail for life, or do you think that he might charm a jury into acquitting him?

I wouldn’t want to second-guess a jury. But like everything about this case, I will be riveted to the trial and its outcome.

Mark Seal, thanks so much for letting me read this fascinating book and for answering some of my burning questions.

A journalist for thirty-five years, Mark Seal is a contributing editor at Vanity Fair and the author of THE MAN IN THE ROCKEFELLER SUIT: THE ASTONISHING RISE AND SPECTACULAR FALL OF A SERIAL IMPOSTOR, now on sale. Seal was a 2010 National Magazine Award finalist for his Vanity Fair profile of Clark Rockefeller.

He lives in Aspen, Colorado. View Seal's website at

Tuesday, May 24, 2011

Mark Seal's Clark Rockefeller

I just finished THE MAN IN THE ROCKEFELLER SUIT by Mark Seal. It explores, in great detail, the story of Christian Gerhartsreiter, a German immigrant and con man extraordinaire, who lived under a progression of pseudonyms among America's powerful and wealthy. Gerhartsreiter used some sort of alias from the early 1980's until his arrest in 2008, and he fooled many intelligent people into believing his illusions--including, perhaps, himself.

Some of the reviews on GOODREADS express disappointment with Seal's book, claiming that it doesn't reveal anything about the real Gerhartsreiter and his motivations. But that's exactly why Gerhartsreiter remains a compelling mystery, even to Seal, who researched the elusive con man and his trail for YEARS and still came away knowing the facts and little more. Seal admits as much up front, saying that the book is based on court records, testimonies, public documents, and interviews. It goes without saying that one would finish a book like this with a whole lot of questions--that's what makes the book (and Gerhartsreiter) so fascinating.

"Clark Rockefeller" is not the first con man who fooled a whole lot of people who should have known better. Leonardo DeCaprio made Frank Abagnale's story famous in CATCH ME IF YOU CAN, and if one were to Google phrases like "famous American con men" one could encounter a whole list of people who told big lies and got away with them. The biggest question, for me, is whether this lying is a compulsion--an almost biological need that makes the quest for fame or money secondary to the satisfaction of having lied.

I hope to ask my questions to Mark Seal himself in the near future; I'll keep you updated on this blog.

Sunday, May 15, 2011

THOR and Shakespeare

At first I wondered at the choice of Kenneth Branagh, Shakespearean actor and director nonpareil, to direct the latest superhero flick. But having seen THOR, I understand the pairing of Branagh and Marvel: this is a tale with many Shakespearean elements.

For one, just about every Shakespearean play has some sort of political wrangling--often a major betrayal within a dynasty. In THOR, there are similar troubles within the ruling family of Asgard (led by a predictably regal Anthony Hopkins).

For another, Shakespeare loved to play with luscious and evocative settings: think of THE TEMPEST or A MIDSUMMER NIGHT'S DREAM. Shakespeare himself would have loved to don his 3-D glasses and get a load of the art in THOR--it's a Norwegian wonderland and a treat for the eyes.

Chris Hemsworth is a worthy THOR, investing his role with the pathos of a true Shakespearean tragic hero; one of the most crucial elements of Shakespeare's hero is that he must recognize his flaw and then see that it has brought about his downfall. Hemsworth accepts his fate with appropriate gravitas. His face is unbelievably beautiful, but it isn't a Hollywood mask--it conveys surprising facility with the various emotions THOR must display.

THOR also contains the obligatory Shakespearean love subplot, and like Romeo and Juliet, Thor and his earthly girlfriend are unlikely to forge a successful relationship.

The only flaw in THOR is that, while the gods in Asgard are carefully developed and characterized, the people on earth are little more than stereotypical movie scientists, and there is nothing in Natalie Portman's physicist that would appeal to Thor's eye aside from her basic good looks. This should be a meeting of minds and imaginations that would explain a passion that could span universes. Instead, it is too mundane for the audience to believe in it.

Still, I'll be in line for the next installment of Thor, and I take my hat off to Kenneth Branagh--thanks for making this movie like a good Shakespearean play.

Tuesday, May 10, 2011

SOUND PROOF Brings Murder to a Pastoral Setting

I just finished SOUND PROOF, a mystery by Chicago author Barbara Gregorich. The book is the second in a series starring Frank Dragovic, a Chicago PI who is dragged to the country to investigate the mysterious goings-on at Midwest Music Madness, a folk festival with an assortment of eccentric musicians. One of those musicians is a thief, and Dragovic needs to find him or her.

Dragovic is not unused to the country; when he was a child, he tells the audience through a first-person narration, he was sent to the country every summer, learning to appreciate what was produced by the land, and to admire a structure as simple as a barn: "Massive. Permanent. A shelter for animals, harvest and humans. A place warm with the smell of living creatures and the gentle tang of cured hay."

Dragovic has some poetic moments like this, especially when he talks about the land, but in general he narrates with the terseness of a man who is observing rather than talking: he is a watchful man until the moment is right, and then he is a man of action.

Gregorich's PI is a likeable and believable investigator, and her setting, filled with country air and folk music created by hammered dulcimers, hurdy gurdys, autoharps, fiddles and banjos, is refreshingly different.

I look forward to the next Dragovic mystery, especially because I need to know what will happen in his relationship with his girlfriend Suzanne. Even with the promise of a relationship, Dragovic retains some of the loneliness that always seems to cling to the American P.I.

Sunday, May 01, 2011

A Long Time Coming

So many people will be remembering with the news announced tonight by President Obama: remembering that dreadful day in 2001 when everyone was convinced the world would never be the same again; remembering the people who staggered through the poisoned air and sought their loved ones; remembering the brave ones, living and dead, who followed their instincts of compassion.

This does not change the past, but it answers a deep and burning need for restitution.