Fake Rockefeller Had Charm, Bogus Rothko, Wooed McKinsey’s Boss

The cover jacket of "The Man in the Rockefeller Suit: The Astonishing Rise and Spectacular Fall of a Serial Impostor" by Mark Seal. Source: Penguin Goup via Bloomberg

In “The Man in the Rockefeller Suit,” Mark Seal recounts the deeply creepy story of the con artist who for 16 years passed himself off as a Rockefeller among a wealthy set in Manhattan and on Boston’s Beacon Hill.

Presently he’s doing time in Massachusetts for kidnapping and assault. Seal strongly suggests that he may someday be doing more for one or possibly two murders in Southern California that are still being investigated.

The prisoner was born Christian Karl Gerhartsreiter in 1961, in a small Bavarian town. Arriving in the U.S. on a tourist visa in 1978, he quickly began remaking himself. He moved to wealthy San Marino, California, in 1981, calling himself Christopher Mountbatten Chichester.

The whiff of British nobility (clearly he was adept with accents) sprung open his neighbors’ doors. Over the next four years he found various ways into their wallets, scammed an alcoholic widow and very possibly murdered her son and his wife.

In 1985 he turned up in Greenwich, Connecticut, as Christopher Crowe. Somehow he talked his way, with no credentials, into a vice presidency at the New York branch of Nikko Securities, the Japanese brokerage firm, and then into the international bond department of Kidder, Peabody & Co. When the California police caught the scent of his trail, in 1988, he vanished again.

The Cousins’ Cousin

James Frederick Mills Clark Rockefeller appeared in Manhattan in 1992. All it took to convince people he was the real deal was that magical surname (“Are you one of the Rockefeller cousins?” “No, I’m one of the cousins’ cousins”) and a fake collection of Mondrians, Rothkos and Motherwells that over the years fooled even dealers.

He wooed Sandra Boss, a young financier who would soon start her rise through the ranks at McKinsey & Co. (“There’s a difference between intellectual intelligence and emotional intelligence,” she explained at his trial.) After they married in 1995, her high salary allowed him to keep bankrolling his charade, which lasted until 2007. Then, fed up with his controlling nature, though still not suspicious about his identity, she filed for divorce.

A private investigator she hired to do an asset search during their nasty split-up informed her that her husband was a fraud. But his real undoing was their daughter. Children “have a way of getting to your heart,” he later told the FBI sheepishly. Cornered, he gave up custody in exchange for $800,000. Then he came up with the kidnapping scheme.

Bavaria to California

You can’t fault the author’s energy. Between Bavaria and California and New York and elsewhere, he’s worn out scads of shoe leather tracking down everybody who might talk to him, and the group that agreed to was surprisingly large, considering how badly they were taken in. Yet the book feels thin.

Seal contents himself with nailing down the facts, but, bizarre as they are, they’re not enough. He’s got his hands on a lulu of a case history, yet he makes only a few weak stabs at psychologizing. He shows no awareness at all of the cultural reverberations in a story that has strong echoes of “The Great Gatsby.”

Worst of all, he never manages to hit the right tone. He could use some of his subject’s savoir-faire. Without it, he comes across as a voyeur and a rube in the world of wealth that Christian Karl Gerhartsreiter sailed into with all the entitlement of a blueblood.

“The Man in the Rockefeller Suit: The Astonishing Rise and Spectacular Fall of a Serial Imposter” is published by Viking (323 pages, $26.95). To buy this book in North America, click here.

(Craig Seligman is a critic for Muse, the arts and leisure section of Bloomberg News. The opinions expressed are his own.)

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