Vanity Fair contributing editor Seal (Wildflower: An Extraordinary Life and Untimely Death in Africa, 2009) unravels the complex case of “Clark Rockefeller,” a fiendishly clever con man who, over the course of three decades, insinuated himself into the highest echelons of American society using only his wits and a borrowed name.
Christian Karl Gerhartsreiter, a precocious teenager hailing from an obscure Bavarian village, felt he was destined for greatness, and such humble beginnings would not do. Consequently, he made his way to the United States, where he adopted a series of identities more in line with his self-image: patrician, wealthy, well-educated and possessed of impeccable social standing. In privileged enclaves nestled in exclusive pockets of California, Connecticut, New York and Boston, Gerhartsreiter spun wild stories of his family’s prominence and wealth (and invented an ever-changing professional resume, at various points claiming to be a Hollywood producer, Defense Department contractor and international financial advisor), charming their blue-blooded denizens with his erudition, sponge-like appropriation of manners and appearance and, most crucially, the magic name Rockefeller. Seal delineates his endless schemes in an irresistibly lucid and propulsive manner, and his characterizations of his many victims are richly observed. Readers will marvel at Gerhartsreiter’s ability to bamboozle his way into tony social clubs, jobs at eminent financial institutions (he had no qualifications or experience) and, most crucially, into the affections of wife Sandra Boss, a savvy financial wunderkind who nonetheless funded “Rockefeller’s” lavish lifestyle in complete ignorance of his true identity. The narrative occasionally takes some dark turns. Seal makes a strong case naming Gerhartsreiter as the likely murderer of a young couple who fell under his sway early in his career, and the impostor’s kidnapping of his own daughter once his façade began to crumble is uncomfortably gripping material.
Impossible to put down—Patricia Highsmith couldn’t have written a more compelling thriller.