three-and-half-stars
Bookmarks Issue: 
54-Sept-Oct-2011
By: 
Mark Seal
user_rating: 
0

The Astonishing Rise and Spectacular Fall of a Serial Impostor

A-ManRockefellerSuiteVeteran journalist and Vanity Fair contributing editor Mark Seal was a 2010 National Magazine Award finalist for the article that later grew into The Man in the Rockefeller Suit. Seal is also the author of Wildflower: An Extraordinary Life and Mysterious Death in Africa (2009), a biography of world-renowned conservationist Joan Root.

The Topic: Frustrated by the limited parental visitation he was granted following his divorce, Clark Rockefeller, a distant, Ivy League–educated cousin to the legendary family, abducted his seven-year-old daughter in July 2008. Upon his arrest six days later, a complex web of lies, scams, and forgeries began to unravel, exposing Rockefeller as the most cold-blooded and amoral of con artists. In 1978, 17-year-old Christian Karl Gerhartsreiter left his rural German hometown and entered the United States with a suspicious student visa. During the next three decades, he assumed a succession of outlandishly fake identities (including "Clark Rockefeller") and insinuated himself into the uppermost echelons of American society from Los Angeles to Boston. He is currently serving a five-year sentence for kidnapping and is under investigation for murder.
Viking. 336 pages. $26.95. ISBN: 9780670022748

Los Angeles Times 4 of 5 Stars
"Impeccably reported and fascinating. ... Seal's book reads like a true-life The Talented Mr. Ripley, a cautionary tale about how people smarter, richer, better educated and more worldly than you and me were taken in by this emperor with no clothes." Denise Hamilton

USA Today 4 of 5 Stars
"Seal does an excellent job of crisply recounting the tale of this truly talented real-life Mr. Ripley. ... The facts are fascinating, but it's Seal's compassionate retelling that makes the book so terrific." Deirdre Donahue

Boston Globe 3.5 of 5 Stars
"Though his book is highly enjoyable and deeply engrossing, Seal runs the risk of [numbing] the reader with his relentless descriptions of Gerhartsreiter's quirks and outlandish tales, which begin to feel repetitive. While the book offers plenty of detail on the faux Rockefeller, it presents too little exploration of issues of class and why people were so willing to accept Gerhartsreiter's fantastic tales." Maria Cramer

Christian Science Monitor 3.5 of 5 Stars
"While it is a remarkable ‘true crime' story, the book is not completely satisfying because the story is, in the end, incomplete. Large parts of ‘Rockefeller's' life are missing and several of those who could have shed the most light on his life--Gerhartsreiter himself, his former wife, and the woman he apparently lived with between 1988 and 1992--didn't cooperate with the author. Seal gets great mileage from those whom he did interview but the absence of several central actors leaves too much of the story blank." Terry Hartle

New York Times 3.5 of 5 Stars
"Mr. Seal, who interviewed almost 200 people for this book, fashions a brisk narrative that has all the pace and drive of a suspense novel. ... One of the problems with this book is that it never sheds much light on the psychological reasons behind Mr. Gerhartsreiter's need to create fictional personas for himself. ... And aside from noting that Mr. Gerhartsreiter might have picked up some tips from the film noir movies he loved to watch, Mr. Seal also fails to illuminate the means by which he managed to pull off his elaborate scams." Michiko Kakutani

Oregonian 3 of 5 Stars
"All this is hilarious, wonderful stuff. Yet I closed The Man in the Rockefeller Suit feeling disappointed. I had hoped Seal would put his man into the context of the glorious human history of tricksters--if only with an allusion to the guy who mooched off the rich claiming to be Sidney Poitier's son, the story captured in the classic play Six Degrees of Separation. But Seal's book reads as if Clark Rockefeller is the first person Seal has ever come across with the audacity to pretend to be someone else for pecuniary gain." Anne Saker

Critical Summary

Based on extensive inquiries and interviews, Seal's stranger-than-fiction tale boasts impeccable prose, a suspenseful plot, and a fascinating antihero as it trails the outrageous Gerhartsreiter from rural Germany to a Massachusetts state prison. Nevertheless, most critics were somewhat disappointed: although Seal meticulously reconstructs as much of Gerhartsreiter's life as is known, he cannot account for large chunks of time. Seal also misses opportunities to explore the psychology of the con artist in general and Gerhartsreiter's own compulsions in particular. Ultimately, critics found it difficult to comprehend how Gerhartsreiter deceived so many people so successfully. The final chapter has yet to be written in this bizarre story, but in the meantime, this book, a "terrific read, well-reported and well-structured" (Oregonian) will entertain, if not thoroughly enlighten, readers.