Sunday, September 11, 2011

"The Man in the Rockefeller Suit" by Mark Seal

Stories of secret identities are a trademark of classic mysteries, but to me, these stories always have an air of nostalgia. They come from a time when it was easy to change who you are because there was no electronic trail to follow you wherever you went. This notion I had made The Man in the Rockefeller Suit all the more astonishing, for it tells the story of Christian Gerhartsreiter, a German immigrant who transformed himself into various new identities over three decades, culminating with his best performance--convincing wealthy Boston that he was Clark Rockefeller, a member of the famous Rockefeller family, for years. And the story ends in 2008.

Seal notes that one of the reasons Rockefeller (I'll call him by that, simply because it's his best known name) was able to get away with it was because of how outrageous his lies were.  From the beginning, he adopted the persona of an aristocratic person of wealth and established himself in rich communities.  Though the stories he tells the people he meets seem absurd (working in Hollywood, descending from English royalty, doing high level work with various governments), it seems most people didn't have trouble believing him. The lesson seems to be if you're going to lie, lie big.

He even is married to Sandra Boss, an upwardly mobile Bostonian, for twelve years! Though he earns no income during that time, shows her no evidence of wealth, nor introduces her to his famous "family," she doesn't question his identity. In fact, the only reason he is discovered is because of his daughter with Sandra, Reigh (whom he calls Snooks). Sandra does eventually divorce Rockefeller, and in order to avoid his true identity being revealed in a custody battle, he relinquishes custody of Snooks to Sandra.  Months later, he abducts Snooks during a court-supervised visit, and it's this that finally puts the FBI on his trail.

Seal has done his research, interviewing an enormous range of people connected to the story. It was interesting to think of this story in comparison to another outrageous nonfiction book I recently read, Sex on the MoonSex on the Moon is told from the main individual's point of view, thus portraying him rather sympathetically. Rockefeller Suit, on the other hand, is told from everyone but Rockefeller's point of view, so he comes off in a (deservedly) negative light. Because the voice of Rockefeller himself is absent, a central question is left unanswered: what was going on in his head during this time? Did he actively think about his cons? Or did he delude himself into thinking he actually was rich and sophisticated? Why did he have the compulsive need to deceive everyone about every aspect of his life?

From start to finish, The Man in the Rockefeller Suit is fully engrossing and ideal as audiobook entertainment for a long car trip.

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