The story of Christian Karl Gerhartsreiter—a German-born immigrant who lived for years as one Clark Rockefeller, purported heir to the Standard Oil fortune, before kidnapping his own young daughter, being exposed as an impostor and then, last August, getting convicted of a 1985 murder—is precisely the sort of tale that prompts people to utter the phrase “Truth is stranger than fiction.” Stranger still, though, is the fact that as Clark, the 53-year-old con artist befriended Walter Kirn, a celebrated journalist and novelist who has now written a book on their odd association. Kirn spoke to DuJour about this month’s gripping Blood Will Out the same way he often spoke to his friend turned subject: over the phone and, given that it was nighttime, in the dark.
DuJour: You met Clark in 1998, when you agreed to drive a very sick Gordon setter that he was adopting from Montana, where you live, to New York. That’s a crazy length to go to for a stranger. How did he get you to do it?
Walter Kirn: He had me at “Rockefeller.” I thought that he might give a donation to our local animal shelter, but I was also intrigued, and when I realized during our first conversation that we had a rapport, my vanity was engaged. Also, as a writer I recognized that I was being asked to do something that might make a great story. In that way, I was preparing to take a bit of advantage of our relationship, almost from the very beginning.
DJ: Yet you decided not to write about him, at least not right away.
WK: Once I’d delivered the dog and gotten to know him some, I thought, “Walter, you can’t exploit a friend, especially a friend who deserves and values his privacy.” But when I discovered that he was actually a criminal of the most gruesome sort, I had two reactions. Number one, shock, and number two, ka-ching! I’m being sarcastic, but I also mean it. I realized that I finally had permission to put this crazy relationship on the page.
DJ: How do you describe the relationship? You write about visiting him in New York and then again in New Hampshire, but it seems as though your friendship mostly occurred over the phone.
WK: We weren’t hanging out and doing things, and in retrospect, I realize why: He was hiding from the world. He didn’t even have a driver’s license, and he was probably looking over his shoulder every time he went out in public. But the phone would ring, and it would be him. So, as regular friendships go, it was minor, but as friendships between a normal person and a fugitive from “Murderville” go, it was kind of exceptional.
DJ: The odds against an established writer finding himself in the middle of a true crime story have to be pretty high.
WK: You know how at most coffee shops, if you buy 10 coffees, you get one free? Well, I guess if you write seven or eight books, as I have, you get one free. If ever a book was created by serendipity, coincidence and fate, it was this one.
DJ: The truth about Clark emerged in 2008. How did you feel when you learned that, as Christopher Chichester, he’d long been wanted for questioning in two cold cases? [John and Linda Sohus, the son and daughter-in-law of Clark’s former landlady, both disappeared in 1985, but because Linda’s body was never recovered, he was charged with only John’s death.]
WK: I probably sided with Clark longer than anyone. Kidnapping his daughter seemed, to me, like an extreme but human thing to do. And when the news came that he wasn’t a Rockefeller, I thought the family was lying, that they were throwing him under the bus. But when I heard that he was a suspect in this horrible old murder, I said, “Oh my God, there’s no bottom to this thing.” Something animal in me that had been in the back of my mind almost the whole time I’d been with him, some reserve of distrust and anxiety and fear that I’d felt in his presence, suddenly leapt to consciousness. I immediately believed him to be guilty.
On the night that I finished the book, I had a dream about him and woke up literally in a sweat; I realized that I’d been in danger in his company and that I’d known it on some level but repressed that knowledge. I was terrified. It was like looking back on a bridge you’ve crossed and seeing that it’s on the verge of collapse.
DJ: You allude to that danger, particularly when you write about e-mails he sent to your former neighbors around the time you refused his request to stay with you. Do you think he was seriously considering harming you?
WK: He wrote to my neighbors about wanting to translate Crime and Punishment in a guesthouse on a ranch, and I thought that if I’d let that happen, I might not be here. He isn’t an ordinary murderer; I don’t think he did it for ordinary motives. I think he’s like Leopold and Loeb, or one of those killers in a Hitchcock movie who wants to commit the perfect crime and sort of taunt the world with it, dropping all of these clues that people don’t know are clues. So, yes, when he says he wants to translate a book about murdering someone at the house of a person who sounds very much like me, I take that seriously.