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The Great Confabulator

“Clark Rockefeller” wasn’t heir to an American fortune. He wasn’t even American. But he was, as it turns out, a murderer. So how did he fool everyone around him, including famed novelist Walter Kirn?

Author Walter Kirn, well-known for writing Up in the Air

DJ: He used the Internet—it’s how he located the dog that brought him to you—but he must have been alarmed to see it becoming a larger part of everyday life, because it meant he was that much closer to being found out.

WK: I think that, for Clark, the rise of Internet search must have been like the approach of dawn for a vampire. He started blacking out the windows. I did try to Google him a few times before all of this and nothing came up, but he’d kind of forewarned me about that, saying he’d obscured his identity in public because he feared being kidnapped.

DJ: Why do you think you were inclined to believe him?

WK: In a way, this book is like the inspection of a magic trick, going back and seeing how it worked. Clark was masterful in his use of props. You know that saying, “Seeing is believing”? Well, the first time I went to his apartment, I saw what looked like hundreds of thousands of dollars’ worth of abstract paintings, and if they seemed real, then he had to be real too. He also understood the nature of the social contract: Conversation isn’t cross-examination. You’re allowing someone to be who he says he is so that you can be who you say you are. The underlying agreement, never stated and not even conscious, is: Let’s both be our perfect selves.

DJ: Has this experience made you a less trusting person?

WK: Absolutely. This experience unraveled me. A lot of memoirs are about trauma; they’re about a descent into addiction or being abused at the hands of an awful man. But this is a memoir about the trauma of discovering that you don’t know what to believe about other people. There was a period after Clark was unmasked when, for example, if a plumber asked me to leave my key under my doormat so that he could fix my sink while I was out, I would be terrified that he was going to go through my desk, or that he wasn’t even really a plumber. I became hypervigilant, hyperaware of my own gullibility, and I’m still not completely healed.

DJ: In your previous memoir, Lost in the Meritocracy, you referred to yourself as a fraud. It wasn’t remotely the same kind of fraud, of course, but still…

WK: There’s something called impostor syndrome, which is a feeling that a lot of normal people have, and it often occurs if you’ve moved between social classes. You might find yourself at Princeton, as I did, and think, “Can anyone see that I’m just a kid from the Midwest who went to a bad high school?” At various times in my life, I’ve felt like a bit of a fake myself, and I’m sure that was very readable to Clark. I’ve come to the conclusion that I suffered on a neurotic level from a problem that he suffered from at a psychopathic level.

Getting the tabloid treatment with a splashy 2008 New York Daily News story

DJ: That idea of class fakery is referred to very overtly in this book’s title.

WK: Most people think that the title refers to the notion that bloody deeds will be discovered, but what it really means is that your class, your heritage, your makeup will show itself. The truth will emerge, even if in a kind of surreal and distorted way. The Great Gatsby, finally, could only be a kid from North Dakota. And who else would want to be Clark Rockefeller, freelance central banker, but a shy kid from a backwater town in Bavaria who watched Gilligan’s Island and thought, “American millionaires, how fabulous!”

Christian Karl Gerhartsreiter

DJ: That phrase also seems to imply that a true aristocrat will always be able to spot a pretender, which could be considered chillingly undemocratic.

WK: One of the most interesting things that I learned at Clark’s murder trial was that he tried to get into the film industry in his early twenties and that Hollywood, which is supposedly all about fakery, brushed him right off. Wall Street, on the other hand, accepted him wholeheartedly! He walked in off the street and got a job selling bonds at Kidder, Peabody, and then he got a different job at another investment bank based on an introduction from a yacht club. The people who Clark was best at fooling were the people he was pretending to be. Why? Because they’re posing too.

The entire act of aristocracy in America is a rip-off, based on European upper-class behavior. These people who were pretending to be sober, upright financiers fell for Clark like tenpins because they were engaged in the same masquerade. It wasn’t lost on me that Clark’s charade was exposed just as the 2008 financial crisis showed us how much of that system was based on smoke and mirrors. Clark’s little house of cards came down at the same time the big one did. This book isn’t just about a personal relationship; it’s about the way that all of us cede power to impressive facades.

DJ: At least for a little while, until the moment when those facades begin to crumble…

WK: Somebody said to me, “Isn’t it miraculous that an excavation in the yard of this house where he lived in 1985 yielded the body of his victim 10 years after he murdered him? Doesn’t that tell you that you can’t get away with anything?” To the contrary, it tells me that in other yards in that impeccable Los Angeles suburb, there are other bodies, still buried, that we may never know about.



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