The Great Confabulator

by Natasha Wolff | March 5, 2014 9:41 pm

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[1] 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.

One side of the supposed Mr. Rockefeller, in 2001

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.

NEXT: [2]The first time Kirn visited Gerhartsreiter’s apartment[3]

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.



The Secret History of the National Enquirer[4]
What Life Is Like Inside White Collar Prisons[5]
The Peculier Life of Huguette Clark[6]

  1. Blood Will Out:
  2. NEXT: :
  3. The first time Kirn visited Gerhartsreiter’s apartment:
  4. The Secret History of the National Enquirer:
  5. What Life Is Like Inside White Collar Prisons:
  6. The Peculier Life of Huguette Clark:

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