The Man in the Rockefeller Suit
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In July 2008, Clark Rockefeller made headlines when he kidnapped his own daughter and vanished. The police and FBI were baffled. Tips poured in, but every lead was a dead end . because “Clark Rockefeller” did not exist. In a strangerthanfiction twist, it was revealed that no onenot even the woman he’d been married to for twelve yearsknew who he really was.
The truth was that “Clark Rockefeller” was just one of many identities fabricated by German immigrant Christian Karl Gerhartsreiter. After arriving in America in 1978 with dubious visa documents and a feigned identity as a foreignexchange student, Gerhartsreiter, a brilliant but deeply troubled young man, became a studied imposter, taking the American ideal of “selfmade man” to a literal extreme. Whether it was as British aristocrat Christopher Chicester, highpowered bond broker Christopher Crowe, or distant relation to the fabled Rockefellers, Gerhartsreiter blazed a thirtyyear long trail of deceptionsa trail that ended in prison with a murder charge hanging over his head.
The Man in the Rockefeller Suit is a disturbing expose of a shadowy man who stopped at nothing in his pursuit of the American dream. It is a fastpaced, psychologically charged story, spiked with the chilling reality that almost any life becomes believable if it’s wrapped in a big name.
Q. What drew you to Christian Karl Gerhartsreiter’s story? After writing this book, what image of the man did you walk away with? Do you believe his plea of insanity? Do you think he believes it?
I first heard about Clark Rockefeller from a friend who had gone on a lunch date with him in New York. ”Mark, did you hear about Clark Rockefeller!?” she screamed over the phone. I hadn’t, but as soon as I began following his trail, I knew I was onto a whale of a story. After writing the book, I walked away with the feeling that the man will do whatever it takes to move ahead in life. As for the insanity defense, I agree with the jury in his kidnapping trial, which seemed to reject his plea of insanity by finding him guilty on most counts.
Q. Your research for the book involved conducting nearly 200 interviews, in addition to scouring court transcripts and official documents. What did you expect to learn when you undertook this project? Were you surprised by any of your discoveries?
I try not to have preconceptions when following a story. In the case of Clark Rockefeller, I was constantly surprised and astounded. Every person I met had some new twist on the guy, and every time I thought the story was done, some new development, person, or lead would send me scurrying back to the beat.
Q. What were some of the recurring sentiments you heard expressed about Gerhartsreiter in the interviews you conducted? What did they tell you about your subject?
That he was smart, engaging, affable, and absolutely the best liar they had ever met (although when they knew him they didn’t realize he was lying).
Q. Many were fooled by Gerhartsreiter and the complex, varied identities he invented. How do you think he achieved this? Do you think he ever wanted to be caught?
I think he’s incredibly smart and wellread (he spent his time in libraries across the country, since he rarely worked) and felt he would never be caught. And he would most likely still be living a leisurely life as the bon vivant Clark Rockefeller if he hadn’t kidnapped his daughter off the street in Boston.
Q. Throughout the course of writing this book, how did you find your impression of Gerhartsreiter shifting? Did you at any point in time empathize with him?
I was amazed at his audacity and admired his choice of friends all of whom I had a wonderful time meeting. I can’t say I felt empathy for him except maybe when I met the folks of his hometown of Bergen, Germany. I could understand his need to escape that small town for the wonderland of America and the opportunites our good but gullible country threw at his feet.
Q. If you could interview Gerhartsreiter, what questions would you most like to ask him?
When did you first get the idea to live a life of lies?
How did you feel when people so readily believed the increasingly outlandish lies you told them?
What was your relationship with your San Marino, California, landlady Didi Sohus? Give us some anecdotes of your time together.
What do you think (or know) really happened to John and Linda Sohus, the couple who went missing when you lived with them in San Marino? (Rockefeller is charged with the murder of John Sohus.)
Why do you think Linda Sohus, or the body of Linda Sohus, has never been found?
What were your thoughts and motivations while romancing, marrying and duping your wife of twelve years, who believed you were a Rockefeller?
Where did you get your supposedly billiondollar collection of modern art?
The list could go on and on ....
- Consider your first impression of Clark Rockefeller after reading the prologue. What kind of man is he? By the end of the book, how have your impressions of himand Gerhartsreitershifted? Why did so many people fall for him? Would you?
- As Clark Rockefeller, Gerhartsreiter conned everyone in his path, including neighbors, pastors, collegeadmissions officers, and even his own wife, a Harvard Business school graduate. What does his successful streak of deceit reveal about human nature? What draws us to people, and signals to us that they are to be trusted?
- What role did Gerhartsreiter’s interest in American mediaspecifically books, television, and filmsplay in the crafting of his multiple identities?
- In what ways do Gerhartsreiter’s actions typify those of the archetypal immigrant? How common is it for people to reinvent themselves when they start a new life in a new place?
- What kind of personality do you think it takes to maintain a ruse for so long? Have you ever been tempted to pretend to be someone else?
- How does Mark Seal portray Clark’s wife? Is he sympathetic to her, or condemning? What is your opinion of her? What clues might have tipped you off to Rockefeller’s deceit had you been in her position?
- What do you think drove Gerhartsreiter to behave as he did for so many decades?
- One could argue that Gerhartsreiter was driven by a desire to achieve the American dream. What other public figures, highprofile or otherwise, can you think of who have permitted their aspirations to overtake their sense of right and wrong?
- Taking into consideration everything you’ve learned about Gerhartsreiter and his deceitful ways, are you able to believe the love he felt for his daughter was genuine?
- What is your opinion of the court’s decision about the kidnapping charges? How do you think the murder charges will play out? If eventually released, what future do you imagine for Gerhartsreiter?