Clark Rockefeller is the strange, complex and ultimately enigmatic persona profiled and exposed in Mark Seal’s The Man In The Rockefeller Suit. In a definite case of truth being stranger than most things fiction could ever have dreamed up, Rockefeller is not a real Rockefeller, but Christian Gerhartsreiter, a German immigrant who entered the United States on a study visa as a teen. Tipped off by a friend, Seal attended Rockefeller’s trial where he was defending against charges of parental kidnapping brought by his ex-wife. Fueled by interest in the cool-as-a-cucumber Rockefeller, and the dearth on information pertaining to the strange man, Seal set out on an exhaustive search for research into the man known as Christopher Mountbatten Chichester, Chip Smith and Chris Crowe, among others.
This is a fascinating read from many aspects. It is true crime- Gehartsreiter’s actions were not only criminal- but injurious, in addition to the betrayal heaped on those who counted him among their friends. However, the book can’t help but to prove a study in psychology as well. Seal held extensive interviews with those who knew Gehartsreiter in his many incarnations and talked with them about his affects, mannerisms, his presentation to the townspeople where he lived, and why they believed him. Very few expressed skepticism or said that they thought he was a fake. Most were impressed by his sharp and multi-faceted intelligence, prestigious addresses, and expensive art collection (all fake, except the intelligence). Gehartsreiter frequently used the auspices of prominent community churches to gain entré into local high society.
It is amazing to consider brazen fraud of this magnitude, but reading this illustrates just how much we necessarily trust others for information about themselves and how strongly we are willing to believe that information no matter the magnitude of the evidence to the contrary. It also exposes just how much leeway we are willing to give those whom we believe are wealthy and connected to power. Much of the behavior that would have exposed Gehartsreiter as a fraud were written off as the eccentricities and privilege of the wealthy. Unfortunately Gehartsreiter’s crime extended beyond deception to emotionally abusive behavior (toward his now ex-wife) and sinister connections to persons missing under mysterious circumstances and suspicions of foul play.
Seal’s book is straightforward, easy to read, and extensively quotes the stories of those interviewed. You really get to experience their voices. The story is richer from his restraint in interacting with the story, and the conclusions drawn from his dotted line connections are chilling. Readers interested in psychology and social interactions will enjoy this book, even if non-fiction isn’t their usual cup of tea. Highly recommended.