Walter Kirn (Beowulf Sheehan)

"Blood Will Out": My friend, the murderer

Walter Kirn's rich pal turned out to be a serial impostor who killed a man. Why was he so easily fooled?



Laura Miller
March 10, 2014 2:00AM (UTC)

For 15 years, the novelist Walter Kirn counted among his friends a man named Clark Rockefeller, scion of an obscure branch of the American dynasty. Clark wore topsiders without socks, belonged to any number of venerable clubs, once worked on Wall Street, had a New York apartment full of paintings by Abstract Expressionist masters that he allowed his Gordon setters to lick and, on top of all that, claimed to have a hand in a black-box precinct of cutting-edge aerospace technology research. Even when Kirn tired of Clark's selfish ways (he was always "forgetting" to bring his wallet to restaurants), his eccentricities made for good dinner table conversation.

Then one afternoon in 2008, Kirn learned that the police were looking for Clark; he'd abducted his young daughter during a supervised custody visit and had gone underground. But that wasn't all: People who definitely were Rockefellers claimed that he wasn't one. Turns out, not only was Clark not an East Coast blue blood, despite his uncanny impersonation of one, he wasn't even an American. He was born Christian Karl Gerhartsreiter in a podunk town in Bavaria, Germany. And even that wasn't the end of the story. As Kirn would learn, along with the rest of a marveling nation, one of Clark's previous identities -- Christopher Chichester, purportedly an English baronet -- was wanted in connection with a murder committed 23 years earlier in the affluent Southern California suburb of San Marino. Clark had been fooling people for decades and people had been lapping it up. "As a college English major," Kirn writes, "I'd learn the phrase 'suspension of disbelief,' but with Clark you contributed belief, wiring it from your personal account into the account you held with him."

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By the time these revelations emerged, Kirn had seen two of his novels ("Thumbsucker" and "Up in the Air") made into acclaimed films and regularly wrote features for high-end magazines like Vanity Fair and the New Yorker. Of course he was going to cover the trial, and he did so for the latter publication. However, by 2013, when Clark was tried for murder, Kirn's magazine work was "swiftly dissolving in an online acid bath of unpaid content. I needed a book idea." Anyone who reviews books for a living ends up reading a lot of nonfiction that has obviously been born of similar motives, but the authors always dissemble about that. Typically, the book is presented as merely the byproduct of some urgent personal quest. Yet despite the fact that Kirn has very real, very personal reasons for wanting to understand how and why Clark had gulled him, this is the only time I've ever seen an author acknowledge that one of the reasons he wrote the book you're reading was that he needs to make a living. Notice is served that Kirn's readers are in for some unvarnished honesty.

The resulting memoir, "Blood Will Out," holds to that promise. It's an absorbing spectacle of self-surgery, in which Kirn mercilessly explores "what a perfect mark I'd been. Rationalizing, justifying, imagining. I'd worked as hard at being conned by him as he had at conning me. I wasn't a victim; I was a collaborator." Serial impostors like Clark are uncommon, and their mastery at persuading seemingly sensible people to believe just about anything makes them objects of keen fascination. The woman who helped Clark establish his Rockefeller identity (he'd previously been saying he was the brother of filmmaker Cameron Crowe) not only supported him financially and accepted his bizarre story of being pursued by a sinister conspiracy, she also meekly agreed to drive him around (he had no license), to discard their household trash at remote locations and never to look inside the document-filled closet he referred to as his "office." He even made her walk on the opposite side of the street when they went out in public, and she complied.

Although he ranks this particular victim as their "Queen of Sorrows," all the witnesses at Clark's trial form, in Kirn eyes, a "long parade of fools." He counted himself as a fellow marcher, even though he never took the stand. Yet if there's anything rarer than a con man with Clark's gift for the game, it's a writer of Kirn's quicksilver accomplishment. The Clark Rockefeller story has been dramatized by the Lifetime Channel (seen from the point of view of his long-suffering second wife, natch) and has previously served as the subject of Mark Seal's excellent 2011 book "The Man in the Rockefeller Suit." But to have someone of Kirn's ability write about the case from the inside promises exceptional insight into the way such tricksters operate and the even greater enigma of what motivates them.

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Kirn gives his readers that, although he is not, it must be said, always entirely conscious of doing so. "Blood Will Out" relentlessly scrutinizes the author's own willingness to ignore the glaring inconsistencies in the stories Clark told Kirn about his life. He overlooked them because going along with Clark mean getting to hang out in the sanctums of the WASP elite. The two men met when Kirn, dazzled by the Rockefeller name and always up for a trip to New York, agreed to drive a crippled shelter dog Clark had offered to adopt from Montana to Manhattan. Their friendship extended over 15 years of occasional meetings and phone conversations, although Clark did once tell Kirn he considered him his best friend: "You're the only person in my life who doesn't want something from me, who isn't envious."

Neither of these two statements was true. What Kirn wanted from Clark was proximity to a fabulous realm of hereditary privilege -- not because he wanted anything material out of the encounter, but simply to soak up a bit of the glamour and the effortless experience of belonging by birth. Like F. Scott Fitzgerald, that other Minnesota boy in search of a larger, more glittering world, Kirn believed, and possibly still believes, that the rich are qualitatively different from the rest of us, and not just because they have more money.

Clark was a wizard at conjuring this aura of difference; he finagled connections with vulnerable members of the class and then parlayed those friendships into further connections. He knew how to look and sound as if he belonged, but there was no great science to it. By all accounts he based his persona on Thurston Howell III, of "Gilligan's Island." Rather, his genius lay in convincing lady A that lady B believed him to be the genuine article, a chain of confirmations that eventually led him to membership in such venues as New York's Lotos Club, where the staff greeted him as "Mr. Rockefeller." Of course, everyone he brought there assumed he must be the real deal.

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The tale of how Clark bamboozled Kirn makes an unsettling counterpoint to Kirn's excellent 2009 memoir, "Lost in the Meritocracy: The Undereducation of an Overachiever," about how he snowed the educational establishment into admitting him to Princeton, concealing the fact that at that point he'd read only three serious novels: "Moby-Dick," "Frankenstein" and, of course, "The Great Gatsby." There, Kirn found himself looked down upon and occasionally exploited financially by heirs and heiresses to the Ivy League born. He coped by posing as an existentially fraught artist and deconstructionist. So if there's one thing you can say about Kirn, it's that he knows from faking it. The construction of fraudulent identities has been a preoccupation in his work and life since long before he ever heard of Christopher Chichester.

Yet these experiences don't quite get him where they ought to when he contemplates Clark. Don't get me wrong, there is something smart and, above all, brilliantly expressed on every page of "Blood Will Out." After the conclusion of the trial, Kirn describes the victorious attorney as he "hurried away to do a press conference, his movements unconsciously elegant and preening, as though he'd traded souls with a white pony." In the worst throes of loathing Clark, Kirn imagines him ("a predatory snot -- a lip-smacking smoothie with arachnid blood") composing emails to the custodians of the shelter dog, "perched before his keyboard sipping milky English tea and sniffing the fumes of his drying yellow hair color, nimbly courting and cornering two strangers of pearly faith and optimism."

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Why would someone who can write like that cravenly tag along after Clark Rockefeller -- who, even if he really were a Rockefeller, would still be a mediocrity? As Kirn works himself up into a movie- and book-fueled frenzy, speculating on the Luciferian inner life of a man he believes "considered murder an art indeed," I could only think: "No, no, no!" People like Clark don't have the inner lives of Raskolnikov or Iago. They are empty, and they ingest the bits and pieces of real people's lives the better to fashion from these details the carapace of lies they pass off as a self. But the void within them is always eating away at the shell from the inside and so it must be perpetually replenished with more lies. The man Clark killed was almost certainly an obstacle to this enterprise, the adopted son of a rich widow whose money Clark hoped to siphon off, as well as a dyed-in-the-wool, D&D- and "Star Trek"-loving geek who could not care less about baronets. There was no art to that killing, only, as was ever the case with Clark, expedience.

Clark's trial was held in L.A., and while covering it, Kirn appealed for help to the crime novelist James Ellroy -- a Luciferian character if there ever was one, and described by Kirn as holding court in a Hawaiian shirt at an old-school steak house, looking "like the bail-bond king of Tijuana." Ellroy keeps telling Kirn to forget about trying to figure Clark out. "That's your affliction, pal," he says. "Curiosity?" Kirn asks. Nope. "Wanting more. You want more than there is." It's a conversation that seems to encapsulate that last bit of insight that Kirn just misses capturing in "Blood Will Out." Clark Rockefeller is, for all his ingenuity, nobody, and Kirn is, almost in spite of himself, somebody, if he could bring himself to let that be enough.


Laura Miller

Laura Miller is the author of "The Magician's Book: A Skeptic's Adventures in Narnia."

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