- The Washington Times - Friday, June 3, 2011

By Mark Seal
Viking, $26.95, 336 pages

If you don’t read Vanity Fair because you still think of it as a magazine for young ladies with stylish aspirations, you’ll have missed the article by Mark Seal from which this book grew, published there in 2009. Even if you did read the article, the book is still well worth reading. Mr. Seal, a strong writer and exceptional reporter, updates the story and fleshes it out with new and essential material. This is an intense and compellingly told tale of a self-made man, in every sense of that term.

Christian Karl Gerhartsreiter was born in a small town in Germany in 1961. In 1978, at age 17 and fascinated with all things American, he came to the United States on a student visa and posed as an exchange student in Connecticut. When he’d worn out his welcome with several families that had taken him in, he managed to get himself enrolled in the University of Wisconsin, where Christian Karl Gerhartsreiter became Chris Kenneth Gerhart.

From Wisconsin, where he talked a happy American coed into a green-card marriage and divorce, Gerhart traveled to San Marino, Calif., where he became Christopher Mountbatten Chichester, a wandering minor member of the British aristocracy who wowed the wealthy locals.

He’d worked hard on his accent. “He was fascinated with ‘Gilligan’s Island’ and the character Thurston Howell III,” one investigator told Mr. Seal. “He mimicked his speech pattern.” He wore the uniform of the day - blue blazer, khakis and Top-Sider boat shoes without socks - and had calling cards printed up with what he said was the Chichester family crest - a heron with its wings spread and an eel in its beak and the family motto, Firm et Foi (firm in faith). The card read “Christopher Chichester, XIII Bt, San Marino, CA.”

Mr. Seal walks us through the various cons played out in San Marino, culminating in the disappearance in 1985 of relatives of Chichester’s landlady. Chichester himself then disappeared, resurfacing a year later in Connecticut as Christopher Crowe, who with no credentials talked his way into several high-paying positions with top Wall Street investment firms just as the junk-bond business was roaring.

In 1988, when a detective tracked him down and attempted to contact him about the San Marino disappearances, Christopher Crowe also disappeared for several years, then reappeared in 1992 in Manhattan as Clark Rockefeller. (Later, Mr. Seal writes, he would inflate the name to James Frederick Mills Clark Rockefeller.)

By then, he’d perfected an Eastern prep school accent, overlaid with that grating, marble-mouthed enunciation that characterized much of the Rockefeller clan. According to many who met him, with his dark horn-rimmed Nelson Rockefeller-like glasses, he bore a distinct family resemblance. “Are you one of the Rockefeller cousins?” he was asked. No, he responded, modestly. “I’m one of the cousins’ cousins.”

In the Rockefeller role, he charmed the upper crust with Rockefeller memorabilia, a fake art collection that conned the experts, extensive social club memberships built on cheap reciprocal arrangements and Episcopal Church membership. And to finance it all, in 1994 he acquired a wife - Sandra Boss, a Harvard Business School graduate earning $1.4 million a year as senior partner at McKinsey who for a dozen years failed to realize her husband was living off her money.

In 2001, they had a daughter and moved to Boston’s Beacon Hill. In 2007, it finally occurred to Ms. Boss that something wasn’t quite right. She hired an investigator, found her husband was not who he said he was, filed for divorce and gained custody of their daughter, whom he then kidnapped and took to Baltimore, where he had become Chip Smith, a ship captain. He was arrested in Baltimore, tried in Boston on charges of kidnapping and assault and sentenced to five years in prison.

The end of the story? Not quite. In March of this year, he was charged with the 1988 murder of John Sohus, the son of his San Marino landlady, and the Los Angeles County district attorney is seeking his extradition to California.

So what are we to make of this three-decade joy ride in a series of stolen identities? Americans are too trusting, too willing to take people on their own terms, too easily impressed? There’s one born every minute?

And what of the motivation of the impostor himself? Jeffrey Denner, his defense attorney in the kidnapping trial, who decided his client would plead insanity, perhaps put it best to the court:

“You don’t have to be a rocket scientist or, respectfully, a psychiatrist to know that something is very wrong with him. … This is not a man playing with a full deck.”

John R. Coyne Jr., a former White House speechwriter, is co-author of “Strictly Right: William F. Buckley Jr. and the American Conservative Movement” (Wiley, 2007).

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