Writers love stories about wily liars, especially real-life Mr. Ripleys who’ve been unmasked. Thus the phenomenal draw of the Clark Rockefeller story, which offers multiple thrills: elaborate dissembling, art fraud, kidnapping and a long-unsolved murder. To date, the faux-Rockefeller saga has spawned Mark Seal’s “The Man in the Rockefeller Suit” (2011), Frank C. Girardot’s “Name Dropper” (2013), a television special called “Who Is Clark Rockefeller?” and Amity Gaige’s psychologically acute novel “Schroder” (2012). Add to the pile “Blood Will Out,” Walter Kirn’s fascinating account of the impostor he considered his friend for 10 years.
A better title for Kirn’s book might be “The Con Man and the Dupe.” Kirn actually calls himself a dupe — and worse — when he finally acknowledges that the man he cozied up to in his eagerness for diversion and social cachet was a fraud.
His book covers German-born Christian Karl Gerhartsreiter’s trajectory from Bavarian villager to his shifting guises as an exchange student, an English aristocrat, an art collector, a physicist, a financier and a Rockefeller. It takes us to his 2013 trial and conviction for a brutal 1985 murder — which Kirn wrote about brilliantly for the New Yorker — and climaxes with the author’s last face-to-face with the charlatan he continues to call Clark, ironically still seeking truth from a liar. Underlying “Blood Will Out” is Kirn’s exploration of his own gullibility.
Kirn, whose novels include “Up in the Air” and “Thumbsucker,” has also written for Time, Vanity Fair and New York magazines, and knows how to structure a story for maximum impact. He wisely eschews a chronological timeline, quickly jumping from early encounters in Clark’s art-lined Manhattan apartment and posh private clubs to a Los Angeles courtroom 15 years later.
His improbable friendship began in 1998 when, restless between books and awaiting the birth of his first child, he agreed to transport a crippled dog from his home in Montana to her new adoptive owner in Manhattan, an apparently wealthy stranger named Clark Rockefeller. From the start, the man raises red flags with his claims of having attended Yale at 14, being a “freelance central banker” (whatever that is) and owning a private plane that, alas, was unavailable to transport the dog. Readers might find it odd that despite Clark’s dodgy assertions, Kirn, a veteran reporter, never double-checks any of them, even after Google searches make it so easy.
The explanation for this lapse lies in part in Kirn’s yearning to belong, which he also wrote about in “Lost in the Meritocracy,” his 2009 book about feeling like an outsider at Princeton. The word “con” derives from “confidence scam” — a swindle achieved by winning a person’s confidence under false pretenses. Clearly, someone with shaky self-confidence makes an easier mark.
Kirn writes: “I recalled meeting a few people like him in college at Princeton — pedigreed, boastful, overschooled eccentrics who spoke like cousins of Katharine Hepburn — but I’d been raised in rural Minnesota, deep in manure-scented dairy country, and I’d never succeeded in getting close to them. Their clubs wouldn’t have me, I didn’t play their sports.” He goes further, spelling out his susceptibility with brutal honesty: Clark was “a man I believed to be a Rockefeller largely because I hoped to be the friend of one.” If Gerhartsreiter had taken a less potent, freighted alias, would Kirn have bitten the bait? But “a Rockefeller . . . pouring out his troubles to a mere Kirn” — irresistible.
The two men bond most over the pain of divorce and estrangement from their children. In fact, when news of Clark’s abduction of his 7-year-old daughter during a custody visit first breaks in 2008, Kirn initially defends him. By the time Clark is exposed as Gerhartsreiter and linked through fingerprints to Christopher Chichester, wanted since 1985 for questioning in a cold-case murder, Kirn is ready to eat crow. He confesses to “spiritual laxity” fueled by Ritalin. The whole affair “revealed to me the size and power of my ignorance and vanity,” he writes.
Once under contract to write about the man he and fellow journalist Frank Girardot dub “Hannibal Mitty” or “Gatsby the Ripper,” Kirn knuckles down and does his homework. He traces Gerhartsreiter’s serial deceptions to “a lineage older, and in a certain fashion richer, than that of the founding family of Standard Oil: the shape-shifting trickster of American myth and literature.” After drawing intriguing parallels with Melville’s Confidence Man, Fitzgerald’s Gatsby, Joseph Heller’s Milo Minderbinder and of course Patricia Highsmith’s talented Mr. Ripley, Kirn turns to noir films, including Hitchcock’s “Rope” and “Dial M for Murder” and Orson Welles’s “The Stranger.” But his contention that Clark “had killed for literature. To be a part of it. To live inside it” supplies a motive that’s more likely to hold water with a novelist than a detective.
Kirn’s indictment of his deceiver is harsh and unsympathetic. He calls him “a cannibal of souls” and, like the fake art in which he trafficked, “a forgery himself.” Worse, Kirn sneers, “even as a fraud, Clark was a fraud. He’d never had an idea of his own, not about how to speak or how to dress or which science-fiction TV show to obsess about or how to cover up a murder. He was wholly, impeccably, derivative.”
Touted as a 21st-century “In Cold Blood,” Kirn’s book, while sharing Truman Capote’s concerns with issues of betrayed trust between subject and writer, is not a portrait of murder from all sides. “Blood Will Out” is an exploration of a hoaxer from the point of view of a mark, and of a relationship based on interlocking deceptions and self-deceptions. The result is a moral tale about the dangers of social climbing on a rickety ladder — for both those trying to scramble up the rungs and those trying to hold it steady below.
BLOOD WILL OUT
The True Story of a Murder, a Mystery and a Masquerade
By Walter Kirn
Liveright. 255 pp. $25.95