In an earlier biography, Paul Willetts chronicled the life of mid-20th-century England’s most raffishly bohemian writer, Julian MacLaren-Ross. It might seem a stretch for him to take up an American con artist of the 1920s, but Edgar Laplante’s impressive career was international in scope and included Canada, Britain and continental Europe. In Italy alone, he persuaded a besotted contessa to “lend” him over a million lire — “double the jackpot of the Italian national lottery” — slept with her, of course, and then talked her beautiful 27-year-old stepdaughter into becoming his fiancee, even though he was still bigamously married to two other women.
Astonishingly, he accomplished all this in less than a year, while dressed, most of the time, in beaded buckskins topped off with a feathered war bonnet. Though born in Rhode Island to Quebecois parents, the audacious Laplante actually spent much of his life pretending to be an Indian.
His career in flummery and flimflam was launched when he left reform school at age 14 to work as a Coney Island pitchman, then joined Dr. W.H. Long’s Big Indian and Medicine Show. In those days, Laplante’s spiel went something like this:
“Ladies and gentleman . . . I am here this evening not only to entertain you but to relieve suffering humanity of its aches and pains. I call your attention to this bottle I hold in my hand, containing one of the greatest gifts to man. This famous Indian herb medicine is made from a formula handed down from generation to generation by my forefathers, who were chiefs of the Osage Indians. Did you ever hear of an Osage Indian having rheumatism?”
“Poise, mental agility, and a poker face,” writes Willetts, “were Edgar’s key assets,” though it didn’t hurt that he was also handsome, charismatic and, by all accounts, a mesmerizing orator. Along with these gifts, Laplante possessed a superb baritone voice and frequently performed sentimental songs on the vaudeville circuit. He drank hard liquor whenever possible, took cocaine just as often and enjoyed sex with both women and men. When in funds, this lifelong con artist swaggered like a Park Avenue millionaire, gave serious folding money to beggars and always stayed in the best suite in the best hotel. Bilking the innocent was simply a way to underwrite his Gatsbyish excess. What really mattered was the rush of living on the edge.
“King Con” begins in 1917 when Laplante impersonates Tom Longboat, an actual Onondagan marathoner and two-time Canadian Olympic runner. Later, he becomes Chief Harry Johnson, then Chief Tewanna. Like other professional grifters, Laplante regularly hopscotched from one town to the next, clearing out whenever exposure threatened, sometimes changing his name. Still, he usually preferred to call himself Chief White Elk. To prove what Native Americans could accomplish, the chief boasted about his fluency in nine languages and sometimes in as many as 21, claimed to be a medical doctor, alluded to a close friendship with King Edward VII and admitted that his several Texas oil wells had made him fabulously wealthy. As Laplante recognized early on, “the bigger the lies he told, the more avidly people seemed to embrace them.” Alas, such brazen trumpery succeeds even now.
On one occasion, the great Chief White Elk boldly waltzed into Salt Lake City, where he rapidly enthralled not only the local grandees but also Burtha Thompson, whose mother belonged to the Klamath tribe. Soon thereafter, the chief and his Indian princess were married at the capitol: The governor of Utah gave away the bride, Salt Lake’s mayor officiated at the ceremony, a huge military band played the wedding march, some 5,000 excited spectators looked on in awe, and store owners showered the happy couple with cars and jewelry. Willetts imagines Laplante’s pride in having achieved all this “within just seven days of arriving in Salt Lake.”
More often than not, legitimate organizations would hire White Elk as a fundraiser — and there’s no doubt that Laplante could be amazingly effective in bringing in vast amounts of cash, even though he skimmed as much as he could. Eventually, however, his chicanery attracted the attention of the Bureau of Investigation — predecessor to the FBI — and the fake Indian deemed it prudent to shift his operations to Europe, first dumping Burtha. Still only 34, he booked a first-class passage to England.
Decked out in his colorful regalia, the chief naturally drew admiring glances at the Cafe Royal in London and, later, at the Cafe du Dome in Paris, where he seems to have rapidly acquired fluent French. For a while he oversaw publicity for a touring group of Arapaho, who featured in the early blockbuster film “The Covered Wagon.” In Nice, though, Laplante finally found the live one he’d been searching for: the Contessa Milania Khevenhüller-Metsch. In short order, the contessa and her stepdaughter Atta fell under his spell. In one year he managed to soak them for the 2018 equivalent of nearly $59 million.
The last third of Willetts’s book describes Laplante’s extraordinary celebrity in Mussolini’s Italy and must be read to be believed. At that time, he traveled with an entourage, his calling card was engraved “His Highness, the Prince, Chief White Elk,” and he claimed to be partly descended from Bourbon and Austro-Hungarian royalty.
Even when finally unmasked, Laplante managed to wriggle out of being convicted of much of anything. He eventually returned to the United States, where his later operations never matched those of his heyday, but he was still grifting when he died in 1944 at the age of 55. As I’ve only hinted, this Jazz Age impostor’s life makes for quite the story, and in “King Con,” Paul Willetts knows just how to tell it.
Michael Dirda reviews books each Thursday in Style.
By Paul Willetts
Crown. 349 pp. $27