The instant familiarity I felt with him—this consummate immigrant, this immigrant with a vengeance—was my familiarity with my own culture. Of course he’d fooled me. Of course he’d held me spellbound. He spoke from inside my own American mind.
In 2008, a man who called himself Clark Rockefeller was found after a four-day FBI manhunt. He had kidnapped his daughter from her mother with the intention of leaving the country. In the course of events, he was found to be Christian Karl Gerhartsreiter, a Bavarian who had moved to the United States, a serial fraud with multiple aliases, including Christian Gerhart, Christopher Chichester, and Chip Smith. After Gerhartsreiter’s arrest, he was also charged with the murder of a man named John Sohus in San Marino, CA in 1985. Among his many acquaintances, he was friends, albeit distanced, with the New Republic national correspondent and New Yorker writer Walter Kirn, who attended the trial and wrote his story as Blood Will Out. This new classic of true crime and memoir tells a tale of American insecurities, our human capacity for denial and how our automatic trust in what we are told overlies an underlying urge take the fantasy over the reality.
Kirn met the man he knew as Clark Rockefeller after transporting a rescue dog “Rockefeller” was adopting from Montana to New York, where the German posed as a lesser-known member of the gilt-edged dynasty. Kirn turns the book into an examination not only of the man he thought he knew as an eccentric upper-class phony, like the phonies that might be mentioned in a J.D. Salinger novel, but also of himself as an aspirant to American power and wealth. He admits honestly that he automatically genuflected to a powerful name and looked for a transfusion of some of that power and wealth to eradicate established insecurities and augment his own snobbery.
“Rockefeller” told Kirn multiple bizarre stories at the onset, such as the fact that he had never eaten a hamburger, dined in a public restaurant, or tasted Coca-Cola. Supposedly as a child he’d suffered from aphasia, so that he had not spoken until age ten. At age 14, he’d then attended Yale because of his prodigious intelligence. As an international banker in charge of restructuring third-world debt, he warned Kirn of a market crash to come and then offered a tour of Rockefeller Center, to which, he said, he had the master key. In New York he lived next to Tony Bennett, he said, and invited Kirn to come see some of his masterpieces of modern art, which included a Mondrian, Rothkos, and a Motherwell. He also said he would be appearing on the television show Frasier soon in the guise of a caller to Dr. Crane’s radio program.
This bombardment of details amused Kirn, who was simultaneously irritated by the “twee, diminutive hobbit of a fellow” whose “level of self-amusement seemed almost delusional.” Yet he accepted them, since he was entertained. He expected a level of eccentricity from even one of high society’s fringe members, who reminded him of some of the privileged, overbred individuals he had met and felt rejected by when he came as a literature student to F. Scott Fitzgerald’s Princeton from a ranch in Montana. In a deeper way, he wanted some of the burnished glow from a Rockefeller to transfer to him, the Montana rancher’s son who still occasionally felt inadequate among an Eastern moneyed elite.
According to Kirn, the man he knew as Rockefeller was smart and fascinating and outwardly confident. On another level, all he did was throw out stitched-together snippets of Kirn’s own upwardly mobile images from literature, film, and television, forming a postmodern pastiche, a cobbled-together Jay Gatsby for a more sordid age where technology and mobility has increasingly scattered us at an exponentially increasing speed across a fractured psychological landscape. Kirn compares him most aptly to Patricia Highsmith’s sociopathic literary character, The Talented Mr. Ripley, who kills a character and then takes over his fortune and identity completely without guilt.
As Kirn attends the trial, he hears about Gerhartsreiter’s peregrinations through the American landscape after arriving to become a high school exchange student, spreading lies and changing his name over the years as he moves towards the aptly nick-named Tinseltown. There he poses in San Marino as a USC film student and tea salesman named Christopher Chichester and ends up killing the son and, most probably, the daughter-in-law of his ailing landlady.
Kirn, who knew of Gerhartsreiter’s love for film noir, believes that he killed the son and held a Trivial Pursuit party next to his unmarked grave in the backyard in part as an homage to Alfred Hitchcock’s Rope, whose characters hold an event in which their hidden victim lies in a chest featuring two candelabras. His crime, which he might have committed to earn the son’s inheritance from a mentally discombobulated mother, is only discovered when workers digging up the yard to build a swimming pool discover the bagged bones of his victim.
Walter Kirn’s fascination with Christian Karl Gerhartsreiter often feels like a literary character’s fascination with his evil twin, yet he clearly sees the differences between them and wavers between self-disgust at his own inability to read Gerhartsreiter accurately and interest in his amazing exploits as a sociopath and pathological liar. In reading this book I also thought of Humbert Humbert’s fascination with the cunning and elusive Clare Quilty, a literary doppelganger who stole Lolita from him in Vladimir Nabokov’s masterpiece Lolita, since Kirn often writes about “Clark Rockefeller” as if he is a literary technique. As he says,
Clark, I’d grown convinced, had killed for literature. To be a part of it. To live inside it. To test it in the most direct ways possible.
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. Even Snooks, his daughter’s pet name, was borrowed, lifted from the child of a family he’d known back in Connecticut.
Gerhartsreiter emerges as an exhausting hall of fun mirrors in a labyrinth, distorting a viewer’s reflections purposefully by throwing out psychological glimpses she recognizes in herself, thus leading her into a maze from which she may catch exaggerated glimpses of herself and never escape, although there was never anything real about chasing her own tail in the first place. A jury devoid of any need for his approval recognized him for what he was in August 2013, sentencing him to life in prison for murdering John Sohus in 1985.
In Blood Will Out, Kirn has created an intense, complex, yet easily comprehensible work; an unsparing examination of the way his own insecurities and those of others led them to believe in Gerhartsreiter’s thousands of tales, identities, and aliases garnered from movies, literature, and themselves: the Americans and others he met and exploited for their own experiences.
Gerhartsreiter. Gerhart. Chichester. Smith. Rockefeller. Kirn places this flim-flam man archetype and sociopath in historical context as Gerhartsreiter starts his pillaging of the American dream in Reagan’s 1980s, eventually making his way up an imaginary ladder, posing as a member of the one percent while looking for Lebensraum outside of his native, defeated Germany with its former imperial notions. He also compares “Rockefeller” to the Bernie Madoff-type bankers who led us to the 2008 financial crisis, when Lehman Brothers stood for nothing but letterhead, and describes him as a poseur among poseurs in his brief stint working on Wall Street.
These memories struck me as absurd now, a ridiculous, disgraceful capitulation. I’d bowed to a tinfoil prince. I’d kissed his ring, and the irony was that the true ring was on my own hand.
I’d had it all backwards, upside down, reversed. I, the fawning aspirant, should have been the one conferring status—and I suppose I was, in some sick way. Clark must have loved it, watching me degrade myself. Worse, though, I was degrading my vocation. My grant of literary immunity to the strangest creature I’d ever met violated my storyteller’s oath. Writers exist to exploit such figures, not to save them. Our duty is to the page, not the person.
And in fulfilling this duty, he ironically paired them forever and gave copycat Gerhartsreiter the literary immortality he desired. Most importantly, he gave us one of the best-written, intense true crime works since Truman Capote’s In Cold Blood.
Written by: Miriam R. Kramer