Review: ‘The Man in the Rockefeller Suit’ by Mark Seal

Before the advent of Facebook stalking, there was a precocious teen named Christian Karl Gerhartsreiter who lit out of a small German town and made for the United States in the guise of an exchange student. He gave his name an American makeover, and studied Thurston Howell III’s upper-class accent. He coaxed an unassuming Wisconsinite into a quickie green card marriage, then oozed his way into the Rolodex of the rich widows of San Marino, California.

Journalist Mark Seal has written an account of the man’s ascent through society — helped along by eventually adopting the name Clark Rockefeller — in a true crime account The Man in the Rockefeller Suit that traces three decades, a handful of aliases, and eventual kidnapping and unrelated murder charges. Seal travels to Rockefeller’s former haunts and interviews about 200 one-time neighbors and friends, a group that is divided between chatting freely about the brilliant sociopath and those who are still angry about falling for his con. Seal also uses statements made in court by Rockefeller’s ex-wife, a smart woman who footed the family’s financials for nearly ten years without suspecting anything was amiss.

The story starts near the end when Rockefeller — now going by Chip Smith — kidnaps his young daughter, Snooks, during one of his three days a year of visitation. He knocks out the social worker tasked with making sure Snooks isn’t kidnapped. Then he dupes a friend into driving the duo to the airport and they jet off for a new life, less assuming than the previous. Then the story doubles back to the roots of young Gerhartsreiter, a wily kid with big dreams.

The book is divided into two sections. The first covers Rockefeller’s early years in the United States, working his way across the country and faking a career in the movie biz. He settles down for awhile in California and earns puppy-dog like acceptance in social circles. Along the way he has cultivated a depth of knowledge in exactly the kinds of things rich people like to talk about. His dress and mannerisms suggest a pure bred and at this point his name suggests links to English royalty. The first half ends with him leaving town in a truck that belonged to acquaintances who have gone missing.

In the second half, he has reinvented himself again as a film producer trying on a stint on Wall Street. He starts with the churches attended by society folk and then weasels his way into parties and job titles and eventually a wife with a pretty sweet earning potential.

The entire story is a wonder — enough so that the Lifetime Movie Network took on their own version of the tale that played a year ago. The first half is pretty repetitious, reiterating that people were drawn to the con man, especially women, and that he was smarter than smart. Things really ramp up once he heads out east and takes on the Rockefeller name. The bullshit is bolder. The eccentricities are more eccentric. But the questions loom larger and Seal leaves plenty of them unanswered: How does this man cultivate a collection of fraudulent art pieces that are good enough to fool true art aficionados? How were these elaborate lies, which were seemingly researched and plotted and layered to avoid detection, concocted? And once it was revealed that her husband was not who he said, why didn’t his wife do anything with the information beyond getting custody and spiriting the tot off to London?

Also: Seal does this curious thing of suddenly putting himself and his reporting into the story, which comes across a little rinky dink. He would be better as an invisible reporter relaying the deets.

This review was originally posted on Minnesota Reads.

Review: ‘Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil’ by John Berendt

In one of the greatest instances of luck to ever rain on a writer with a bionic eye for detail and a canine sense for sniffing out bedazzled characters in absurd situations, journalist John Berendt just happened to be living in and jotting notes about Savannah, Georgia, in 1981 when one of the city’s largest looming residents shot his hot-head assistant to death.

Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil is Berendt’s Travel Channel-True Crime hybrid, a collection of quirky Savannahian character features that is interrupted in favor of an intriguing murder-or-self defense mystery.

Berendt was a New Yorker, fascinated by the culture of Savannah, Georgia, when he set up dual citizenship between the cities. The writer for Esquireseemingly had the good sense to carry a notebook in his pocket and say yes to every invitation. He also, seemingly, is one of those people who always falls in the path of the right fiery drag queen or piano-playing traveling party.

His story starts with an introduction to the character who will drive the tale. John Williams is a Faberge fan, an antiques dealer living like an aristocrat in the historic Mercer House. He’s a controversial character involved with the city’s restoration projects. He also throws a yearly Christmas party, an event that has residents clamoring for an invite. Williams has taken in a young, barely-legal hustler Danny Hansford, described by a woman he spontaneously screwed as a “walking streak of sex.” The 20-year-old serves as Williams’ assistant, a job that seems to include the occasional bump and grind. But the kid is often hopped up on this or that and occasionally goes bull-in-china-shop loco on Williams’ expensive collection.

One night Williams shoots the kid, describing it as self defense. But enough of the facts are murky enough to land Williams a murder charge.

In the interim, Berendt meets neighbor Joe Odom. This former lawyer is a walking-talking fun factory. His door is always open to revelers and he is unfazed by waking up in a bed with two post-coital strangers. He pogos checks and changes residences, squatting here and there and lifting electricity from a neighbor. He opens nightclubs and opens different nightclubs. And when he is called into court for writing bad checks, he takes time out to council one of the plaintiffs.

It is Odom who seems keenly aware that Berendt is going to turn this story into a book, even before the murders. He’s got dibs on playing himself in the movie and occasionally does something akin to breaking the fourth wall to discuss his role in the final draft.

There is also a drag queen named Chablis, who likes to stir the shit. She likes straight white boys and adopts Berendt as her personal chauffeur. In a story where Berendt plays an almost silent observer, it is only Chablis who draws him out onto the page when she damn-near ruins his reputation at a cotillion. There is also a voodoo practitioner who is using a little graveyard dirt and chanting to try to help Williams through the trial.

Even without the murder, Berendt would have had a decent story. He has a great eye for detail and inflection and for story-worthy moments. You can actually hear the distinct drawls of his characters. This could have just been a very detailed sketch of a city that he describes as untouched by external forces. It is a great example of Truman Capote-style literary non-fiction, maybe the best I’ve read. It’s also a great example of what can happen when you keep a pen on your person and your eyes wide open.

This review was originally posted on Minnesota Reads.