Walter Kirn has written insightful, best-selling novels — including Up in the Air and Thumbsucker, which were made into movies. He’s an expert in the art of fiction.
So why did he fail to see the signs of falsehood in real life?
When Kirn was just starting his novel-writing career, he met a man who was a bold financier, an art collector, a fussy eccentric, a dog lover and a Rockefeller. They became friends.
But over the years Kirn began to learn that the man who called himself Clark Rockefeller was none of that — not even a dog lover. He was a psychopath and a killer.
How did Kirn fall for the fraud? Was Christian Karl Gerhartsriter — aka “Clark Rockefeller” — extraordinarily compelling? Or was the novelist, like a lot of other people drawn to the imposter, duped by his own desire to have an attachment to a famous name?
Kirn has chronicled this story in his new book Blood Will Out: The True Story of a Murder, a Mystery, and a Masquerade. He spoke with NPR’s Scott Simon about Rockefeller’s eccentricities, the most egregious lies and what made the impostor so successful.
On how the story got started
It’s 1998, summer, and the [Livingston, Mont.] Humane Society gets in a dog that has been run over and shot, and is in a wheelchair because the back half of its body is paralyzed. They put it up for adoption on the Internet because it’s a fancy breed, a Gordon Setter, and a man from New York contacts them. His name is Clark Rockefeller. He’d very much like to adopt the dog, he says: he can give it a wonderful home, he has a cook for his other Gordon setter, he serves four course meals to it. He lives near Central Park and can take it for walks every day.
The problem is how to get it there, because Clark Rockefeller doesn’t drive and his plane is in China with his wife that summer. The Humane Society comes to me and says, “Hey Walter, you lived down the East Coast, you went to Princeton University, maybe you can talk to this fancy character and figure out how to get him the dog.” Long story short, I ended up driving him the dog, in my Ford pickup, from Montana 2,000 miles to New York City.
On what drew him to “Clark Rockefeller”
I met him on the phone first. I asked him what he did and he said “Walter, I’m a freelance central banker.” And I asked, “what’s that?” “Well, I let the money over the dam so that it waters the fields of the third-world economies.” I asked someone later if that was a good description of what central bankers did, and they said that, actually, it’s incredibly astute. Other things that came up during the phone call — the fact that he’d never tasted Coca-Cola, never eaten in a restaurant — got me to thinking: I, as a fiction writer, have to meet this guy. It would be professional malpractice if I didn’t.
On seeing Rockefeller’s home, and falling for his lies
There was no real food in the kitchen, no hominess or sign of domestic warmth, but there was what appeared to be maybe 80, 90 million dollars’ worth of Jackson Pollocks, Rothkos, and de Koonings hanging on the walls…
Here’s the problem: I’d met rich eccentrics at Princeton and Oxford. If I’d never met one, I probably would have seen through him — but because I’d met them and they were so crazy, he just seemed like another crazy one of them … He had a physics degree, a mathematics degree, and an economics degree, I think, from three different Ivy League colleges. And so, why doubt him? Especially once you’ve seen the props. Once you’ve seen the art, you buy the person.
On receiving George W. Bush’s phone number
This was the strangest moment in my time with him. I’m staying at his mansion, up in Cornish, New Hampshire, where J.D. Salinger lived. At one point I complain that I’ve got some tax problems, that the government’s going to take a couple thousand dollars out of my bank account for a tax bill, and he says, “Walter, you can clear that up in a minute. Here, call George,” and he writes a phone number down on a piece of paper. And we’d just been talking about the President of the United States, George Bush, Jr., and I realized that was the George he was referring to. And then he said, “Now, this is his private line. He’ll pick up personally. It won’t be a secretary.”
It was brilliant! He knew I’d never dial that number. I mean, the black helicopters would come down and, you know, scoop me out of my house if I dialed that phone number … I also thought, George Bush will get very mad at Clark Rockefeller for giving out his number, so I can’t really dial it. But I put the number in my pocket and kept it there and walked around with it. You know, lies like that stun the mind. You don’t question whether they’re true or not, because you could never imagine making one up yourself.
On how Rockefeller’s story began to unravel
By 2008, I was sick of him. It was always, “Don’t call me; I’ll call you.” But we had bonded over the fact that we were both divorced, and had kids we didn’t see as much as we wanted.
In 2008 I turned on the Internet, I think, and saw that there was a nationwide Amber alert for Clark Rockefeller. He’d kidnapped his daughter from a custody hearing in Boston. And I thought, “Oh no, Clark snapped, he took his daughter.” And even though I knew this was terrible, I kind of felt for him, because for the last year he’d been on the phone with me, sort of crying on my shoulder about how much he missed her.
Then a couple of days later, when he was captured, the Rockefeller family came out and said, “He’s not one of us. We don’t know who this man is.” And my response was, “You cowards! You Rockefellers, throwing one of your own under the bus the minute there’s a hint of scandal,” you know. And I explained it by thinking, you know, oh maybe he’s the bastard, unacknowledged child of one of them, or something.
Then, a few days later it came out that he was wanted in a gruesome, terrible murder dating back to 1985 in California, and as the details of the murder were described, a chill went through me. And I realized it was all true. He was a fake, he was a kidnapper and, in my mind, he was a murderer, too. And I had been completely fooled.
On why Kirn calls himself a collaborator in the book
You know, there’s an old saying with memoir, and it’s attributed to the writer Tobias Wolff, “In every memoir, you should be the worst character.” Well, there’s no way for me to be the worst character here. Clark’s the worst character. But the fact of the matter is, is that until he was convicted of these crimes, everyone believed him. I wanted to show the point of view of the dupe, of the fool. So I was hard on myself. But I collaborated with him in the sense that, every time he told a story that didn’t make sense, I tried to make it make sense for him, in my mind. Every time he lied and I felt a little twinge inside, I covered it up. And I had to answer the question why I did that.
… Clark answered it for me. When I saw him in jail after his murder conviction, I said, “you’re not gonna admit to the murder,” which he didn’t, he had a story for that, “but it’s clear that you were a great conman and a great impostor for many years, what’s the secret to fooling people?” I said. And he looked at me and he said, “Walter, three little words, I’m surprised you don’t know: vanity, vanity, vanity.” And when I asked him to expand, he basically explained that all of us want to be seen as something in the world’s eyes, and we all want to see ourselves as something other than what we fear we are. And Clark basically took away people’s insecurities about themselves in return for their confidence.