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The Man in the Rockefeller Suit

The stranger-than-fiction story of the con man who found his way into some of America’s most elite circles.

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But by mid 1992, he was living on East 57th Street in Manhattan and calling himself Clark Rockefeller. He dressed and acted the part and fooled most people for a very long time, including Sandra Boss. By all accounts, Boss was smart (a graduate of Stanford University with a Harvard MBA) and ambitious (the youngest partner in the history of McKinsey and Company). He wooed her and they married. But his behavior became increasingly erratic and over time she grew to suspect that he wasn’t on the level. After 12 years of marriage, she divorced him. He was given very limited visitation rights to their daughter. He kidnapped her in Boston and fled to Baltimore (where he called himself Chris Young) but the FBI soon captured him.

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No mystery writer would script this – it’s too unbelievable. At one level it’s an amazing story of an individual’s capacity to remake himself multiple times and to find mentors and supporters at every level of American society. The fact that he managed to live as a serial imposter for 30 years would not seem to be possible, but he pulled it off. (One wonders how it would work today in such an interconnected world where a Google search can very easily be conducted on anyone and anything.)

It is a fascinating and complex story especially because it’s all true. Seal conducted more than 200 interviews to gather material for the book and provides a well written, entertaining, and coherent narrative. The fact that Seal could bring order and coherence to the tale is a tribute to his journalistic skills.

While it is a remarkable “true crime” story, the book is not completely satisfying because the story is, in the end, incomplete. Large parts of “Rockefeller’s” life are missing and several of those who could have shed the most light on his life – Gerhartsreiter himself, his former wife, and the woman he apparently lived with between 1988 and 1992 – didn’t cooperate with the author. Seal gets great mileage from those whom he did interview but the absence of several central actors leaves too much of the story blank.

And finally, the story is not over. Almost 10 years after Gerhartsreiter suddenly left California, the body of John Sohus – the son of his landlord in San Marino who had taken a “secret government job” – was discovered buried near the guest house where Gerhartsreiter had lived and traces of blood were found in the dwelling. All Seal can say for sure is that the case remains under active investigation. In other words, despite, valiant efforts to bring the story to a conclusion, it seems likely that there is at least one more chapter to come.

Terry Hartle is senior vice president of government relations for the American Council on Education.

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