The fantasy of creating a new life – just disappearing from the humdrum of everyday life and starting over as a completely different person – may well be fairly common. But few people ever attempt it, let alone pull it off. Veteran journalist Mark Seal’s latest book, The Man in the Rockefeller Suit, tells the tale of a man who managed to reinvent himself multiple times, the last of which involved appropriating the name and mannerisms of one of America’s most legendary families.
It all began in Germany where young, ambitious Christian Gerhartsreiter wanted a better, more exciting life than the one he would have in the small village where he grew up. He moved to the United States (on a questionable student visa) in the fall of 1978 and settled briefly in Connecticut where he enrolled in high school. A year later he went to Wisconsin, started college and, for the first time, changed his name. Then known as Chris Gerhart, he married to gain US residency and soon moved (by himself) to California where he began calling himself Christopher Chichester. In 1981, he settled in San Marino and claimed he was a grandson of Lord Mountbatten – the great grandson of Queen Victoria and one of the three Supreme Allied Commanders of World War II – but shyly admitted that he was a “poor relation.” He soon began to tell people that he was a baronet.
Given that “Chris” was charming, well-mannered, smart, sophisticated, and claimed a royal pedigree, he was readily welcomed. He eventually settled into the guest house of an alcoholic, mentally troubled woman who lived on Lorain Road in tony San Marino, and befriended John and Linda Sohus, the woman’s son and daughter-in-law. The young couple left suddenly for New York and a “very secret” government job that Chichester had arranged for them. They were never heard from again.
Chris himself departed abruptly and next appeared in Greenwich, Conn., where he called himself Christopher Crowe and worked as an information technology specialist for a small investment firm. His growing ego soon clashed with the owner of the firm and he again left quickly. But he landed on Wall Street where he became – stunningly, given his total lack of experience – a vice president in the corporate bond department of Nikko Securities. Not surprisingly, that did not last long and, once again, he simply vanished. For the next three and a half years, it appears that there is no record of where he was or what he did.
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.
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.