As a teen, Christian Karl Gerhartsreiter wanted nothing more than to leave his small German hometown behind. Nothing unusual there. He moved to the U.S. and reinvented himself. Nothing unusual there, either.
But young Christian went far beyond just changing his name to something more easily pronounced by his would-be peers. One identity at a time, one gullible group of wealthy acquaintances at a time, he morphed into Clark Rockefeller, “cousin of a cousin” to the famous family, a man firmly ensconced in the upper echelons of New York and Boston society. With a wealthy, hard-working young wife to support him, the con could have gone on and on. Of course, we know that it didn’t — that he was undone by deciding to kidnap his young daughter in the summer of 2008. I remember being fascinated by the press reports at the time, wondering what kind of man he must be.
In The Man in the Rockefeller Suit, Mark Seal traces in exhaustive detail Gerhartsreiter’s 30-year run, interviewing many of those who crossed paths with him along the way about how they were (or weren’t, as many claimed after the fact) taken in by his charm and apparent eccentricity, and Thurston Howell III-derived accent. Seal circulates among the monied residents of San Marino, Greenwich, the Upper East Side, and Beacon Hill — the scenes of Gerhartsreiter’s various crimes, which quite possibly include multiple murders — leading parts of the book to read like a field guide to the North American WASP. He describes every last “pert blonde,” “elegant home,” yacht club, and Episcopal parish along the way — these last are apparently excellent places to spend time if you want people to believe that you are well-connected.
In the face of such an enormous mass of facts, I can only wish that Seal’s editor had been as committed to honing this book into something readable — the writing is uneven, flaccid, and repetitive by turns. While Seal’s style was effective in the Vanity Fair piece on which this book was based, it is insufficient to sustain momentum across 300-plus pages. Many passages could be first drafts. The end result feels like it was written in a rush, and published in an even bigger rush.
Beyond weaknesses of style, there is a critical absence at the heart of this book — we hear nothing from the man himself. Neither Gerhartsreiter nor Sandra Boss, his ex-wife and primary victim, was interviewed. They “speak” only through others, and through trial transcripts. Moreover, Seal’s understanding of his protagonist’s motivation and mindset is superficial, incomplete. He fails to address the questions a reader brings to this story. Of course, he attends to the Who, When, and What — the results being nothing terribly different from what was published when the Gerhartsreiter case first came to light in 2008. What is missing is the How, and most damningly, the Why. In considering the darker corners of his subject’s soul, Seal seems satisfied that the answer lies in what so many of his sources tell him, “He was charming.” Hardly enough for this reader.
The Man in the Rockefeller Suit could have been a compelling analytical portrait of a man driven to fly ever closer to the sun in his pursuit of wealth and prestige. But it falls far short of the mark, and ultimately disappoints.