The Man Who Played Rockefeller

Mark Seal’s “The Man Who Played Rockefeller” is far and away the best thing I’ve read all week. It is a riveting, at times unbelievable, account of how a German-born Christian Karl Gerhartsreiter came to the United States at the tender age of 17 and proceeded to climb up the ranks of society. But he did it through conniving tactics, playing cool, and always acting the impostor.

You must read the whole thing, but I highlight some notable passages below. If you’ve seen LOST, you remember the mention of the long con. I claim that Gerhartsreiter’s story can be dubbed The Long Con.

Gerhartsreiter’s ascendance followed discrete steps, beginning with his rise in California:

When he appeared in the wealthy, leafy town of San Marino, California, three years later, Gerhartsreiter, now 20, had transformed himself into Christopher Mountbatten Chichester, a self-proclaimed computer expert, film producer, stockbroker and the nephew of Lord Mountbatten. The new arrival was a whiz at Trivial Pursuit, the American pop-culture game, and proved especially popular with women, who were charmed by his royal bloodline and courtly manners. “He knew everything about everything,” one woman told me recently. “He was fabulous.”

His next move was toward the East Coast, where he took a new name, Christopher C. Crowe, which he’d taken from the producer of the series “Alfred Hitchcock Presents.”

For the freshly minted Crowe, the doors to an incredible new career opened at the Indian Harbor Yacht Club, an exclusive sailing organization that dates back to 1889. It is a picture-perfect setting, a white wooden building festooned with yachting flags looking out onto Long Island Sound. “Imagine hundreds of people here for a regatta,” said my local guide, a woman I’ll call Samantha. “Nobody would know anything. The guy could sneak in [easily], coming up from the shore.”

To me, one of the most astounding part of the story was his rise through the ranks on Wall Street, where he had to pass difficult tests to become a licensed broker dealer:

But Crowe not only had to get through a personal interview with the shrewd Phelps, he also had to pass difficult tests. Everyone who works at a broker-dealer company must take the Series 7 and Series 63 exams, which consist of more than seven hours of questions. The Series 7, which has 250 multiple-choice questions, takes about six hours to complete; Crowe most likely took his test at One Police Plaza in New York City. “Two three-hour parts, with a one-hour break,” said Samantha. “Some people have to take it two or three times. I’ve taken this test. It’s not easy. He might have been odd. He might have been arrogant. But he’s smart.”

Crowe let Samantha and everyone else at S. N. Phelps know that in addition to being a techie he was also the producer of a new series, “Alfred Hitchcock Presents.” “And if you looked at the credits, you would see Christopher Crowe,” said Samantha. “I asked him one time, ‘Christopher, it’s illogical to me. You’re a producer. And you’ve become a techie at a junk bond shop making $24,000 a year?’ He said, ‘I wanted to try something different.’ “

On Crowe’s lifestyle living someone else’s life:

Crowe was living the life of a Wall Street player: a six-figure salary, an office in the World Financial Center and an estate in Greenwich—or at least a few rooms behind an estate in Greenwich. A list of some of the charges on his American Express card (issued in the name of CCC Mountbatten) from 1987 to 1988 shows he dined in Manhattan’s finest restaurants: the “21” Club, Le Bernardin, the Quilted Giraffe and Bellini by Cipriani, among others. He was a regular on Broadway and at the opera, charging tickets to shows including “Phantom of the Opera” and “Madame Butterfly.” There were numerous charges for clothing, from such stores as Burberry, Church’s English Shoes and J. Press. He bought chocolates or flowers on almost a weekly basis—gifts, presumably, for people with whom he wanted to ingratiate himself.

And for the final, most ambitious metamorphosis, Gerhartsreiter became Rockefeller:

When he entered the magnificent Gothic church in early 1992, the former Christopher Crowe had a new name and a meticulously researched persona to go with it. “Hello,” he greeted his fellow worshippers in his perfectly enunciated East Coast prep-school accent, wearing a blue blazer and private-club necktie, which he would usually accent with khaki pants embroidered with tiny ducks, hounds or bumblebees, worn always with Top-Sider boat shoes, without socks. “Clark,” he said, “Clark Rockefeller.”

The newcomer had quite a tale to tell. “He intimated that he was from the Percy Rockefeller branch of the clan—not John D. ultrarich, but plenty rich,” said a member of the congregation I’ll call John Wells. “He claimed to have grown up on Sutton Place [the East Side enclave of some of the grandest townhouses in the city]. He claimed to have gone to Yale at something like age 14. He had the Yale scarf with the blue stripes on it. He said he had one of the J-boats from his grandparents—you know, the classic 1920s, 1930s sailing yachts.”

Read the rest of the story to find out how he was caught. I didn’t mention it above, but interwoven in the story is a murder… This story is a hell a lot more interesting than some of the movies I’ve seen recently, and I am sure you’ll agree when you read the story yourself.

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Note: Mark Seal’s story is adapted from Mark Seal’s book, The Man in the Rockefeller Suit, which is slated to be released on June 2, 2011.

Amazon Reveals Most Well-Read Cities in America

Amazon.com came out with an interesting press release today, touting the most “well-read” cities in the United States.

Just in time for the summer reading season, Amazon.com announced its list of the Top 20 Most Well-Read Cities in America. After compiling sales data of all book, magazine and newspaper sales in both print and Kindle format since Jan. 1, 2011, on a per capita basis in cities with more than 100,000 residents, the Top 20 Most Well-Read Cities are:

1. Cambridge, Massachusetts

2. Alexandria, Virginia

3. Berkeley, California

4. Ann Arbor, Michigan

5. Boulder, Colorado

6. Miami, Florida

7. Salt Lake City, Utah

8. Gainesville, Florida

9. Seattle, Washington

10. Arlington, Virginia

11. Knoxville, Tennessee

12. Orlando, Florida

13. Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania

14. Washington, D.C.

15. Bellevue, Washington

16. Columbia, South Carolina

17. St. Louis, Missouri

18. Cincinnati, Ohio

19. Portland, Oregon

20. Atlanta, Georgia

This is an interesting list. Most likely, Cambridge is number one on the list because of the dense concentration of universities in the area (Harvard and MIT). I am glad my hometown of Atlanta made the cut.

However, the list bothers me because it’s an indirect measure of reading, as the gauge here is sales of books rather than consumption (i.e., reading of books). I can imagine the statistics are skewed toward college towns where students are buying textbooks in bulk in preparation for the start of their semesters/quarters at college.

I myself purchase books on Amazon in bulk — typically five to ten at a time, once I’ve added these books to my shopping cart over a span of a few days (or weeks). However, if I purchase ten books today, when will I have actually read them? Perhaps well into next year. This confounding factor certainly plays a (major) role in interpreting this list.

Of course, I don’t know of a good way to measure actual reading of books (versus sales of books). What about you?

New Yorker Profile of Joseph Brodsky

In this month’s New Yorker, there is an interesting profile of Joseph Brodsky and the fortune of misfortunes.

If you aren’t familiar with Brodsky’s story and his exile from Russia, that piece is an excellent primer. I’ve previously profiled a conversation between Brodksy and a judge in this post (scroll down to the bottom), but this exchange (profiled in the New Yorker) was new to me:

Judge: Tell the court why in between jobs you didn’t work and led a parasitic life style?
Brodsky: I worked in between jobs. I did what I do now: I wrote poems.
Judge: You wrote your so-called poems? And what was useful about your frequent job changes?
Brodsky: I began working when I was 15 years old. Everything was interesting to me. I changed jobs because I wanted to learn more about life, about people.
Judge: What did you do for your motherland?
Brodsky: I wrote poems. That is my work. I am convinced. . . . I believe that what I wrote will be useful to people not only now but in future generations.
Judge: So you think your so-called poems are good for people?
Brodsky: Why do you say of the poems that they are “so-called”?
Judge: We say that because we don’t have any other idea about them. 

Of note is this paragraph about Brosky’s loneliness when coming to the United States:

Brodsky’s poems during his first years in the States are filled with the most naked loneliness. “An autumn evening in a humble little town / proud of its appearance on the map,” one begins, and concludes with an image of a person whose reflection in the mirror disappears, bit by bit, like that of a street lamp in a drying puddle. The enterprising Proffer had persuaded the University of Michigan to make Brodsky a poet in residence; Brodsky wrote a poem about a college teacher. “In the country of dentists,” it begins, “whose daughters order clothes / from London catalogues, . . . / I, whose mouth houses ruins / more total than the Parthenon’s, / a spy, an interloper, / the fifth column of a rotten civilization,” teach literature. The narrator comes home at night, falls into bed with his clothes still on, and cries himself to sleep…

I also thought the author’s conviction on Brodsky’s grasp of the English language was profound (I am reminded of Nabokov in this instance):

His [Brodsky's] English was able to grant his parents a measure of freedom. But there was one thing it could not do: transform his Russian poetry into English poetry. Inevitably, Brodsky tried, and he wasn’t shy about it. Almost as soon as his English was up to snuff he began to “collaborate” with his translators; eventually he supplanted them. The results were not so much bad as badly uneven. For every successful stanza, there were three or four gaffes—grammatical, or idiomatic, or just generally tin-eared. Worst of all, to readers accustomed to postwar Anglo-American poetry, Brodsky’s translations rhymed, no matter what obstacles stood in their way.

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Hat Tip: @openculture

Derek Miller’s (@PenMachine) Last Blog Post

If you knew you were dying tomorrow, what would you do? And if you had a blog, would you compose a final entry?

Derek Miller, blogger at penmachine.com, published his final post just before his death. It begins:

Here it is. I’m dead, and this is my last post to my blog. In advance, I asked that once my body finally shut down from the punishments of my cancer, then my family and friends publish this prepared message I wrote—the first part of the process of turning this from an active website to an archive.

If you knew me at all in real life, you probably heard the news already from another source, but however you found out, consider this a confirmation: I was born on June 30, 1969 in Vancouver, Canada, and I died in Burnaby on May 3, 2011, age 41, of complications from stage 4 metastatic colorectal cancer. We all knew this was coming.

That includes my family and friends, and my parents Hilkka and Juergen Karl. My daughters Lauren, age 11, and Marina, who’s 13, have known as much as we could tell them since I first found I had cancer. It’s become part of their lives, alas.

Was Derek afraid of dying?

So I was unafraid of death—of the moment itself—and of what came afterwards, which was (and is) nothing. As I did all along, I remained somewhat afraid of the process of dying, of increasing weakness and fatigue, of pain, of becoming less and less of myself as I got there. I was lucky that my mental faculties were mostly unaffected over the months and years before the end, and there was no sign of cancer in my brain—as far as I or anyone else knew.

If you do decide to read the full post, do have a tissue nearby. It’s heartbreaking. Yet so, so courageous to go out like this:

The world, indeed the whole universe, is a beautiful, astonishing, wondrous place. There is always more to find out. I don’t look back and regret anything, and I hope my family can find a way to do the same.

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Related: regrets of the dying.