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.


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.

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