The Man in the Rockefeller Suit: The Astonishing Rise and Spectacular Fall of a Serial Imposter by Mark Seal. Review by Rose.

When he closed his eyes Christian Gerhartsreiter dreamed he was part of the elite of American society. He blanked out the view of his small German village. He thought about country estates, huge swimming pools, doormen at illustrious hotels opening doors and greeting him like a star as he walked in. He could hear the chink of ice in crystal glasses as he lounged in his impeccable clothes in the company of society members: men and women that owned yachts and buildings; people that radiated power. This fantasy replayed every waking moment like a movie flickering in his head. His father, a painter, earning little money, became an industrialist: a man of influence and wealth. Instead of their small home, Christian saw a mansion house and servants supplying his every need. His mother became a descendent of a generation of aristocrats. Christian lived out his fantasies in the real world of American society for many years.

One should never underestimate the power of fantasy in a teenage mind, particularly if they are narcissistic and perhaps have a condition called psychopathy. Not all conmen kill like Christian did but most will carry on de-frauding others as if addicted until they are caught or die. They want the upper-class lifestyle and once they have lived in extravagance, they find it difficult to let this go. Career charlatans tend to weave extraordinary stories that shift over time: One conman might say his parents were wealthy archaeologists, they died in a horrific car crash on his eighteenth birthday, his mother was related to a famous film star. At a party, the conman will reveal something intriguing: at one party Christian announced he was a television producer working with Alfred Hitchcock. They may say, like Christian did, that they studied at Yale at the procacious age of fourteen. They will let people know that they are related to a baron, descendants of geniuses and innovators, men whose names vibrate with societal power, expanding their personalities to those listening. They are often confident, charming and lazy. They bore easily and cannot do normal jobs or follow rules. They may have, as in Christian’s case, been overindulged by their parents. It is said as a child Christian’s every whim was pandered to.

Like all imposters, Mark Seal’s book shows that Christian was skilled in re-inventing himself, of shifting identities, as quick as slipping on a new suit. You could detach one illusionary personality from an imposter, only to expose a more complex one waiting to take its place. Ultimately, this young imposter, like the many Hitchcock antagonists he loved to watch, would murder to get what he wanted, and this would lead to his downfall. If he had watched the film ‘Strangers on a Train’ he would have wanted to play the part of the lazy, sociopathic upper-class son, who spent his time golfing and spending his father’s money. He mimicked television characters that would be used to mould new personalities and put into action the career of a criminal.

Mark Seal is an American journalist who has worked for Vanity Fair. He has researched his subject thoroughly. He brings to life one of most of its bizarre true crime stories in America: the account of one of the most famous serial imposters. Seal has drawn from over 200 interviews, visited Christian’s hometown and attended the long court case in America. He provides an in-depth intelligent look into the mind and pattern of behaviours of a serial imposter, conman and murderer. Many of Christian’s behaviours can be seen in other serial imposters and criminals. The book not only shines a flashlight on the criminal but the social behaviour of all people that interacted with him. How does human social behaviour in groups facilitate a conman? This is a question that I thought about when reading this book. How do people’s reactions to status and wealth assist a predator?

Christian arrived in America aged 17 years old, staying with a host family as an exchange student and tourist. The family described him as arrogant and slothful, a young man who would drawl extraordinary statements at the dinner table like ‘How can one live like this?’ Seal tells us that he meant live ‘in a modest middle-class area where people worked hard. Christian would describe the servants his family had at the table. However, this was a lie. He mimicked characters from American television for hours on end, cultivating a new identity he would eventually use in real life. Interestingly from a psychological standpoint, he used the television medium to develop his new identity, yet this television image was accepted by the wealthy as ‘Real.’ American programmes showing exciting lavish lifestyles and American films by Hitchcock with glossy backdrops greatly influenced the mind of this young adult.

Christopher Mountbatten Chichester. The name is a mouthful, it’s cunning: it has power and prestige. It could be a movie star’s name. It could be a shop in Mayfair, London; a place where you buy tailored shirts. ‘Look like Christopher Mountbatten Chichester’, might be the words etched in gold on the tailor’s window. At twenty-six years old Christian found the wealthiest setting in San Marino, California, the sector with millionaire houses, immaculate lawns, and well-tended inhabitants. Seal guides us through the landscape in detail, interviewing some of the local church ladies who drove him around and invited him to their family dinners. Chichester used the church as his hunting ground; this would become a technique for every American state he moved to. He informed the residents that he was from royalty. At twenty-six, he acted like an educated gentleman, older than his years. He would kiss the ladies hands, he was handsome, charming and smart. He could talk about politics, film, stocks and shares. He would reveal to the ladies in confidence that he was the nephew of Lord Mountbatten.

If you look at his behaviour in this book, you can see that Christian understood how human beings acted in social groups. Criminal imposters understand social behaviour and how to become popular. One could call them ‘scientific laymen of human behaviour.’ They have little empathy. They can come from all backgrounds: working-class and well educated middle-class. They are ruthless and they provide people with an illusion that is tantalising.

Social psychology research reveals human beings often like other people better if they appear like themselves. When people come across someone different from themselves, they may struggle to like that person. Undoubtedly, liking them may be slower. Speed at fitting in is important to a conman. A person new to a group having a contradictory personality to the group majority may be seen ‘negatively’ by a group - consciously or unconsciously.

One should not make generalisations, people do exist who are more open to many different kinds of people. However, research tends to focus on the majority. If Christian had shown he was not like the others in the wealthy church group, it’s doubtful he’d have been liked as much. Fewer people would have been conned. He’d have been invited out less, he’d have received fewer invitations. Christian knew how to become a mirror to the wealthy, even upping the stakes by making his family history more illustrious. He projected to others a comparable personality, background, education and he matched their interests. He was friendly and talkative. He also knew how human beings reacted to high ranking status people in society and he used this. 

In time, he would become Clark Rockefeller and con his educated professional wife, who in court said she believed he was one of the most intelligent men she’d ever met. However, the book shows that she too was allured by the name Rockefeller. Witnesses stated they had heard her tell clients about this link to one of the most influential families in America.

Christian read ‘The Great Gatsby’ wondering what it would be like to have the authority and influence of the character in the book, doing whatever it took, to live a life of unimaginable prosperity. While reading it, he possibly wondered if it was possible to reach the echelons of society in America, by defrauding other people. He was possibly a teenager when these thoughts raced through his mind. He knew that human beings often react differently to people they deem to have status in society. Iin a group situation if one member has more status, others may want to befriend them, this is because they believe it will up their status and could advance them in areas of business or personal invitations. It has been shown in research studies that if a human being has status, they will be given more time and have more interest will be taken in them. Professional imposters and Conmen understand the effect of status on human beings. Christian wanted to be upper class, therefore he presented everything expected of the upper classes but he also cleverly elevated his status in the group.

Unfortunately, though shocked, many could not believe that he had actually murdered the son and girlfriend of the elderly woman he lodged with. He chose a lonely, drinking widow with mental health problems. He lived as her lodger, ran errands for her and befriended her. However, at some point her adopted son and wife arrived back in the home. These people would, years later, be found buried in the garden of the property. It's hard to imagine Christian committing murder despite his abilty as a conman, but when someone got in his way, he murdered them in order to reach his goals.

The elderly woman was not murdered, but she lost all her money and ended up living in a trailer park with no relative to look after her. When people asked about her missing son and daughter-in-law, she told them they were abroad in a secret job for a special company, There is little doubt that Christian had told her he'd arrange for them to work for a prestigious company. They were never seen again.

Christian was accepted as a student at many universities, yet he could not pass exams. He had the intelligence, but never wanted to work hard and probably found it hard to follow academic rules. He was self-taught, in fact one of his favourite places to hang out was the library. His education came from libraries. He studied history, literature, politics, and it is likely he investigated human behaviour. He looked up great wealthy men and their histories and could talk easily on many different subjects. Many people were fooled into believing he was well-educated, when most of his later education came from library books.

Culture, obviously there are cultural differences between people in America and the UK. However, one of the most infamous imposters in the UK, a man who came from a sheltered middle-class background with educated parents, followed very similar techniques to Christian. The fact that this happened in American culture does not indicate that Americans are more gullible than British people, as the same thing has happened here. In both cases, the upper class lifestyle was funded by other people they had stolen from, Both served prison sentences eventually, but went right out and committed the same crime. The difference was the British imposter did not kill anyone. However, he stole hundreds of thousands of pounds from people. Both men chose people with money and upper class people, or those with large inheritances. Neither showed empathy and didn't seem to feel any guilt at all. Both men had a sense of arrogance and entitlement, both felt they deserved the upper class lifestyle.

As Clark Rockefeller, he used the name frequently, he dropped this name in groups with total ease and no sign of hesitation. He was exceptionally confident. People immediately on hearing his connection to the famous family would offer him invites to exclusive events, they wanted to befriend him in case he could help them in business deals. The behaviour of human beings and their need to feel special next to a Rockefeller, was ulimtately a downfall for them.

Conmen always have immediate excuses if they are caught out in any way. They are brilliant and practised liars, they also move from place to place, so that even if they are caught out, by this time they have completely disappeared.

This book is a rare insight into the mind of this type of criminal and human behaviour as a whole. It's well worth a read and will keep you turning the page. I would have liked more information on his early upbringing but Mark Seal does reveal enough information to build a sketch of his early years.