It’s unlikely that any style community is more fixated on authenticity than followers of the Ivy League Look. Bring up whether a hook vent is essential or a jacket can ever be darted, and you’ll kick off a dogma debate rivaling the The First Council of Nicaea in its intensity.
This zealous guarding of the Ivy gates may have something to do with the look’s historical connections to power, position, and privilege. The orthodox roll their eyes at tennis sweaters with faux crests and club ties unattached to any club, pitying the poser that so blatantly wishes to imitate a way of life not his own.
Ivy enthusiasts like myself, who neither prepped nor matriculated at the right kind of institution and learned only later in life that summer” can be a verb, are generally transparent about our off-brand backgrounds. The fact that we never inherited a signet ring or saw Nantucket as children is part of the look’s appeal in the first place. It’s exotic, an imagined ideal.
But if one case can validate the gatekeepers’ suspicions, it’s the tale of Christian Gerhartsreiter, a German native currently serving 27 years to life at San Quentin State Prison. Gerhartsreiter, a serial imposter and convicted murderer, lived in the United States for decades under various aliases, most famously as Clark Rockefeller, which he continued using even after his 2008 arrest for kidnapping.
The sensational nature of the case received widespread media coverage, and has been the focus of several books in the years since. I checked out one of these, The Man in The Rockefeller Suit by Mark Seal at The Boston Athenaeum, a membership library that Gerhartsreiter himself belonged to while posing as a Boston Brahmin.
The book was a fascinating read, covering Gerhartsreiter from the time he first came to Connecticut as a teenager in 1979 up until his 2013 conviction for the murders of John and Linda Sohus. Through extensive research and interviews with dozens who knew him, Seal tries his best to produce a character sketch of the cryptic Gerhartsreiter. While the imposter’s aliases varied in background, they were united by a penchant for preppy clothing—a quality that proved key in passing off his bogus identity to the influential and well heeled.
Before Gerhartsreiter adopted a false name, he was seventeen and freshly arrived in the United States. He boarded with a family in Berlin, Connecticut, and tried to blend into contemporary American style. One of the family’s children described him as wearing white-framed sunglasses, a tight shirt and tight jeans, and having hair that was “windblown and spiky.”
He began lying immediately—he claimed his father was a German industrialist—but there was not yet an invented connection to WASPdom. The first traces of Clark Rockefeller emerged soon enough: one of the family’s children described him watching Gilligan’s Island and consciously working Thurston Howell III’s exaggerated, aristocratic élan into his own English. Another glint of the future faux-Rockefeller surfaced during his time at the University of Wisconsin in 1981, where Gerhartsreiter would tell his roommate that he was an ambassador’s son from Boston and spoke with a formal accent.
From there Gerhartsreiter drifted to San Marino, California, where he became European all over again—English this time, a nephew of Lord Mountbatten’s named Christopher Chichester. This persona is more Anglophile than Ivy, but after murdering his landlady’s adopted son and daughter-in-law, he floated up to Greenwich, Connecticut, in 1985 as Christopher C. Crowe, a TV producer and wannabe investor.
During this period Gerhartsreiter combined his own notion of the Ivy League Look with 1980s power dressing. A woman recalls his appearance:
He always had his Burberry winter coat, the Burberry umbrella, the very fine cotton button-down white shirts with CCC monogrammed on his pockets. Always pristine, always perfect.
Perhaps Gerhartsreiter realized that the pocket monogram was a giveaway. In 1987 he improbably scammed his way into a legitimate job—and a $125,000 salary—with a Japanese firm on Wall Street, and began frequenting J. Press and Brooks Brothers. It didn’t take long for Gerhartsreiter to feel comfortable in his Ivy skin (though he was booted from the job). Looking for his next mark, Gerhartsreiter inserted himself into St. Thomas’s Church on Fifth Avenue, a New York City WASP institution. The now 31-year-old huckster entered the Episcopalian church as Clark Rockefeller, looking like his idea of eccentric old money:
…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.
Gerhartsreiter even positioned himself as a style expert:
He was in the middle of writing a book, American Standard, which would “educate the middle class on how to dress and act, and it was clear from his preppy clothing and perfect diction that Clark Rockefeller knew how to do all of that. He always wore khaki pants, a blood-red Yale baseball cap and a Lacoste polo shirt, with the collar turned up.
In particular, Gerhartsreiter seems to have latched onto going sans-socks as part of the disguise. An acquaintance from an elite all-girl’s school recalls him taking her to a debutante ball in a tuxedo and dress shoes, no socks in sight. Later, a neighbor in New Hampshire claimed that his disdain for socked feet extended through New England Winter.
Everything he did was to aggrandize his position…. It was to be bigger and better. He was not a very big guy if you looked at him. So everything he did was to puff himself up, just look like the cock of the walk. Wearing his boat shoes in the middle of winter, without socks, his yachting pants, his blue blazer, his white shirt.
Walter Krin, a novelist who became a friend of Clark Rockefeller and later wrote of their relationship in the memoir Blood Will Out, theorizes that the fixation on boat shoes worn without socks was something Gerhartsreiter cribbed from The Official Preppy Handbook, which Krin notes was published around the same time the German arrived in the United States in search of a new identity.
The guise was a success, and Gerhartsreiter used it to pose as an aristocrat with a formidable art collection, fooling the artist William Quigely:
Arriving in the lobby of the collector’s apartment building, Quigley found a slight man dressed in what had become his daily uniform: baseball cap, polo shirt, blue blazer, khaki pants—the picture of preppydom. The man reeked of old money, good breeding, and impeccable taste. Immediately, Quigley knew he’d found a Clark Rockefeller.
As Rockefeller, Gerhartsreiter even won himself a wife in the form of Sandra Boss, a high-powered corporate consultant that became his meal ticket. Free from having to keep up the appearance of work, he purchased an old home in Cornish, New Hampshire, and adopted a casual, eccentric take on prep that he brought to the family’s other home in Boston’s Beacon Hill neighborhood. In the words of one neighbor:
She described him as having “sort of the ruffled New Hampshire look—you know, the Birkenstock sandals.” She added that he always wore an Izod shirt, a blue or a red one, with the collar turned up. Preppy style with either red pants or his khaki pants, and always Top-Siders, without socks. “In the wintertime, I know he had to have had on more than that, but he always looked pretty much the same.”
Yet he wore tailored clothing when the occasion called for it. His friend Patrick Hickox recalls first meeting Gerhartsreiter at a party at the Boston Ritz, where the latter wore a J. Press tuxedo.
As Rockefeller, Gerhartsreiter infiltrated many of Boston’s exclusive clubs and became a fixture of the Beacon Hill social scene. But his marriage couldn’t survive his increasingly brazen falsehoods, and the union dissolved. Boss moved to London, taking their daughter—to whom Gerhartsreiter had given the preppy pet name “Snooks”—with her.
Gerhartsreiter planned to kidnap Snooks during a supervised visit in Boston, and began setting up a new life in Baltimore as Chip Smith. The Chip Smith persona still spoke with a Boston Brahmin accent and posed as old money, but there was something more cartoonish and less stable about his clothing choices, which seemed to reflect his increasingly desperate mental state. A realtor recalls Gerhartsreiter arriving to a party in “a big white floppy sailor’s hat and pinkish pants, which the office staff came to call Chip Smith’s Party Pants.”
The kidnapping attempt was made on July 27th, 2008, and a duped, frenzied media initially reported that it involved a genuine Rockefeller. Following a weeklong manhunt, Gerhartsreiter was apprehended by the FBI while in his Chip Smith persona.
Nonetheless, the defendant snapped back to Clark Rockefeller mode during his trial, and images show him wearing a repp tie and a J. Press blazer. Even after the sentencing, Gerhartsreiter kept up appearances. The following year, he arrived in court wearing a tweed jacket to ask that his sentence be reduced (the petition was denied).
In closing, towards the end of Seal’s book, the author recalls seeing a collection of Gerhartsreiter’s belongings in storage, proving once again that context is everything. — ERIC TWARDZIK
His clothing, all from J. Press, was stacked in a large pile—a tuxedo, several bold-plaid sports coats, all in plastic travel bags…There were new J. Press shirts, still in their original packaging, and several pairs of lace-up shoes from Church’s, the British shoemaker, size 9. Thrown casually into a paper bag was the preppy outfit he wore the day during his trial—the blazer, the white shirt, the khaki pants. The whole lot comprised a sort of do-it-yourself kit for an imposter. Without him though, it was all just a lifeless collection of stuff.