Between A Rockefeller And Hard Time

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.

32 Comments on "Between A Rockefeller And Hard Time"

  1. I believe the journalist was Walter “Kirn.”

  2. Richard E. Press | January 3, 2019 at 6:52 pm | Reply

    Love that he thought wearing Squeeze would validate his Rockefeller credentials.

  3. @JF, that would be correct, thank you for pointing that out.

    Kirn is an interesting guy. He pops up as one of the voices in David Coggins’s Men and Style.

  4. Miles Coverdale | January 3, 2019 at 8:28 pm | Reply

    A “sigil ring” sounds very witchy.

  5. This fellow showed up at Trinity Church Boston as Clark Rockefeller with a person I knew. I was an usher there and it was in the mid 1990s as I recall. He also hung out at the Algonquin and Tavern Clubs. There was no reason to doubt his identity at the time. A few few years later the scandal broke.

  6. reppupstateNY | January 3, 2019 at 9:23 pm | Reply

    forgive my ignrance, why a blood red Yale baseball cap? Kind of a dead giveaway that the guy was a phony, no?

  7. A Trad Confused | January 3, 2019 at 9:31 pm | Reply

    Excellent article. I remember reading about this in Vanity Fair.

  8. Seems like it would be hard to pull this off for long in any one place. After just a bit, the “well, you must know so-and-so” would start, or he’d get locations wrong, etc. Older ladies are particularly good at detailed interrogation; need to find out who one’s “people” are, doncha know?

  9. Old School Tie | January 4, 2019 at 7:09 am | Reply

    Yes, I remember seeing something about him this side of the pond. What a fabulously salacious story. I will endeavour to find a copy of that book, but regretfully concede that his lovely cricket sweater might not be so easy to find.

  10. The popped collar and cricket sweater make him look like an extra in ‘Trading Places.’ He probably had no problem with the Algonquin Club, but would have been sniffed out very early at the Somerset and knew it.

  11. Beware, any man who refuses to wear socks is borderline sociopathic and a potential felon.

  12. @Eric, I too live in Boston and am fascinated by the Clark Rockefeller story.

    This guy was such a perfectionist! As the story goes, he would only eat the “Nantucket” Pepperidge Farm cookies because the Milano and other types of cookies were inferior. How laughable.

    I saw an interesting video on YouTube where his acquaintances on Beacon Hill were inteviewed and said they never trusted him and were always suspicious of him.

    A con man’s greatest power is over people who are willing to be duped.

  13. What was his Ask Andy handle?

  14. An excellent conman story to match ‘Catch Me If You Can’, I must read the book. Both this character and Frank Abagnale quickly ‘cottoned on’ (excuse me) to the fact that dressing appropriately for the part is 90% of the art of fooling people.

  15. Great piece. I remember reading about him at the time of his arrest. I also remember seeing a made-for-TV movie about him with Eric McCormack playing Clark Rockefeller. By all accounts, Gerhartsreiter is a brilliant man who put his gifts to the wrong use. In addition to imitating an investment banker, he also posed as a surgeon and a military advisor at the Pentagon for very short stints of time – really incredible stuff. I also remember reading that he completely and perfectly memorized every baseball statistic ever recorded, and could recall any one of them in an instant.

    Amazingly, he was profiled on the fifth season of the TV show “Unsolved Mysteries” with Robert Stack sometime in the early ’90s, but even after this publicity, he managed to stay incognito for another 15 years. His undoing was the kidnapping of his daughter. Short of this, he likely would have been able to continue his life as a serial imposter.

  16. He went with a uniform of blazer, white button-down, and–how laughably perfect is this?–arguably the most iconic necktie in/of the trad canon: The red/navy/white Brooks #1 repp.

    I’ve known at least half a dozen men who have worn a version of this tie at least once a week throughout their professional lives. Along with an oxford gray suit, trench coat, and Alden tassel mocs (usually black calf), it was a staple among preppy-leaning yuppies in the 80s.

  17. Charlottesville | January 4, 2019 at 12:40 pm | Reply

    Thanks for the fascinating story, Eric. A real life Tom Ripley, including the multiple murders. Creepy, but definitely interesting. Remarkable that he was able to get away with it for so long. I love the idea of perfecting Thurston Howell’s Locust Valley Lockjaw to pass as an upper class twit. An article in the NY Times once credited Jim Backus’ Howell and Nancy Kulp’s Jane Hathaway as being the perfect examples of LVL. I have never actually heard a real life example that laid it on quite so thick, but some come pretty close.

  18. @Steve
    I’m gonna assume you’re joking about those of us who wear boat shoes (deck shoes where I grew up) without socks. I’ve worn them for 50 years, rarely with socks on. Mine usually have dark, mysterious stains from fish blood, motor oil, and gawdknowswhat. I wear them in the way they were intended to be worn, not as some silly, preppy thing or even a sociopathic felony.

  19. “Uniforms”, “sockless”, striver… save the murders he’s FEC, no?

  20. This is a nice sequel to Chens’ Fake-It-’till-You-Make-It article.

  21. @ whiskeydent
    Yes, of course. There is a time and a place for everything…

  22. I skimmed the YouTube documentary, and was very puzzled by a couple of things.

    In his wife’s business and social circles, wouldn’t there have been quite a few people who knew real Rockefellers, and who would know or discover that he wasn’t?

    Wouldn’t his artist friends and the “museum people”, who saw his collection, know or research the catalogs of the painters and find out he couldn’t be the owner?

    Hard to believe there was so little curiosity, especially about the art: dealers should’ve been on him like mad.

  23. This has the late Peter Sellers and David Niven all over it. A bizarre mashup of The Pink Panther (1964) and Wasp 101. Wild, wild stuff.

    Best Regards,

    Heinz-Ulrich

  24. Jonathan Wertheim | January 5, 2019 at 4:15 pm | Reply

    A lot of typos in this post, huh? Incorrect quotes around “summer,” “an [sic] New York City,” etc…

  25. That’s on me. Thanks for noting. Cleaned up and hope I got them all.

  26. @NCJack the thing about Bostonians is they don’t open their mouths about anything. You could say you’re a better batter than Ted Williams and they’ll nod along so as not to stur up any discourse. We’re a taciturn people…..

    @Erik, nice work. Like the article a lot and always pleased to see great work from a fellow Boston guy. Anything else of yours we can look forward to in the coming future?

    Also, just a small thing I wanted to add some commentary on. It was written “The orthodox roll their eyes at tennis sweaters with faux crests”, I should have assumed this given the way trads react to fake club ties or meaningless patches, but I had actually never seen a crest on a cricket sweater before living in London for a bit. While over there, I picked up a few cricket sweaters (“jumpers” as they call them) with the crests of different Real Tennis (the original racquet sport) clubs on the chest along with the club colors outlining the neck. Someone did actually roll their eyes at the logo of my home court on my sweater when I was on the train en route to play. The logo is not some marketing scheme but the crest of the Hampton Court Palace, King Henry VIII’s home court and the oldest in England. Kind of ironic that we’re so oversaturated with “fake” that “real” doesn’t really mean anything anyway. The point I’m trying to make is that there’s a lot of disdain here for inauthentic but, if you like it, what’s it matter what others think?
    And now, you can reign upon me your scorn and disapproval of what I have to say.

  27. @Trevor Jones Thank you for the kind words, I’m glad you appreciated it. I don’t have anything concrete in the works at the moment. I have noticed the plethora of Boston-based commenters in this thread. Perhaps we should try to get together one of these days?

  28. @Eric with C…my bad! But yes, I’d be very down. I go back to school in Newport on Jan. 20th but it’s a quick 1.5 hour drive so anytime really for me.

  29. @ Charlottesville:

    Sir, you took the words right out of my mouth regarding the parallelisms between this fellow and Tom Ripley. There really is not much which is quite so disturbing in a person, as a sociopathic striver without an actual core persona.

    Such a person is the perfect candidate to function as a serial killer, politician, Manchurian Candidate, or easily programmable wet works “operative”. Chilling.

    To everyone else; no, no references to F.E.C. are necessarily intended. Hahaha!

  30. @Eric Twardzik.

    Excellent article, fascinating read! Kudos, Sir! 🙂

  31. I read one of the books mentioned here,his “marks” all fell for it,including his highly educated and accomplished wife,why?,because they wanted to,they were so grateful a real Rockefeller showed an interest in them. The com man only had to convince the marks 10% is real,the marks made up the rest.Think about,he learned to talk from an idiot tv show,not from a voice coach.Another good book about a con man is Bad Blood: Secrets and Lies in a Silicon Valley Startup by John Carreyrou. Very simular

Leave a comment

Your email address will not be published.


*