How Journalist Walter Kirn Got Taken by a Legendary Con Man

Reading between the lines.
March 4 2014 7:23 AM

The Storytellers

Walter Kirn gets taken in by a con man.

Illustration by Danica Novgorodoff.

Illustration by Danica Novgorodoff

“Every journalist who is not too stupid or too full of himself to notice what is going on knows what he does is morally indefensible,” wrote Janet Malcolm in her 1990 tract, The Journalist and the Murderer. “He is a kind of confidence man, preying on people’s vanity, ignorance, or loneliness, gaining their trust and betraying them without remorse.” The accomplished journalist and novelist Walter Kirn, in his fascinating writerly apologia, Blood Will Out, begins under a similar assumption. It’s 1998, and by sheer chance, Kirn is thrown into the orbit of an eccentric named Clark Rockefeller—a peevish, slender man with an astonishing art collection and an autistically impressive recall of historical facts and “persons.” Even before meeting Rockefeller in the flesh, the writer in Kirn wakes up; he sniffs a book idea. Rockefeller is a ready-made “character,” one whom Kirn would be “guilty of professional malpractice” if he did not get to know.

A friendship begins between Kirn and Rockefeller, under the terms Malcolm describes—with a somewhat abashed but cheerful Kirn ready to juice some art out of a real person. But the story of Blood Will Out is one of cosmic ironies and jaw-dropping reversals. By the end of it, writer-subject relationship has been turned on its head, leaving Kirn’s sense of his own judgment obliterated and his friend “Clark” in jail for murder. 

We now know that Clark Rockefeller was an alias, the invention of a German immigrant named Christian Gerhartsreiter, who emigrated from nowheresville Germany as a teen, and thereafter adopted many identities before reincarnating himself as the spurned child of a famous American family. Back at first flush, Kirn had no idea how right he was: Clark Rockefeller was a ready-made character. The book begins with Kirn’s darkly amusing trip cross-country with a paraplegic dog, Shelby, whom Rockefeller is anxious to adopt. Kirn has volunteered to drive Shelby from Montana to Rockefeller in New York City. Given the man’s last name, Kirn expects that his promised fee for delivering the dog will be tidy. That, plus he feels bad about accidently running over one of his wife’s foster dogs in the driveway of his ranch. Eventually, Kirn meets up with Rockefeller in Manhattan. They have dinner in the Sky Club, where everybody else seems as impressed with Rockefeller as he is with himself. The fee for delivering Shelby, in fact, is minuscule.

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Reading Blood Will Out, one begins to understand how so many people were duped by Clark Rockefeller. All the imposter needs is some kind of initial agreement that he is who he says he is; thereafter, consensus builds via a network of human relationships. In other words, barring any outrageous evidence to the contrary, people tend to believe one another. And then those people are believed by more people.

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But even unearthing lies might not change a victim’s mind. Kirn writes movingly on why the victim of a fraud like Clark Rockefeller suspends disbelief. “What is it in people,” asks Kirn, “or just in people like me, that would rather let a lie go by, would rather wish it away or minimize it, than point it out and cause the liar embarrassment?” As the 15-year friendship goes on, there are many inconsistencies to Rockefeller’s stories, but Kirn ignores them. During a visit to Rockefeller’s gothically unfinished country home in New Hampshire in 2002, Rockefeller explains away a half-dozen implausibilities; Kirn makes not a peep.

Finally one night, when Rockefeller has once again “forgotten” his wallet when the dinner bill arrives, Kirn resolves to give up the unrewarding friendship. He hates the guy, he realizes. He is a “chirping, pedantic, benumbing little prick.” Kirn befriended him out of some kind of writerly interest, and then, losing courage to make the planned work of art, has gotten nothing out of it but a couple of seltzers at the Lotos Club and the increasingly thin satisfaction of being associated with a Rockefeller. But just as soon as Kirn pulls away, Rockefeller goes through a divorce and ropes Kirn, who is by then also divorced, into being his confidante once again.