Con man's story juicy, but telling falls flat

"The Man in the Rockefeller Suit: The Astonishing Rise and Spectacular Fall of a Serial Imposter" by Mark Seal (Viking, 336 pages, $26.95)

Mark Seal recounts the deeply creepy story of the con artist who for 16 years passed himself off as a Rockefeller among a wealthy set in Manhattan and on Boston's Beacon Hill in "The Man in the Rockefeller Suit."

He's now doing time in Massachusetts for kidnapping and assault. Seal strongly suggests that he may someday be doing more for one or possibly two murders in California that are still being investigated.

The prisoner was born Christian Karl Gerhartsreiter in 1961, in a small Bavarian town. Arriving in the United States on a tourist visa in 1978, he quickly began remaking himself. He moved to wealthy San Marino, Calif., in 1981, calling himself Christopher Mountbatten Chichester.

The whiff of British nobility (clearly he was adept with accents) sprung open his neighbors' doors. Over the next four years he found various ways into their wallets, scammed an alcoholic widow and possibly murdered her son and his wife.

In 1985 he turned up in Greenwich, Conn., as Christopher Crowe. Somehow he talked his way, with no credentials, into a vice presidency at a Japanese brokerage firm, and then into the international bond department of Kidder, Peabody & Co. When the California police caught the scent of his trail in 1988, he vanished again.

James Frederick Mills Clark Rockefeller appeared in Manhattan in 1992. All it took to convince people he was the real deal was that magical surname ("Are you one of the Rockefeller cousins?" "No, I'm one of the cousins' cousins") and a fake collection of Mondrians, Rothkos and Motherwells that over the years fooled even dealers.

He wooed Sandra Boss, a young financier. After they married in 1995, her high salary allowed him to keep bankrolling his charade, which lasted until 2007. Then, fed up with him, though still not suspicious about his identity, she filed for divorce. A private investigator she hired to do an asset search during their nasty split informed her that her husband was a fraud.

You can't fault the author's energy. Between Bavaria and California and New York and elsewhere, he's worn out scads of shoe leather tracking down everybody who might talk to him, and the group that agreed to was surprisingly large, considering how badly they were taken in. Yet the book feels thin.

Seal contents himself with nailing down the facts, but, bizarre as they are, they're not enough. He's got his hands on a lulu of a case history, yet he makes only a few weak stabs at psychologizing. He shows no awareness at all of the cultural reverberations in a story that has strong echoes of "The Great Gatsby."

Worst of all, he never manages to hit the right tone. He could use some of his subject's savoir-faire. Without it, he comes across as a voyeur and a rube in the world of wealth that Christian Karl Gerhartsreiter sailed into with all the entitlement of a blueblood.