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Walter Kirn befriends a con man in 'Blood Will Out'

LiteratureArts and CultureAuthorsClark RockefellerHuman InterestNewspaper and MagazineJournalism

Walter Kirn's new profile of the serial liar and convicted murderer known as "Clark Rockefeller" is no ordinary work of true crime and literary journalism.

"Blood Will Out: The True Story of a Murder, a Mystery, and a Masquerade" is the chronicle of Kirn's ill-fated friendship with the con man. And it's surely one of most honest, compelling and strangest books about the relationship between a writer and his subject ever penned by an American scribe.

Kirn is a magazine writer and author of novels such as "Up in the Air" and "Thumbsucker." But he was an insecure and not especially successful writer when he first met "Clark" in 1998. The faux Rockefeller was a preppy bon vivant who claimed to be estranged from his famous family. A mutual friend asked Kirn to do Clark a favor — deliver a semi-paralyzed dog from Montana, where Kirn was living, to Clark's home in Manhattan.

Unbeknownst to Kirn, "Clark Rockefeller" was the latest in a series of identities adopted by the German immigrant Christian Gerhartsreiter. As Clark, Gerhartsreiter hid his Bavarian roots behind a genteel, patrician accent and stories of his jet-setting lifestyle. Kirn, a son of working-class Midwesterners, was smitten. Like many an ambitious writer, he thought the charismatic and odd Clark might make a good character for a magazine article or even a novel.

"A writer is someone who tells you one thing so someday he can tell his readers another thing," Kirn writes. "A writer turns his life into material, and if you're in his life, he uses yours too."

The great irony of "Blood Will Out" and of Kirn's relationship with Clark is that the con man was doing something similar to Kirn and to all the people he met in his many invented roles: as "Christopher Chichester," "C. Crowe Mountbatten" and "Christopher Crowe." He'd take parts of the stories of the people he met, embellish them with details from movies and books and fashion tales about his own epic life.

Clark Rockefeller's tales were as big as his name. He claimed to have "the key" that opened every door at Rockefeller Center in New York. He said he was friends with J.D. Salinger and lured Kirn to New England with the possibility of meeting the famous writer (who of course never materialized). Kirn stayed friends with Clark even after Clark pulled off the classic cheapskate ploy of inviting Kirn to a restaurant for a meal and then, saying he forgot his wallet, forcing Kirn to pick up the check.

You'd think that a journalist who by then was starting to write for national magazines wouldn't buy such a shtick, but Clark managed to keep Kirn off balance by making use of a quality he later reveals is the key to fooling anyone: "Vanity, vanity, vanity." When Kirn had a tax problem, Clark gave him "George's" private phone number — meaning then-President George W. Bush.

"This isn't the White House switchboard," Clark tells Kirn. "It's his private line. He'll answer personally." The number looked real, but Kirn didn't have the courage to call it.

Kirn offers a nuanced and less-than-flattering description of himself as a man almost asking to be duped. He's a flawed striver at the mercy of his desires, marrying and dating women who are decades younger, hungry to be "invited back" into Clark's elite circle.

And yet, for a decade Kirn couldn't quite bring himself to write about his friend, even in fiction. It's only when Clark was thrust into the national news by a child kidnapping that the full scope of his lies are made undeniably clear to Kirn and everyone who knew him in the many places he switched identities.

"It sounds like your friend was a phony, Walt," says the writer's mother, who seems to have known all along.

Gerhartsreiter was in fact the son of Bavarian working-class people. In the U.S., he used his Rockefeller persona to marry into wealth and as part of an apparent scheme to sell bogus art. Once his face is broadcast on television, people across the country begin to remember and recount their meetings with him. Several place him at the scene of an unsolved murder in the Los Angeles suburb of San Marino.

The trial of Gerhartsreiter for the murder of Jonathan Sohus brings Kirn back in contact with his old friend, with Kirn now determined to write about him. In court, one witness after the other recounts Clark's lies, and for Kirn it's as if he were waking up from a dream. What's more, he works independently to further unravel Clark's schemes and stories and finds one chilling reference after another to books, films and television: classic film noir, "Star Trek," Patricia Highsmith's "Ripley." Each new revelation comes subtly, and each adds to the pathetic and creepy portrait of Clark Rockefeller as a vacuous manipulator.

"From a purely epistemological standpoint, involving yourself in the life a great liar, once you understand that he's a liar but go on seeking truth from him, is a swan dive through a mirror into a whirlpool," Kirn writes.

Kirn and the other journalists covering the trial are convinced, at first, that the garrulous Gerhartsreiter will find a way to beat the murder rap. But the trial itself is a test of wills between storytellers, including assorted witnesses, defense attorneys and a truly able prosecutor. With Gerhartsreiter shorn of his preppy accouterments and his stage of fading mansions and fancy restaurants, the truth actually has a chance to win.

The ending of "Blood Will Out" is at once deeply ambiguous and deeply satisfying. By then, Kirn has looked into the eyes of a cruel, empty man — and learned a lot about himself in the process.

hector.tobar@latimes.com


Blood Will Out
The True Story of a Murder, a Mystery, and a Masquerade

Walter Kirn
Liveright: 255 pp. $25.95


Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times
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