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One Photographer's Search For America's Greatest Con Man
7 Nov 2016 7:00 AM
An imposter with seven aliases. A descendant of British royalty. A trail leading from NASA to Wall Street. A scion of one of the richest families in America. A kidnapping. A body unearthed in a backyard in California. And a young man from Bavaria who disappeared without a trace. These are the components that make up the story of one of America's greatest con men.
On a hot afternoon at the height of summer in 2008, a man named Clark Rockefeller whipped up a media frenzy when he kidnapped his own daughter during a supervised visit at his Boston home and went on the run. Six days later, he was tracked down and arrested but this was to be only the beginning of the story. When police could not find his name on record they were perplexed. If Clark did not exist, then who was the man sitting before them?
Over time, a sensational story unfolded with the help of a widespread public who claimed to know him. To the wealthy businesswoman he had married in 1995 and had a child with, he was Clark Rockefeller of the Rockefeller dynasty, with friends in high places; to a wealthy Californian community he was Christopher Chichester, a descendant of the British royal family who had stayed with them for a time in the 1980s; and to others he was Christopher Crowe, a director who had worked for a number of Wall Street firms. Elsewhere he was an art collector and a ship’s captain. There were seven assumed identities in total. This was a man whose deceptions had spanned 30 years.
Tracing Clark through the decades, the FBI eventually found that he began life in the early 1960s as Christian Karl Gerhartsreiter, some 3000 miles away in southeast Germany. At the age of 17, Gerhartstreiter had packed up and left his small town, never to be seen again. After being tried for the kidnapping of his daughter, he was subsequently found guilty of the unsolved murder of Jonathan Sohus. Gerhartstreiter had been living in the California guesthouse of Sohus’ mother Didi when Jonathan and his wife Linda went missing in 1985. Almost a decade later, Jonathan’s bones were dug up in the backyard. Gerhartstreiter had been assuming the identity of Christopher Chichester at the time but when police identified him as a ‘person of interest’ in the case, he was nowhere to be found. When 2008 rolled around, his lies finally caught up with him. Gerhartstreiter's luck had run out.
Some time later, as the world traded theories on the infamous cases of Steven Avery, Amanda Knox and Robert Durst, a young German photographer named Sara-Lena Maierhofer quietly began mining the archives for an investigation of her own. She was going to find out about this mysterious “guy who imagined and then conducted his own American Dream”, the so-called “man in the Rockefeller suit”.
“Christian Karl – a bit ordinary, hardly impressive” she writes at the beginning of her project Dear Clark, published in book form earlier this year. “The names he designed for himself were beautiful, more resonant: Christopher Crowe, Clark Rockefeller. He created his own reality, and everyone fell for it. With each name, he left his previous life behind as though it had never existed.”
“I suppose in a naïve way I was looking for answers” muses Maierhofer, as she explains where it all began. “I wanted to unravel his motives and innermost thoughts to find out what drives a person there.” After coming across an article about Clark in her local newspaper, she was instantly intrigued, though admits it took her a while to act upon it. The clipping remained pinned above her desk for six months before she started her research. Slowly, over time, it became unavoidable.
Describing her office as a cross between that of a “private detective and the bedroom of a fanatic teenager”, Maierhofer says that minimalism isn’t her thing: “The walls are covered with images in various sizes, cuttings and written notes, all grouped together in different arrangements.” The title of her project comes from the opening words of a letter she wrote to Clark at the prison not far from Boston where he has been detained since 2008. “Dear Clark," the letter said, "As much as I can understand the absurdity of being a public figure and receiving letters from strangers, I would still appreciate the chance to start a correspondence or meet you in person.” Maierhofer went on to tell Clark she was fascinated by his story and hoped he would meet her on the basis that she is an artist, not a journalist. “I am looking for thoughts, not facts” she wrote. He never responded.
After failing to connect with Clark, Maierhofer began to think about how else she could tell his story. “In an attempt to understand his world from the inside out, I realised early on that I would have to transform bit by bit into a con artist myself” she says, in the manner of a method actor. “I began copying Clark, and imitating his methods to get closer to him.” She set out to visit the places Clark had lived, track his movements across the years and build a profile of him through people he had known. In one anecdote she describes the “fake but posh-looking” business cards she made to gain access to archives and press conferences. “The air around me was thick, and filled with con men and tricksters” she says, recalling the early anticipation.
Piece by piece, Maierhofer constructed her own impression of Clark, letting her imagination fill in the blanks. Newspaper clippings and birth certificates intermingle with surreal imagery of masks and Siamese twins that Maierhofer has taken or found elsewhere. “I like seeing different kinds of images together” she says, “It’s like different kinds of sentences in a novel. There are documents that add detail to the narrative and give you a sense of time and place, and then there are the images that work more like subordinate clauses, their sole purpose to create a specific atmosphere.”
Maierhofer points out a photograph that she particularly loves, depicting a 17-year-old Christian, taken in Germany shortly before his departure for the States. Wearing a checked shirt and tinted sunglasses, he grins out of the image, hair blonde and shaggy in the afternoon sun. “He looks like a young actor” she says. “Later he claimed to have worked for NASA and the Pentagon, but was never successful in his pursuit of a theatrical career. ‘In acting I did not get very far’ he said simply.” Bittersweet irony at its finest.
It is difficult to say how much of the Clark we are shown by Maierhofer is real, and how much is dreamed up. When fact and fiction entwine, eventually they collapse in on one another, becoming indistinguishable. “Reality can be as unknown and unknowable as fiction and often its borders are fluid” she says. Somewhere along the way, Maierhofer lost interest in holding up a mirror to reality, concluding that “a shimmering universe of possibilities where truth and fiction coexist felt more suitable for Clark”. The journey on which Maierhofer takes us is fragmented and disorientating yet endlessly alluring. In some ways, it helps us to question what happens when remarkable events like this are filtered through the media and offered up as newspaper stories and six-part documentaries. In the ongoing tussle between author and character we would be wise to remember that these are storytellers, first and foremost. As viewers, we must become investigators – tasked with deciphering what to believe.
“In the end, everyone is a bit of a con artist, aren’t they?” Maierhofer proposes. “At work or in relationships or through our social media profiles. We face all of these advertised fantasies and projected images of the ‘perfect life’, but the gap between the ideal and our own reality is almost unreachable.” The idea that “you can be anything you want to be, and do anything you want to do is most often a lie” she suggests, pointing out the invisible borders and glass ceilings that are everywhere. “Clark and his delusions completely ignored this and he made anything he wanted to happen, happen. I couldn’t help but feel impressed.”
When asked to describe Clark, Maierhofer says, “His identity is fluid. He is constantly readjusting himself and he is smart. I don’t know much more about him than that even though I have been studying him for almost two years”. She thinks that the last image in her book – which depicts a man in a black suit standing behind a steamy pane of glass, outline blurred, untouchable and out of reach – is the perfect summation. “I love people” she says. “Looking at them, wondering where they are going and how their lives must look behind closed doors. With a camera I’ve found that they allow me to accompany them, listen to their stories and sit at their kitchen table. I never got there with Clark.”
During her research, Maierhofer made a discovery that has remained with her. “All of the cells in the human body are completely replaced several times over within a single lifetime, with the exception of cells connected to the nervous system and those of the heart muscle.” Metaphoric, yes, but a fact that resonates with her message. We are all constantly changing, whether we know it or not. She has sent Clark a copy of her book and maintains that she would like them to meet but acknowledges that the chance of that happening is slim, as the “old him” has long since vanished. “I’m not sure he would want to talk about his past lives. The past never seemed to be something of importance to him.”
Clark Rockefeller enticed people into his lies wherever he went and Maierhofer admits that she, too, became enamoured with his story, seduced into his world from afar. “I fell in love with the idea of him – the very essence of a con man and the endless promise of anything you want or desire” she concludes. “Ultimately, promise is the most profound thing that the con man shares with the photograph: the promise of truth.”