5 December, 2022

Litstack Rec: Blood Will Out & Vinegar Girl

Blood Will Out, by Walter Kirn

In Preston Sturges’  romantic comedy, “The Palm Beach Story,” Claudette Colbert plays Gerry, reluctant divorcee of husband Tom (Joel McCrea) who’s bankrupted when his dream of building an airport fails. On a train to Palm Beach, Gerry meets eccentric millionaire John D. Hackensacker III, America’s richest man. He’s Sturges’ not-so-subtle commentary on John D. Rockefeller III, the third-generation scion and architect of the Foundation Center and Council on Foundations, among other cornerstones of philanthropy. Hackensacker is a high eccentric who indulges Gerry with lavish spending, though he keeps track of costs in a little book. Gerry promises marriage to the smitten Hackensacker (whose nickname is “Snoodles”), but only because it could bankroll her ex’s dream.

In the effete Hackensacker, I couldn’t help but see affinities to Clark Rockefeller, aka, Christian Gerhartsreiter, aka “Clark Rockefeller” the pretender of the famous family, fine art scammer, high society impostor, actor, director—the schemes go on ad nauseum. In his then-alias as Christopher Chichester, Gerhartsreiter murdered Jonathan Sohus, who lived with his mother in fashionable San Marino, outside Los Angeles, where “Christopher” rented a guest house. He then buried Sohus’ remains in the garden and when unnoticed until the remains were discovered when a pool was being constructed. Gerhartsreiter was also implicated in the disappearance of Sohus’ wife, Linda, whose body was never found.

Gerhartsreiter, aka Christoper, aka Clark, is the subject of Walter Kirn’s terrific Memoir Blood Will Out, an account of Kirn’s friendship with the deranged imposter. Subtitled The True Story of a Murder, a Mystery, and a Masquerade, it’s also the tale of how Gerhartsreiter bilked hundreds of people over two decades, including his Harvard-educated wife—and Kirn. The journalistic, essayist, and author of novels Thumbsucker and Up in the Air, breaks down exactly how he was taken in, one episode at a time, in order to understand for himself how it happened. Kirn’s journalistic memoir is part mystery, part exposé, and in good part, an examination of the slippery question of why—what Gerhartsreiter hoped to gain through his masquerade.

From the start, Kirn questions how he came to be drawn into the friendship, which lasted almost ten years. At the start, Kirn is pulled in by the idea of befriending a member of an upper-crust world. He offers to escort a rescue dog from an SPCA branch Kirn’s home in Montana to Clark in Manhattan. From the start though, the details are odd. Clark’s New York City apartment, for example, is strangely austere, yet its walls are covered in museum-quality paintings—Rothko, Motherwell, Pollack, Mondrian among them. These, Kirn learns much later, are forgeries that played a part in bankrolling the ruse. Clark takes Kirn to dine at the private Sky Club, on the 56th floor of the MetLife Building, he offers a backstage tour of Rockefeller Center. He name drops George Bush, and mentions a post in international banking. Kirn is drawn in by the star quality, but and yet over time, inconsistencies and  questions keep popping up. The ill-fitting nature of the picture is what drives the story, documented alongside Kirn’s own pull to entree in an upper-crust world.

“‘Aren’t people stupid,’ I recalled him often saying, and shamefully I recalled myself agreeing, through the pretexts for his comment now escaped me. A thread of contempt was woven through our friendships, shared contempt for all who weren’t quite…Us.”

Blood Will Out is a great mystery, with the added bonus of Kirn’s prose and acid wit. He tosses off biting, humorous, and sobering lines. “Magazine writing, my major source of income, was swiftly dissolving into an online acid bath of unpaid content.” During the trial, he points out, “The evidence would show —not just the trail evidence, but outside evidence that would later come to me—that Clark tended a flourishing secret garden grown from cloned bits of people he’d gained some knowledge of.”

Eventually, Clark is unmasked and arrested for the murder of Jonathan Sohus. Kirn covers the trial, providing a split screen of witness’ testimony and his own past with Clark, assembling a picture of a narcissistic, eccentric, with the kind of purple ruthless ambition seen in stock villains. Except Clark is real. As the picture of the man takes shape, Kirn writes, “The mystery wasn’t just whether he’d killed John Sohus, but why no one had murdered him.”

Yet Kirn does more than unpack the motive and pathology of Clark, he excavates the avenues of incitements, inspirations and deep-seated objectives that drove the man: “The trial had proved Clark right, as least about the people who’d known him best: bankers, brokers, degree-holding professionals, and several published writers, including me. I lay in bed next to the open Ripley novel and the computer on which I’d watched the movie. Clark, a composite being of ink and celluloid, utterly transparent to me now, had cloaked himself in the stuff of my own literacy. The instant familiarity I felt with him—this consummate immigrant, this immigrant with a vengeance—was my familiarity with my own culture…

Of course he’d fooled me. Of course he’d held me spellbound. He spoke from inside my own American mind.”

The irony of benign tropes like Hackensacker is that they seem to have informed Gerhartsreiter’s facade, but his was a chilling, much more dangerous, and complex construction. Blood Will Out mines what drove Kirn too—the details that pulled him into the masquerade, the parallel mystery of how he was deceived, and the distinct possibility that he may have been the future object of Clark’s dark motives.

—Lauren Alwan


  • Lauren Alwan

    Lauren Alwan’s fiction has appeared in the O. Henry Prize Stories, the Southern Review, the Alaska Quarterly Review, StoryQuarterly, in the Bellevue Literary Review. She is the recipient of a First Pages Prize, the Goldenberg Prize for Fiction, and.a citation of Notable in Best American Essays. Her essays have appeared in ZYZZYVA, Catapult, World Literature Today, The Rumpus, The Millions, Writer's Digest, and others. She is a prose editor at the museum of americana, an online literary review. Follow her on Twitter at @lauren_alwan and learn more at www.laurenalwan.com