Blood Will Out: The True Story of a Murder, a Mystery, and a Masquerade, 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, 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, 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,” a pretender of the famous family, fine art scammer, high society impostor, actor, director—and more. In his then-alias as Christopher Chichester, Gerhartsreiter murdered Jonathan Sohus, who lived with his mother in fashionable San Marino, east of Los Angeles, where “Christopher” rented a guest house. He then buried Sohus’ remains in the garden, which went 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 is the subject of Walter Kirn’s terrific memoir, Blood Will Out, an account of Kirn’s friendship with the 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 for over two decades, including his Harvard-educated wife—and Kirn. The journalistic, essayist, and author of novels Thumbsucker and Up in the Air, Walter Kirn breaks down exactly how he was taken in, one episode at a time, as he explains, to understand for himself how it happened. Kirn’s journalistic memoir is part mystery, part exposé, and 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 likes the idea of befriending a member of an upper-crust world, and against his better judgement, offers to escort a rescue dog from an SPCA branch near Kirn’s home in Montana to Clark’s home in Manhattan. From the start, the details are odd. Clark’s New York City apartment 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. The star quality is hard to resist, but over time, inconsistencies and questions keep popping up. The misses pieces are 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 of 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 man who is narcissistic, and eccentric, possessing the kind of ruthless ambition seen in stock villains. Except Clark is real. And 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. He excavates the 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 Sturges’ 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.