When Joe McGinniss died last month, it revived the long-simmering literary debate about journalists as con men, people who will say or do anything to gain the confidence of subjects they later betray in telling their story. After all, McGinniss' long friendship – and eventual falling-out – with convicted murderer Jeffrey MacDonald inspired the 's Janet Malcolm to write a book whose first sentence has become legendary in journalistic circles: “Every journalist who is not too stupid or full of himself to notice what is going on knows that what he does is morally indefensible. He is a kind of confidence man, preying on people's vanity, ignorance or loneliness, gaining their trust and betraying them without remorse.”
Now comes author Walter Kirn with a true-crime masterpiece detailing his long friendship – and eventual falling out – with convicted murderer Christian Gerhartsreiter, aka Clark Rockefeller, Chris Crowe, Christopher Chichester, et al.
Blood Will Out: The True Story of a Murder, a Mystery and a Masquerade turns the journalist-as – con man paradigm on its head: In it, the Princeton- and Oxford-educated Kirn is conned by a low-rent German immigrant who has already schemed his way into the upper stratosphere of American old-money society through a facility for lying and shape-shifting, studying The Official Preppy Handbook and using it to prey on people's vanity, ignorance and loneliness.]
Kirn's book does not address the larger issue of whether, 25 years after Malcolm's book was published, journalists are increasingly the ones being conned by their media-savvy subjects. But, he tells the Weekly, “In the game of public relations versus truth seeking, the forces of public relations have had the upper hand for a while now.”
He adds, “Journalists have never been at more of a disadvantage in dealing with people in terms of finding spontaneous moments and revelations of character.”
Unlike journalists today who get conned in the 24-hour news cycle and then have to rush on to the next blog post, however, Kirn had the luxury of taking his time to set the record straight – and get some measure of revenge.
Kirn met Gerhartsreiter in 1998 after the writer volunteered to drive a crippled dog in a wheelchair all the way from Montana to New York City, in part because the dog's new owner was a Rockefeller who promised a “handsome stipend.” Beyond the money, Kirn writes, was the lure of meeting a Rockefeller and gaining “access to a circle I'd thought closed to me.”
But after a hellish trip, “Rockefeller” handed Kirn a check for $500 that didn't even cover his expenses, much less his time and trouble. “It was a real slap in the face,” Kirn says now. “From the moment I got that check, I was attempting to explain away this guy's narcissism and patronizing behavior at my own expense. I'm ashamed of the way I acted.”
That shame eventually morphed into anger, which feels like the motivating emotion as Kirn artfully weaves together the story of his long relationship with Gerhartsreiter and the April 2013 trial in L.A. that resulted in the con man's conviction for murder. The jury found that Gerhartsreiter killed Pasadena resident John Sohus in 1985.
Gerhartsreiter still insists he didn't do it and so has never offered a motive, but Kirn speculates that the con man, a film noir fanatic, felt he was smarter than everyone else and was attempting the “perfect murder,” just like the murderers in two Alfred Hitchcock films, Rope and Strangers on a Train. “When I saw the killer named Bruno in Strangers on a Train, that was the closest I've ever seen to Clark,” Kirn says. “There was a creepy resemblance.”
Kirn isn't shy about providing example after example of how his own flaws helped him fall victim to a short, unattractive, eccentric, narcissistic con man. “Clark Rockefeller” represented the kind of aristocrat with whom Kirn, an academic overachiever from a modest Midwestern background, had long had a love-hate relationship: “Remember, it takes two for any confidence game to work.”
But Kirn was hardly the only one fooled. Gerhartsreiter married a smart, sophisticated woman and had a long relationship with another – even though they were the ones who paid the bills, drove him around and had to put up with his constant lying, exaggerating and paranoid, nonsensical yammering about his need for secrecy.
How did he get these women? “From the evidence at the trial, it appears he put a smarmy full-court press on them, sending flowers and giving them exaggerated compliments,” Kirn says. “In the case of his wife, she put it well when she said she was a powerful, intelligent, educated woman who scared men away – and he didn't appear to be scared.”
Near the end of his utterly enthralling book, Kirn asks Gerhartsreiter how he managed to con so many people for more than 25 years. The murderer's answer is a shorter, more direct version of Malcolm's indictment of journalists: “Vanity, vanity, vanity.”
Paul Teetor on Twitter:
Public Spectacle, L.A. Weekly's arts & culture blog, on